VIRGINIA – Twenty years ago, Sue Bell made a decision that would change the direction of her life and that of thousands of homeless animals across the region.

“Homeward Trails started off completely as an accident,” said Bell, who founded Rescue of animals on the return trails in January 2002. “And then for me it became a kind of hobby and then became an obsession, which then became a profession.”

During that week’s vacation 20 years ago, Bell, who had rented a cabin in West Virginia with friends, was heading to a grocery store to buy food and beer.

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“We walked past this shelter and there are all these dogs chained outside to the trees,” she said. “We bought some cookies and stopped by to donate them.”

The spot where Bell and his friends pulled up was a temporary animal shelter that had been set up in a double-width trailer after a flash flood destroyed the local shelter months earlier.

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During the flood, 40 animals trapped in cages drowned, but the survivors did not fare much better. Dogs had to be tied up all day and then stored in plastic crates overnight.

“They told me they had to euthanize nine out of ten animals that came into their shelter, and I’m talking about puppies, kittens,” she said. “The most perfect animal that no one in this region adopted and they had no space.”

On January 1, 2002, Bell returned to the shelter. Her plan was to bring two dogs back with her to the DC area and hide them in her house, as her owner did not allow pets. She ended up taking three dogs that first day.

Once home, Bell spread the word to his friends and advertised in the Washington Post to potential adopters.

Homeward Trails Animal Rescue volunteers show some of the kittens rescued from a recent trap sterilization operation in Galax, Virginia. (Sue Bell / HTAR)

“I’ve been inundated with phone calls from people saying, ‘Oh, can you help me find a nice dog? I can’t find any. All of our shelters have big dogs ”or“ I don’t want to go to a shelter. Can you help me ?'”

Bell began visiting the shelter in West Virginia every two weeks to find dogs that matched requests she had recorded in a notebook. She then loaded the dogs into a van, returned to DC for six hours and circled the ring road, dropping the animals off at their new homes.

After a year juggling a full-time job in downtown DC and weekend rescue, Bell realized that something had to change.

“I knew about nonprofit management and budgeting, so I integrated what I was doing in an organization, then I quit my real job and started doing it full time,” he said. she declared.

After a chaotic start in which Bell had to take side jobs to make ends meet, Rescue of animals on the return trails eventually became one of the largest animal rescues in the Washington, DC area. With an annual budget of more than $ 2 million, the association has eight full-time employees, around 35 part-time employees and more than 200 foster families, who care for animals awaiting adoption in their homes. .

This year alone, Bell estimated that the rescue she founded would place around 2,300 animals. Even with this success, many other animals across Virginia are still waiting to be adopted.

Two volunteers with Homeward Trails Animal Rescue bait traps in Galax, Virginia. (Sue Bell / HTAR)

“We don’t get to the animals on time,” Bell said. “In previous years, shelters had only had to euthanize for health reasons or because the animals were not adoptable. This year has been so hard.

Homeward Trails isn’t the only nonprofit in Northern Virginia seeking homes for homeless animals.

In 2011, Dr Kathleen Werden and veterinary technician Kristin Lassiter began fostering cats at Harmony Hill Animal Hospital in Sterling. In 2017, they formed the nonprofit rescue Longstreet cats, with the mission to take care of the cats, the other rescues couldn’t easily help. Because Longstreet was founded by a veterinarian, he was able to provide a level of medical care that other rescues or shelters cannot.

“Even pregnant cats, most shelters sterilize and abort at the same time,” said Beth Wallace, Chairman of the Board of Longstreet. “We’re going to take the pregnant cats, help them – usually they don’t need a lot of help – but let them have their kittens, get the kittens up for adoption and then get the moms up for adoption. most needy cases and then get them into the homes.

In addition to welcoming and treating cats at the hospital, Longstreet also supports feral cat colonies near the Sterling Clinic and in Prince William County. Over the years, volunteers have been able to capture and move feral cats, while also collecting many kittens for adoption.

“A lot of cats that appear to be wild initially we find that with a little time and with a little love they are ultimately adoptable,” Wallace said. “We don’t do a lot of trapping and spaying and releasing. There’s a colony behind the clinic they’ve been working with to provide medical care and to sterilize and sterilize as best they can. But for the most part, we’re trying. to welcome them and find them homes.

Longstreet and Homeward Trails have both partnered with businesses where potential adopters can interact with adoptable cats. Longstreet has joined Patriot Pawsabilities Cat Lounge to Fairfax and Homeward Trails with Crumbs and Mustaches: Kitten & Cat Café and Lounge in Georgetown.

Since many cats accepted by Longstreet have medical costs, adoption fees alone will not cover the cost of their care.

Wallace recalled a dramatic example from last year, when a young pregnant cat was left on the steps of a shelter in West Virginia.

Some of the traps used to capture 130 cats during the recent Homeward Trails Animal Rescue operation in Galax, Virginia. (Sue Bell / HTAR)

“She had an abdominal hernia,” Wallace said. “One of the kittens had actually pierced the hernia hanging below her belly.”

The cat was on his way to another shelter in the area, where he was due to undergo a sterilization and abortion procedure, when Longstreet intervened. The animal was taken to Harmony Hill Clinic and an emergency Cesarean was performed.

“She gave birth to five beautiful and amazing kittens,” Wallace said. “They were probably not a week premature. We were able to take care of these kittens and they were all adopted into homes. Mom was adopted into a home. Everyone lived happily ever after. is the kind of case we do really well with. There are five cats that wouldn’t be here otherwise. “

Thanks to donations from supporters, Homeward Trails was able to travel to the southwest of the state recently for a trap-neuter-return project involving 130 cats.

“We took a team of six and went to Galax, Va. Where we met our shelter and rescue partner there,” Bell said. “They brought in 25 more people and we spent four days in the field, trapping these 130 cats, having them vaccinated, microchipped and neutered.”

The animals were then handed over to their keepers, who received food and 50 secluded outdoor houses for the cats.

“We took nine kittens and cats from the community into foster care, which turned out to either be too young to be spayed and neutered, so we didn’t want to push them away, or they turned out to be so friendly, that the keepers really wanted them to have homes inside, ”Bell said.

At the end of 2021, Homeward Trails and Longstreet are asking the public for donations to help them continue to care for and find homes for the animals they rescue.

To donate, adopt an animal, volunteer or find out more, visit Rescue of animals on the return trails Where Longstreet cats.