Oasis Animal Shelter-History

By OASIS' founder, Shari Kalina

When I arrived in Oberlin for my 1st year in August of 1989, I'd had no previous experience with animal shelters. I loved animals (although I wasn't yet a vegetarian) and my family had a wonderful, beloved dog named Buffy who was 13 at the time. On October 30th, my parents called to tell me that Buffy had died. I was heartbroken and, over the next several months, missed her terribly. I found myself craving canine companionship, and wanting to help other dogs in some way. So, when my mom came to Oberlin to visit, we decided to take a trip to the county animal shelter-- the Lorain County Animal Protective League.

I began volunteering there and soon saw an opportunity to really help the dogs there, who were often cooped up in their pens with no real exercise or human contact for days on end due to the lack of enough staff/volunteers. With Daniel Gardner's help (he was the volunteer coordinator/ community outreach person at the time) I arranged for use of an Oberlin student-group-use car and began organizing groups of students to go to the APL and walk dogs on several days during each week. This program was quite successful, and we often had 4-5 students per shift (one shift per day) going out to the APL and giving the dogs there some desperately needed exercise and affection.

Meanwhile, in November, I found my first Oberlin stray. He was a precious 5-month-old shepherd mix pup, abandoned in front of the laundromat on E. Lorain Street. I named him Sam. I tried to get the APL to take him in, but they were all full. In desperation, I flew him home to NJ with me on the airplane and adopted him out to an old grade-school teacher of mine who had remained friends with my parents. A few weeks after coming back to Oberlin, I found another stray. This time it was an old abandoned beagle we named Maude. And then another, and then another. Each time I found a stray dog, I appealed to the APL to help. However, they were nearly always completely full and unable to take in another dog. Furthermore, although the volunteer dog-walking program I was running for them was going well, I had begun to part ways with the managers at the APL on a number of issues. Foremost of these issues was the fact that they, like most shelters, euthanized many healthy, young, adoptable animals due to lack of space, and I felt they should be working harder on finding alternatives to the killing. I'd begun to arrive at the shelter each day to volunteer and walk up and down the rows of cages, heartbroken to find that some of my favorite, wonderful animals had been killed. There were other problems, too, many of them regarding the day-to-day care of the APL dogs, and I began to feel that, frankly, I could do better by the dogs myself, if only I had the authority to do so.

In March of that year, one night during an unusually heavy snowstorm for that time of year, Barney came into my life. I was in Talcott, where I lived, when I saw my RC in the hallway. By now, I was known in the dorm as the person to come to when anyone saw a stray animal or needed help with an animal-related problem. My RC called out to me "Hey, Shari- there's a stray dog running down by Gibsons!" I ran outside and down to Gibsons (in my bare feet!) and looked around. I saw him immediately, and called to him, a big hound dog with droopy lips and ears and a beautiful coat of black, white and rust-colored patches and spots. He circled around me in the snow, and then came to me. I brought him into the doorway of Talcott, and looked him over. There were tiny icicles hanging from the hair on his belly, and he was emaciated and dirty. He was friendly and sweet, and I wanted to keep him right then and there. But I knew I couldn't have him in the dorm, and it was way too late to try the APL. In desperation, I called the Oberlin police and asked what provisions they had for handling strays. They told me they'd pick him up and hold him in their "dog pen" for three days, to give an owner a chance to pick him up if he was just lost. After that, they said, he'd be taken to the local dog pound. Reluctantly, I agreed to let them come get him, telling them that if he wasn't claimed within the 3-day holding period, I'd come get him and find a better place to take him (other than the pound).

Two days later, I called the police station to find out if he'd been claimed. They informed me that he hadn't, and that (although they were SUPPOSED to hold him for 3 days before sending him to the pound), he'd already been sent there. Panicked, I called the pound, and they informed me that he was slated for "euthanasia" the following morning. I told them I'd be there to pick him up in an hour, and called a friendly acquaintance who was a Junior and I knew lived off-campus with her own dog. She had a car, and agreed that, under these dire circumstances, she'd help me. We went to pick him up and she agreed to keep him at her off-campus house for a few days until I could make other arrangements for him. I succeeded in doing so, and he became my dog.

