The Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania has a rich history, filled with many triumphs and heartaches, beginning in the early twentieth century. In all the events that have occurred throughout the years, there is one common concern that the Animal Rescue League consistently stands for: the well-being and love of animals.
The founding of the Animal Rescue League goes back to the year 1909. On July 22, five animal loving Pittsburghers had a brilliant idea. With a shared concern for both animal welfare and public health, these men and women came together to form an organization that would devote itself solely to the welfare of animals in the Pittsburgh area. These Pittsburghers sought to return lost dogs and cats to their owners while at the same time giving temporary shelter and food to lost and starving stray dogs and cats. In addition, their organization would secure a merciful and painless death for animals that are old, injured, diseased or dangerous. This group also desired to conduct a refuge farm for horses, dogs and cats. So begins the story of the organization that is now known as the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania.
Determined to reduce the suffering of all pets, the founders of the League sought to provide food, shelter and homes for abandoned and stray pets. The founders, quickly faced with the reality of the situation they were in, realized that not all animals would be placed for adoption. At the same time, they were deeply distressed by the cruel disposal methods used by City officials at that time. Motivated to change the City’s ways, early League founders sought to contract with the City to perform this unpleasant task in the most humane way possible. The City felt that the Animal Rescue League had legitimate reasons in defending their devotion to animals, and on October 30, 1909, the charter for the Animal Rescue League was obtained.
Finally, at the end of the year in 1909, the five founders (Elizabeth F. Holmes, M.E. Zydeman, A.M. Wadswoth, R.W. Kenney, and Mary Elizabeth Kenney) held the first official and documented meeting for the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburg (no “h” as the City name was then spelled). They convened downtown at the office of James G. Marks in the Federal Building. The constitution and by-laws were ratified and Mrs. F.F. Nicola was elected chairman of the League. The founders also elected nine other people at this meeting to serve a one-year term for the Animal Rescue League as Directors. As the Animal Rescue League was developing into a successful organization, the next step was to build a shelter to house the animals they longed to rescue.
The founders’ dream to have a shelter to house animals finally came true in May of 1910 when the Animal Rescue League opened a small city shelter on lower Denniston Avenue in East Liberty. That same year, a generous benefactor donated a 16-acre farm to the League. The farm is located on Verona Road in Rosedale (6 miles east of the League shelter). The League began to remodel a barn for use as a kennel. At the board meeting held on June 21 that year, it was revealed that the farm in Rosedale was housing nine dogs and 25 cats while the City shelter had six dogs and two cats. Seven kittens and one dog had been “humanely killed.” The meticulously kept financial records showed revenue for the League in its first six months of existence. The League’s revenue totaled $2,103 (including ten cents for the sale of a biscuit). At the end of 1910, The League contracted with Dr. Martin, a local veterinarian, for his services and City operations were moved to larger quarters at Euclid and Kirkwood Streets in East Liberty.
With the desire to be one of the only groups in Pittsburgh who took animals into their care, the Animal Rescue League secured a contract with the City “for the arrest, care, and disposal of unlicensed dogs found running at large in the streets” in November 1912. After nine long months of negotiation between the City and the Animal Rescue League, this contract was finally obtained. This was the first such contract in the country between a city and a voluntary humane society. For the next half century, Animal Rescue League employees served as "reluctant dog catchers," rounding up all unlicensed dogs and a few cats that were handed over by residents as strays or unwanted animals. There have been many unique ways the Animal Rescue League would use to find animals to take them off of the streets and into their care.
Prior to September 1915, the Animal Rescue League used a horse drawn carriage to collect animals from the streets. As ways of transportation changed throughout the years, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle first replaced the horse drawn carriage. Several years later, a small truck with cages to hold 14 animals became the League’s means of transporting the animals off of the city streets to their shelter. In order to signify their importance, the drivers were outfitted in uniforms that had brass buttons and an Animal Rescue League badge prominently displayed on their caps. This established their authority to take the animals into their care. While dogs and cats were being rescued by the League, The Rest Home for Horses was established at the Animal Rescue League’s Rosedale Farm location. The Animal Rescue League Board voted to notify the City government that the League was prepared to take charge of one retired horse belonging to the City Fire Department as well as one from the City mounted police squad. The Rest Home for Horses would give these horses good homes without charge. While the Animal Rescue League was making progress in its first eight years, it would soon face a setback that affected the nation and world: World War I.
