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Susquehanna Life

E. Smithfield, PA's Animal Care Sanctuary No-Kill Animal Shelter has been Rescuing & Rehabilitating Animals for Over 50 Years

Shelter on the Hill

By Johnny Williams

A paved path winds through shaded sunlight and singing birds to a busy, nationally-recognized hub for rehabilitating and legislating on behalf of animals—and finding happy, loving homes for rescued animals. 

Following a winding, gated drive to the top of a hill in the scenic Endless Mountains region, visitors are greeted by nature and quiet. The Animal Care Sanctuary no-kill animal shelter has been rescuing and rehabilitating animals for over 50 years. Located on 129 acres in East Smithfield, PA–a tiny, rural community about 50 miles west of Montrose with a population of just over 200–ACS is one of the largest no-kill animal shelters in the United States. Its animal population comprised of mostly cats and dogs is more than twice that of its home-community.

Jersey roots

While ACS has been housed in East Smithfield for most of its existence, its roots can be traced back to Toms River, NJ, where founder Lesley Sinclair created the shelter in 1967. Sinclair was inspired to start the organization as a result of the inclination of vacationers to abandon pets, and the largescale pattern in the U.S. to euthanize 30 million cats and dogs each year.

In 1967, the term “no-kill” in relation to animal shelters had not yet been coined, but Sinclair recognized the need for an animal sanctuary that could stem overpopulation through spaying and neutering. In 1975, less than 10 years after its founding, ACS (known at the time as Animal Care Fund) became the first certified organization in New Jersey to perform such procedures.

While the shelter had already made huge strides in rescuing animals, Sinclair did not stop paving the way for responsible animal rescue. She knew it was equally important to make the animals as healthy as possible and find them happy, loving homes.

Sinclair appealed directly to friends to adopt. She took out numerous advertisements and encouraged major newspapers, including The New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, to run articles to raise awareness. And Sinclair sent out hand-written notes thanking supporters.

ACS moved to the rural hills of East Smithfield in 1982 after Sinclair’s plans to expand in New
Jersey were thwarted. The sanctuary’s growth stalled beginning in 1998 when Sinclair passed away. While it maintained its high standards, Sinclair’s vision and progressive ideas were put on hold for 18 years.

A new leader

Joan Smith-Reese joined ACS as executive director in 2010, bringing to bear her knowledge and experience with innovative health care and social work to connect people with the needs of four-legged creatures.

“After many years in the home care and hospice field for humans, I felt many of my talents could apply to the shelter world for cats and dogs,” Smith-Reese said.

Smith-Reese was instrumental in hiring a staff of licensed veterinarians, veterinary technicians and a behavior consultant in 2010. ACS also adopted American Association of Shelter Veterinarians Standards and kicked off a relationship with Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, giving ACS access to the best practices for caring for animals. “We follow shelter medicine guidelines in all areas of care,” said Smith-Reese. “The veterinary school staff visits ACS to make recommendations and provide advice and in-service to our staff.”

“Caregivers are the key,” Smith-Reese added, pulling a page from her hospice experience. “While a cat or dog is here ACS caregivers are their family. So it is imperative to make sure caregivers are trained and recognized for their important role.”

Today ACS–along with its sister location in Wellsboro–is more than an animal shelter. It has become a health clinic, rehabilitation facility and an education center for both animals and humans.

Boasting an adoption rate of over 90 percent, ACS has welcomed adopters from all over the country, and animals from all over the world—from those displaced by hurricanes to dogs saved from meat farms half a world away. The sanctuary hosts various programs for pet owners, including animal care workshops, dog training courses, a pet food pantry and a special emergency fund for senior and special-needs canines.

The hilltop shelter has even welcomed veterinary interns and writers from the New York City-based Gotham Writers’ Workshop–the largest adult-education writing school in the country–who are looking for a reprieve from city life, as well as kids from elementary schools and high schools eager to learn the responsibilities of pet ownership.

Lending a voice

ACS has become a voice for those who have none by lobbying for animal rights in Harrisburg–a long battle that finally sprouted roots last year when House Bill 1238, or Libre's Law, was signed into law. That legislation brought an overhaul to Pennsylvania’s animal abuse statutes–and escalated the state’s animal laws from the fourth-worst to the fourth-best in the nation. It introduced added protections for horses, improved tethering conditions, increased penalties for animal abuse and civil immunity for veterinarians and technicians who report abuse.

“The only way to make concrete change to improve the lives of animals is to change the legislation,” Smith-Reese said. “That is not an easy process, but it’s one that is lasting and can be enforced.”

State Sen. Gene Yaw, whose legislative district includes East Smithfield, co-sponsored Libre’s Law after ACS pushed for his support in boosting the rights of animals.

“He [Yaw] has really become instrumental in helping to get this kind of legislation,” Smith-Reese said.

The shelter’s journey to reform animal rights via Libre's Law began 10 years ago, when
ACS met resistance against new anti-tethering laws.

“People think, It’s terrible this dog is abused. Do something,'” Smith-Reese said. “But people don’t understand that if you don’t go through the law to change the law, it doesn’t matter. So that’s what we do. As soon as we hear something, we get our network to send emails and remind our lawmakers that we vote. And we are constantly advocating and trying to educate. You have to show up.

You have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing.”

The ACS pushed for animal rights so vehemently that reportedly their story of one of its rescue dogs, a severely-abused 10-year-old yellow lab named Tanner, helped convinced Gov. Tom Wolf to sign HB 1238 into law. In fact, Tanner became the “poster dog” for the Humane Society nationally.


Heartbreak and inspiration

Tanner is one of the many heartbreaking yet inspirational stories inside the walls of the shelter.
He came to ACS after spending most of his life in a crate. Missing most of his hair and weighing half that of a healthy Lab, Tanner could barely stand, and suffered from hypothyroidism, allergies and severe arthritis in his spine.

“Tanner spent a year at ACS regaining his health and strength, and waiting for just the right person,” said ACS assistant director Rachel Rossiter. “As fate would have it, she [Tanner’s adopter] lost her husband less than a week after adopting Tanner,” Rossiter said. “Tanner was able to provide comfort and companionship when she needed it most, and she gave him the wonderful, caring, forever home he had never known and so deserved.”

In fact, there are many stories to tell at the end of that path up the hill in East Smithfield. Whether it’s a family dog playing happily with kids in the backyard or the cat nestled in the arms of an adult, Animal Care Sanctuary is about bringing families and animals together.

“When a cat or dog is surrendered to the shelter there is often such sadness,” Smith-Reese said.

“It could be that the owner died or went into a nursing home and the animal lost not just his owner but also his home. Or the owner no longer wants the animal.

“Paralleling that sadness is the joy when an individual or family chooses a pet to become part of their family,” she added. “We follow the adoption to assist with advice or behavioral consults if needed. Our goal is to find permanent homes for animals.”

Johnny Williams resides Bradford County, Pa., and has worked as a writer for newspapers and online blogs since 2011.

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