At Salem Animal Rescue League, amazing things happen every day. New families are made, lives are saved and, for thousands of animals, hope and trust are restored. The nonprofit shelter in Salem, New Hampshire, has been rescuing cats and dogs primarily from southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts since the group was founded in 1992. At the time, the only game in town was the local kennel, which held approximately 10 dogs.
Back then, a town tragedy drew attention to the obvious: There was a real need in the community for a rescue organization. When law enforcement officials discovered a German Shepherd hoarding situation and removed the animals from the home, the question became, "What’s going to happen with them now?"
"There were so many of them, so there was a great deal of anxiety over whether they were going to be able to find homes for them in a timely manner," says D.J. Bettencourt, Salem Animal Rescue League (SARL) director of development. "So a group of volunteers decided to take the animals into their homes and foster them."
These volunteers became SARL, which, for the first few years, was strictly a home-based rescue. Today, the shelter has a spacious facility that allows them to save the lives of more than 1,000 cats and dogs each year. In addition to focusing on animals in its area, the group also partners with several shelters in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and West Virginia, where animal overpopulation is rampant and euthanasia rates are high. Bettencourt believes this problem is due to the climate as well as the culture.
"For whatever reason, the spay and neuter culture in those states is not as strong as it is in the Northeast," he says. "And down South where the climates are obviously warmer, [animals] can survive winter, so that overpopulation problem spirals out of control. We step in when we have space, and we will accept transports of animals from these shelters."
SARL’s work both regionally and locally has saved the lives of cats like Liddy, who came to the shelter after her owner passed away. Liddy was a blind adult cat, and volunteers at SARL worried that the she would become a permanent fixture at the shelter. Fortunately, that special brand of adoption magic happened, and Liddy found just the right family to welcome her into their home.
"Our fears fortunately proved unfounded, and we were able to find her a home within a few weeks," Bettencourt says. "Her adopters check in with us frequently and tell us she’s doing wonderfully."
For volunteers, cases like Liddy’s are often emotional. SARL works with elderly residents who are getting up in years or facing grave illness to ensure their pets will have a place to go if they pass away or become unable to care for them. Bettancourt thinks highly of anyone who is willing to take this difficult but necessary step in ensuring their pets’ well-being.
"It’s a wonderful and loving devotion to the animal that brings people in to us in these circumstances," he says. "Our hearts really go out to them. I admire those people who are willing to do the difficult thing to ensure their animal is going to a safe and loving place."
SARL also supports the elderly community by taking pets for weekly visits at local nursing homes and partnering with Meals on Wheels to provide pet food in addition to people food. It provides assistance to other individuals who are struggling to care for their pets through the Safe Home Safe Pets program, which allows individuals (primarily women) in domestic violence situations to keep their pets at SARL until their situation becomes more stable. For Bettencourt, the experience of being able to help where it’s needed most has been extremely fulfilling.
"This is, without question, the most satisfying work I’ve ever done," he says. "It’s a wonderfully rewarding feeling to give these animals a second chance and step in in difficult circumstances and make a positive impact."
But making a positive impact requires funding. SARL was recently dealt quite a blow when nearby Rockaway Park announced that it would be closing. SARL has been a beneficiary of charitable gaming at the park for several years. Without these funds, the shelter is facing a considerable deficit, forcing it to consider other options. That’s why it recently opened a boutique pet store within its shelter that offers everything people need when welcoming a furry friend into their home ÔÇô- especially if the adoption is not exactly planned.
"We’d find people would come to SARL not really sure if they wanted to adopt, but then they saw an animal and immediately fell in love and wanted to adopt," Bettancourt says. "They had to jump back in their car, run to a pet store, and then come back to formalize the adoption. The store is hopefully a way for people to get everything they need in one place."
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About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.
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