Sharing the Love: South Suburban Humane Society expansion helps more families find pets

Anyone who loves animals can look at the South Suburban Humane Society’s new Homewood Adoption Center as a major success story. As the SSHS prepares to mark its 50th anniversary next year, the opening of the Homewood facility in June nearly doubled the agency's capacity to house dogs; it created a bright space for cats with natural light; and increased the number of volunteers by 120 in the first month. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
 
Expanding to meet a need
Whereas the original location in Chicago Heights, which remains open, is located in a more isolated industrial area in a building absent of natural light, the Homewood facility at 2207 183rd Street is highly visible and housed in a building with a well-lit, window-lined lobby area that was well-suited for its current use.
 
The process of putting things in motion to acquire and renovate the new facility began less than a year prior to its opening. In the summer of 2018, the SSHS was faced with an over abundance of animals — more than the agency could care for.
 
“Another shelter in January 2018 was closed for six months and it caused a lot of issues,” said Emily Klehm, CEO of the South Suburban Humane Society. “The South Suburban Humane Society was asked to take on more pets than we had typically taken in. We were at a breaking point of needing more space quickly.”
 
Klehm began looking for a secondary space and came upon a building by accident in Homewood that was bank-owned. It had sat vacant for three years, which meant that a significant amount of renovation would be needed. However, it was a former animal hospital, an ideal design for what the SSHS needed. Some equipment was also left behind that would benefit the organization.
 
After Klehm viewed the vacant building she met with Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld, whom she said was instantly in support of the project. “Homewood has been an amazing partner from that day in getting it off the ground,” said Klehm.
 
That initial meeting happened in July 2018 and in June 2019, the new facility was open for business.
 
Inside the facility
Upon entering the SSHS Homewood Adoption Center, you’ll likely be greeted by one of three office cats – Tito, Maddie or Oogie. One has had a leg amputated. They wander around and greet visitors, but also have another purpose. Each is good with kids and good with dogs, so if a family comes in looking to adopt a dog, the office cats can be introduced to observe how the dog interacts with them.
 
Next to the lobby is a cage-less cat room where six cats available for adoption reside. The cats are free to play and roam — and even paw at sunbeams and shadows created by the natural light that pours in through the front-facing windows, in stark contrast to their available space at the Chicago Heights location.
 
From the lobby you can also check out dogs in three showcase rooms waiting to be adopted. They’re usually senior dogs or ones who don’t do well in kennels and who are desperately in need of a new home. 
 
As you wind through the building there’s a grooming room, a meet-and-greet room and 30 indoor/outdoor kennels, a training and enrichment room, a surgery room where spaying and neutering are done by a veterinarian, which was sponsored by PetSmart.
 
The kennels have openings to allow the dogs to exit the building to exterior kennels and go in and out at will during the day. Among the dogs waiting for adoption are energetic puppies who vocally and physically express their excitement and older more subdued dogs who sit silently, but examine you curiously. A five-month-old Terrier named Milo, a one-and-a-half-year-old black Golden Retriever and Poodle mix named Charcoal, a Siberian Husky named Pete who is four-years-old and Pedro the 2-year-old Chihuahua were some of the wannabe family pets who filled the kennels one recent afternoon.
 
The new facility is for adoptions only and they don’t accept strays or surrendered animals. That’s still handled in Chicago Heights. This is called a “fast-track adoption center,” said Klehm. 
 
“The goal here is to get the animals through as quickly as possible,” said Klehm. “These are the most adoptable. It’s younger puppies, ones that are good with children or other dogs. Ones that hopefully any family could walk in and go home with a dog.”
 
Adoptions happening more quickly in Homewood means there is more space in Chicago Heights to take in animals and work on the more challenging dogs that may need treatment for upper respiratory infections or need behavioral care.
 
In the first month the facility was open, 101 adoptions were done from the building. There were 90 from the Chicago Heights facility that same month. “We’ve more than doubled the adoption capacity,” said Klehm.
 
Klehm said that the goal was that 800 dogs and cats would be adopted out of Homewood in its first year. “We’re on track to be higher than that,” she said.
 
