Finding 'forever' homes for needy pets
By J. Chambless
Barn cat Olivia climbs up Laurellen Treisner’s shoulder as Laurie’s husband, George, looks on. Laurie started TreeTops Animal Rescue more than 10 years ago. (Photo by Natalie Smith)
For Laurellen Treisner, you might say it all started with a golden retriever.
She had grown up in Allentown with smaller pets -- guinea pigs, ducks, chicks and parakeets. As a teenager, she got a cat, “but it really became my father’s cat,” she said.
About 2001, she and her husband, George, decided they wanted a dog. Their son, Joshua, was a junior in high school and going away to college in a couple years – daughter Elizabeth had left three years earlier -- and the looming empty nest would need filling. George, who had “lots of dogs” growing up in Bethlehem, was interested in goldens, which have a reputation for sweet and amiable personalities.
They were going to wait until after their son graduated, but Josh pointed out that he’d like to enjoy the dog, too, so sooner was better than later, said George, a pharmaceutical industry consultant.
The Treisners found puppies they liked online, then filled out an adoption form. When the woman from the rescue agency came to do the customary home inspection, she brought with her Eliza, a coal-black, fluffy mixed-breed she’d been fostering. Laurie was pleased, because she’d been drawn to a photo of Eliza on the website. “I started looking up dogs on the Web and doing research,” said Laurie, who teaches math at Lincoln University. Then she heard about Petfinder, a website where humane societies, shelters and animal rescue services from across the country advertise pets and domestic animals available for adoption. The breeds offered span the spectrum, from purebred to all-American mixed breed.
So Laurie and George ended up adopting a dog, but it wasn’t a golden retriever. Eliza is 15 now, the matriarchal pooch of their Landenberg home, which sits high on a hill on a tree-filled, seven-acre property overlooking the White Clay Creek. “She’s still in good shape because she’s a mutt,” George said, referring to the many health issues pure breeds can have.
A year later, they adopted a high-energy keeshond/border collie mix called Taz (short for Tasmanian Devil, the cartoon character known for its wild moods and antics). They’re joined by two more dogs, four cats, five goats and four donkeys. Rounding out the Treisner family were fosters -- a dog, four shy cats and a pygmy goat.
The experience with Eliza and learning about animal rescue made Laurie realize she wanted to be more involved. So after about five years of volunteering and fostering animals while working with a Delaware-based organization, she founded TreeTops Animal Rescue, named after her scenic address.
The non-profit TreeTops is a foster-based rescue, meaning it doesn’t have its own shelter. Animals are placed in volunteers’ homes, where their physical and emotional needs are tended to. TreeTops pays for the food, medical care, toys and sundry needs of the animals. Most animals are fostered between two weeks and two months. Potential adopters can check the organization's website to see photos and descriptions of available pets.
Laurie and George believe the advantage of fostering is that those who bring a cat or dog into their house can give a better evaluation of an animal after living with it and learning its habits, making for a more successful adoption later. Also, offering the animal loving and stable surroundings can only help its adjustment to a “forever” home. The animals TreeTops accepts are only those for which it can find foster homes. Some of them might come from bad situations, like from the home of a hoarder; or unfortunate ones, such as being surrendered because of an owner’s illness. Sometimes they have minor behavioral problems, or are frightened or shy. Some haven’t lived in homes before.
TreeTops currently has about six volunteer fosters, who have varying degrees of availability, Laurie said. Many cats also live at the Paws and Claws Pet Store in Kennett Square, of which George is an owner. Those kittens and cats are only available for adoption through TreeTops. At Paws and Claws, cats are able to meander about, so customers (and potential adopters) get a chance to know them.
Paws and Claws will be closing the end of the year, but the Treisners are hoping to transform it into a cat café. These types of establishments are popping up across the country. Currently, there are at least two in Philadelphia and one more in Baltimore.
To fund the non-profit business, people pay a small fee to spend time and hang out with the kitties as they frolic outside of cages in a special lounge. The plan is to have food and drink available for purchase. Monies raised at the Treetops Kitty Café will go toward the costs of caring for the cats. According to TreeTops, the cafés are a good way to get cats adopted and spread the word about rescuing, not buying, a pet.
As a non-profit, TreeTops accepts donations, whether financial, pet products or time. Although there is a fee to adopt an animal, it doesn’t cover the cost of caring for all those waiting for a forever home. Every October, their largest fundraiser is sponsored by Mums and Mutts, an organization that was the brainchild of TreeTops vice president Megan McFarland.
