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Shelters use social media sites to help pets find homes

Gracie was in trouble a year ago when Lauren Marte found her on a Facebook page called Urgent Animals at Fort Worth Animal Care and Control.

"She was extremely frightened, was heartworm positive and had a double ear infection," Marte said. "She was very shy and exhibited the behavior of an abused dog."

Being listed on that Facebook page meant that the 1-year-old Lab mix was also on the "E list" -- destined for euthanasia. Marte first fostered, then adopted the dog, preventing that fate.

Pet shelters across the nation are catching on to the power of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to find alternatives for pets set to be euthanized, said Steven Froehlich, a vice president at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Among the local shelters benefiting from Facebook pages are Arlington, Azle, Bedford, Cleburne and Fort Worth.

And because of the wide reach of the social media sites, people are no longer restricted as to where they can rescue.

"Recently one of our followers saw one of our longtime residents -- a dog named Spruce -- on our Facebook page, fell in love with him, and quickly drove down from Maine to adopt him," Froehlich said.

New York residents are among those who have adopted Fort Worth dogs and cats, said Marte, who recently became the Urgent Animals Facebook page administrator.

Others from Indiana, Michigan, California and Arizona have helped save about 1,000 dogs and cats in Urgent Animal's first year, Marte said.

"Now we're able to reach such a wider range of rescues and adopters," Marte said.

As the range widens, the number of people discovering the joy of rescuing a pet also grows, Marte said.

"Gracie has shown me shelter dogs aren't broken, they've just experienced more life than other dogs, and need just a little extra love and patience to experience life as every dog should," she said.

Fostering first

On the Facebook rescue efforts, photos of animals on the E list are run with descriptions of their conditions and circumstances. Saving a dog or cat requires that a person or rescue agency tag it.

For Urgent Animals, that's done by e-mailing fwaccfb@gmail.com.

Recently, for instance, Urgent Animals posted a photo of a rough-looking hound with this description.

Chip is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever/lab mix who was at Petsmart before coming down with symptoms of URI. He is neutered and fully vetted, can anyone save him? He only has until 7am.

The post was soon shared by 21 people. Someone stepped forward to foster Chip until the upper respiratory infection was cleared up and he could be adopted. A day after his post appeared, he was destined for a home in New Jersey, Marte said.

"A lot of these out-of-state adoptions depend solely on if transport can be found," she said. "If transport to New Jersey cannot be found, another woman in Colorado has offered to foster him. Transport to Colorado is a lot easier to find."

Brandon Bennett, Fort Worth's code compliance director, said that 66 percent of the dogs and cats that come through the Fort Worth shelter find homes through other means. Volunteers using the Urgent Animals Facebook page try to save as many as they can from the other 34 percent -- which includes animals deemed unadoptable due to behavior (like feral cats) or because they're too sick (like Henry). A rescue group called Rescued Friends is also focused on the city's shelter.

"The live release rate from that E list has gone up two to three times what it was before Facebook and partnering with the rescue groups," Bennett said.

Anna Armstrong, vice president of Rescued Friends, said the organization recently found a family for its 500th pet out of Fort Worth Animal Care and Control.

"We take sick or injured dogs, foster them until they're better, then adopt them out," she said.

Adoptions up

Foster homes also increased as Rescued Friends grew, Armstrong said.

"We had originally only five to 10 foster homes at a time," Armstrong said. "Since the Urgent Animals page started we have tripled our number of fosters and have saved quite a few more dogs."

Janie Nelson, a volunteer who helps administer a Facebook page for Partners of Arlington Animal Services, said that three months after the page began, dog adoptions had increased 92 percent; cat adoptions, 44 percent.

Nelson said Facebook also has value in educating the public about reasons to spay or neuter pets.

"Before I got involved I had no idea that so many dogs and cats were being euthanized," she said. "I didn't realize there was such an overpopulation just because people were not being responsible."

Bedford Deputy Police Chief Les Hawkins said a Facebook page maintained by Team Bedford is helping the city toward its goal of having a no-kill shelter.

"We've definitely seen increases in adoptions in the last few months," he said.

Maryann Izzarelli, a Team Bedford Facebook coordinator, said she and shelter veterinarian Dr. Becky Epps and vet tech Marie Bond developed the page.

"Between the three of us and a group of volunteers we formed, we go to the shelter, take photos of the pets, post them on Facebook and ask all our followers to help us network," she said.

Since October, Bedford Animal Shelter's euthanasia rate has been 2 percent or less per month, Izzarelli said.

Saving special cases

Carie Lewis, spokeswoman for Humane Society of the United States, said there are no authoritative statistics on shelter social media use.

"Different shelters and rescues see a different amount of success via Facebook, and a big part of this is how much time and energy they can devote to maintaining their social media presences," she said.

The Humane Society of North Texas uses Facebook to help save special cases -- like Goliath.

Someone put a collar on the shepherd mix when he was 3 months old, then abandoned him, said Tammy Hawley, the society's operations director. As Goliath grew, the collar embedded itself in his neck.

"He was a 60 pound dog and the collar would have fit a dachshund," she said.

Veterinarian Cynthia Jones got the collar off, leaving a three-inch-wide open wound around the dog's neck. Unfortunately, the society's shelter on East Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth had no place to separate Goliath from dogs carrying all manner of germs. He needed a safe place to heal, and a foster family gave him one.

Bennett also saved a dog -- Henry -- off the E list.

"He was so malnourished and sick he could barely stand up," Bennett said. "He had pneumonia, several types of worms and an upper respiratory infection."

After a three-week hospital stay and $2,500 in veterinary bills, it turned out that Henry's place was Bennett's home and heart.

The young Labrador is now the Code Compliance Department's mascot for community outreach programs designed to educate residents about pets and the social media-based campaigns to help them.

"You start out with all the best intentions, thinking you're going to make a difference in the dog's life, and it ends up being the dog that makes a difference in your life," he said.

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620

Twitter: @fwstevans

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