‘There is something simple and uncomplicated about the love of a pet. Unlike our human relationships that can sometimes be tinged with guilt, obligation, or resentment, with a dog, you love and are loved in return. It is a love that is pure and unconditional. They are family, without the baggage.”

I wrote those words nine years ago when we lost our beloved golden retriever, Paka, at the age of 12. Though I vowed never again to have any more pets because I could not stand the heartache of losing them, my kids begged and begged, and so that’s how Chloe and Brady came into our lives. Brady is a big galumphing retriever. Chloe is Brady’s dainty big sister. They are part of our family, and without us, they are helpless. The thought that they might ever be hungry, cold, hurt, frightened, and alone just breaks my heart.

And yet, that is what happens to so many animals every year, dogs and cats, some of them family pets that, for one reason or another, end up homeless, out on the streets, at the mercy of weather, traffic, and human cruelty.

In the greater Princeton area, the lucky ones among those unfortunate end up at SAVE, an independent non-profit animal shelter founded in 1941, dedicated to protecting the health and welfare of homeless companion animals. At any given time, there may be 75 dogs and cats at the shelter on Herrontown Road, and an average of 400 animals a year are helped by the shelter. SAVE operates as a limited admission shelter, which means that animals are not euthanized for space or time.

“That means we have to be careful about who we take in so we can be guaranteed to find them a home,” says Piper Burrows, executive director of SAVE, adding that these tough economic times are posing difficult situations for many people and also their pets. Over the last year SAVE has seen an increase in the number of animals bought in by animal control, many abandoned by their owners who have been forced to foreclose, move to smaller place, or for some reason, cannot afford to keep their pets any longer.

“It is amazing the number of calls we receive daily from people wishing to surrender their pets,” says Burrows. “We have only so many spaces. If we cannot accept an animal, we do our best to offer other solutions. This is especially challenging if the pet is older and has medical problems.”

She tells the story of one dog that left the shelter recently, overjoyed that he was finally going to his forever home. “And then the woman lost her job and was going through a divorce at the same time. So she had to bring him back.”

There are many animals at the SAVE shelter that, if you believe you can ascribe human qualities to dogs and cats, live every day with the hope that they will go home with someone who will love them as much as they will love in return. And every one of them has a story. Sheba is a dog brought in by the Lawrence Animal Control with road rash and some scrapes that indicate she might have been hit by a car. Though she came in with a collar, she has not been claimed by her owners.

Hoppes, a beautiful purebred German long-haired pointer was surrendered by his owner who had a two-year-old and a six-month-old and simply could not manage the dog’s level of energy any more.

Kung Pow is one of the lucky ones. A shepherd and husky mix who was transferred from a shelter in North Carolina, he was adopted and that day, was waiting for his new family to pick him up.

The cats are playful and mysterious at the same time. Meunster, a black three to four-month-old beauty, arrived in October with a group of kittens named by the shelter staff in themes; Cheddar and Asiago were part of his group.

If you want to see photos of animals that are available for adoption before visiting SAVE, log onto its website, www.save-animals.org.

SAVE employs 13 people, both full and part-time, and despite the long hours they put in, along with their compassionate care and dedication, sometimes, there simply are not enough hours in the day or hands available to accomplish all that needs to be done.

That’s where volunteers literally provide the lifeline for the animals at SAVE, which has a loyal corps of some 350 volunteers.

“This remarkable group consists mainly of older individuals who have a passion for animals, the time to devote to SAVE, and the desire to make a difference in the lives of 75 beautiful creatures,” says Burrows. She adds that SAVE also has a large group of younger volunteers under the age of 18 who come with an adult to do any number of activities including animal socialization and dog walking.

“And then,” explains Burrows, “we have people like Judy. Sometimes it’s hard to find dependable volunteers, and what sets Judy apart is her true passion for the homeless. We are all busy, but she makes time. It’s important for her and the animals.”

Judy is Judy Troegner, who has a busy and demanding job as a customer logistics analyst at Johnson & Johnson in Skillman, and yet, not only does she dedicate much of her precious free time to making the lives of the homeless animals better, she has become one of SAVE’s core volunteer leaders who is instrumental in getting others to help.

Troegner’s relationship with SAVE started with one of those serendipitous moments in life. She was driving up Route 206 on her way to work at the Johnson & Johnson campus when she happened to glance off to the side of the road.

“There is a little sign that says ‘Adopt a dog or cat, this way,’ and that put the thought into my head,” she says. “I reached out first to Piper. It was close to the J&J campus and with lots of animal lovers at work, I knew there would be lots of interest in volunteering.”

She was right. After meeting with Burrows, touring the facility, and discovering that SAVE accommodates larger groups of volunteers, Troegner became the liaison to SAVE for her office group at Johnson & Johnson.

