Paula Fasseas, The Woman Behind PAWS

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It’s my pleasure to interview Paula Fasseas, the woman behind PAWS Chicago.

Paula, you are an amazing woman and what an incredible job you, your family and your staff have done to save the lives of so many animals. By now everyone is aware of your amazing mission at PAWS. What was your first pet – male, female, dog, cat or llama in your case? (laughs) My first dog was a beagle mix, kind of a beagle terrier mix when I was five years old. My godfather left it on our front door in a box. I came home and I was so excited that my father took it right away and it was gone the next day. I was so sad. My father took it to get spayed, I didn’t even know what that was at the time and my dad said, ‘No babies, that’s it.’ Then I realized I had never been around dogs and I just loved that dog. Then my father bought a dog house and put it in the yard and said, ‘This is where the dog will sleep.’ From then on the dog never stepped food in the dog house. It slept in my bed, and I just loved that little dog. She was just the sweetest dog.

That doesn’t surprise me. What’s one of the most remarkable things you’ve seen since you started PAWS? I think the dedication and the commitment on behalf of the volunteers. It shouldn’t surprise me because I feel the same way, but it’s so wonderful to know that there are so many people that could volunteer every single day of their lives to help animals.

Paula Fasseas at her farm with dogs & goatThat’s pretty outstanding. What is the most challenging part of your job? The most challenging is seeing the ones we leave behind when we go to the city pound. We’re always trying to figure out ways to make more, how we can do more and how we can get more resources so we can make it to that day when we will not be leaving any dogs behind.

That’s a great goal. How can the average person help animal homelessness in Chicago? The most important thing for everyone first of all is to spay or neuter their pets and not let their pets have even one litter. Secondly, to rescue a dog or cat. If they’re going to get a new pet, to get it from a shelter. Thirdly to volunteer, donate, foster or do something for homeless animals. If everybody did something, we wouldn’t have a problem.

What are some of your future hopes and goals for PAWS? Well, right now my future goal is to have an enrichment center for the dogs. So we have the adoption center, the hospital with the neuter clinic and our clinic help our low-income families that can’t afford to fix their pets. We do it for free, but I want to have a facility where all the dogs that are either returned to us or that we take from the city pound can go to. Usually, three to six months of training these dogs are great and having a facility like that would help us get these dogs into homes. Many are shy, scared, fearful, under-socialized and reactive around other dogs. Having a facility where we could train them (even if it took six months) to get them where they’re confident with agility is what I’m working on right now.

Can you point out one of your most memorable moments with your pets? Or at PAWS? I’ll tell you the one I’ll always remember. This is when we first started PAWS and would do these adoption events on Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park. One of the volunteers went to the city pound and had taken one of the dogs out of the cage to be adopted out at Armitage Avenue. That dog just loved that volunteer, but he got adopted in Lincoln Park that day. The people who adopted him put him in their backyard and the dog jumped the fence, ran back to Armitage Avenue, found the volunteer’s car and followed him down the street!

Oh, wow. That’s just like Lassie. That’s unbelievable. She was so bonded to him. She was like ‘that guy got me out!’ and it was unbelievable. We were like, ‘Oh my gosh there’s the dog!’ So we grabbed the dog and found her paperwork and brought her back to the house. They said, ‘We don’t know what happened to her. We put her in our backyard and we were out there and all of a sudden she just went off the wall.’ She smelled her way, got all the way back to Armitage Avenue and found the volunteer and was chasing after his car. I mean I’ll never forget that. They’re just amazing creatures.

What else can you say about these animals? I mean there’s not enough you can say about them…. They’re the most loyal, loving creatures, and it’s just horrifying what we do to them. How we treat them, how we neglect them, how we abuse them. I’m not saying us, but there are so many good animals that aren’t being cared for. The good news is that most people do love and take care of their pets. I think what PAWS has done is given everyone a vehicle to make a difference. Part of what’s great is you can volunteer and there isn’t anything you can’t do at PAWS. Volunteers don’t just walk dogs. They can adopt dogs, do follow up calls, do medical things. We train people to do everything and anything they want, and it’s an opportunity for people to give back and get a rewarding experience. I think that’s what makes us so loved by the community; people can go there and we have the ability for them to do a lot of work for animals at any level. We have level 1, 2 and 3 for behavior. They can help in the medical intake center. They can help with community outreach.

