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Francisvale: a 100-year tradition of saving pets in 'Nova's backyard

Local animal shelter attributes its success to dedicated volunteers, loving owners

By Maria Bouselli
On February 4, 2010

  • Students begin reserving apartments in the Courts and Bryn Mawr Home Properties early in their junior year. Mike Martinoli/The Villanovan

 On their way to the theater one night, George McClellan and his wife, Harriet, came across a stray puppy, trembling in the cold. The couple took the dog in immediately, named him Francis and decided that they must do something to help other dogs like him. In 1909, the McClellans founded Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals, a nonprofit, no-kill pet shelter that still exists today, not far from Villanova's campus.

 Francisvale has been open for 100 years, saving the lives of countless animals and ultimately finding them a loving and permanent family. Francisvale is located on the same 16 acres Harriet bought for the shelter over 100 years ago, which is within five minutes of the University. 

On average, the shelter receives 75 to 100 new pets a year. 

"If there is a vacancy at the shelter, we try to fill it as soon as we can," says Heather Hennessey, kennel manager and veterinary technician at Francisvale. 

The animals at Francisvale come from many different places and situations, such as divorce or the death of an owner. Others are rescued from shelters that euthanize, or they are taken from terrible conditions, like Maggie, an American Eskimo dog. 

"Some might be adopted right away, but others may have some rehabilitation issues," Hennessey says. 

Maggie was such a case. She was rescued from a barn in central Pennsylvania where she lived in appalling conditions, being fed at most every other day and unsheltered from terrible weather. Maggie, therefore, lacked trust in people because of the absence of human contact. She became a part of the Hounds of Prison Education program and eventually found a home. 

   The main goal of the shelter is to place these pets into devoted, caring and permanent homes. Melanie Shain has been working with Francisvale throughout the years and has been president of the board for four of them."I've been an animal lover and rescuer from the time I could walk," Shain says.

 Another volunteer, Eileen Ware, has always had a love for animals and comes to the shelter to help care for Francisvale's pets. 

"I grew up with a dog instead of a doll," Ware says. "You want to find particularly special homes for these animals."

She pets Chloe, a new addition to the Francisvale shelter who is not afraid to let her voice be heard. 

"It's the Husky in her," Hennessey says as Chloe responds to her questions with a howl. 

 Because the shelter wants to ensure that the animals are placed in a stable home, there is a process to adopt one of Francisvale's fine animals. First, the prospective pet parents must submit an application, which includes veterinary and personal references, extensive questioning about the potential owner's lifestyle and reasoning for wanting a pet. If the application is approved, the applicant and his or her family meet with the staff at Francisvale. If the volunteers accept the family, the possible owner meets the dog or cat. The volunteers determine if the pet is a good match for the family and then visit their home to assess their living conditions.

There are also three steps a person has to go through in order to become a volunteer at Francisvale. The volunteers must first undergo an orientation, which is held the second Sunday of every month. After this orientation, volunteers go through small group training. Finally, each volunteer must attend an individualized training session to ensure the pet and volunteer are comfortable with one another. 

"These animals need to get constant treatment, so everything is the same no matter what volunteer is working with them," Hennessey says. "This way, the animals develop life skills which will make them better pets in the future." 

Because Francisvale is a nonprofit organization, the shelter runs purely on donations. Each year, Francisvale has an annual holiday party fundraiser to raise money for the shelter. This past year's theme was "Top Hat ‘N' Tails Gala" to celebrate its centennial year. "Francis Tale" newsletter and the famous Francisvale pet cemetery are other ways that the shelter raises money. Over 2,000 pets are buried at the cemetery. 

"I find it moving that people still return 20 years after their pet's death to visit them. These pets truly are a big part of these people's families," Shain says.

With volunteers like Shain, Hennessey and Ware, it's not hard to see why the shelter remains in such good condition and why these pets find such good homes. Despite all their hard work, these women cannot keep Francisvale running by themselves. 

"We are constantly looking for volunteers," Shain says. "Every bit counts and is helpful to us."

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