From toys to emergency surgeries, Friends of the Animal Center Foundation fills in funding gaps to help shelter pets

Holiday with the Hounds open house

Iowa City Animal Center — Saturday, Dec. 15 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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Larry Akin, a volunteer with the Iowa City Animal Center for 11 years, feeds a salad to Didi the rabbit. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Pinky, Tarzan and Dray took over the boardroom at the South Riverside office of the Friends of the Animal Center Foundation (FACF) in late October. The three kittens, former strays, showed signs of a respiratory condition, so they were being kept separate from the rest of the Iowa City shelter cat population until they could get in front of a vet.

If the feline siblings were sick, they weren’t acting like it. The kittens — two black and one tabby — frolicked around the room with unceasing energy, and even appeared to reenact the Mufasa death scene from The Lion King on an office chair.

“Having kittens in my office is not crazy for me,” said Christina Kimerle, FACF executive director. “I lived with tigers for a little bit.”

Kimerle worked with exotic animals from Maryland to Missouri before pivoting to shelter work (wrangling cats and dogs is a lot easier on the body than elephants and giraffes, she said) and eventually settling in Iowa City in January 2015.

“It got to a point where I needed to decompress and not have to make the hard decisions at the shelter,” she said. “So now I’m a fundraiser. I get all the happy stuff, and I get to pay for those decisions to not have to be made. We fill those funding gaps so animals don’t have to be euthanized.”

The Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center, the city’s only shelter and animal control entity, is part of the Iowa City Police Department and shares its budget. City funding for the shelter covers its basic needs, and little, if anything, more. Services like advanced vet care, animal enrichment (such as toys and other stimuli), beds, behavioral training, specialized food and education initiatives within the community rely on donations, which are difficult to earmark and manage through the city.

“There is just not enough tax dollars to support the shelter that’s needed for the community,” Kimerle said.

The Friends of the Animal Center Foundation was founded in 1999 by Holly Hotchkiss, Jean Walker and Lisa Drahozal Pooley to help supplement the shelter budget. Their initial goal was to fund spaying and neutering services for every animal that comes through the shelter. Before FACF, staff had to hope and trust adopters would “fix” their pets themselves.

The foundation started with $500 in the bank. By 2015, they were donating $1 million (of the total $2.8 million cost) toward the construction of a new, state-of-the-art building to replace the original shelter destroyed in the 2008 flood. Their funding goal this year is $253,000, though they raised $264,631.83 in 2017 alone. A big focus of their end-of-year fundraising is their ER fund.

“Last year we funded about $15,000 in just emergency vet bills,” Kimerle said. (FACF doesn’t make major health-related decisions for the animals, but instead approves funding for procedures and products recommended by shelter staff.)

This season, Kimerle said FACF will be highlighting the stories of a three-legged dog and three-legged cat whose lives were saved through emergency amputations and who went on to be adopted. “These are animals that would have died if they hadn’t had that money.”

Didi, a rabbit resident of the Iowa City Animal Center. Shelter staff hope to find a forever home for Didi as soon as possible. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Though the animals’ tales are moving, Kimerle said you won’t hear a Sarah McLachlan song playing at any FACF events.

“I don’t believe in guilt fundraising. I don’t think it’s right,” she said. “I will probably have a sad story to tell you, but there’s a happy ending because of the foundation.”

“Even these three foster kittens running around right now: they’re benefitting from donations for their supplies, but they’re healthy, they don’t need to go to the ER. Every story isn’t a sad story when it comes to animal welfare. I think there are organizations that focus too much on that sad part and not enough on the happy, and there are so many happy things. And I think our supporters appreciate that.”

Beyond medical care, FACF funds humane education (including bite prevention) in area schools; at least eight events a year, including the Paws for a Cause dog walk and extravaganza, the Pawject Runway pet fashion competition, the Dog Paddle at City Park pool and a Doggie Health Fair; the barn cat program, helping to care for and adopt out cats accustomed to living outdoors; and the salary of Lisa Bragg, the Iowa City Animal Center’s full-time program coordinator, who manages the expansive volunteer program, among other tasks.

Bragg points to FACF’s support of the animal foster program as a major resource, not often seen in other cities. Those who agree to foster cats or dogs not ready to enter the shelter aren’t expected to make a financial commitment — food, beds, bowls, litter, toys and other supplies are provided by the foundation.

FACF partners with dog trainers at Spot & Co., Best Friends Dog Academy and the Pet Sitters for their Paws to Train program, educating shelter volunteers on positive reinforcement training, sponsoring a six-week obedience class for some shelter dogs and offering class vouchers to new adopters.

Some of the foundation’s business partnerships are less obvious, from FACF encouraging hotels to donate old towels to the shelter, to Iowa Book hosting “Kitten Thursday” fundraisers, to restaurants like Mosley’s Barbecue (named for the owner’s bull mastiff, Mosley) and Hudson’s donating a portion of their profits on certain days to the foundation.

“I think this community just enjoys the interaction between the businesses, the nonprofits and the community members themselves. And then they all become one and the same,” Kimerle said.

Enthusiasm for animal welfare in Iowa City is always in supply, Kimerle said. It extends to her own dog, Gertrude, whom she adopted from the shelter in June. Gertrude attends most FACF events as an “ambassador” and has amassed an Instagram following.

Kimerle doesn’t try to teach compassion for animals, she says, but merely embrace and direct it.

“Donors are going to give because of their story and their passion. I can’t control that story,” she said. “If they have never adopted an animal and understand the fulfillment that a pet can give to their family, I can tell them stories all day long, but until you feel it, it’s not that same.”

Emma McClatchey has stories to spare from her time as a pet mom to two cats, two dogs, two bunnies, a hamster and a fish. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 253.

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