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Government, Politics & Issues

Musings: APA deserves renewed attention, new look

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 2, 2011 - Loyalties to institutions do not necessarily have foundations in logic. For example, my strong feelings for the Animal Protective Association, which is about to get a major architectural overhaul that should dramatically raise its profile, are based on two beloved creatures. One is a human being, and his name is Martin Schweig Jr. The other is a gray cat with chartreuse eyes named Pearl.

Schweig is well known in St. Louis as a photographer of great talent and sensitivity. Before retiring, he had a booming business in brides, family portraits, businessmen's mugs and high school grads, but he also produced photographs of great sensitivity that emerged from the darkroom as works of art.

He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, and had his studio and gallery in two locations on Maryland Avenue. The gallery was inspired by his mother, Aimee, a painter; and it was important in providing exposure to a number of significant St. Louis artists. When it closed, a great era in St. Louis art history came to an end.

Although photography was Schweig's vocation, he has always been a passionate advocate for animals, and often was the go-to man when injured animals were found, especially birds. But there was never any question about his institutional loyalty. The APA held it firmly, and he remains a stalwart supporter. Because of my respect and affection for Martin, my strong feelings transfer easily and naturally to the APA.

My strong feelings for Pearl comprise a more personal story, related, however, directly to the Animal Protective Association.

In 1993, I needed a cat; and remembering Martin's relationship, the APA seemed to be the place to go to find one. I was entirely right, and more than that, if you put some trust in the outlier theory, my connecting with such a perfect animal lay outside the realm of the expected, or even possible. The day I arrived at the shelter on North Hanley Road, a gray kitten presented herself to me in a way that seemed to say, "OK buster, don't even think about looking at another feline. Take me home." And -- after the necessary medical procedures were completed -- take her home I did. I felt I had no choice.

Pearl not only had mesmerizing moxie but also came with a fascinating provenance. The year 1993, you may recall, brought flooding even Noah would find impressive. Its effects were cataclysmic, and unlike other ransacking acts of God, tornados, for example, which do their destruction and go away, the '93 flood seemed to linger forever.

In the midst of all this dislocation and distress, some miscreant deposited a kitten in a plastic bag, tied up the bag and threw it away. The kitten cried loudly enough to get the attention of a passerby. Thinking the cries were those of a human baby, the passerby rescued the bundle, and called the cops.

Pearl ended up, I was told, in the Crystal City police station where she was called Crystal and became a mascot of sorts. One of the officers, however, was allergic to cats, so her residence there took up maybe 50 percent of one of her nine lives. And she didn't last long at the APA either, because I came and scooped her up, and remembering the parable, I renamed her Pearl.

She was, to cut this story short, the best, the very best, animal for which I've ever been caretaker. She knew my moods, and -- like a dog -- galloped to the front door to meet me when I came home. When she knew I was blue, she took up residence on my chest to give me comfort; and when she gave out five years ago with cancer of the pancreas, and had to be put down, she drifted away in the same place. To say I was devastated when she died is to commit a gross understatement.

But it is not overstatement to say that I am devoted to the Animal Protective Association, so when Sandy Peters, its development director, asked me to meet APA executive director Steve Kaufman and to hear some good news, I was happy to oblige.

Kaufman is an energetic fellow and came to the APA here with 15 years of experience at other animal shelters on his occupational leash, and his enthusiasm for his organization and for the animals that populate it appears boundless.

He has been at the APA for five years. One Kaufman practice that appealed to me is his creative synthesizing of material and philosophical ideas from previous jobs and experiences, and putting them to work on Hanley Road.

Ever notice how cats love moving water? Kaufman did. He once visited the Washington (D.C.) Animal Rescue League, and every room devoted to feline occupants there had a moving water feature. So borrowing on his Washington experience, he installed a water wall in a space dedicated to cats here. They love it.

His idea gathering is not limited to other animal facilities. He borrowed from the St. Louis Bread Co. an idea of paying what you want for something offered on the menu. At the APA, the program is called "Pick Your Price."

The normal fee for an APA adoption is $175; that covers a long list of services performed on shelter animals offered for adoption, including neutering or spaying. For cats, however, adopters are asked to pay what they feel they can afford. Some people have given as little as a few dollars; others pony up more. One adopter gave $520 for her new pet; a dozen have given more than $200. The average is $98.

Although the APA euthanizes unadoptable animals, strong measures -- such as the pay-as-you desire fees -- are used to try to place animals in good homes. Kaufman is not shy about promoting the APA. MetroLink runs along the shelter's western boundary. A sign promoting adoptions is to be erected for all passengers to see and to consider.

The architectural addition is a major effort to promote adoptions in a material way. The APA's building, as it exists now, reminds me of Virginia Lee Burton's book "The Little House," in which a small house in the country is eventually swallowed up as a city grew up around it. Although the situation is not exactly the same on Hanley Road, the APA is rather hidden from view. The addition/expansion will push the façade forward and with additional height will become considerably more visible.

Overall, however, form will follow function, and the desired function is placing pets with new families, and making the initial stages of the adoption process more pleasant. A cramped lobby (where now potential adopters share space with people who may be dealing with the necessity of euthanizing a beloved pet) will be remodeled. Plans specify adding three rooms for potential owners to get acquainted with potential pets.

The APA's Humane Education Room will be remodeled and a library will be added. The goals are to make the adoption process more private and productive, and to create space where the public can better learn how to train and care for pets.

If you take a tour of the APA, you'll discover that animals rule. Offices for staff members are small and modest. Kaufman said his current office is "way too big"; he'll lose it in the renovation when the space is recycled as the new library. His new digs will be half the size of the old. Improvements in housing and care of animals are part of an ongoing effort to improve the overall physical plant.

A donor, who has chosen to remain anonymous for the time being, has given enough to cover the cost of the building renovation project so that no money will be drawn off resources dedicated to animal care or shelter operations. The cost of the project is estimated at just under $500,000. Kaufman said he hopes the groundbreaking will be May 1.

When the job is done, Kaufman said, "We hope increased visibility will allow more opportunities for quality adoptions and greater educational opportunities for people in our region."

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