Now filling a space more than triple the size of its old location, this familiar fixture in downtown Rockford is making strides toward its goal of serving even more local animals.
Have you seen the new Noah’s Ark Animal Hospital in downtown Rockford?
Don’t feel badly if you haven’t. Few have.
The new facility, located at 321 N. Fourth St., is 4,000 square feet, up from the 1,200 square feet at the old site, where the Noah’s Ark Animal Shelter remains. The expanded room offers more operating space and the ability to provide more services.
But the COVID-19 pandemic that struck soon after the hospital’s opening in March 2020 put a damper on the initial plans.
“We had hoped to gear up quickly in our first year,” says Stephanie Lauer, the executive director of Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary Inc., which oversees both the hospital and the downtown sanctuary. “Unfortunately, we had to limit the number of people in the building. We didn’t have people come in until March of this year. Prior to that, it was all curbside services to keep our veterinarians protected. We haven’t even had a grand opening yet.”
But with protocols loosened with the advance of COVID-19 vaccinations, the new hospital is bustling, and an official grand opening is tentatively planned for September. There are two veterinarians now, and Lauer hopes to hire a third.
“The two we have right now can’t keep up,” she says. “We’re low cost, so the demand is up. When we get that third vet, we’d like to double our business. We’d like to do things like offer a spay/neuter day every week.”
The need to expand is great, in particular because of an overpopulation of cats and dogs in Rockford, says Lauer.
“You have some intermittent backyard breeding of dogs,” she explains. “And then there are the cats. The numbers grow exponentially because cats can have so many litters in a year. We’re looking at 100,000 feral and stray cats in our area. So, there’s a huge need.
“There are a lot of organizations in the area that are really trying to help, but the issue is a lack of veterinarians to handle it,” she adds. “We were never able to keep up with the need in the smaller building. Now, with the bigger building, we hope to keep up.”
And it’s not just feral animals that have caused the need for growth. Lauer says senior citizens and lower-income people also need affordable services.
“We all know how exorbitant vet costs have gotten in the past 10 years,” she says. “If there are no lower-cost services, people just don’t take their animals in. Our goal is health and safety for the animals.”
An average spaying or neutering service is around $200 to $400. Noah’s Ark charges just $100-$150.
“That’s because we’re all about animal control,” Lauer says. “I don’t want more babies out there, because they wind up here at the sanctuary.”
The new hospital features four operating tables, double the old facility, and it can accommodate more surgeries at the same time. And there are also two dental tables, as well.
“It just creates more availability of time slots,” Lauer says.
Services are not relegated to dogs and cats. Lauer says they’ll accept all kinds of small animals, including iguanas, birds and rabbits. “We can do all sorts of exotic pets,” she says.
There is no emergency room at the hospital, and currently they do not offer walk-in services, although Lauer hopes to have that available in the future.
The hospital is open Monday through Friday and on the first and third Saturdays of the month. It’s closed on Sundays.
And while the hospital is new, the sanctuary at 111 N. First Street is in its 43rd year of service.
“We couldn’t keep an animal in here during COVID,” Lauer says. “If a dog came in, it was out in days. The turnover was very fast.”
She credits people being shut in and looking for companionship.
“What we ended up focusing on during COVID was strays,” Lauer says. “We took in a ton of strays, far more than we’ve ever taken in the history of the organization. Animals would get loose and nobody would go out to look for them. We did 364 strays in the first six months (about 15 per week), and all but three got back to their owners. Prior to that, we would take in about five to eight in a week.”
What made dealing with the increased number of strays so difficult was staffing. Pre-COVID, the sanctuary had a staff of 11. That number dropped to six during the pandemic, and Lauer is now back to around eight.
The growth in staff is necessary with the growth in need.
“We’re seeing a jump in calls for us to take on more animals because people are losing their homes and apartments,” Lauer says. “We have a waiting list to get into the sanctuary. There is nothing static about this business at all, and that affects staffing as well.”
The sanctuary features 15 kennels for dogs, with a maximum capacity at 30. “And I’ve held up to 125 cats in this facility as well,” she adds.
What makes the sanctuary and hospital run is the quality employees Lauer oversees, as well as the volunteers who offer their services.
“We always welcome volunteers,” Lauer says. “We really need dog walkers and people to help clean. We try to get the dogs out every day to walk or play so they’re not sitting in cages all the time.”
And along with people, the other factor that keeps Noah’s Ark running is donations, both supplies and money.
There is a donation wish list at the facility’s website, noahsarkanimals.org. Lauer says the biggest needs are paper towels, laundry detergent, bleach, and kitten and puppy milk.
As for the monetary support, Noah’s Ark does not receive any government funding. It runs on the many generous donations it receives from local people.
“Over the past several years, we’ve been in people’s wills,” Lauer says. “Those donations are what really saved the sanctuary, especially last year. That’s how we built a reserve and what helped us expand the hospital.”
Donations can be made in person or by mail.
To also help with the money flow, Noah’s Ark holds three main fundraisers.
The Fore! The Love Of Animals golf outing on June 24, at Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Country Club, is a joint effort with PAWS Humane Society.
On July 24, the Bark & Wine event at the Tabala Event Center features a buffet dinner, wine tasting, live D.J., an auction and raffle.
The Pretty Pittie spaghetti dinner has not yet been scheduled.
As an organization, Noah’s Ark seeks to secure a safe environment for all companion animals. It is a no-kill shelter that does not euthanize to make space for other animals. With the continuing work of Lauer and her staff, and the growth of the new hospital, that goal is being met.
But Lauer also has a second goal; consider it a vision of a perfect world.
“I’ve always wanted to be not needed,” she says. ❚