When it comes to serving lost and abandoned animals, this all-volunteer group is doing its part to alleviate a burden and place animals in a forever home.
Winnebago County Animal Services (WCAS) was established by the county’s governing board to control and protect domestic animals and wildlife as well as the safety and health of the county’s residents.
For decades, the organization has worked to eradicate rabies while also licensing, spaying, neutering, vaccinating and collecting stray or neglected pets. Originally known as “the pound,” the facility impounded dogs, cats and other stray domestic animals with the mandate to hold them for 30 days, during which it was hoped the owners would claim them.
All of this changed in October 1997 when a group of Winnebago County residents informally established the WCAS Auxiliary. Ever since, this nonprofit volunteer organization has supported WCAS’s work by finding homes for animals through adoption or wildlife rehabilitation. Its mission is not only to provide medical assistance and adoption options for the animals, but also to raise public awareness about responsible pet ownership and volunteer opportunities.
Amber Pinnion is the WCAS adoption and volunteer program coordinator, acting as liaison between the County and Auxiliary to improve and expand the adoption program. For her, it’s a unique experience, as she has worked with volunteer organizations in the past but not any that interact with a government agency the way the Auxiliary does.
“In addition to the adoption program, I support volunteer efforts,” says Pinnion. “Our volunteers are vital to the success of the Auxiliary’s mission and fundraising goals.”
Those efforts make a difference. In the past three years the Auxiliary has covered medical expenses for spaying and neutering more than 200 homeless, adoptable animals. They’ve also covered treatments that include X-rays, infectious disease prevention and treatment, de-worming, surgical procedures, dental cleaning, grooming, and treating flea infestation, bite wounds and traumatic injuries.
Margaret P. McGarvey, Auxiliary president, says that, beyond medical expenses, organization funds have also provided outdoor dog runs, collars and leashes, air cleaners, cat cages, technological equipment, feeding and grooming equipment, cameras, laundry equipment and special equipment for foster volunteers. The Auxiliary is also able to call on certified wildlife rehabilitation experts when the need arises. None of this would be possible without the strong volunteer program supplemented by the Auxiliary’s community and business partnerships.
“We work continuously with companies such as Petco, PetSmart, Cherry Valley Feed and Grain, our local veterinary clinics, regional media, and online resources such as Petfinder and Pets911,” McGarvey says. “And the community is generous with its donations and response to fundraising efforts including bake sales, the Canine Classic Dog Fair, Photos with Santa, and Pots for Pets. Gifts can also be dropped off directly to our shelter. There is a box in the lobby.”
Additionally, weekend cat adoption efforts help homeless cats to find permanent homes through six PetSmart locations including in Janesville, Milwaukee and Chicago.
But cats and dogs aren’t the only animals that find their way into the WCAS shelter at 4517 N. Main St., on Rockford’s far north side.
“We’ve had a horse, pony, goats, ewes, rabbits and a ram,” says McGarvey. We’ve rescued approximately 10 pigs, both regular farm pigs and pot-bellies. We’ve had flocks of farm hens and roosters, including ornate roosters. We have housed a flock of domestic geese more than once – actually, the same flock.”
Auxiliary secretary/treasurer Douglas Howe says he has also seen guinea pigs, fish, reptiles and at least one emu come through the shelter’s doors.
While the animals take center stage, another function of the Auxiliary is to provide public awareness and education within the community. Until COVID interrupted their efforts, volunteers participated in in-school programs and worked with local law enforcement and fire departments to bring the issues of animal control, pet care, animal bites, infectious disease awareness and other information to the greater Winnebago County area.
All of this activity makes it doubly important for the Auxiliary to not only maintain a strong volunteer presence but also continuously raise funds.
“The current version of the Auxiliary was established in 2002 when it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit licensed by the state,” says Howe. “Its primary business focus is fundraising and overseeing the disbursement of the funds entrusted to them. With these funds, the Auxiliary pays for the necessary surgeries and medical care of the animals which the County is unable to handle in-house and to support adoption efforts.”
Those adoption efforts include special programs such as Golden Whiskers, which seeks homes for older animals, and the Lonely Hearts Club, an adoption initiative for the shelter’s long-term residents.
All of this happens with the support and coordination of dedicated volunteers.
“The volunteers largely fill the role of adoption counselors and spend a significant amount of time handling the animals,” says Howe. “Some give their time at off-site PetSmart adoption centers and by transporting animals to rescue organizations, taking photographs, opening their homes to fostering and assisting in fundraising events.”
Howe estimates that the team of WCAS Auxiliary volunteers supplies the equivalent of two to three full-time employees at WCAS. Asked how the community at large can support this effort, Howe says there are three ways.
“First off, adopt from WCAS,” he says. “Nothing replaces getting these animals into new homes.”
Second is volunteering.
“Volunteer if you are able,” Howe adds. “The work can be tough, but nothing beats the sight of matching an animal with a new home and seeing them run out the door.”
And third is by donating.
“There is a donation list; we are fairly picky about certain items, as we have seen dogs tear up lightweight beds or toys in under 5 minutes,” says Howe. “I recommend those who want to donate foods and other items contact WCAS for information on what is appropriate.”
To support, volunteer or donate, visit WCAS.com or call (815) 319-4100.
All monetary donations are administered by the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois, which disperses funds on a donor-requested basis.
The WCAS Auxiliary is all-volunteer; there are no paid positions. Its efforts to help improve Winnebago County’s quality of life and wellness for more than 25 years stands as a testimony to the commitment made by community volunteers.