A short-tailed black kitten frolicked in cage 4 of the cat intake room of SAVE, the nearly 75-year-old animal rescue shelter on Herrontown Road in Princeton. Despite a short tail — either congenital or caused during a desperate escape from a hungry predator — she was full of life and future prospects.
“She’s still spunky and happy,” said SAVE executive director Piper H. Burrows. “She’ll find a good home.”
SAVE itself is much like that particular critter, just one of many seen on a recent morning in the organization’s overcrowded and rather dilapidated facilities at 900 Herrontown Road. The venerable Princeton animal rescue and adoption group merged in 2006 with a more recently formed rescue group, Friends of Homeless Animals. The combined organization, formally known as SAVE — A Friend to Homeless Animals, is poised to move into a new headquarters with an adjacent 10,000-square-foot animal care facility on Blawenburg Road in Skillman. The mood at the organization is similarly spunky.
And in the process of its move SAVE has also, rather fittingly, preserved the James Van Zandt House, an 1850s Victorian showplace that would have been demolished — the architectural equivalent of euthanasia — but will now contain SAVE’s offices.
“They’re not only saving dogs and cats,” project architect Max Hayden said. “Now they’re saving an old building.”
Between the cramped and the spacious, the outgrown and the revitalized, is the tale of a community-oriented charity that now operates like a lean, efficient, investor-oriented for-profit business.
“We run a very professional business here,” said Burrows, who promotes SAVE with all the enthusiasm of a corporate CEO. But instead of boasting of a highly marketable product or service and boosting her for-profit’s stockholders, Burrows spend her days in community outreach about SAVE’s good works — in education as well as helping some 400 animals annually — and in constantly recruiting valuable volunteers, donors, and board members.
SAVE, which originally stood for “Small Animal Veterinary Endowment,” was founded in 1941 as a considerable labor of love by the remarkable Cornelia Jaynes (1895-1969). Dr. Jaynes was the third female graduate of the prominent Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine. She bred exotic cats and set up an animal sanctuary on Herrontown Road in Princeton, saving not only cats and dogs but everything from injured squirrels to wild turkeys.
Jaynes possessed a clear vision and business savvy, setting up a trust that has paid part of the salary of the animal control officer for Princeton Township; provided an operating income of about $12,000 to $13,000 per year for the shelter; and helped provide for the Cornell Veterinary School shelter medicine program. (Should SAVE cease operations, the school is the default partner, inheriting the rest of the trust’s benefits.)
“When we started the process of moving to Skillman we had to get permissions from the town of Princeton, Cornell University, and the trust officer who manages the funds. And it took about two years,” Burrow said. “It was a complicated process.”
The irregular lot at 900 Herrontown Road was the site of Dr. Jaynes’ home and nascent animal rescue operation. A separate concrete block animal shelter was built there later. It was a major leap for its time. But now the home, shelter, and other outbuildings are a tiny paw print of what is needed.
“At any time there are about 15 dogs and 60 cats we can comfortably accommodate,” Borrows said recently while guiding a visitor. “And that’s what the [Princeton] health department allows for us.”
With the rise of the modern, medically oriented shelter movement in the last 20 years and SAVE’s corresponding expansion of operations, the demands are greater, like those on a business needing to both expand and meet more stringent government regulations. “We have to have a sanitary environment,” said Burrows. “If one of our cats is infected with ring worms, that’s a nightmare. We have to quarantine them.”
There is a morning cleansing protocol. The staff arrives about 8:15 a.m. to get the facility ready for visitors who arrive at noon. SAVE is open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, closed to the public Mondays but of course “there is someone here 365 days a year, even on holidays.”
Burrows makes a strong case for SAVE’s high standards of care and sensitivity to the needs of adopting owners as well as potential new pets. “Shelter life, especially for dogs, can be very challenging,” Burrows said. There is a behaviorist on staff, who helps insure “great matches” between animals and new owners. And this takes time, patience, and a discerning professional eye. “We’re not going to put a pit bull with an 85-year-old woman.”
