Courtesy of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter
Two starving dogs are treated by a member of the shelter's medical team. Credit: Courtesy of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter

The original Palm Springs Animal Shelter was built in 1961—and it was, according to the nonprofit organization’s website, “woefully inadequate in meeting the needs of the current animal population of Palm Springs.”

But that would eventually change. As the website says: “In 2009, the city of Palm Springs allocated $5 million in a capital improvement bond, and the process of designing a shelter that would stand as a model for Southern California began.” In November 2012, the Friends of the Palm Springs Animal Shelter assumed operations of it from the city.

Eight years later, the readers of the Independent have again selected the Palm Springs Animal Shelter as the Best Local Activist/Advocacy Group/Charity, and the shelter’s major fundraising event—the Faux Fur Ball—as the Best Annual Charity Event.

“You know, I think one of the reasons that people might have voted for us this year is because of how we’ve been able to operate during this incredibly challenging time,” said Tamara Hedges, president of the PSAS board of directors. “It’s a credit to our executive director, Gabrielle Amster, her team and our volunteers that we’ve been able to continue to serve our community, and that we’ve been able to continue to do adoptions in a safe, controlled manner. We’ve even been able to do our vaccine clinics, which are important, because they provide a low-cost option to make sure that folks can get the care they need (for their pets) during this time. So although it’s not been business as usual—far from it—we’ve still been able to be here for the pets and people in our community.”

In 2019, the shelter’s team accepted 687 pets that were surrendered voluntarily by their owners; 1,553 stray animals; and 178 pets that were returned by adopters. Through the end of October 2020, the shelter has taken in 537 pets surrendered by owners; 1,130 strays; and 168 adopter returns. While the pet in-take numbers are pretty much on a par with last year’s totals, Amster said pet adoptions have been on the rise so far this year.

“It’s like a 12 to 20 increase,” Amster said. “It’s about 20 percent for dog adoptions and 12 percent for cats.”

A few months ago, television outlets were reporting that some pet-adoption facilities had literally run out of animals suitable for adoption.

“We never ran out,” Amster said. “But we definitely worked to keep up with the demand. There have been times in the past where the demand was not enough for our (adoptable pet) population, but that did not happen during the pandemic. We definitely have had a lot of demand.”

Hedges said it’s good that the demand for adoptable pets is high.

“It’s been steady, and we’ve been able to do a lot of really positive match-making, and I think that has been so great for people who are looking for companionship during this time,” Hedges said, adding with a laugh: “I know my pets are saving me. Even though I live with my husband, he’s on my last nerve at this point, but the animals are always smiling.”

Joking aside, Hedges and Amster said they’re aware that the pandemic and the economic downturn have taken a physical and mental toll on both pets and their owners.

“We have to be really aware of the struggles that many in our community are experiencing because of COVID,” Hedges said, “whether it’s financial, or a short-term illness. Gabrielle and the team have really worked hard in the pet-retention arena. I think it’s an important part of our story that we are continuing to provide people with resources. Sometimes it’s as basic as providing them with pet food. Or, it could be advice we provide about care that’s needed by their pet. Or, it could involve behavioral issues.”

Added Amster: “Some of what we’re dealing with is the result of troubles that the humans have leading their lives, and that trickles down to the pet. People have been displaced, or they’ve lost their job and don’t have the resources they need to provide care for their pets. That’s the sort of situation that we’re really trying to support. We don’t want to separate people from their pets, and we don’t want people to bring us their pets—that they love and want to have by their side—simply because they can’t afford to care for them. We want to make sure that people have access to low-cost vaccines, and spay-and-neuter services, and pet food. We want them to have access to behavioral help in case they’ve had to move to a smaller house, or move in with family members—their animal may need training help so that they can stay together in the new environment. Those are the sorts of things that we’re really focusing on.”

The shelter runs a pet food bank of its own, and partners with several local human-food providers (including the Mizell Senior Center Meals on Wheels program, the Desert AIDS Project and AAP-Food Samaritans) for distribution.

“On our website, we actually have an application for those who need pet-food help,” Amster said. “You don’t have to qualify for the program, but you do have to fill out the application, and then we reach out to each individual pet owner to provide them with the food their pet needs.”

Since the pandemic forced the cancellation of the Faux Fur Ball—it was scheduled for March 28—the shelter’s brain trust has been working to come up with an alternative strategy to raise much-needed funds.

“Rather than trying to do a virtual ball, we’re planning a new event,” Hedges said. “It’s going to happen on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, and it will be at the Palm Springs Air Museum, called Palm Springs Animal Shelter Film Festival Presents: Love at the Drive-In. The entertainment focus will the Bow Wow Film Festival, which is a curated, national touring film festival focused on the dog-and-person bond we all share—but there will be a cat film or two thrown in there, because many of us love both cats and dogs. We’re going to make it an old-fashioned, ’50s type of drive-in experience, with delicious box-meals from Lulu (California Bistro), who’ll be catering, and it’s going to be a blast. The program will be on a big stage with a movie screen behind, and the attendees will be able to view the films from their cars, as well as a short program we’re presenting. So, it’s all outside in cars and super safe.”

Sponsors will be signed up in January, and guest tickets will go on sale shortly thereafter. Some of the money raised will hopefully be dedicated to a new program that provides funds to pet owners confronted with high veterinarian bills.

“We’re trying to (create a program that can offer aid) when pet owners come to us, and they’re surrendering a pet because they cannot afford to help the pet with whatever medical needs it has,” Amster said. “They think that’s the only option they have, the only way their pet is going to get help. We really don’t want to see that happen. We hope that if an animal has a broken leg, or if it has a tumor that’s not life-threatening, rather than having us take that pet in, fixing its issues and then adopting it out to a complete stranger, we want to provide the care for that pet and return it to its owner. We realize that veterinary care is financially out of reach for a lot of pet owners, and it’s something we feel somewhat responsible for.”

Hedges promised that the Best Annual Charity Event will return as well.

“We’ll still bring back the Faux Fur Ball next fall or in 2022,” Hedges said, “but this (new event) will be its own thing, and it will be a lot of fun. We’ll do some fundraising, friend-building and celebrating, because despite all that is hanging over our daily lives, there’s still a lot of love and joy. We see it every day at our shelter.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...