New pet adoption center is succeeding beyond hopes

FORT WORTH -- A city-owned pet adoption center inside a PetSmart in southwest Fort Worth -- believed to be the first of its kind in the nation -- is saving the city money, driving business and, more important, hooking up hundreds of homeless dogs and cats with new families.

Since the Fort Worth Adoption Center opened April 25 along South Hulen Street, not one adoptable pet has been euthanized by the city, said Brandon Bennett, director of the Code Compliance Department.

Each year, about 4,500 adoptable pets end up in the city pound. Until now, about 2,500 were put down when their time ran out in the animal shelter, which can house 400 strays, he said.

Three hundred pets have been adopted since the center opened, a 100 percent increase from a year ago, Bennett said.

Demand has been so high that animals from other cities' shelters have been brought in, he said.

Just as in real estate, it's all about location and staging -- not to mention being open seven days a week.

"Pet lovers are at the pet store," Bennett said while petting a passel of pooches in the center's play area. "The city shelter is in a remote area, and it's not an inviting atmosphere. Here, people have clean, pleasant areas where they can interact with the animals."

Opening a comparable stand-alone facility in such a desirable location would have cost $2 million to $4 million and wouldn't have attracted heavy walk-in traffic from an adjoining pet store, Bennett said.

"This has been so successful, we're already talking about opening another center in north Fort Worth. We're getting calls about this every day from around the country. Everybody wins, and we haven't spent one general-fund dollar," he said.

PetSmart and PetSmart Charities are just as happy with the partnership.

The store provided the 1,800-square-foot space, and the nonprofit group donated $150,000 to build the in-house kennel with "visiting rooms," grooming areas and cages for about 10 dogs and 10 cats.

"We knew it would be great, but it's been even better than we thought. We couldn't be happier," store manager Kristal Tackett said. "People come back multiple times to check the animals. We've had people drive in from two hours away."

The center is a "successful model" for PetSmart Charities and other communities to consider, said Kim Noetzel, communications manager for the nonprofit group.

"There are a lot of people out there who want to rescue a shelter pet, and they are intimidated," Noetzel said. "It can be very overwhelming and emotional to go into a shelter setting. This type of partnership makes it easier to visit and not be overwhelmed or sad. It's a great way to boost adoptions.

"It's a nice halo effect for the business, but that's not why we did it -- it's for the animals," she said.

The unsung hero of the pet adoption center is Bill Boecker, who along with his wife, Toni, came up with the idea for the partnership and worked for months to make it happen, Bennett said.

Boecker, an executive for the Bass family's real estate interests, also co-founded Fort Worth Pet Adoption Partners, which funds the center.

He said the charity needs $200,000 a year to pay for supplies, a vehicle, advertising and the city employees who operate the center.

The group has raised $215,000, Boecker said, including $31,000 from 900 people who responded to a mailer in their city water bills.

"Some of the most financially able people in the community stepped up right off the bat," Boecker said. "But it was really inspiring that 900 people responded to the mailer."

Such support from the community at large is crucial to the center's long-term success, he said.

Bennett said the city has made a two-year commitment to the in-store center. "After that, it will depend on whether we can maintain the level of donations," he said.

"It has had a great reception. The challenge is to keep the momentum going," said Boecker, a Fort Worth native who grew up in a family that regularly took in strays. "I was brought up that way."

And he hasn't changed his ways: Boecker and his wife have adopted a cat from the center.

All the pets are screened for temperament, spayed or neutered, checked by a staff veterinarian, and vaccinated and licensed, and they have identification microchip implants, Bennett said.

The uptick in volume has even lowered the cost of adoptions from $80 to $39, he said, noting that new owners also get a pet toy, food and a free obedience class session.

Blake Ovard, one of five animal technicians at the center, said the animals seem to sense that they are auditioning for a new home.

"They quiet down real quick when they get here, and they know when someone is considering them," said Ovard, a longtime dog trainer who uses part of the down time between auditions to help socialize the animals and to give them basic obedience lessons.

But few are around long enough for more than a quick tutorial, he said. "A week and a half is about the longest."

Volunteers regularly come in to interact and even read to the animals. "And the kids come to play even if they aren't here to adopt," Ovard said.

Noetzel said it takes a "perfect storm," to pull off this sort of collaboration.

"I don't think it's feasible in every community. You need an agency that is dedicated to saving the lives of animals in their care. You have to have a great partner agency. You have to have a store with space available. And you have to have community support. Fort Worth has been phenomenal because it has all of those," she said.

Putting it all together was complicated, Boecker said, but the objective was simple.

"The goal was to be a no-kill shelter. We just got there faster than I thought it would be."

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981