July 14, 2020
Categories: Evolution of the No-Kill Movement

Below is the first post in a three-part series. We’re featuring Gateway Pet Guardians and their progressive approach to animal sheltering that aims to keep people and pets together, just as the new Human Animal Support Services pilot encourages doing. This post shares a little bit about how they operate and how things have changed since Covid-19. Don’t miss tomorrow’s post where we share how to implement some of the community programming in your community. We’ll finish off the series on Thursday with how to overcome barriers to program implementation.  

By the time COVID-19 hit East St. Louis, IL, Gateway Pet Guardians (GPG) felt prepared. Thanks to years of taking a holistic, needs-based approach with their community, the small organization already had numerous programs in place that were conducive to the “new” way of life. Now, they’re hoping to help others apply this approach to their respective communities. 

Known as the “red light district” before you get to St. Louis, the community is constantly living in transition and uncertainty. “COVID wasn’t a huge change for our community, but the population is more vulnerable, so we couldn’t have them come to us. It’s allowed us to work more with our community partners,” says Jamie Case, Executive Director of GPG. The organization started as foster-based until they expanded to a 54,000 sq ft space with 14 kennels and other areas dedicated to their clinic, community programming, surgery, offices, etc. 

Breaking down barriers in a resource desert 

GPG’s service area consists of six municipalities. Forty-five percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 95% of the population is African American. There’s also not a single veterinarian in the area, with the closest being a 15-20 minute drive away. Pet food is hard to come by and a lot of the places are overpriced. “We’ve pivoted every year since 2011 to work with the community, because there was no way we were going to ‘rescue’ ourselves out of the problem,” Case says. Breaking down barriers was a must. 

One easy thing to implement, says Case, is a community hotline. “One single number for people to call if they need anything,” Case said. “That’s led our programming.”  

Using data to save lives 

 In 2011, GPG really started digging into data. Around 9,000 animals were going into the government shelter at that time, and 25% came from their service area (That percentage has remained consistent until last year when it was 21%.) In 2011, the save rate was 23%. Fast forward to 2019 when only about 2,300 animals came into their county and the save rate was around 89%! “We’ve taken a holistic approach to the community and use the data to drive our programs. The rest of our programming is in response to things, like pet crisis funding. In addition, we take in quite a few animals that don’t touch the county. The community is better serviced by us being there.”   

Along came COVID 

When COVID-19 hit, they put a foster plea out to the community. GPG received 350 foster applications in five days, and continue to receive them. Their typical roster of 175 foster families is now over 1,000. “With only 14 animals in the shelter at a time, it’s like a fight whenever we get animals in for people to foster,” says Case. All fosters are integrated into their volunteer forum, and their foster placement manager makes a point to get people animals who are especially eager and ready. 

They also offer an open public clinic with additional services and hours during this [Covid] time, to provide access to care.  

Partnering with human services, like the Salvation Army for their pet food pantry has been a great way to reach more people and pets in need. “We went from serving an average 30 families with our pantry to over 300,” said Janet Alderson, Community Director of GPG. “We gave away 1,200 pounds of dog food and 500 pounds of cat food, all handed out in 5 pound bags.”   

Collaboration with organizations outside of animal welfare has been key 

Case and Alderson admit that collaboration has been key to reaching more pets and people in need. “Most of the luck has come through our regional response COAD, which is a group of community organizations active in disaster. It consists of a number of groups coming together to coordinate efforts, get the word out, identify gaps in services provided and see how we can collaborate and work together,” said Alderson. 

“Right away, it was really confusing to everyone why I was there,” she continued. “It’s a new concept of having animal welfare as part of the social services concept, but after a while, people started to make that connection. That’s when a lot of partnerships happened.” For example, the Salvation Army invited GPG to a mass care distribution with over a few 1,000 families. Now, they want GPG to come once a week to bring pet food for their food pantry. 

Alderson also recently joined a metro coalition of community building agencies – banks, social service agencies. “That was weird, too, until we hosted one of the meetings at our shelter building. Most of these venues charge to host the meetings so it was really cool to offer our space for free. And then when everyone came and saw all of the services we provide for the community, they were able to see the connection,” she said. “It’s more than just assisting pets, it’s getting resources they need for pets so they can reallocate funds elsewhere.” 

No presentations or convincing was needed, it was all conversations. The goal is to connect and build each other up. “At the time of the meeting, we happened to have special needs young adults working on our building, and people thought that was a great idea. This is a very underserved community in many ways. There’s so many ways we can tie in what we’re doing in animal welfare to the general community.” 

Pets are family, no matter where you live 

While the community may be underserved, residents absolutely consider pets as part of their family. Alderson shared that GPG had been doing vaccine clinics since 2014, but a few years ago they got the idea to bring in a photographer to do “family portraits.” “It was the coolest thing ever because those are the only photos of their dogs that some people have. We’d also see photos used if people lost their pets, as well as people just sharing them because they were proud. It was fun to see and to be able to provide that to the community, as it’s rare around here.” 

Making pet crisis fund a part of the budget   

Recognizing that pets are family, equitable vet care during times of crisis is very important to GPG. They have a pet crisis fund for those in need and are inundated with calls. Thankfully, what was once only funded by grants in the past is now part of their budget.  

Alderson’s Aha! moment came when she realized the cost to treat their shelter pets was $1000’s of dollars and, as a result, they couldn’t spend any money on pets that are already in a home with a loving family. They’ve now gotten the cost of their shelter pets down and are able to spend more on those pets who already have families. Thus, avoiding unnecessary surrendering of animals to the shelter.   

 Alderson shared that a lot of times people just don’t know where to go, especially during COVID-19. “A big part of that is working with families and coaching them. There’s a lot of words that are hard to understand for the average person, so being the go between to break things down and reframing it in a way is helpful, and just being an advocate for the family,” said Alderson. “They don’t always know what questions to ask or know to ask if there’s an alternative. If you only provide one extreme option or nothing, a lot of families opt to not treat because they can’t afford it.”  

Model of the future? 

When it comes to the future of animal sheltering, a lot of ideas and programs featured in the newly announced Human Animal Support Services pilot (HASS) are what GPG has been doing for years. “We saw the needle and numbers change in our communities by taking this holistic approach to see what we needed to do to keep pets and people together,” said Case. “And casting aside judgement, putting more progressive measures in place, breaking down barriers and treating our community like humans.” GPG has been doing a great job at leading that change in the St. Louis area. “We speak that language and are really collaborative so groups come to us and we work together a lot. It takes people hearing a message over and over to make a change, and people are starting to see that now. It’s making more sense to people,” Case said.

Case says that while their internal community of six zip codes love them, they still have a ways to go at letting everyone know they’re there. “We also have a way to go with having our volunteer base and staff being reflective of our community,” she shared. 

“Maddie’s Fund has been instrumental in helping us,” she continued. “We’ve received quite a few grants that have helped with our foster program, adoption program and shelter medicine Bringing all of those things in-house helped us level the playing field. In addition, all of the apprenticeships for our staff in 2019, and innovation grants, extreme weather plan and lost dog team. We have a lot to be thankful for, #ThanksToMaddie.”  


Want to learn more about ways GPG is reimagining the future of shelters in their community, and how yours can, too? Don’t miss tomorrow’s post on ways your organization can implement community programming through utilizing the media, forming partnerships, tracking data and more. Keep an eye out for the third and final post in the GPG series that will discuss potential barriers and what your organization can do to overcome them.