By ANN YEAGER
The Animal Rescue League Shelter & Wildlife Center has a rich history filled with many triumphs and heartaches, beginning in the early twentieth century. During all the events that have occurred throughout the years, there have been two common concerns that the Animal Rescue League has consistently stood for: the love and well-being of animals.
The founding of the Animal Rescue League goes back to the year 1909. On July 22, five animal- loving Pittsburghers had a brilliant idea. With a shared concern for both animal welfare and public health, these men and women came together to form an organization that would devote itself solely to the welfare of animals in the Pittsburgh area. These Pittsburghers sought to return lost dogs and cats to their owners while at the same time giving temporary shelter and food to lost and starving stray dogs and cats. In addition, their organization would secure a merciful and painless death for animals that were old, injured, diseased or dangerous. This group also desired to conduct a refuge farm for horses, dogs, and cats. So began the story of the organization that is now known as the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania.
Determined to reduce the suffering of all pets, the founders of the League sought to provide food, shelter, and homes for abandoned and stray pets. The founders, quickly faced with the reality of the current situation, realized that not all animals would be placed for adoption. Simultaneously, they were deeply distressed by the cruel disposal methods used by City of Pittsburgh officials at that time. Motivated to change the City’s ways, early League founders sought to contract with the City to perform this unpleasant task in the most humane way possible. The City felt that the Animal Rescue League had legitimate reason to defend its devotion to animals, and on October 30, 1909, the charter for the Animal Rescue League was obtained.
The founders’ dream to have a shelter to house animals finally came true in May 1910 when the Animal Rescue League opened a small city shelter on lower Denniston Avenue in East Liberty. That same year, a generous benefactor donated a sixteen-acre farm to the League. The farm is located on Verona Road in Rosedale (six miles east of the League shelter). The League began to remodel a barn for use as a kennel. At the board meeting held on June 21 that year, it was revealed that the farm in Rosedale was housing nine dogs and twenty-five cats while the City shelter had six dogs and two cats. Seven kittens and one dog had been “humanely killed.” The meticulously kept financial records showed revenue for the League in its first six months of existence. The League’s revenue totaled $2,103 (including ten cents for the sale of a biscuit). At the end of 1910, The League contracted with Dr. Martin, a local veterinarian, for his services and City operations were moved to larger quarters at Euclid and Kirkwood Streets in East Liberty.
As the First World War ended, the Animal Rescue League began to progress again, and by the end of 1919, all animals were held at the Animal Rescue League’s shelter for a week. This was twice as long as the law required and emphasized the League’s dedication to the care of animals. Owners who lost their pets could go to the League and reclaim them by buying a license and paying the “poundage fee.” At this time, the fee was 15 cents a day! Unclaimed animals were placed in “good homes” when possible or kept at the Rosedale Farm. At the end of the decade, the Animal Rescue League’s success was growing, but this was only the beginning of its expansion to accommodate the increasing number of animals. In addition to the League’s agents’ picking up some 4,000 animals, the facilities at the Rosedale farm were modernized by opening up boarding kennels, as well as establishing a pet cemetery on the grounds in Rosedale.
As the Animal Rescue League began to modernize, it continued to maintain its credibility as an organization dedicated to the love and proper treatment of animals in Pittsburgh. In the years that followed the First World War, the League saw many changes from the 1920s through the 1950s. When fur became a fashion statement in the early 1920s, the League became furious with the use of animal skin to follow fashion trends in American culture. The Animal Rescue League had been established to be an advocate for helpless animals, domestic or wild, and openly expressed its anger with the fashion industry’s promotion of furs for summer wear. In a statement presented to the Annual Convention of the American Humane Association, the Board pointed out that 107,698,927 skins had been sold in the last three years and that “the trapping and killing of these animals [involved] the grossest cruelty in practically every instance.” Members passed a resolution to discourage this practice and “protest against the foolish fashion of wearing furs in warm weather.” They believed that wearing furs promoted the slaughter of fur-bearing animals only to give gratification to the wearer’s personal vanity.
As the nation faced the burdens of the Great Depression, the Animal Rescue League was faced with difficulties no different from those of any other organization. No matter how great the troubles became, the League still continued to offer services, especially comfort to disconsolate pet owners who were forced by economic circumstances to give up their pets. Despite the added demands and diminished contributions, the League managed – through resourcefulness and economical operations – to survive the Depression years without having to lay off employees and operated through those tough times without a deficit.
Looking to see what similar groups did for the animals of their communities, the Animal Rescue League Board members participated in the convention of the Pennsylvania Federated Humane Societies in 1952. After seeing what other Pennsylvania animal rescue leagues offered to their communities, the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh felt the desire to teach the proper treatment of animals to children in local schools. In 1953 they conducted a school-based education program, making in-school visits to schools in and around the Pittsburgh area. While visiting these schools, the Animal Rescue League distributed 41,000 pamphlets that were based on the care and training of household pets. As a result of these programs, children who already had pets learned how to train them, as well as maintain their care of the animals. Children who did not have a pet in the home learned the level of responsibility that is necessary to take an animal into one’s care.
Following a successful building campaign in 1963, the League moved from its Kirkwood Street location to a newly built facility located at 6620 Hamilton Avenue in East Liberty. The League was thankful to receive such generous grants from the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Allegheny Foundation. Their donations made funding possible for a professional staff, new equipment, and an up-to-date spay and neuter clinic, as well as financing the spay/neuter surgery of all adopted pets.
A charter change in the 1970s expanded the scope of the League’s activities by changing its name from the “Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh” to the “Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania.” This change brought even more success to the Animal Rescue League, as it allowed for more people to become fully aware of the services it had to offer, as well as continually showing love and devotion to the welfare of animals. At this time, the League felt that it should extend services beyond household pets and help all animals, including wildlife. In 1997, the League’s Board of Directors authorized the creation of a new division of the Animal Rescue League, The Pennsylvania Wildlife Center, which is located at the League’s facilities in Rosedale. Its purpose is to rehabilitate injured wildlife and release it into the wild.
While the League expanded its services to all animals and wildlife in 1997, the most recent change to the Animal Rescue League occurred in the year 2000. With the continuous desire to stay modernized, a major renovation project to the main facility in East Liberty was necessary to bring the Animal Rescue League into the twenty-first century. This renovation took place with the assistance of a $250,000 grant from the Scaife Family Foundation.
Even though the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania has experienced several struggles in the past, it has progressed into the successful organization that it is today. With the love and well-being of all animals as its most important concerns, the Animal Rescue League continues to maintain its open door policy; to provide temporary shelter, food, medical attention and comfort to neglected and injured animals; to restore lost animals to their owners or seek new homes for them; and to educate the public about the humane care of animals.