Fluvanna Faces: Mary K. Birkholz

By Harvey J. Sorum,

Mary, tell us a little about your background prior to your starting Caring for Creatures.

My love affair with animals began in childhood.  I loved to walk and play with our neighborhood dogs and my heart went out to those who were neglected.  One dog that lived behind us was chained and rarely interacted with his humans.  In the winter I would give him fresh water and would take food from our refrigerator to give him.  In my early 20s I began volunteering with animal shelters wherever I lived.  It was through my experience as a volunteer that I was inspired to create a place where animals were not euthanized within a week of arriving at the shelter.  My full-time employment included working at a law firm, stock brokerage/investment company, I managed a large apartment complex west of Chicago and I worked with a commercial real estate developer just prior to moving to Palmyra to begin CFC. 

When did Caring for Creatures open?

I moved onto the CFC property on August 16, 1988.

Why did you locate in Fluvanna County?

I lived in the northern Virginia area and very quickly determined that I could not afford property in that area so began looking elsewhere.  We originally had a contract on a property in Orange, Virginia, but an issue with the ground water made it necessary for us to walk away from that property.  The current CFC property was advertised for sale by owner in the Washington Post.  We were seeking a larger property that would provide privacy and a buffer between CFC and any neighbors to hopefully prevent barking dogs from annoying the neighbors!  We also wanted a place that would be a healing environment for traumatized animals. The property included a residence, a garage and a very old small barn structure.

Could you describe your facilities?

Currently, the sanctuary consists of a main office/kitchen building, The Eleanor K. Friede Feline Residence which houses our senior cats and some of our leukemia cats; The Scratching Post which is our largest cat residence with six rooms and a large central kitchen; all the cat areas have enclosed outside porches to safely provide fresh air and sunshine for those cats who wish to spend time outside.  We also have a Training & Education Center which is currently being utilized to provide indoor kennels for a number of our dogs.  We have about 27 large dog areas that include 4’x8’ insulated and heated dog condos.    

Do you have a paid staff and/or

We have paid staff to handle the animal care feeding/cleaning tasks as well as medical care; two office staff and a grounds/maintenance staff.  Staff is a combination of full- and part-time employees.  NOTE – we have two open positions for animal care staff!!  CFC also has an awesome volunteer corps to enhance our operation.  Volunteers do all sorts of tasks that include:  dog walking/socializing, cat socializing, washing dishes, cleaning cat rooms, cleaning dog yards, feeding dogs, administrative tasks, maintaining of our website, Facebook page, transporting of animals to veterinary appointments, picking up supplies, and building/repair tasks.  We welcome new volunteers!

What walks of life do the volunteers come from?

Pretty much all walks of life – from business professionals, stay-at-home parents, small business owners, and retired individuals to younger business professionals. 

How do you train volunteers?

We do a volunteer orientation monthly.  The orientation for dogs is at 11 a.m. and the cats are at 1 p.m.  Both sessions run about two hours in length.  New volunteers learn general sanctuary guidelines and procedures, meet the animals and even do a few dog walks and socialize with the kitties.  Volunteers are informed of the sanctuary’s guidelines and rules for working with the animals and we advise them of  all opportunities for helping the sanctuary.  New volunteers also receive support from long-time volunteers on their first few visits after orientation.

What positions do you have for

There are many ways volunteers can be of assistance:  dog walking/socializing, giving dog baths, cat socializing, brushing/combing cats, assist staff with cleaning the animals’ living areas, washing dishes, transporting animals to and from vet appointments, fundraising events and projects, taking photos of the animals, creating fun videos, repairs & maintenance.  The list is extensive!

Out of curiosity, how many years has the senior volunteer been with you?

Many of our volunteers have been helping out for years.  Some volunteers have been providing their time, love and talents for close to 20 years!  

Periodically you need the services of a veterinarian.  How is this handled?

We regularly need the services of a veterinarian.  CFC works with several different veterinarians to provide quality care for our animals.  Marty Betts, DVM, has been making monthly visits to CFC since 2008 to do exams, rabies vaccines, cat neuters, and any number of medical procedures.  We take animals to vet hospitals for spaying/neutering, diagnostics and exams, dentals, etc.  This is where our volunteer transporters come into play.  We could use two or three more volunteers who would like to assist with this task.

Do you have a favored supplier or do you purchase food for your animals wherever you can?