Paula FasseasThe Fur Ball is one of the most anticipated events of the year because it is one of the only events where people can bring their pets into the hotel. How did you come up with the idea for the Fur Ball? I received a phone call from a woman who was the manager of Escada (12 years ago) and she said, ‘We want to do something really special for dogs and PAWS. We love the work that you’re doing so we would like to do a party.’ So we put our heads together and she said, ‘We’re going to have waiters In black tie and we want people to bring their pets and we’ll have it in the store.’ We came up with the name Fur Ball and we had about 200 people the first year, 250 people the following year and after that, we actually outgrew the store. We moved to another hotel, and at about year six we moved it to the Drake. We’ve had it there ever since. You know it’s so magnificent and they’re so wonderful. We have 800 people there, 250-300 dogs, and people even bring their cats.

The animals know they’re special that night. They walk the red carpet, there’s a spa for them, we bring in fresh grass for the spa, we have music, they can have massages or stay with their moms and dads to dance and party. There’s a special buffet for them; they are the highlight of the evening. People have so much fun because animals are such an icebreaker that everyone is just having the time of their life. Some of our supporters will tell us that they can never get their kids to go to black ties, but every year they ask if they can go to the Fur Ball. Many of our supporters say it’s the only event (every year) where they can get everyone to go because they have so much fun.

Can the guests at the ball adopt a dog that evening? They can. We usually bring about 15 beautiful dogs and kittens. We almost always get them all adopted. It may not be that night, but the next day it happens. It’s our opportunity to show people what amazing animals are in the shelters. It’s like the first day I went to the city pound…I was in utter shock at how amazing the animals were. I kept thinking, ‘How can I get my friends to see these animals? I’ll never get them to come down here to Southwestern Avenue, but if I could bring the animals up there…’ Back then the animals couldn’t leave the premises, so I begged and pleaded and they finally said okay and we took 26 dogs to this event. We started Angels with Tails on Michigan Avenue and Oak Street. We put them in all the stores, and all of our animals got adopted. The media came out, and everyone was just amazed at what great animals came out of these shelters.

It took us bringing the shelter to the people and not the people going to the shelter. We want to bring homeless animals everywhere we can. When we started PAWS, 26,000 out of the 28,000 at the city pound were killed. I got my dog Daisy there, and I’ll never forget she was one of the very few that were saved because we adopted her. That year we started PAWS, and now PAWS takes out 4,000 dogs from the city pound and the other 2,000 of our pets we get from the public whose pets come directly to us. The spay or neuter clinic we opened has prevented many homeless animals from being born so now instead of 28,000 entering the pound it’s 18,000. They’re down to euthanizing 7,000. So we’ve got work to do, but we’ve made huge progress. It’s a 70 percent decrease.

That’s astonishing! The community cares. The community does care. New shelters have started, new rescues have started. The whole thing keeps moving; the ball keeps rolling. As time goes on, once our city pound is no-kill, then there will be so many other places we’re going to focus on. There are some really poor communities outside of Chicago where we want to open another spay/neuter clinic where people can go who can’t afford to fix their animals. You know, get it done for free and prevent all these unwanted animals. It might be in the next three to five years, but Chicago and its surrounding areas will get better.

Homeless animals come from lower-income areas; that’s why our clinic is located where it is and we have the spay/neuter van we use to go into Englewood. There are so many other neighborhoods like Waukegan that we’d like to work in, too. Next year, we’re opening an adoption center in Highland Park so we can get a lot of the bigger dogs adopted. It’s easier to get the smaller dogs adopted in the city, but Highland Park will be a great vehicle for us to get the bigger dogs adopted. We want to open by Spring 2014.

That will be fantastic! Devoted dog people and pets that you have helped in the animal kingdom sincerely appreciate all of your efforts and the accomplishments of the PAWS organization.

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About Irene Michaels

Over the past 25 years I have taken on the roles of a producer, publisher, insider journalist and fundraiser. My artistic interests began early in my teens working as a model and a dancer throughout the U.S. I formed my first modeling agency before I was twenty. While modeling I secured a re-occurring role in the popular daytime TV series General Hospital. Read more...