AWL Needs You To Help All Creatures Great And Small

“I’m a very tough person, but in this job, I cry a lot. Sometimes, though it’s happy tears,” said Nickee Sillery, medical director for the Animal Welfare League. “Like I can tell you this story,” and she leaned forward and hung her hand six inches below her neck when she told us about Carl, a little boxer someone found wandering along a road one Sunday night recently.

“He has a mass hanging down several inches but it’s not bleeding,” her staff told her.

First thing Monday morning she called the vet in New Ross, one of a few vets who provide services at an affordable rate for animals housed at AWL Crawfordsville.

“It’s basically a skin tag, but it’s a tumor and he’s in pain, so it has to come off,” the vet said. Sillery greenlit the surgery naturally. This old boxer had a lot of life left in him.

In the eight years since Sillery began at the Animal Welfare League, she and the former director Misha Fisher, who came a year before Sillery, were a force to be reckoned with. Under their direction, the AWL went from 15 percent of its animals leaving the premises alive to 10 percent or less needing to be euthanized because of extreme health issues or even more rarely, extreme violence.

While Carl was receiving surgery, they discovered he was microchipped, so Sillery chased the trail of ownership. The owner was registered to a woman who now lives in Florida. When she called, she learned that the dog’s name was Carl and the woman who owned him lost him in a divorce. Her ex, who had most recently lived in Marion County, had died days before. How Carl ended up dirty and disheveled on the side of a road in Montgomery County remained a mystery. The day after Carl’s surgery his owner called.

“What’s next?” she asked and when Sillery said she’d approved the surgery, the woman wept. She hinted about getting Carl back and naturally, Sillery who believes in reunification, said, yes. The woman made arrangements to pick Carl up in October and asked what she owed. “Only the $144 surgery and shots bill,” Sillery said. Thrilled, she reached out to Petsmart and Petco to tell how AWL saved Carl’s life.

Sillery, a Fort Wayne native whose dad graduated from Wabash and mom graduated from DePauw, currently has nine dogs from over 145 pounds down to nine pounds. Aside from owning pets, she was an unlikely candidate for directing AWL. She graduated college with an opera and theater degree, taught public speaking to teens and took what she thought was a summer gig with the AWL. She believes every animal needs a couch, so much so that she has one couch just for her dogs in her living room.

AWL currently houses well over 200 cats and 60 dogs in a space designed for 30 dogs and 70 cats. The staff navigates around dogs and cats in every corner of the facility: eight crates of dogs in the office, three in the lobby, three in the bathroom, four in the laundry room, and 10 cat cages in the lobby. There are dogs in their garage, cat cages stacked in the medical room and lining the halls. When staff arrive at 8 a.m. until they leave at 5 p.m. they are running laundry – every cat and dog gets its own blanket. Food dishes, litter boxes and cages all need to be washed daily.

How does all that happen with shoestring-paid staff on a small budget? Volunteers and donations. Wabash students put in service hours there. Other regulars, like Rex Ryker Sr., Scott Teal and their driver Danny, come nearly every day to help with the laundry, dishes, cleaning, transporting and socializing the animals. Someone recently provided a gift card for everyone’s lunch, and another keeps ice cream in the freezer. It boosts their spirits to get donations of snacks “cause they’re hungry” doing all that work.

The shelter’s need for basic supplies is constant. They were out of dog food when she came in on Oct. 6, then CEL&P showed up with a load. The shelter always needs Dawn detergent – it kills fleas! – liquid laundry detergent, bleach and litter. If a person buys up all the discounted cat or dog food at the store and drops it off, they’re grateful. It’s food for the animals that day.

The core four staff not only care for the animals during the day, but most are animal control officers as well. Part of their funding comes from contracts with nearby towns like Ladoga and New Ross. Unfortunately, some towns do not contract with the AWL – but still call them in a pinch. That means 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, animal control officers are on call and sometimes the shelter provides services for free. If one of them gets a call during working hours, cleaning and care in their area of the shelter stops, unless a volunteer comes in to help out. They’re constantly juggling their dollars and time to keep their commitment to be a no-kill shelter.

AWL, which serves domesticated animals, works with nearby sanctuaries. Derek, one of the staffers, rescued a baby feed pig that jumped out of a semi. A bit scuffed, Sillery found a home for Charlotte the pig at a nearby farm sanctuary. She often works with rescues to find a home for purebreds that come in. An abandoned pug, Croissant, was at AWL after she was hit by a car and needed a $1,000 amputation. Croissant was microchipped so the shelter reached out to her owner. When the owner ghosted the shelter, Sillery found a rescue to care for and rehome Croissant. When someone asked why she did not rehome Croissant locally, Sillery explained that she has to use the shelter’s resources wisely. They couldn’t afford the surgery, but a rescue can, and the new owners will pay what the rescue charges to help support that organization. Shelters don’t offer that model of adoption.

The toughest days are when the shelter has to take in pets from a hoarding case. “One hoard can blow my medical budget for the week,” Sillery said. One month, they took in 20 cats, then a few days later another 36, and then in another few days 19.

The first hoard that came in had parasites, which quickly spread through the shelter’s population. She had to buy four cans of treatment powder, each costing $400, to halt the infestation.

To stay afloat, AWL partners with Purdue and nearby vets, not just for discounts or emergency medical care but also for microchipping – most microchipped animals are reunited with owners whereas only 1 percent of strays get back home – as well as spay and neuter clinics to improve responsible pet ownership. When asked what could be done about the hundreds of cats and dogs waiting for a home, Sillery said volunteers can foster and post about the animals to promote adoption. She also encourages families to bring their kids to visit and to adopt. Kids who learn responsible pet ownership become kinder humans. “You can read a thousand studies that kids who are good with animals, then those kids are better with people,” she noted.

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