Passion With A Purpose

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North Shore Animal League America celebrates 75 years of rescue with a new wellness center and expansion

Photo by Ted Lim

From the moment you welcome an animal into your family, they become so much more than just a pet. They leave a paw print on your heart and it stays there forever. So it is unimaginable that there are hundreds of thousands of animals across the globe that are mistreated, homeless and unloved, in desperate need of saving. But in 1944, North Shore Animal League America (NSALA) became an angel and advocate for those without a voice or place to call home. As the world’s largest no-kill animal rescue and shelter approaches 75 years of dedicated care and service to animals next year, NSALA has remained a leader in its commitment to saving and rehabilitating the lives of homeless animals while educating the public about the joys and responsibilities of rescue.

Dr. Mark Verdino serves as the Senior Vice President and Chief of Veterinary Staff at NSALA and it is his goal to meet all the needs of furry patients under one roof.

Dr. Mark Verdino

“We have a term called ‘the complete circle of care,’ it’s kind of a trademark we have. It’s what we’re really trying to provide for our patients,” says Verdino, who in addition to practicing also manages the protocols and procedures of the hospital as a whole, oversees and guides staff and improves the functions of what NSALA does. “As a nonprofit organization, we are very cognizant of the fact that there’s only so much money to go around. Seventy five years ago, no one was doing rescues on Long Island; now you can’t throw a rock without hitting anybody.”

Philanthropist Sandra Atlas Bass has been a vital component in financial aid for the organization. She has been involved with more than 400 charitable organizations across the world throughout her life, including NSALA.

“They do wonderful work and the animals always come first. I am involved with North Shore Animal League America as far as donations and anything I can do to help,” says Bass, who chairs the luncheon to raise funds and awareness for the cause. “I’ve known the Animal League since they were very small and have seen them grow beautifully.”

On the medical front, the mission is two-fold: to better help patients and to bring in more revenue to continue to fund our operations, enabling NSALA to save the lives of homeless animals. The Alex Lewyt Veterinary Medical Center was built about 25 years ago with a goal at that time being to support the organization’s rescue mission as a no-kill organization. Twelve years ago, that mission was expanded to become a community health practice and now, NSALA’s clinics see 28,000 appointments per year.

“We’re a general practice, so wellness visits, vaccines, surgical procedures—with the exception of very advanced procedures—and just about everything else we do in house,” says Verdino. “I always say we’re the best kept secret in Port Washington because you don’t have to be an adopted pet to come here; many people don’t know that we’re open to the public for veterinary care.”

For new rescues, the organization has a vetting process, which includes a medical intake exam to ensure the animal is up to date on shots and vaccinations and can be flagged for potential disease before it spreads to the rest of the population. The Elizabeth Freed Special Recovery Center serves as an isolation center where sick animals can be quarantined and treated, which has made a huge impact in the amount of illness seen.

“I love working with the animals, but really, we’re the best at what we do,” says Verdino. “We also have the benefit of being able to provide that complete circle of care after the adoption process; we can help with training issues, medical issues that arise and for the life of that pet, we can provide high quality, affordable care.”

The Pet Wellness Center

This past April, the ribbon was cut for the Don and Karen LaRocca Pet Wellness Center, a brand new state of the art facility offering wellness visits, annual exams, pre-surgical screenings, pre-dental work and evaluations as well as new integrative modalities such as acupuncture, laser therapy and aqua therapy through the use of a custom designed underwater treadmill.

Inside, a waiting room with designated booths for each patient helps put the animals at ease as they await to be seen by the doctor. Nonslip mats on tables replace the cold metal surfaces that make animals anxious and the new building has allowed NSALA to double its capacity for clinic cases. The upstairs level is a mirror image of the main floor, and once full staffed, will be reserved for small dogs and cats. The lower level houses the rehabilitation suite with the underwater treadmill, which was designed to be level with the floor so animals can walk right in. According to Verdino, the therapy is very beneficial for post-operative patients as well as older dogs with geriatric arthritis.

“We have some animals that can use physical therapy post-operatively, whether it’s stretching, range of motion or weight bearing exercises, the benefit of working in the water helps take weight off the animal by making them semi-buoyant, relieving pressure on the affected area,” says Verdino of the recovery process to help an animal quickly build up muscle mass.

While the wellness center is not free, it is very affordable and exam costs tend to be significantly lower that other places. It is also worth noting that human hospitals must be accredited, but veterinary hospitals do not, which speaks volumes for the facility and the way it is managed and run from what is offered to patients to the quality of care provided.