Taking precautions
Two things happen before pets go to a new home — if they have not been neutered or spayed, it’s done on-site and a microchip is also implanted so that if the pet gets lost, it can be identified. Both must be done before adoption at Illinois animal shelters by Illinois state law, said Klehm.
 
Both procedures are also recommended by Klehm for pets that don’t come from the SSHS and are adopted elsewhere. “Less than one-third of pets are microchipped,” she said. “If more were microchipped, we’d have more happy moments where they wouldn’t have to go to an animal shelter.”
 
The reason for that is that area police departments have the capability to scan pets that they pick up. That allows them to communicate with the scan company and identify the owner. “Tags can come off. Collars can come off. Microchips do not,” said Klehm.
 
According to Klehm, Chicago Heights has “stray hold” contacts with 10 municipalities, which means that strays within those communities are transported to the SSHS facility in Chicago Heights. 
 
Some villages work with a local animal hospital. Others don’t have that as an option.
 
“Each town has to find a place willing to intake their strays. Cook County is unique in that it doesn’t have a county-run shelter. It’s a very challenging situation,” said Klehm. “If someone’s pet goes missing, they often do not know where to go.”
 
Adoption process
Now that the SSHS has an additional space to increase the capacity of animals, more pets are being adopted and finding homes sooner.
 
Adoption is a pretty simple process that starts with a brief questionnaire and meeting with staff. If the animal is a good fit and has already been spayed and neutered, they can leave with a family that day. If the animal needs to be spayed or neutered, that is scheduled and the animal can be picked up after the procedure is done.
 
Besides the Homewood and Chicago Heights facilities, there are five local PetSmart locations (Evergreen Park, Tinley Park, Orland Hills, Matteson and Crestwood) that house cats through the SSHS that are available for adoption. Based on the amount of adoptions at PetSmart locations, the company awards grants to the SSHS. Last year SSHS reached the 1,000 adoption level, which made the organization eligible for a $25,000 grant.
 
“It’s something we put a big effort into because it’s potentially a whole new group of people we’re putting the pets in front of,” said Klehm. “It’s a whole new market for them to be seen and adopted.”
 
The SSHS also brings out some of the animals available for adoption to various area events, including Homewood Fall Fest and Holiday Lights.
 
Volunteering and fostering 
With about 172 active volunteers just at the Homewood location, the dedicated volunteer base plays a big part in the operation of the new facility, which has six employees.
Additional volunteers are always welcome to join the team and are able to select the way in which they’d like to help. “Volunteers can choose what they want to do,” said Klehm. “Some want to clean kennels and we love that, but it’s also perfectly fine if you just want to answer phones.”
 
After filling out a questionnaire, which is available online, the next step is to attend a volunteer orientation followed by training related to the area you’d like to help in. A minimum of five hours a month is requested to keep a volunteer at active status.
 
Fostering is also a big component of the SSHS that allows people to volunteer by caring for animals at home. Sometimes temporary foster families are needed for a litter of kittens or puppies for a few weeks. Other times it can be for medical reasons that an animal may need special care as they are treated for an infection. Other times fosters are needed simply to free up space at the shelter.
 
“In August we had every cage full and we put it out there that we needed fosters,” said Klehm. “We fostered out 70 pets in a weekend and had people lined up to take pets home.”
 
Fostering begins with an application that includes questions about other animals in the home. Klehm said that potential foster families should know that they aren’t responsible for finding a permanent home for the animal they foster and if for some reason the situation isn’t working out, the foster animal can be brought back to the SSHS. 
Last year the SSHS arranged for fostering a total of 750 pets. 
 
“This year we expect to be well over 1,000,” said Klehm.
 
If you’re interested in adopting, each available pet is posted on the website, southsuburbanhumane.org. The adoption cost varies depending on a variety of factors, including breed and age. All pets go home spayed or neutered, microchipped and fully vaccinated. Monetary donations can also be made on the website.
 
Adoption stories:
 
Photos by Mary Compton and Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle.

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