Food is an important aspect of restoring and maintaining a healthy animal.  Most of the animals who come to us are not in robust health!  Rather, they are in varying states of neglect or suffering from long-standing conditions.  As a result, we feed the highest quality of food our budget will allow.  We purchase our food supplies from several different sources depending on the needs of our animals.  A number of our animals may need special diets to assist with a particular medical condition – such as diabetic animals, those with allergies or IBS type conditions.   

What are your sources of revenue?

The sanctuary survives on gifts from individuals, fundraising activities and events, and some grants.  We do not receive any support from local or state governments.  Our monthly expenses average about $35,000.

How does the public find out about your operation?  Do you advertise in any way?   

CFC does have a website (https://www.caringforcreatures.org) and a Facebook page.  We do a weekly Pet of the Week radio spot on WCHV with Joe Thomas on Friday mornings – the spot runs around 8:05 a.m.  We rely on articles such as this to introduce Caring For Creatures to folks who may not know of us.   

Do you have a newsletter someone can use as a sales tool to help get donations?

Yes.  We issue about three hard copy newsletters per year.  We also do an e-newsletter every month to provide regular updates on the goings on at the sanctuary.  Interested parties can sign up to receive this e-newsletter on the home page of our website; or, just email us at CFCHOME@aol.com and provide your email address.  

Do you encourage the public to personally visit Caring for Creatures?

Yes!  Now that COVID has eased a bit, we are open for visitors during our open hours (Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.).  We still do adoptions by appointments so that we can make sure one of our adoption counselors is available to work with potential adopters.  Most first-time visitors are surprised when they see the size and scope of our sanctuary.  

Is there an overlap between Caring for Creatures and the Fluvanna County SPCA?

Caring For Creatures and the FSPCA are rescue partners – as we are with other area animal rescue groups such as Green Dogs Unleashed and Cat Action Team.  We do what we can to assist the FSPCA.  We have been able to transfer animals from their facility to ours – such as leukemia and FIV kitties.  We often will get stray dogs show up at the sanctuary (or they are abandoned nearby).  Whenever possible we hold these animals and report their arrival to the FSPCA should they get a lost report matching one of the animals.  If not reclaimed, we keep the animals, provide full medical care, and seek loving and responsible homes for them.

When someone wants to adopt one of your dogs or cats, what steps do you take to make sure the new owner and the pet are compatible?  In addition, do you sell the potential pet?

The first step in our adoption process is to complete our adoption application form which can be done right from our website.  The application form for both dogs and cats can be found under the ADOPT tab.  We review the application and do a veterinary reference.  We make a commitment to every animal in residence that we will do our very best to find a loving and responsible home.  Once the adoption application has been approved, we work with the potential adopter to match what they are looking for with one of the animals in residence, based on what we know about our animals.  We do ask an adoption fee.  We also require that if, for whatever reason, an adoption does not work out or the adopter can no longer provide quality care, that the animal be returned to CFC.  We always accept an animal back no matter how long he/she may have been in a home.

Where do the “creatures” come from?  Are they pets that owners want to find a new home for or are they runaways?

We receive animals in any number of ways:  strays, transfers from shelters, owner surrenders and/or as a result of the death of an animal’s human.

If your facility ever reaches near full capacity, what then?

The reality is we cannot accept every animal in need of help.  We are regularly at capacity and cannot squeeze in one more!  CFC does offer courtesy listings of animals in need of re-homing on our website and do special posts for them on our Facebook page.  We provide individuals in need of help with a copy of our resource list which has listings of other shelters and/or rescues who may be in a position to assist.  If someone needs assistance in feeding their animal, we help as we can to provide them with food.  Our goal is to assist in whatever way we can so the animal can remain in the home or remain in home until such time a new appropriate home can be found.

If you ever plan on retiring, what lies in the future for Caring for Creatures?

CFC has a small dedicated Board who would be responsible for hiring a replacement.  However, we are looking for that special person or persons who may be drawn to the work of animal rescue and would like to learn from the ground up and be trained to carry on the duties I currently handle in order to provide a smooth transition.  Obviously, we are seeking an individual who is dedicated to animal rescue and committed to a long-term position.

Anything you want to add?

Simply put, animal rescue is hard work on so many levels.  We cannot do this work at the level we do without the help from the community.  We are grateful to so many of you who have helped and supported our mission for so many years.  You are our partners and over our 34 years of operating, thousands of animals have been saved thanks to you.  Thank you!

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