Give me shelter

Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE) and the Aspen Animal Shelter create safety net for other shelters

This article originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News. By Chad Abraham.

Aspen Animal Shelter Director Seth Sachson howls with dogs in his office. Photo: Chris Council.

The pig arrived at Colorado Animal Rescue outside Glenwood Springs on Wednesday from the Front Range.

Oinking quietly in an employee’s arms, the swine helps define one of the latest trends that the valley’s animal shelters routinely find themselves in these days, that of helping out other facilities. In taking in the pig, Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE) assisted Longmont’s shelter, and, in turn, the Aspen Animal Shelter often takes care of CARE when the latter is overflowing with animals, officials at both facilities said.

The heads of the two main shelters in the Roaring Fork Valley say their days are filled with hard work, unexpected animals, people overjoyed at their new pet and those saddened by the circumstances that force them to give up their dog, cat or chickens. But the prevailing emotion is an all-encompassing love of allowing a critter another chance at life.

Consummate at sales pitches intended to get animals a home, either a new one or a return to their former environs, the directors, Leslie Rockey of CARE and Seth Sachson of the Aspen Animal Shelter, were both immersed from a young age in the issue of pet ownership.

And when ownership fails, the staff at both facilities focus on one goal: pet protection.

Expect the unexpected

“We actually got 100 chickens in 2010 because the [owners] got evicted from their house,” Rockey said Wednesday, watching a staff that was answering phones, giving a volunteer orientation and doting on the pig. “They just couldn’t take care of them anymore so [the fowl] came through here.”

Many were egg layers, and all found new homes. “They flew out of here,” she said. “Not literally.”

A sense of humor appears requisite for what can be an intense and bewildering job. CARE is responsible for stray animals in Garfield County’s nearly 3,000 square miles. Comparatively, Pitkin County is less than 1,000 square miles.

The pig, now named Priscilla, was a stray from the Longmont area north of Denver, where no shelter would take it, she said.

The woman who found it “called us, and we’ve never had one,” Rockey said. “We said, ‘Sure, we’ll take it.’”

Sachson, too, has had experience with a pig. As a volunteer at the Aspen Animal Shelter’s former digs in the nearby Aspen Business Center, he helped care for a potbelly that was found in the Old Snowmass area.

He put it in the doggie yard by itself, but the pooches inside still caught its scent.

“And the dogs went crazy,” he said. “They smelled the pig” instantly.

When the well-fed animal went into a dog house, it got stuck, and Sachson found himself literally greasing a pig.

“I put Vaseline all over the pig to get it out,” he said.

Animalistic roots

Sachson’s parents told him that he’s always been passionate about critters, to the point where he’d fall asleep with the newspaper classifieds showing dogs that needed homes.

“I wasn’t reading the front page, and I didn’t know about current events or geography,” he said.

Horses, dogs, cats and chickens were among the animals he brought home to roost growing up in Plano, Texas. On ski trips to Snowmass Village as a child, he preferred hanging out at Krabloonik, and he plastered photos of the dog-sled business on his room back home.

After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in animal behavior, he tried a stint at Krabloonik. Though he still enjoys sled-dog racing, Sachson said Krabloonik didn’t match his preconceived notion of the sledding life, and he found himself volunteering at the Aspen shelter.

“The shelter became my anchor,” he said. “That’s where I felt right, that’s where I felt comfortable. That’s where I was drawn to every single day.”

In 1992, he was named executive director. Two years later, he took over ownership of the contract between the shelter and the city of Aspen and Pitkin County.

In another two years, he envisioned a new shelter that would be upbeat, where people could walk away, even without a pet, with a smile instead of sorrow. To do that, he developed a business model that he said now makes the Aspen Animal Shelter self-sustaining.

The for-profit facility has a doggie day care component that allows owners to work without worrying their pet is bored or tearing apart their home (or both), and a longer-term kennel. There is also a pet shop and grooming business, Wags to Riches, that Sachson co-owns with Cheryl Wyly and Anne Gurchick.

“I look at the boarding kennel as the engine that generates 90 percent of the revenue to pay my operating costs,” he said, naming employee salaries, utilities and insurance that that component helps cover. “What’s beautiful about it is the animals with homes generate revenue for the animals without homes. It’s just really cool.”

The Wylys, part-time Aspenites, occasionally fill their private jet with dogs scheduled to be euthanized in Texas and fly them here into Sachson’s arms.

“She’s flown that jet up with a lot of dogs,” he said of Cheryl Wyly.

The current facility opened in 2006 after a nearly $4 million capital campaign. The city of Aspen and Pitkin County own the building and lease it out to Sachson. The for-profit business has a nonprofit arm, the board members of which constantly encourage him to save animals from elsewhere if his shelter has space, he said.

So Sachson routinely shelters animals that are set to be euthanized at facilities elsewhere in the state and around the nation because of overcrowding and other factors.

