History was made in Chicago this week as the city pound’s cat pavilion was completely empty. Not a single cat in a cage, waiting for the inevitable fate of thousands of furry felines every year— euthanization. The reason? Because of the efforts of a local organization called PAWS Chicago, founded by Paula Fasseas— and all resulting from a chance encounter with a stray dog on Crete almost 20 years ago.
It all happened by chance when the Fasseas family was on a vacation to Crete, ancestral birthplace of Paula’s grandfather. Out of the blue, a white stray terrier found the family— and won their hearts. What would happen in the following days would change the lives of tens of thousands of homeless pets— not to mention so many human lives that would be forever touched by their adopted fur friends.
The stray wouldn’t leave their side, following them from the beach to their hotel— and everywhere they went. It was summer of 1996 and Scotty Pippen and the Dream Team were dominating the Olympics, so they named their new friend Pippen. When it came time to leave, they couldn’t imagine leaving their buddy behind to the probable fate many stray dogs in Greece face— death by poisoning, or being run over by a car.
So the family decided to adopt Pippen and Paula’s husband Peter cut short the vacation and flew to Athens to take care of Pippen’s paperwork at the U.S. Embassy— and book his one-way ticket to his new home in Chicago.
Upon their return, they were enthralled with their new friend— who quickly became part of the family. Peter and Paula’s daughter Alexis wanted to get more involved in animal welfare and she registered for a high school community service project at the local humane society.
After going through junior volunteer training, Alexis was shocked to learn that homeless cats and dogs did not face a better life in the United States. In fact, as in Greece, there was a pet overpopulation problem, but the general public did not know about it.
Rather than roaming the streets at will, Chicago’s homeless cats and dogs were taken to shelters and the city pound where the majority—more than 40,000 each year—was killed in back rooms, in gas chambers or by lethal injection.
As a response to Alexis’ newfound knowledge about what really goes on in most American cities, her mother Paula founded PAWS Chicago in 1997— a simple name that means so much: Pets Are Worth Saving.
Initially intended to be an advocacy organization that would raise awareness about pet overpopulation through citywide events, PAWS Chicago soon developed into a comprehensive humane organization, dedicated to bringing the proven lifesaving “No Kill” methodology to Chicago and eliminate the killing of homeless pets.
Today, PAWS Chicago has over 100 full-time employees and is supported by hundreds of volunteers with thousands of volunteer hours annually, lending a hand, walking dogs in the shelter or assisting new families in adapting to life with their new dogs or cats.
Even Oprah Winfrey got behind the effort, adopting her own dogs from PAWS Chicago and featuring Paula and Alexis on an episode of her show. Oprah also sponsored a suite at the adoption center in honor of her beloved dog Sophie.
The organization has two adoption centers where animals live cage-free and extensive medical facilities where animals are treated once they are rescued from the pound and other facilities throughout the region.
PAWS Chicago has dozens of programs for low-income families in under-resourced neighborhoods and also runs numerous educational campaigns about the importance of spaying and neutering animals.
PAWS Chicago’s work can be summed up in two strikingly different numbers:
When the organization was founded in 1997, inspired by the spunky terrier from Crete, more than 40,000 dogs and cats were being euthanized in the city of Chicago. Today, almost twenty years later and thanks to the organization’s efforts to make Chicago a “no-kill city”, animal euthanizations are down to less than 10,000.
The next time you see that stray dog on a street or in a town square in Greece— think about Pippen and what he was able to inspire in one Chicago family.