Friends For Life: a no-kill shelter where every animal matters

Before the holidays, I sat down with Salise Shuttlesworth and Shannon Lawson from Friends For Life to chat about dogs, cats, their vision for helping others, and building a strong community where every animal matters.  The moment I walked into the adoption center in the Heights, I knew this organization was special.  There is a palpable energy among the staff and volunteers.  And after meeting Salise, it's no surprise why!  She is dedicated to make this world a better place, one animal at a time.  So let’s meet the driving force behind Friends For Life.

Gallery wall in the Friends For Life adoption center lobby

Gallery wall in the Friends For Life adoption center lobby

Me: Before we get started, I noticed several people have come in asking about the plastic tubs in the lobby.  What are they?

Salise: They are warm houses, which provide a refuge for feral cats when the weather turns cold.  Friends For Life has been making these for a few years, and they are in high demand!  We'll be making more this evening.  We ask for $20 donation to cover cost of supplies, but this is not a profit-making project, so if cost is an issue, we can work things out.  Our priority is to provide for the animals who need them.

Me: How can I make my own warm box for animals in my community?

Salise: Start with an 18-gallon Rubbermaid container. Cut one 6” x 7” opening in one of the ends of the container.  The best way to cut through the thick plastic is with a box cutter – you can warm the blade over a candle for easier cutting. Then get some mattress foam (Target, Walmart) and attach the foam on every surface inside the bin with double-sided carpet tape or a hot glue gun. Final touch: pad with hay, which helps retain heat.  When placing the warm houses outside, we recommend not putting food in them, as this may attract other animals besides the feral cats.  A tiny bit of catnip may help entice the cats inside, but is not necessary.  You can also make warm boxes for dogs: use a 50-gallon container and instead of foam, glue old towels to the sides (since dogs may rip the foam).

Warm boxes keep feral cats warm during cold spells

Warm boxes keep feral cats warm during cold spells

Me: Tell me about Friends For Life.  What makes your shelter and rescue program different?

Salise: We are the only no-kill LEED-certified animal shelter in Houston.  Our mission is simple: every animal matters.  Where other shelters define animals as "unadoptable" because they are too old, injured, have a medical condition, or simply because they are a certain breed, the Friends For Life army chooses to stand up and help them.

Me: Friends For Life has two unique programs - can you tell me about Fix Houston?

Salise: Fix Houston offers free spay & neuter services to cats in Houston's low income communities.  Fix Houston is a proactive solution to stop the waves of unwanted pets arriving at shelters.  Since 2013, we have prevented approximately 54,000 births!  Friends For Life has partnered with the city animal shelter BARC, who offers a similar service for dogs through their Healthy Pets Healthy Streets program, and together we block walk - literally going door to door in a systematic way to help all those who need it.

Me: That's fantastic!  How do the communities respond?

Salise: Like many things we do, this program is about building trust.  In the past, there was a perceived fear about working with a shelter, fear that their pet would be harmed or taken away.  I personally attended the first two years of clinic days to reassure pet owners.  And over time, the program has become very popular.  Clinic days are held once a month, and many pet owners line up at 4:30am to get their cat spayed or neutered.  These pet owners truly care about the wellbeing of their pets and neighborhood community cats, but lack the necessary resources.  Ms. Garza is a perfect example - the first time I met her, she brought one cat, and was wary about the whole process.  But over time, she keeps bringing more cats and has become an advocate for Friends For Life, recommending us to friends and neighbors.

Me: Switching gears, tell me more about your Thinking Outside the Shelter program.

Salise: Most shelters focus on dealing with animals once they are brought into the shelter, but ideally we’d like to prevent animals from being brought in in the first place, if possible.  Thinking Outside the Shelter is a program where trained counselors are available to speak to pet owners who are considering surrendering their pet.  Many times, we are able to solve the real problem and the pet is able to stay with their owner rather than enter the shelter.  Sometimes all it takes is a few months’ supply of free food, basic veterinary care, or obedience training, which in the long run is often less expensive than caring for the animal inside the shelter – a win-win!  Last year, Friends For Life gave away 3 tons of free pet food and 500 hours of obedience training.  Our vision is that the shelter should be a safe place where people can turn to for help with their pets.