“There are animal shelters in big cities that have to euthanize because they’re being inundated,” Sachson said. “Here we have what we call an upside-down shelter: We have more demand than we have supply.”

Board members of the nonprofit, providing funding for transportation and other costs, allow “me to save, save, save,” he said.

The animal kingdom that is his home in Old Snowmass is comprised of eight dogs, two horses, two goats, 14 chickens, four ducks and a cat. He uses six of his dogs in races as part of the Rocky Mountain Sled Dog Club around Colorado.

CARE’s community gives and takes

Leslie Rockey has been with CARE since the Spring Valley campus opened in 2000, performing every job until she was named executive director in 2004.

Raised in Memphis, Tenn., animals were a constant in her life, she said. A graduate of CMC’s veterinarian tech program, she worked at several facilities and returned to the Glenwood area right before CARE’s facility opened.

“It was just by chance,” Rockey said. “It was great, very lucky.”

Her home menagerie includes two dogs, two cats and a rat. “And I really want to take the pig home,” she said, half-jokingly. “I would be divorced if I do, but I really want to take the pig home.”

CARE has been in its current Spring Valley spot, 3 miles up County Road 114 above the Thunder River Market complex and next to a Colorado Mountain College (CMC) campus, since 2000. A couple of veterinarians and concerned citizens started the organization, Rockey said.

Funding comes through Garfield County, its largest contract, and from the city of Glenwood Springs. The rest comes from private donations, including through an annual fundraiser, and from a small amount of grants.

“We get a lot of community support,” she said.

To adopt out a current plethora of cats, the shelter during the month of February is charging only $5 to get a feline older than 5 years of age. The usual adoption fee is $100, and CARE is also offering, from Valentine’s Day until March 1, its “Fall in Love Puppy Pallooza.” For $150, those seeking a pup will get a free training session, vaccines, spay/neutering services, a microchip and a bag of puppy food.

On a recent day, a litter of 9-week-old puppies from the Missouri Heights area snoozed in a heap in one of CARE’s “real-life rooms.” A small TV in the upper-left corner showed an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” as part of staff’s goal to acclimate them to what the dogs may experience in an actual home environment.

Despite such efforts, “We’re always too full,” Rockey said. “We need a whole other building this size.”

She said cats are the facility’s biggest challenge, and people who need to give up their felines often are put on a waitlist.

Despite such efforts, “We’re always too full,” Rockey said. “We need a whole other building this size.”

She said cats are the facility’s biggest challenge, and people who need to give up their felines often are put on a waitlist.

“And so while they’re on our waitlist, we try to give them any kind of help that they might need,” Rockey said. “If the animal needs to be neutered, we’ll do that. If it’s behavioral, if it’s peeing on your pillow, we try to help them with that.”

For dogs, CARE retains a trainer on staff who will make a visit to a person’s residence — “whatever we can do to keep the animal in a home” is the goal, Rockey said.

A huge success has been a recent program that offers financially strapped owners free food for their pets “so they don’t have to surrender their animals,” she said. Once a month, four distribution sites are set up from Battlement Mesa to Carbondale, and the people that need it are “loaded up with food” for their pets.

“People need it,” Rockey said. “And they’re so appreciative because they’re struggling, and we can kind of ease that burden for a little while so they can keep that animal that they love until they get back on their feet. That’s the main purpose of the program.”

A volunteer effort

Sachson and Rockey are overly enthusiastic about those who come in and merely want to interact with their wards, be it a short walk with a dog around the shelter grounds or giving some attention to cats.

Inherent in his organization, Sachson said, is “the beauty and the truth and the purity [of] the volunteers who come and give the extra love and socialization to the animals.”

He said dog-walking by volunteers is the facility’s best way of keeping the animals happy. It also exposes them to the public and helps get them adopted sooner.

“It sets the vibe” for the shelter, he said. “It just feels like Aspen.”

Despite such efforts, “We’re always too full,” Rockey said. “We need a whole other building this size.”

She said cats are the facility’s biggest challenge, and people who need to give up their felines often are put on a waitlist.

“And so while they’re on our waitlist, we try to give them any kind of help that they might need,” Rockey said. “If the animal needs to be neutered, we’ll do that. If it’s behavioral, if it’s peeing on your pillow, we try to help them with that.”

For dogs, CARE retains a trainer on staff who will make a visit to a person’s residence — “whatever we can do to keep the animal in a home” is the goal, Rockey said.

A huge success has been a recent program that offers financially strapped owners free food for their pets “so they don’t have to surrender their animals,” she said. Once a month, four distribution sites are set up from Battlement Mesa to Carbondale, and the people that need it are “loaded up with food” for their pets.

“People need it,” Rockey said. “And they’re so appreciative because they’re struggling, and we can kind of ease that burden for a little while so they can keep that animal that they love until they get back on their feet. That’s the main purpose of the program.”

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