Probably the most common question people have when they’re considering taking in a homeless animal as a foster is, “How can I possibly give up this cat or dog to an adopter after living with and loving it?”
“It is hard, especially the first time,” Laurie admitted. “But there are so many that need to be saved. So maybe you can save the next one.”
In 2006, Jeff and Renee Ullman adopted the first dog that Laurie rescued under the TreeTops banner, an Australian shepherd named Sydney. “I was looking through Petfinder and found her picture and decided, yep, she was for us,” Renee said. “We met her and fell in love. We first met Laurie when she dropped Sydney off. [Laurie] was crying. But Sydney was a very special dog.”
That was many fosters ago. Laurie estimated that during her time being involved in rescue, she’s fostered more than 400 animals. And since its establishment more than 10 years ago, TreeTops Animal Rescue has adopted out more than 1,500 pets.
The Ullmans’ second adoption was a beagle from the Chester County SPCA in 2008, named after former Phillies star Ryan Howard. Howie turned out to be a natural foster dog brother. “He’s super mellow. Best foster dog ever for other dogs,” Renee said. The Ullmans, of Sadsburyville, have since become fosters themselves. “People see that we get sad when we drop [the animals] off, but that doesn’t mean we want to keep them,” Renee said.
Their first foster, a red, medium-sized dog named Penny, at first “was terrified of everything. She stayed in her crate for three months,” she said. Sydney has since passed away, but for almost 10 years, the Ullmans have fostered dogs, too many for Renee to recall.
“I don’t think people realize how rewarding it is to take an animal that’s not a good pet and turn it into someone’s friend,” she said.
TreeTops gets its animals from several sources, including area shelters. But the Landenberg-based rescue is also a participant in the animal transport line that stops in Newark, Del., every two weeks to drop off animals. Originating at the Darlington County Humane Society in Darlington, S.C., vans full of animals make designated stops all along the East Coast, bringing adoptable cats and dogs to waiting volunteers and rescues.
Unsterilized cats and dogs being allowed to wander have resulted in some Southern shelters being overcrowded and having high euthanasia rates. “Not just old or sick animals,” Laurie said “Young and healthy cats and dogs [are being put down].” As a result, many groups across the country have taken to bringing up as many animals as they can find places for.
On a recent cold and windy Saturday, Laurie and George drove to the rear parking lot of the Christiana Towne Center to wait for the Darlington Express Transport. TreeTops was picking up three cats -- one with four kittens -- and a dog that was going home with volunteer foster Hannah Sypniewski.
Hannah, a University of Delaware student studying early childhood education, has been fostering dogs through TreeTops for just over a year.
“It’s a great way to make a dog ready [to be adopted],” she said. But, Hannah acknowledged, the longer they are in her care, “it’s really hard to give them up. You feel like it’s your dog, but I like knowing that it's going to a good home.”
As an adopter, Kathy King playfully calls herself a “foster failure.”
“I’ve always had cats, but after I lost one last March, I swore I’d never get any more. But after a year, I started missing them,” Kathy said. Kathy was looking for medium-haired and long-haired cats from TreeTops. One of the kittens Laurie had “wasn’t friendly. She asked if I would consider fostering her [rather than adopting] her.”
The Kemblesville resident laughed. “I knew full well [the cat] wasn’t going anywhere.” The small gray-and-white tabby came with the name of Priscilla, but Kathy calls her Prissy. Although Prissy was timid at first, Kathy got a second cat from Paws and Claws to “help bring Prissy out of her shell.”
Prissy’s companion, once named Daniel but rechristened Matthew after a character from the popular “Downton Abbey” television show, is a large, black-and-buff cat, “maybe Maine Coon,” Kathy said. Traditionally a big breed, Matthew is larger than the smallest of Kathy’s three rescue dogs, a terrier. “He’s a big boy,” she said.
Prissy, who was one of the cats who made a trip up from South Carolina, has warmed up in temperament. “When she got here, she was hissing, but she never struck out or bit anybody. She was always friendly with me.”
The Treisners said potential fosters should understand than no animal is perfect.
“Some are harder to housebreak,” Laurie said. “Some bark more. Some chew things. But a lot of fosters take it in stride.”
More information about TreeTops Animal Rescue and Treetops Kitty Café is available at www.treetopsrescue.org.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at [email protected]