A donation is requested of those who adopt from SAVE. It’s cost effective. In fact, exclaims Burrows, “It’s a hell of a deal! You’d spend $800 at a pet store.”
SAVE offers a special service, a “Seniors for Seniors” program in which persons age 65 and older are matched with cats and dogs aged 5 and older. “If [the senior] can no longer care for the pet, and if it was adopted here from SAVE, we will take it back unconditionally.”
In the present waiting area — looking something like the administrative office of a post-1950s public school, crammed with an old desk and cabinets — are office shelves piled with T-shirts, mugs and other items emblazoned with the SAVE logo. This is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit that is “always looking to make money,” not a contradiction at all, Burrows pointed out. And in this economy “it’s been very, very tough.”
SAVE raises about $700,000 annually “which barely covers funding for medical supplies and costs to run the building and pay the technical staff.” So Burrows expresses special gratitude to a “core of 350 volunteers who through the years have walked dogs, socialized cats, manned fundraising events. They are gold. Without them I don’t know how we’d manage to meet the animals’ needs.”
“An animal shelter brings out everyone in the community,” Burrows said. For example, the cinder block of the dog kennel was given a thorough and badly needed painting courtesy of the Johnson & Johnson Skillman Community Volunteer Group. Other major area businesses have donated valuable time to volunteer projects at SAVE, including Bloomberg, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Jansen, Sandoz, State Street, and Withum Smith & Brown.
SAVE is “one of the few animal shelters to allow young people to interact with the animals,” said Burrows, provided those under age 18 have their parents’ permission. Such volunteer work has launched many a professional veterinary medicine career. Dr. Alix Wetherill, a board member, also serves as SAVE’s part-time vet and a role model. The shelter works also with physically challenged persons and emotionally troubled teens who may benefit from caring for animals.
In-kind donations are very important, including approximately $50,000 worth of food, cleaning supplies, bedding, cat litter, even medical procedures and professional portrait photography sessions.
Professional portrait photography sessions? Yes, Burrows confirmed, and vitally important, too. The images taken by the photographers of critters up for adoption are uploaded to SAVE’s website and Facebook page. SAVE has some 6,000 Facebook friends and numerous Twitter followers. (“We’re more Facebook-driven because of the photos. Facebook has been an excellent tool for us.”)
SAVE is a “limited admission shelter,” Burrows says. “We are careful about what we take in so we can be almost guaranteed to find a home for a dog or cat. If an animal is not suitable for adoption we ask the municipal animal control officer to please take it off the property.”
The “limited” part extends to interlopers: “We do have people just dump off animals in our front yard. So we do have video camera set up to record anyone who comes on our property. We’re going to bust them.”
Currently, SAVE is the referring shelter for animal control in Princeton, Lawrence, and Hopewell. “We will continue these services in Skillman and hope to work out an agreement with Montgomery.”
Animals are given general medical and temperament testing here and held for seven days. Any cat or dog adopted from SAVE is micro-chipped for future identification.
“We are as close to a non-kill shelter as possible. We extend a great deal of effort before putting down an animal.” Situations necessitating euthanasia would include an irreversible medical conditions such as parvo virus in dogs. Or on rare occasions if an animal becomes “cage crazy” and aggressive: “We won’t take the risk of a dog attacking a volunteer. And we can’t adopt out if a dog has a bite history.”
Sometimes, a particularly winsome cat or stalwart dog cannot be, for whatever inescapable reason, adopted out. In that case, the animal must be put down. It’s perhaps the saddest and most stressful part of Burrow’s job: “You have to be emotionally strong.”
Burrows pointed out the Herrontown’s Road location’s physical flaws as well as its compassionate spirit. “So this is our vet clinic,” said Burrows, half-gesturing, half-shrugging at a cramped, rather dingy 8-by-8-foot room in an outbuilding. “Our sink leaks. Everything is broken. It’s crumbling to the ground. Because of our set up, we often have to farm out our procedures to other vet clinics.” They can do cat neutering here only. “Everything else has to be farmed out.”
