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GVAWL breaks ground on County’s first animal shelter

Community contributions and support

Dogs trotting alongside townies. Cats lounging in comfy window perches. There’s no denying, ours is a pet-friendly community. It’s no wonder, then, that newcomers and visitors are shocked when they learn that Gunnison County has never had an animal shelter. Now, thanks to the dedication and persistence of the Gunnison Valley Animal Welfare League (GVAWL) and some ardent supporters, construction of a new facility is now under way. The ceremonial groundbreaking was November 19.


The new GVAWL animal shelter is located in the Gold Basin Industrial Park, southwest of downtown Gunnison.
For 26 years, GVAWL, and its predecessor organization, Gunnison Animal Lovers, has rescued, rehabilitated and re-homed thousands of wayward dogs and cats throughout the valley. “We’ve done this without paying a single person,” says Laura Van Renselaar, GVAWL’s board president, “but it can’t go on that way.
“It is, for the most part, an animal-loving community that gets the value of the human-animal bond,” says Van Renselaar. That’s especially true of Crested Butte, she says, where incidents of neglect and abuse are rare. It’s the south end of the valley where heart-wrenching tales of cruelty have made headlines over the years. Concern for the welfare of animals is still dismissed in some circles, but evolving public sentiment now manifests in the values and votes of our elected officials.
“Their sense of awareness of homeless and needy animals has changed,” says dog/cat coordinator Debra Callihan. “[County Commissioner] Paula Swenson—she’s been amazing. We can’t say enough about her.”
“And Marlene Crosby,” says Sandy Guerrieri, vice president of the board and director of GVAWL’s capital campaign. “She’s been with us all the way.”
GVAWL representatives have high praise for the city of Gunnison’s Neighborhood Services, a tiny staff that manages animal control throughout the city limits, to include a miniature holding facility originally built as a laundry room.
PAWS—Paradise Animal Welfare Society—is the place north valley residents know to call if they’ve lost or found a pet. PAWS can house rescued pets short-term, usually between seven and 14 days. What was once a well-known riff between the two organizations has fizzled. Today, says Callihan, PAWS and GVAWL work well together. They recently held a successful, joint adoption event, with plans to do it again soon. “We are so grateful for them and the service they provide,” she says, “so we don’t have to drive up to Crested Butte every time a dog is lost or found.”
“PAWS is thrilled to see that Gunnison County will finally get its much needed animal shelter. GVAWL has been working very hard over the past years to help make this a reality,” says PAWS President Rita Clement. “They have been devoted to finding foster homes and forever homes for so many abandoned cats and dogs in the county. Their hard work and dedication to this project has been instrumental in making this happen. PAWS wishes GVAWL great success.” 
Neighborhood Services does not accept relinquished animals, nor does PAWS, with occasional exceptions. It’s a need, says Van Renselaar. “People get sick. They get poor. They get divorced. The worst reason—they just don’t want the animal anymore. “
Funding for construction of the shelter has come from a variety of sources, demonstrating widespread support. GVAWL has squirreled away proceeds from fundraisers and donations over the past 10 years, money earmarked for the project. They’ve also secured contributions—$125,000 from the city of Gunnison and $100,000 from Gunnison County—money that was not forthcoming a decade ago. “The city gave us the money and, in turn, they’ll get a safe drop-off area for animals they’ve picked up,” says Callihan.
The MacAllister Family Foundation has been especially generous. “We didn’t even ask them. They came to us and said, ‘We want to give you $100,000,” says Callihan. The Animal Assistance Program of Lakewood, Colo., ponied-up grant funding of $50,000.
Of course, the need for support doesn’t end with the construction of a building. Van Renselaar says operating costs are estimated at $60,000 per year. “Now, and always, we’ll need the public’s help.”
The GVAWL facility bills itself as an open-admission shelter, one that accepts all companion animals in need, regardless of health, age or circumstances. Guerrieri says a brick-and-mortar facility will illuminate the scope of the problem. “The shelter is monumental. We finally have a place, and now that we have it, the community will recognize the need,” she says. Guerrieri and her colleagues are optimistic about immediate and future impact. “Shelters I’ve found to be the most successful are those run by a non-profit, supported by government and the community.” That’s the model here.
Today, says Callihan, “It takes so much of our time, energy and resources just to keep the animals safe.” GVAWL, she says, has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the years in boarding costs. Local veterinary practices have also borne a burden. “Because there’s no shelter, well-meaning people wanting to do good often leave animals tied to the door of a clinic.”
Van Renselaar says she’s jazzed about the two local, altruistic, community-minded contractors hired to accomplish the shelter project. Local architect Jody Reeser designed the facility. “He’s done a bang-up job making good use of every bit of space,” Van Renselaar says of the 15,000-square-foot facility. The builder is Crockett Farnell of Crested Butte, owner of Black Dragon Construction. The shelter will meet the immediate needs of the community, says Van Renselaar. Planning ahead, design for an addition is complete with the infrastructure already in place, ready to expand as funds allow and needs dictate. The capital campaign continues.
Recently, GVAWL was called to the rescue of two Chihuahuas. The pair had been neglected and starved. “The vet said one probably wouldn’t make it,” says Callihan, eyes welling. “How much does it cost to feed two Chihuahuas?” The little fellas were placed in foster care, where they were nursed and cared for over six months. Both dogs survived. Recently, Little Man and Sam were placed into a new, forever home. “I think their foster mom is still crying. She was so attached. That’s one good problem we have, what we call our failed fosters,” says Callihan, “people who fall in love with the pet and adopt.”
Even with the shelter, GVAWL will continue to rely on volunteers, financial support and the care and kindness of foster families at both ends of the valley.

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