Me: Is there a particular story that has touched your heart?

Salise: Yes, Tarleton’s story inspires me.  What I love about his story is that there was never any hesitation to do the right thing – it was all about problem solving to save this cat’s life. 

[Ed note: Tarleton was found stuck, or rather half-buried, in a bucket of molten roof tar.  The team worked tirelessly to free him from the bucket, wash the tar away, and tend to his broken leg and burns.  He did need to have his leg amputated, but he healed and was adopted soon after!  You can see Tarleton's full story with pictures on the Friends For Life blog.]

Me: What's your favorite thing about your job?

Salise: There are so many!  Every time I think I know my favorite thing, another cool thing happens and that becomes my new favorite.  Just yesterday, an older lady came into the shelter, tearful, scared, and apologetic.  She had 8 cats at home, had run into hard times, and was worried that she couldn’t afford to feed them.  We were able to help her by providing cat food.  At Friends For Life, to get help, the only thing you have to do is ask for it.  We do not ever income-qualify those who seek help.

Shannon: My favorite moment was when Willow (now known as Bella), a brindle hound mix, was adopted.  She is a sweet, easy-going dog, but for some reason kept getting passed over at adoption events.  All in all, she was in a foster home for over 15 months until she found her forever family.  Goes to show the dedication involved in getting our animals into good homes.

Me: Friends For Life has had many successes.  How do you make saving animals look so easy?

Salise: The truth is that it's not always easy.  But we have a very cohesive team dedicated to a clear and inspiring purpose.  The hardest thing any human will do is allocate resources where the non-recipient may die.  It is a duty that takes an emotional toll.  We stay grounded in one main principle: every animal matters.  Let me tell you about two animals currently in the shelter, both of whom would have been deemed “unadoptable” by traditional shelters:

First is Myrrh.  We pulled her from the City shelter, where she had been brought in with a broken leg.  The shelter amputated the badly broken leg.  She got a pretty nasty infection and Friends For Life took her in.  Now Myrrh is recovering here and receiving antibiotics and hydrotherapy.  This case is a great example of the way that a private shelter and the City can work together to save lives.  I’m really proud that in our program, animals who need extra medical care and time to heal get it.

Myrrh, recovering from surgery at Friends For Life

Myrrh, recovering from surgery at Friends For Life

The second animal is Don, a gentle and happy boy who was born with a rare and painful disease that caused his eyelids to be deformed.  For Don, there were three options: 1) live in agony, 2) euthanasia, or 3) be saved.  The surgery to correct his eyelids is pricey, and many would question whether spending $3000 on one dog is a wise decision.  But at Friends For Life, we are guided by our principle that every animal matters.  Don had his surgery yesterday, and is recovering at the shelter.  You can see more of Don’s story on the Friends For Life blog.

Don, one day after his eye surgery.  (what you can't see here is his wagging tail!)

Don, one day after his eye surgery.  (what you can't see here is his wagging tail!)

So yes, there are many success stories at Friends For Life, but it is not always easy.  There is a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

Me: What exciting things do you have planned for Friends For Life in the next year?

Salise: We will be building and opening a Friends For Life medical clinic, located next door to the Adoption Center in the Heights.  The clinic will offer full service veterinary care at a reasonable price. 

Me: What tips would you give people who are considering adopting a pet?

Salise: Businesses and organizations that you support are the businesses and organizations that thrive.  I strongly encourage adopting from a no-kill shelter to support the no-kill movement. 

Adoption Center in the Heights

Adoption Center in the Heights

Thank you Salise for sharing with us! To learn more and get involved with Friends For Life, visit the shelter in the Heights or their website for information about adopting a pet or making a donation.

You can find Friends For Life at:

Don Sanders Adoption Center: 107 E. 22nd St.  Houston, TX 77008

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