World War I placed the Animal Rescue League in a moral dilemma. In January 1917, the League was torn between their commitment to respect the lives of animals and fulfilling their patriotic duty to the United States and its war effort. At this time, the United States Department of the Interior requested stray dogs and cats to be used in experimental development of gas masks. The City of Pittsburgh instructs the Animal Rescue League to provide the animals to be used for testing. The Animal Rescue League and City Council fought a bitter battle; the League fought firmly for what they believed in regarding their love and devotion to the humane treatment of animals. This conflict continued until the Department in Washington withdrew their request on the basis that cities with humane organizations were exempt from this order.
As the First World War ended, the Animal Rescue League began to progress again, and by the end of 1919, all animals were held at the Animal Rescue League’s shelter for a week. This was twice as long as the law required, and showed how dedicated the League was to the care of animals. Owners who lost their pet could go to the League and reclaim their pets by buying a license and paying the “poundage fee.” At this time, the fee was 15 cents a day! Unclaimed animals were placed in “good homes” when possible or kept at the Rosedale Farm. At the end of the decade, the Animal Rescue League’s success was growing, and this was only the beginning of its increasing expansion for the capacity of animals. In addition to the League’s agents picking up some 4,000 animals, the facilities at the Rosedale farm were modernized by opening up boarding kennels, as well as establishing a pet cemetery on the grounds in Rosedale.
As the Animal Rescue League began to modernize itself, it continued to maintain its credibility as an organization dedicated to the love and proper treatment of animals in Pittsburgh. In the years that followed the First World War, the League saw many changes from the 1920s through the 1950s. When fur became a fashion statement in the early 1920s, the League became furious with the use of animal skin to follow fashion trends in American culture. The Animal Rescue League is an advocate for helpless animals, domestic or wild, and openly expressed its anger with the fashion industry's promotion of furs for summer wear. In a statement presented to the Annual Convention of the American Humane Association, the Board pointed out that 107,698,927 skins had been sold in the last three years and that "the trapping and killing of these animals involves the grossest cruelty in practically every instance." Members passed a resolution to discourage this practice and "protest against the foolish fashion of wearing furs in warm weather.” They believed that wearing furs promoted the slaughter of fur bearing animals only to give gratification to the wearer’s personal vanity.
A few years later, in 1928, the Animal Rescue League had yet another troubling situation that needed to be dealt with immediately; a rabies epidemic struck in Pittsburgh. The League offered its facilities for controlled observation of stray animals. The epidemic was contained and of the reported 322 cases of rabies, more than 300 received the Pasteur treatment successfully, under the League's direction. Thankfully, no human fatalities occurred during the epidemic.
As the nation faced the burdens of the Great Depression, the Animal Rescue League was forced with difficulties no different than any other organization. No matter how great the troubles would be, the League still continued to offer services; especially offering comfort to disconsolate pet owners who were forced by economic circumstances to give up their pets. Despite the added demands and diminished contributions, the League manages - through resourcefulness and economical operations - to survive the Depression years without having to lay off employees, and operated through those tough times without a deficit.
Unfortunately, the 1940s began with another rabies epidemic in Pittsburgh. Thankfully the second epidemic wasn’t nearly as bad as the first epidemic in the 1920s although this epidemic put Pittsburgh under a nine-month quarantine. In the city, 56 cases of rabies were diagnosed through the Animal Rescue League's observation program. Sadly, the rabies epidemic wasn’t the only trouble the League would face in the 1940s. Much like the Great Depression, World War II put the Animal Rescue League under an incredible demand for services as families were dislocated and separated in 1944. The League continued to offer its services to the community as pleasantly as possible. A few years later, leaving its war worries behind, the Animal Rescue League opened a new boarding kennel for owned pets at the Rosedale Farm in 1948. Here, pet owners had a safe place where their animals could stay while being away for a vacation or an extended period of time. At the end of the decade, in continuing their dedication to the humane treatment of animals, the Animal Rescue League actively opposed federal and state legislation that would legalize the sale of stray animals for research purposes.
Looking to see what similar groups did for the animals of their communities, the Animal Rescue League Board members participated in the convention of the Pennsylvania Federated Humane Societies in 1952. After seeing what other Pennsylvania animal rescue leagues offered to their communities, the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh felt the desire to teach the proper treatment of animals to children in local schools. In 1953 they conducted a school-based education program, making in-school visits to schools in and around the Pittsburgh area. While visiting these schools, the Animal Rescue League distributed 41,000 pamphlets that were based on the care and training of household pets. As a result of these programs, children who already had pets learned how to train them, as well as maintain their care toward the animals. Children who didn’t have a pet in the home learned the level of responsibility that is necessary to take an animal in to your care.
