Since 1988, South Lake Animal League has been giving abused, abandoned, and neglected cats and dogs a second chance at life.
STORY: Shemir Wiles / PHOTOS: Fred Lopez
Katherine peers through the meshed window of her soft-sided carrier with a curiosity only a cat could possess. She’s intrigued by the sights and sounds inside South Lake Animal League’s lobby but she’s also guarded. To soothe the nervous tabby’s misgivings, Ronnie Wasilewski gives a gentle caress of Katherine’s fur before posing for their Happy Tails picture.
“She is going to be my other cat Betty’s playmate. I’m sure they will get along just fine,” Ronnie says with smile. “I’m just glad she is off the streets and not having any more litters. I saw her kittens at Petco and decided to adopt her instead so she could be spayed. I really wish pet owners would learn to be more responsible.”
After a quick snuggle, Katherine returns to her kennel cab, ready to begin a new life in Clermont. Ronnie says she has always adopted rescues, especially from places like SLAL.
“They seem like they really care about the animals here. South Lake Animal League is really doing a great job saving them.”
South Lake Animal League has led the charge in helping abused, abandoned, and neglected animals for nearly 26 years. The nonprofit organization started as a grassroots effort by a small group of animal lovers committed to a no-kill policy. Now, SLAL has ballooned to include nearly 200 volunteers who divide their hours between work for the adoption center, Petco in Clermont, and the thrift store on West Montrose Street in Clermont. Each year since the opening of phase one of A Haven Before A Home Adoption Center in Groveland in 2010, SLAL has placed approximately 600 pets in loving ‘fur’ever homes, a feat that has contributed to the organization’s growing notoriety beyond Lake County’s borders.
At the heart of SLAL is Doreen Baker, the president and lifeblood of the organization. Even the most road-weary and pugnacious animals sense her caring nature and calm under her soothing touch. When Doreen speaks about SLAL, it’s with enthusiasm, and it is contagious, which translates to adoptions, community awareness, donations, and grants that allow her and her volunteers to keep giving animals a second chance at happiness.
Finding a home
Adoption is the end game at A Haven Before A Home Adoption Center. Between their website (slal.org) and their Facebook page, SLAL works diligently to help their rescues find stable homes. Many of their dogs and cats come from kill shelters with a high euthanasia rate, but when they arrive, each animal receives the best routine and specialized veterinary care to get them adoption ready.
However, don’t think SLAL is in the business of handing over their puppies and kitties to just anyone. They are a best match facility, meaning they match the pet’s personality and needs with the needs and lifestyle of the family to increase the likelihood of a long and happy relationship.
“We have 140 pets right now, but we average about 70 adoptions a month,” says Doreen. “We have a great turnover, despite how particular we are with our matching. No one stays longer than three weeks.”
However, there are always a few pets that seem to stay longer than others. One that has struggled to find her ‘fur’ever home is Rosie, a 2-year-old female Border Collie/Kelpie mix.
“The obstacle with Rosie is she becomes very attached to whoever she loves and she guards them fiercely against others dogs and even spouses,” explains Doreen. “She has been here over a year and has been adopted and returned twice.”
Then there are brothers Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson — not the country music singers but two Schnauzer/Jack Russell Terrier mixes that are both sight impaired and heartworm positive. To treat each pet for heartworm can range from $500 to $800; therefore, SLAL has started the Have a Heart! Heartworm Recovery Fund to help with costs.
“We receive a lot of heartworm positive animals because it’s so easy for them to contract. All it takes is just one mosquito bite,” says Doreen. “So we foot the costs for medications and vaccinations to make these animals healthy before they leave here, but it does get expensive. For example, to care for one pet, it costs us $367.”
Other longtime residents include Oscar Mayer, a beautiful red Daschund mix that’s the size of a basset hound, and Ronnie, a 7-month-old pup who was run over by a car and then turned over to a kill shelter because its owners couldn’t afford treatment. Ronnie’s story is unique in that the shelter contacted SLAL and they took him in, hoping to have his shattered leg repaired. Unfortunately, the damage was too great and his left front leg was amputated. Nevertheless, Ronnie is learning to live life with only three legs.
“We have some amazing animals in here with heartbreaking stories,” Doreen says, “but it always makes our day when those animals leave us for better lives.”
Housed not too far away from their canine brethren are the adoption center’s feline residents. Inside the cat cottage, cats roam freely and live like a true cat colony. This allows potential owners to interact with the cats on a more personal and genuine level. On this particular day, Aries, a young, all-black domestic short hair with a playful attitude, served as the cottage’s greeter. He’s a sucker for belly rubs and cat toys.
“Aries was at the animal shelter getting neutered when they asked me if I would take him,” Doreen says. “Someone was supposed to adopt him but changed their mind. I guess it just wasn’t his time then to find his home, but because he is such a sweet and gentle cat, I’m quite confident he’ll be adopted pretty quickly.”
SLAL’s impact on the community reaches far beyond its primary mission of rehoming dogs and cats that have suffered unspeakable traumas; the organization also performs a great deal of community service. The Humane Education program focuses on increasing animal compassion and knowledge of pet responsibility and educating children and adults on the role and services their shelter provides. The goal is to create a generation that is more responsible when it comes to pet ownership.
“I remember as a kid not being educated on what it meant to own a pet,” says Doreen. “I didn’t know what a shelter did. I didn’t find out until my 20s. It’s great that we rescue these animals and get them adopted, but education is important too. Both children and adults need to know what is going on with these animals in their community.”
SLAL also offers community assistance through their Nourish the Needy program, which supplies pet food to local food pantries, and its Pet Peace of Mind program, which helps Hospice patients with finding homes for their pets if they are unable to make the arrangements.
In the very near future, construction on phase two of A Haven Before A Home Adoption Center will begin, which will include a nursery, playrooms, space to isolate sick and incoming animals, and a medical room.
“This year we got a donor for the project so we are excited to see our facility expand,” says Doreen. “When the center is complete, we will be able to hold 225 dogs and cats. How amazing will that be? Think of how many more lives we’ll be able to save.”
South Lake Animal League receives no federal or state funding. It relies on the generosity of the community to help care for the animals. Yearly, SLAL spends more than $175,000 on animal care, which included vet costs, medications, pet food, pet supplies, labor, and operating costs. For more information on how you can donate, visit slal.org or call 352.429.6334.
South Lake Animal League Wish List
Cleaning: Paper towels, liquid laundry detergent, bleach, kitchen and larger size trash bags, Pine Sol or generic brand cleaner, industrial mop heads, dish detergent, brooms, liquid hand soap, heavy duty hoses
Pets: Durable chew toys, dog harnesses and leashes, scratching posts, cat trees, cat toys, pet shampoo, canned Pedigree dog or puppy food, Purina Kitten Chow, volunteers to walk dogs and brush cats, pill pockets, gift certificates for home improvement and pet stores, Kuranda style dog beds, crates, kennels
Office: Printing paper, Brother LC75 and LC71 ink
One-time items: Shor-line type stainless steel cages for quarantine units, a transport vehicle for vet runs and adoption events, storage sheds, mobile building for temporary isolation wing, chain link fencing, small enclosed bumper pull trailer, universal microchip scanner, pop-up tents for events, misting fans and industrial hoses, commercial size dog washing bin, working Windows 7 or 8 PC or laptop, skilled maintenance or handyman volunteers, commercial washing machine and dryer