Walking into the Pet Connection shelter in Marilla actually is more like wandering into a sanctuary.
Most of the animals aren't in cages. A long-haired gray cat with a white face lounges on a table. Guapo, a long-haired Chihuahua, prances like a prince among the 30 or 40 cats in various states of recline.
"We want to let them get used to home life," explained Julie Garvey, who founded the shelter in 1984 and remains its guiding light. "It's very beneficial. They're not even afraid of the vacuum cleaner. . . . I feel this is training for them."
That reflects an unconventional approach to animal rescue that extends beyond the animals' housing. Garvey's shelter provides refuge for maternity cases and special-needs animals, particularly those on "death row" in shelters in Southern states.
Over the years, Garvey and the shelter have had their share of problems. For a period in the 1990s, she was at odds with Marilla officials over her property's zoning and allegations that she took advantage of the shelter's charitable status for her own benefit.
But people who work with her say her contributions to animal welfare have been invaluable.
"She's been a lifesaver for our pets," said Bethany Cook, a volunteer with the Grayson County Humane Society in Leitchfield, W.Va.
Cook said that pediatric spaying and neutering have reduced dog overpopulations in such places as Erie County, but veterinarians in her region still have not endorsed neutering animals younger than 4 to 6 months. As a result, her shelter is often full, and if new dogs or cats arrive, some older animals have to be euthanized.
Cook, a chemist with the Kentucky State Police when she's not working with animals, said her group has made site visits and has brought animals all the way to Marilla, but Garvey often meets them halfway for pickups.
"She'll take 4- to 6-month-olds, even a little older," Cook said. "That's an age we can no longer find adopters for them."
Pet Connection also takes in animals from Virginia and Georgia, where they still face the gas chamber, a method of euthanizing animals now banned in New York State, Garvey said.
After recently receiving several litters of puppies, the shelter is trying to raise $72,000 to complete a puppy room with an outdoor run.
Garvey also dreams of a $100,000 second phase. The need, she said, has been particularly great since Hurricane Katrina. The dogs that survived multiplied freely, she said, and a puppy boom is swamping Southern shelters.
Garvey hopes she can find some corporate sponsorship to help finance the addition. Most of Pet Connection's income comes from memberships.
During the 1990s, the shelter ran into opposition over raising funds by selling donated cars at its location. The period, which Garvey calls her darkest time, also included allegations she used donated vehicles herself and provided little oversight of finances. Garvey and Pet Connection have since re-emerged with a renewed dedication.
Garvey, who works for an auto parts dealer to pay her bills, said Pet Connection operates largely through the efforts of 35 volunteers. The most recently available non-profit filings show expenditures of $56,000 and $72,000 a year.
At 100 pounds of cat litter a day, bills can add up, and Garvey worries about keeping going long-term.
Yet she said she could not think of giving up.
"These animals need to come here," she said.