“I had always wanted to volunteer, and I knew it would be rewarding to help get a dog or animal adopted, to help them find their forever homes,” she says. “For me at work, it was the chance to get the word out and say, ‘hey, did you know there’s a shelter just two miles down the road.’ A lot of people didn’t know that.”

Troegner’s big push to recruit among her colleagues at work also dovetails with Johnson and Johnson’s corporate philosophy. “Our mission statement constantly reminds us that our responsibility to our customers comes first, but right behind that is the importance of getting involved in the community,” says Troegner. “As a result they encourage volunteering whenever time and schedules allow. I have a demanding job, but because J&J is very big on work-life balance, I manage to work it out.”

With a large enough group, Troegner discovered she could do an orientation during the work day, so she asked if she could do coordinate the orientations for J&J people so more people could help out. She works with Donielle Killian-Gioia, SAVE’s director of shelter operations, to coordinate the volunteer activity with her company. That may include working in the cafeteria trying to sell raffle tickets for a SAVE benefit, socializing with the cats and dogs when possible, and managing special projects.

“It is so rewarding for me to get out and help the animals,” says Troegner. “I’ve also made so many new friends. We are working with like-minded people. It’s that camaraderie, common love, and compassion. We have similar beliefs about enjoying the company of animals.”

Troegner, 28, grew up in a home with lots of cats and dogs, but when she got out on her own, she kept putting off getting a dog because she had so much going on, especially with her career. And then, one day, she walked into PetCo to buy a fish filter for her mother, and life as she knew it was over.

“It was one of their pet adoption days (when SAVE brings pets to PetCo), and there was this little puppy looking up at me. That’s the kind of connection when you instantly fall in love. I had a roommate at the time, asked what he thought, talked to my mom, and that same day ran over and took him home with me.”

Tucker is what you call a true melting pot mix, what Troegner laughingly refers to as a “Heinz 57.” “I’ve found out he’s part Akita, bulldog, Weimaraner, and mastiff, as well as St. Bernard,” she says. “You’d think with all those big breed dogs, he’d be huge, but he’s only 50 pounds. I discovered that he tuckered out so quickly that first week I had him, so I called him Tucker. It turns out that all he needed to turn on his true high energy was his forever home. And now he is one of the most energetic dogs that ever existed.”

To run off some of that energy, Troeger takes him on a one-mile walk every morning. She also has him working with a trainer in disc dog training — a kind of high-octane Frisbee for dogs, for which Tucker seems to have a special talent.

Sharing her home with her and Tucker is a cat, Jessie, also a rescue. “Tucker is overly interested in her to the point where he scares her away,” says Troegner. “She is used to dogs, and she tries to be patient, but Tucker is very enthusiastic. He reminds me of Lenny in ‘Of Mice and Men.’ He wants to play but doesn’t know his own strength.”

Troegner grew up in Titusville, where her parents had pets even before she and her older sister were born. Her father was a pilot, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force based at McGuire Air Force Base near Fort Dix, and her mother, now an office manager for Boy Scouts of America, was an administrative assistant for the Hopewell Valley School District. Pets were a constant presence throughout her childhood.

Troegner graduated from Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, in 2005 with a BA in business and economics. She also minored in elementary education and exercise sports. But even in college, she couldn’t resist the lure of a stray that needed her.

“It was my senior year, right before Thanksgiving,” Troegner says. “It was freezing out, and I saw a little white flash that ran by. It wouldn’t come to me, so I went to my dorm room and was trying to do homework, but of course I couldn’t concentrate, so I went back out with a couple of roommates. We saw this little cat sitting in the wheel well of a jeep. It looked at me, and I couldn’t leave it behind.”

The cat stayed with her until she went home over Thanksgiving break, and she was able to convince her mother to let her keep it there. Today Willow is happy and thriving and lives with Troegner’s sister in Hatboro, Pennsylvania.

After graduating from college, Troegner went to work as general manager for Bounce U. near the Ursinus campus. After one year, she went to Roman Jewelers in Flemington, where she was the production manager. She has been with Johnson & Johnson for the last four years. She is grateful that the company’s commitment to social responsibility gives her the leeway to work as a volunteer with SAVE.

“You can see the SAVE staff and you can see that they are stretched thin. They do a great job. They are very busy doing what they need to get done. It’s amazing to me how they manage to keep such a positive and friendly environment. You can tell the animals are loved and well cared for. But the more volunteers who come, the more time the staff has to do other things,” says Troegner.