Then in the larger cinder-block building was the cat room, packed with three sides of nine cages each. “In the new facility we’re going to have a completely different design that will help reduce stress levels.”
Like any good laboratory or production facility — and SAVE strives to produce good pets for good new owners — color coding systems are useful. In SAVE’s cat room, colored dots cue potential owners to the felines in the cages: Green — no problem, Yellow — a little TLC is needed; Orange — “cattiness” issues; and Red — do not handle the animal without staff oversight. (The red-labeled cats, Burrows said, often just need a further period of adjustment before they settle down and regain their feline mellowness: “We adhere very carefully to this system. And it’s worked very well.”)
And like any lab or industrial facility there’s laundry to be done. Lots of it. “We go through 100 loads a week,” Burrows smiled with more than a little resignation to the statistic. “So we often have to replace machines once or twice a year.”
When items, big ticket or small, are needed out goes “an E-mail blast goes to SAVE’s constant contact list and asks if anyone can help. “You’d be amazed at the responses we get. People are amazingly generous.”
Sincere gratitude — and a letter for charitable tax deduction purposes — are powerful forms of positive reinforcement. “We’re very good at prompt follow-up. Acknowledgment letters go out right away. I can’t tell you how many handwritten notes I write.”
Piper Burrows has been SAVE’s executive director for five years. Born in Westchester County, New York, she received a BA in psychology and education at Lake Forest College, and then a masters of education and administration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
After working at various private schools in admissions and fundraising, she arrived in the Princeton area where she became director of development at the Chapin School and then corporate and foundations manager for McCarter Theater.
The McCarter Theater experience may have fueled Burrows’ love of a good gala: The annual SAVE events typically sell out their 325 seats and raise as much as $100,000, with recent themes being 2013’s “The Great Catsby,” with a Roaring Twenties flavor, and this year’s concept featuring royalty in “It’s Reigning Cats and Dogs.”
Brought on the with a fundraising mission, Burrows is also praised for raising SAVE’s profile and professionalizing its overall operations. “Many of my skills were very transferable,” Burrows said, but stressed, “I’m passionate about the organization. I grew up in the shelter culture.”
When Piper was eight years old she got involved with the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals thanks to her mother, who in turn had become involved with the SPCA through the Junior League of Westchester. “So I’ve always had a passion for homeless animals. [Our family] would never think of going to a puppy mill or a pet store.”
Piper’s mother was an educator who served for 20 years at the Four Winds Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Cross Plains, New York. Her father was vice president of the Rollins Insurance Agency, the largest in Westchester. “My dad was an amazing salesman. Non-profit managers must be incredibly skilled, versatile, and people persons. And that’s a gift I inherited from my parents at a very early age.”
Pursuant to the move to Blawenburg Road, the Herrontown property is under contract for sale. Burrows expects a closing soon. “The proceeds will help cover costs of the new construction of the new shelter,” she said.
But the sale will not have to defray the cost of acquiring the James Van Zandt House, the separate office location in whose shadow the new shelter wing is growing.
It was built in 1854 in the showplace Italianate Revival-style by an attorney-gentleman farmer scion of a prosperous old Somerset County family of Dutch heritage. Last occupied by family members in the 1940s, it was subsequently acquired by the state of New Jersey, which last used it in the 1970s as part of a low-security youth detention facility. Then it was boarded up and left to its fate.
“It was in awful shape,” Burrows said.
It eventually came to the attention of Brad Mills and his then-wife Cheryl, who had co-founded Friends of Homeless Animals. Cheryl had helped former governor Christine Whitman with a dog adoption and subsequently heard about the then state-owned structure.
