It's about animals, but in so many ways it's about people: the Evanston Animal Shelter must expand.

Whether the City of Evanston will support the Evanston Animal Shelter's expansion--which has been a long time coming--will be determined at the City Council meeting on October 25. For years now, the shelter, at 2310 Oakton, has needed repairs, upgrading, and a larger facility to safely and effectively manage the almost 600 animals it works with every year. This summer, says the shelter's Executive Director Vicky Pasenko, was the straw that broke the ... camel's back. In an interview Sept. 30 with The Daily Northwestern's Jorja Siemons, Pasenko, who assumed directorship of the shelter in 2015, said a three-and-a-half-week period of no air conditioning in 90-degree weather put animals at risk. During that period, Pasenko said, she realized the team needed to upgrade the building as soon as possible. “We just can’t keep going this way,” Pasenko told the The Daily. With the help of the City, the shelter has already secured a $2 million grant from the Cook County Animal Shelter Grant Program, and plans to raise $1 million on its own. The City, which owns and maintains the facility, would allocate about $3 million to the expansion. I wanted to find out what kinds of services the shelter offers--particularly for individuals and families who are low-income and who have companion animals, so I chatted with Vicky last week. Here's what I learned. The Evanston Animal Shelter is more than just a place for stray and abandoned animals to find new homes. It's a community center where people come to find help and to help each other. It's a place that celebrates the human-animal bond and provides support to those struggling to keep their four-legged family members.

Mink and Josh reunite.

There is a sign in the parking lot that asks, “How can we help you keep your pet today?” because keeping pets with the people who love them is a major focus of their mission. The Evanston Animal Shelter team understands the power of the human-animal bond. They know that people will refuse to evacuate to safety during a natural disaster because they won’t leave their pets behind. Victims of domestic violence will often refuse to leave an abusive situation if they can’t find a safe place for their companion animals as well. It's not unusual for older adults to skip meals so that their pets can eat. In 2020, as the financial impact of the pandemic took its toll, the shelter gave out more than 35,000 pounds of pet food in collaboration with the Produce Mobile, the Evanston Emergency Food Pantry, Meals on Wheels, and curbside pick-up at the Animal Shelter. Their Senior Safety Net program supports senior citizens by providing up to $500 worth of veterinary care for routine ailments experienced by their companion animals such as ear infections or conjunctivitis. Conditions such as these are easily treatable but could break the budget for a senior on a fixed income. But the cornerstone of the Shelters pet-retention effort is its Custodial Program. In the past, people who experienced a short-term housing crisis due to a fire, domestic violence, an extended hospital stay, or an eviction were forced to permanently relinquish their pets. So the team at EAS found a way to offer an alternative: their custodial program provides boarding free of charge for up to six weeks, allowing the individual or family time to get back on their feet and find living arrangements that can include their pet. While in the shelter's care, custodial animals are spayed or neutered (if needed), their vaccinations are brought up to date, and they receive any necessary medical care. Whenever possible they are placed in foster homes to reduce the stress of living in the shelter for an extended period. As word has spread throughout Evanston about the custodial program, pet owners seeking support has increased. In 2018 the program accounted for only two percent of the shelter’s intake; so far, in 2021, it accounts for nearly eight percent.

Evanston Animal Shelter Association Co-Founders Cathy Roberts, Alisa Kaplan, and Vicky Pasenko.

Amy, Pasenko told me, was escaping a domestic violence situation, but she couldn’t enter a women’s shelter with her dog Rumi--and she wasn’t willing to give him up. He was her reason for getting out of bed in the morning. One night during a downpour, she stopped by the shelter to see if she could get some dog food and learned about the custodial program. The shelter placed Rumi in a foster home, Amy was able to find safe somewhere safe to live, and she got Rumi back two weeks later. Then there's Margie, a cat who was living in a car with her owners who were struggling to care for her in that environment. They had an apartment lined up but needed care for Margie for a few weeks until they could move in. While in the care of EAS, it became apparent that Margie needed surgery for a life-threatening condition, so she received the surgery and then rejoined the family in their new apartment. The most recent Custodial success story involved a dog named Mink. When Josh got Mink as a tiny puppy, Josh's landlord had no issues. But as Mink grew close to 100 pounds, the landlord decided Mink no longer fit within building guidelines--and she had to go. Josh wasn’t about to lose Mink, and the shelter’s custodial program gave him the time he needed to find a new place to live ... with his dog.

As you can see from the video, their reunion was priceless. For so many people in need who love their animal companions, the Evanston Animal Shelter has become a real bastion of hope.

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