She jumps into every aspect of volunteer life with the animals at SAVE. “We play, go out for walks, and in the mornings there is the cat cage cleanout, and they can always use a hand. Volunteers also look for people to foster kittens and help with feedings with bottles because they are so tiny. You can also help organize events. They always need people to help with mailings; anybody who is handy can help with the things that need to be fixed. They are trying to move to a new building, and until that happens this one needs to be kept up.”

Johnson & Johnson’s group is in good company with other large groups that help keep things running. In October, Jersey Cares sent 12 volunteers to SAVE to beautify the shelter’s grounds.

Recently, the Princeton Girlchoir hosted a benefit concert for SAVE at Stuart Country Day School. The girls were responsible for helping to promote the concert and encourage donations for the shelter. This group managed to raise $1,805, and they collected a large assortment of canned food, towels, litter, and other goods for SAVE.

Burrows says that SAVE also has strong connections to both Church & Dwight and Bloomberg and the list is growing. “Church & Dwight sends employees to volunteer on a regular basis. Bloomberg’s program is great in that for so many hours of volunteer service performed at SAVE by a Bloomberg employee, the company will donate to SAVE. SAVE recently established an annual dog walk, and this is an excellent way for companies to develop teams of dog walkers. Companies can also run food drives for SAVE, something J&J is doing for the holidays.”

In May SAVE launched a $3 million capital campaign, of which $1.7 million has been raised so far, to support the construction of a new, larger shelter, scheduled to open in the fall of 2013. It will be located at the historic Van Zandt House in Montgomery Township, on 12 acres of land.

“The house itself will be thoroughly renovated and returned to its historic beauty using modern standards for energy efficiency,” says Burrows. SAVE’s administrative offices will be located in the house. The restored Van Zandt House will be augmented by a newly constructed 8,232-square-foot shelter and education center, built to the same energy-efficient standards. The grounds will be landscaped and made available for outdoor activities and a pet memorial garden will be established.

According to Burrows, special naming opportunities are available for the new shelter facility. The shelter encourages companies to commit as sponsors of SAVE’s galas, and donate to the shelter’s Annual Fund as well as to the New Beginnings Capital Campaign. Companies will be recognized on the SAVE website, in newsletters, and its annual report.

But the engine that truly drives all the good work SAVE does is the volunteers, and Burrows is always looking for a few good men, women, and children. “We want individuals who are passionate about animals, have a strong desire to work in a ‘roll up your sleeves’ environment, and who can help spread the word about the excellent work we do for the animals in residence at SAVE and for the community,” she says.

Orientations are held two Saturdays every month. They begin at noon and last for one hour. Volunteers are asked to commit to a minimum of eight hours per month.

Several volunteers help SAVE by participating in annual events including the Hamilton St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Hopewell’s Cruise Night, Communiversity, Princeton’s Memorial Day Parade, school fairs and more. Many volunteers also donate their time every Saturday to take a small group of rescue animals to PetCo, Cutters Mill, and Utopia for Pets, so storegoers can meet them and possibly adopt. The volunteers can answer specific questions about the dogs or cats and about the SAVE application process.

Burrows says one of the things that makes SAVE unique is that it is one of the few shelters that combines traditional shelter operations with educational outreach programming. For eight years, SAVE has conducted a successful humane education program, Partners in Empathy Training (PET) that partners with numerous schools and institutions to teach compassion and empathy to young people. n addition to working in traditional school environments, SAVE works with many underprivileged youth and students and the elderly with special needs.

Burrows notes that despite the rough economy, people are still stretching to make an annual fund gift and/or to make in-kind donations of food, litter, beds, towels, and toys. “SAVE has a loyal and large following, and families and individuals are committed to helping our dogs and cats,” she says. “We operate on a very tight budget so SAVE needs all the help it can possibly get. We are also discovering that because many individuals are out of work, SAVE has attracted several volunteers. It’s such a win-win: These folks love to socialize the animals and in turn, the dogs and cats provide instant therapy.”

Troegner, who is single and lives in Ewing, agrees that pets are the best therapy possible for pretty much anything that ails you, and that while she may have saved Tucker’s life, he has changed and enriched hers in ways too many to count. “Having my own dog, I’ve learned a lot about responsibility,” she says. “I’ll never forget the first morning I got up to let Tucker out, and I realized I would no longer be getting up just for me but for someone else. Their love is unconditional. It’s hard to find a better friend.”

Princeton Small Animal Rescue League (SAVE) 900 Herrontown Road, Box 15, Princeton 08540; 609-921-6122; fax, 609-921-6013. Piper Burrows, executive director. www.save-animals.org.

Save these dates for SAVE: Saturday, April 28, 12th annual gala benefit at the Princeton Airport. Saturday, October 6, second annual dog walk, Stroll for Strays, at Mercer County Park. Saturday, November 10, annual holiday boutique at the Bedens Brook Club. www.savehomelessanimals.org.

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