“What sets North Shore Animal League apart from most, not just veterinary facilities but especially veterinary facilities associated with a rescue organization is that we have an American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) accreditation,” says Verdino of the upper echelon of quality standards in the industry. “They rank a facility on more than 900 different criteria; everything from patient care to facilities management to continuing education of the staff. We earned that accreditation in 2016 our first time, and we just passed our two year review.”

Actress and animal rights activist Beth Stern (Photos courtesy of North Shore Animal League America)

Bianca’s Furry Friends

American actress, model, author and animal rights activist Beth Stern has also been a staunch supporter of the organization. As a North Shore Animal League America volunteer, national spokesperson and foster parent, her passion for furry creatures knows no boundaries. In 2014, Stern’s rescue cat served as the inspiration for her children’s book Yoda: The Story of a Cat and his Kittens about a Persian cat with a heart condition. Proceeds from the book went to support Bianca’s Furry Friends (BFF) Feline Adoption Center, a 14,000-square-foot, cage-free animal shelter at North Shore Animal League, named after the couple’s late beloved bulldog.

“I am so excited. It seems like just yesterday when I started dreaming about this project with Joanne Yohannan by drawing on a napkin and now our construction has begun,” she says of the new second-story addition, which is slated for completion in spring 2019. “I’m very proud and I know Bianca would be too. I can’t wait to see the final project and watch the cats and kittens thrive.”

The new construction will open up space on the first floor for more dog rescues and while this is a big change for the cats, Stern says that cats are naturally social animals and that the open, homey cat habitat will allow the animals room to explore.

“We’re fortunate to be able to create a cage-free cat habitat that will allow the cats to interact and engage with each other, which can help make acclimation more seamless when they are eventually in their forever homes,” says Stern. “This environment will be state-of-the-art enrichment for them.”

Using her power as a media personality and her honest, pure love of animals and keeping them safe and loved, Stern feels that it is her responsibility to be their voice and speak on their behalf.

“Every living creature deserves our care but in our society, our dogs and cats become members of our family,” says Stern of the hundreds of dogs and cats that don’t have the food, shelter or affection they deserve. “It’s so easy to offer that to them and in return receive unconditional love. Interaction with pets can help children and people of all ages learn patience and empathy and compassion…and the world can always use more of that.”
North Shore Animal League America has been hard at work rebranding themselves. The organization recently launched a new website as well as an online store, which according to Verdino, has everything people need for their pets from Kong toys and medication to North Shore branded products like shampoos and joint supplements.

A rendering of the new Bianca’s Furry Friends slated for completion Spring 2019

A Simple Rescue Mission

As the senior vice president of operations of NSALA, Joanne Yohannan brings an impressive 40 years of animal welfare experience to the organization. She joined NSALA in 1996 and her work is a labor of love that she finds incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.

“I have the privilege of developing programs and working in all of the areas of operations to save the lives of animals,” says Yohannan, who began her career in animal welfare with the ASPCA in 1978. “I just loved the idea of saving lives and at the time, lots of animals were being euthanized due to population control. Thankfully, we’ve reached a tipping point and people in our country no longer accept the killing of animals by means of population control.”

Yohannan recalls a time when no one spoke about animal shelters positively, but referred to them as a place to drop off an animal. When NSALA started doing humane relocation, putting 30 to 40,000 animals up for adoption in the early 1990s, they became a leader in the no-kill movement.

“They [NSALA] stayed focused on that mission and humane relocation has become an acceptable way of saving lives. Many organizations have followed our lead, like the ASPCA in California and New York,” she says. “We are more of an adoption center than we are a shelter because we want people to feel welcome when they come here. Even if they aren’t looking to adopt, just to come here and pet an animal and spend time with them, makes a world of difference for a dog or cat. That could make their day.”

Photo by Ted Lim

The animal league takes in rescues from local shelters as well as national and international locations including Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico, most of whom are street dogs and injured animals.

“I love making the connection between people and animals and I’m so privileged and blessed to be able to work with such a group of caring people and volunteers,” says Yohannan of her job. “Anything to save lives and raise awareness of the plight of homeless animals and to support us and our rescue partners as well. I’m really lucky that I get to come to a place that matters.”

North Shore Animal League America is located at 25 Davis Avenue in Port Washington, NY. To learn more about pet rescue and adoption, call 516-883-7575 or visit www.animalleague.org.

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Jennifer Fauci is the managing editor of Long Island Weekly, Boulevard and Anton Media Group’s local magazines. Her passion for literature, travel and the arts lend to the unique content in her publications. In her time at Anton, she has received first place in the Folio Awards, second place for the NYPA awards and is the recipient of three PCLI awards.

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