The property was deeded in 2001 by the N.J. Department of Corrections to the Friends of Homeless Animals Inc., then at 44 Nassau Street, for $50,000 with the condition that another $1 million would be raised and invested in its restoration. Subsequently, a generous donor — who still remains anonymous — provided the promised monies.
A core group of SAVE board member formed a building committee, including Brad Mills and John Sayer, working through the in-depth review by the Montgomery Township Planning Board.
The firm that planned and oversaw the project was Maxillian Hayden Architects of 230 Hopewell-Princeton Road. In addition to a great deal of single family residential work, Max Hayden has an expertise in historic restorations.
“The windows and stairs were intact, which was a big plus,” said Hayden. But nearly 10 layers of paint had to be stripped off the handrail of the showpiece circular front stairway before its original wood — beautiful mahogany — again literally saw the light of day.
With a wheelchair ramp and other improvements, the building is compliant with the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And the restoration will not only provide badly needed administrative and staff space (“This is the first time that our staff will have a private break room,” Burrows said): Its certificate of occupancy in hand, SAVE is already renting on the second floor to the charitable Mills Foundation and plans to offer space.
While showing off the restored mansion, Burrows stressed, “I want it to be an inspiration for other non-profits to invest in the reuse of historic buildings.”
“There are not a lot of 19th-century mansions of this caliber in this area,” Hayden noted. But he predicts that like any capital investment that inspires the confidence of future investors, every dollar spent on restoring the Van Zandt House will pay future dividends to SAVE; not only in efficiency but in motivating future donors to get involved.
The new 10,000-square foot-animal facility behind the mansion will have 25 dog runs, cat rooms, office space for the shelter’s director, a surgery suite, animal intake area, and various treatment rooms including a dedicated quarantine room for ringworm treatment.
A second floor space will have rooms for meetings and education sessions, volunteer orientation, dog training classes, and — with the all-important community outreach and fundraising in mind — for birthday parties and special events.
Valley Contractors in Pennington was selected as a specialist in steel framed buildings. “It goes through the same process as any building,” contractor Sam Leeper said. That has meant careful planning of drainage, HVAC, and “to keep it environmentally friendly and energy efficient.”
The structure was made by ANS Building Systems in Tennessee, manufactured and shipped to New Jersey. “We sat down many hours with them,” Leeper said. “It’s a custom model building, not something off the shelf.”
Like a friendly corporate merger that benefits from mutual synergy, the 2004 union of SAVE and Friends of Homeless Animals has proven farsighted; not only because a single animal rescue charity can best serve the greater Princeton area but also because the Van Zandt property project, begun three years earlier, came fruition under the united entity of SAVE — A Friend to Homeless Animals.
As the new shelter building reaches out in construction behind the restored Van Zandt, Burrows, ceaseless in her outreach, reminded a visitor that she is typically at the new site on Fridays and is happy to arrange tours for interested persons.
And, she added, “There are naming opportunities for the dog runs and other features, maybe to memorialize a beloved pet.”
Maybe one of those memorialized pets will have come from SAVE itself. And maybe that pet will have once been a little black kitten with a short tail.
SAVE — A Friend to Homeless Animals, 900 Herrontown Road, Princeton 08540; 609-921-6122, shelter; 609-924-3802, office. Piper Burrows, executive director. www.savehomelessanimals.org.
#b#SAVE These Dates#/b#
On Sunday, October 19, from noon to 3 p.m. SAVE — a Friend to Homeless Animals will partner with Palmer Square to present “SAVE on the Square,” featuring a dogs and cats adoption area, games, vendors and a DJ, plus an appearance at noon by the Trenton Thunder mascots and an agility demonstration at 1 p.m. by the Princeton Dog Training Club.
SAVE’s ninth annual holiday shopping boutique will be Saturday, November 15, at the Bedens Brook Club. For information call 609-924-3802.
The annual Stroll for Strays dog walk and pet fair scheduled for Saturday, October 4, has been canceled. SAVE hopes to reinstitute the event in 2015.