Not only did the 1950s show change in the expansion of programs the Animal Rescue League had to offer, it also saw a change in the administration. Caroline Heppenstall served for many years as a director of the Animal Rescue League, and in 1957 she became elected President of the Board of Directors. Caroline served continuously as the President of the Board until 1970. During Caroline’s administration in the 1960s, yet another change took place that would benefit the Animal Rescue League; the League moved to the site where it is located today.
The League moved from its Kirkwood Street location to a newly built facility located at 6620 Hamilton Avenue in East Liberty following a successful building campaign in 1963. The League was thankful to receive such generous grants from the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Allegheny Foundation. Their donations made funding possible for a professional staff, new equipment and an up-to-date spay and neuter clinic, as well as financing the spay/neuter surgery of all adopted pets.
As the League became accustomed to their new shelter location, they were also continuously coming up with ways to show the City of Pittsburgh of their devotion to all animals while attempting to raise funds for the organization. The Women's Auxiliary of the Animal Rescue League, a group of civic minded, dedicated women, held the first "Wag Day" in 1964. “Wag Day” was held in downtown Pittsburgh to raise funds for the League's work. Since 1964, "Wag Day" has become an annual event usually held in September. The Women's Auxiliary grew into an important aspect of the League's fundraising while at the same time enforcing good will toward animals.
Seeking to improve health conditions in their shelter, the Animal Rescue League gratefully accepted a donation of $13,500 from the Allegheny Foundation in 1968. This generous donation made necessary ventilation changes to improve health conditions in the kennel. In addition, the Women's Auxiliary of the Animal Rescue League pledged an additional $2,500 to the project in order to assure its success.
The Animal Rescue League experienced yet another beneficial change in 1975. For the first time ever, the League retained the services of a veterinarian as a staff member. Also that year, the League donated a parcel of land at their Rosedale Farms property exclusively for the burial of the K-9 Corps dogs that worked on the Pittsburgh Police force. This was in response to an urgent need for a suitable resting place for the K-9 Corps dogs killed in the line of duty. A dedication of this special cemetery was held on August 12, 1975 at the League’s pet cemetery in Rosedale.
Even though the Animal Rescue League was a success in taking stray and abandoned animals into their care at the East Liberty shelter, the organization still desired more control over the lost and abandoned animals of the City of Pittsburgh. At this time, any dogs and cats picked up by City Animal Control trucks were not given the proper treatment they deserved, and the Animal Rescue League felt the urgency to receive these animals in order for them to receive proper love and care. After some minor negotiation, the League signed a new contract with the City of Pittsburgh in 1976 that would grant shelter to all stray dogs and cats picked up by the City Animal Control Trucks.
Beginning in the early twentieth century and into the new millennium, the Animal Rescue League continues to serve the community while expanding its services. A charter change in the 1970s expanded the scope of the League’s activities by changing its name from the “Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh” to the “Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania.” This change brought even more success to the Animal Rescue League as it allowed for more people to become fully aware of the services it has to offer, as well as continually showing their love and devotion to the good will of animals. At this time, the League felt that they should extend their services beyond household pets and help all animals in the wildlife. In 1997, the Board of Directors for the League authorized the creation of a new division of the Animal Rescue League, The Pennsylvania Wildlife Center. The Pennsylvania Wildlife Center is located at the League's facilities in Rosedale, and its purpose is for the rehabilitating and releasing injured wildlife.
While the League expanded its services to all animals and wildlife in 1997, the most recent change to the Animal Rescue League occurred in the year 2000. With the continuous desire to stay modernized, a major renovation project to the main facility in East Liberty was necessary to bring the Animal Rescue League into the 21st century. This renovation took place with the assistance of a $250,000 grant from the Scaife Family Foundation. The building construction resulted in an expansion of the kennel areas, renovations to the clinic, the addition of a brand new multi-purpose room, as well as the creation of a bright, airy lobby. With the completion of these renovations, the Animal Rescue League was equipped to move into the new millennium. In 2003, Charlotte Grimme joined the Animal Rescue League as Executive Director and continues to serve this position today. Even though the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania has experienced several struggles in the past, it has always progressed into the successful organization that it is today. With the love and concern for the well being of all animals as their most important concern, The Animal Rescue League continues to maintain its open door policy; toprovide temporary shelter, food, medical attention and comfort to neglected and injured animals; to restore lost animals to their owners or seek new homes for them and to educate the public about the humane care of animals.
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