FACETIME- Pet passion: Birkholz made no-kill cool
If everyone saw animals the way Mary Birkholz does, shelters wouldn't be overcrowded, and euthanasia for adoptable pets wouldn't ever happen.
"I'm from the philosophy that until humans see animals from another perspective, they won't change how they treat them," says Birkholz, founder of the no-kill Palmyra-based animal shelter Caring for Creatures. "They're here to help us, to heal us in many aspects. If we'd just pay attention to things they're trying to show us, we'd probably be a happier society."
Growing up in Northern Illinois, Birkholz says, she was drawn to the chained-up dogs in her neighborhood, and often asked to play with a family's pet rather than their children. Her passion for animals remained into adulthood, as did her growing horror at the fate of the millions of animals put to death every year simply because they didn't have a home.
"A friend of mine finally said, 'You know what? You keep talking about this, so why don't you just do it or shut up?'" Birkholz says.
It was the push she needed. She moved from Northern Virginia to a 157-acre property in Fluvanna County in 1988 and, with her first donation from that pushing friend, launched the non-profit Caring for Creatures. She spent her first night in her new home with CFC's first guest– a stray cat she named Will.
Over the next 20 years, CFC expanded and has hosted up to 200 animals in residence at a time. With an annual operating budget of $350,000, CFC now has a paid staff of 12 and 50 volunteers.
Looking to broaden the types of animals she can help, Birkholz recently added the Scratching Post, a cat residence that is equipped to treat cats with feline leukemia– an incurable disease. Her greatest challenge, however, was the sudden acquisition of over 100 animals after their elderly caretaker died, leaving the animals homeless.
"It was an overwhelming situation for us, the biggest one we'd ever taken on in our history," Birkholz says. "Many of the animals were absolutely wonderful and absolutely adoptable; they just needed to be fixed up a bit and advertised."
And if an animal isn't chosen? They simply remain at the shelter– which one Birkholz friend says is far from a terrible fate.
"A lot of the animals don't want to be adopted. They prefer it there on the farm," says friend and co-worker Alden Bigelow, joking, "I haven't wanted to leave the farm either."
Although some of Birkholz's goals for CFC are physical improvements to the shelter including an animal training center and a free spay/neuter clinic, she's hoping other efforts– including an animal calendar and educational outreach in area schools– will increase the animal/human bonds throughout the community.
"Everything is energy: us, animals, everything," Birkholz says. "I believe that you can communicate with an animal– I know it because I've experienced it."