That experience was the last straw. I further investigated the way that Oberlin's stray situation was being handled, and was appalled at what I found. Oberlin had no animal control officer, and no one who was experienced or cared enough to take a special interest in Oberlin's strays. Because there was no one else to do the job, the burden had fallen upon the police department to pick up the local strays and "dispose of them." The city had built a pathetic little shed in which to temporarily house the dogs while they waited for the county pound to come and pick them up. Once at the pound, the dogs had three days to be claimed, and were then killed (by an outdated and cruel method of gassing, at that time). The temporary shed was known as "the Dog Pen" and consisted of concrete floors, metal walls, no a/c, no heat, and no windows. There were no attempts made to adopt dogs out instead of sending them to death.

I began to formulate a plan, which I worked on over the next several months and into my sophomore year at Oberlin. I investigated all kinds of options, met with all kinds of people, and had many doors slammed in my face. But by winter term, my plan was developed enough to be acted upon, and I made it my Winter Term project to make my dreams a reality. With the help of Daniel Gardner (once again), I set up a meeting with the City Manager of Oberlin to propose to her my plan for managing the care of Oberlin's strays. Essentially (in shortened form) the plan involved the city providing us with space (their old "dog pen"), free water and electricity, and absolute authority to care for and adopt out Oberlin's stray dogs using our own rules (no euthanizing of healthy animals), in exchange for my agreement (along with volunteers I would recruit and train) to perform the duties of picking up the strays, caring for them, and basically handling- free of charge- all the animal control duties the police had come to loathe. The meeting was long and stressful, but I emerged jubilant. The City Manager had given me the authority to put my program into place and manage the care of stray dogs on a trial basis of 6 weeks. And she stated that if those 6 weeks were successful, the agreement would be extended for an indefinite period of time.

That weekend, a few friends and I went down to the Dog Pen to try to fix it up a bit. None of us had never been inside before, and were all shocked at what we found. The pen was dark and dingy, with no natural light. It stunk like you wouldn't believe, and the brushed concrete floor was covered by a thick layer of compacted grime, hair, and excrement obviously built up over years of use without any cleaning. There were a couple of buckets of dirty water sitting in the cages, and the stale remains of a bag of the cheapest supermarket brand of dog food sat in one corner. The bottoms of all the chain link cage doors were mangled and chewed apart from the desperate escape attempts of previous dogs left inside. In short, the place was utterly disgusting and completely unfit to be inhabited by any living being. But it had been, and alas, it was now. We found one very pathetic, lone dog inside one of the cages. When we called the police to ask why no one had told us there would be a dog there, they stated that someone had probably put him in the pen and simply forgotten to report it. So God knows how long that poor pup was in there waiting, hungry and scared. But this was the state of animal control in Oberlin, and we were resolved to change it. We named the dog "Comet" (since we used so much of it to get the place clean) and placed him in foster care at a volunteer's house since the shelter wasn't ready for residents. We spent the next few days scrubbing, mopping, repairing and disinfecting, and furnished the shelter with the essentials-- higher quality food, new bowls, toys, biscuits, mops and buckets, etc, bought with money I'd saved from working in previous summers. Then, a day later, the police paged me on the beeper I now carried that was connected to the station (so they could page me when they received a complaint about a dog running loose or injured) to tell me a dog needed to be picked up from Wilder Bowl. We named him Genesis, and he was our first real shelter resident. Over the next few days, Samantha and her pup Janie joined us, and Becky the lab mix, and Katy the extremely shy abandoned terrier-mix. And we were off.

I organized OASIS later that year to try to legitimize the student-run part of OASIS (most of the volunteers were students, anyway) and to give us a chance to ask for student-group funding to help run the shelter. We also managed to obtain a very small amount of funding from the Oberlin City Council, and combined with donations and some meager fund-raisers, we scraped by. Along the way, we put in a window at the shelter, along with a new tiled floor for easier cleaning, air-conditioning, and a small fenced-in area for the dogs to play in. The following year, I started the Exco as a way to give dedicated volunteers some school credit for their work, as well as a way to recruit new volunteers.

Vera answered an ad I put in the News Tribune that first year looking for volunteers from the town. She was an angel, and she took on so much responsibility that I was able to leave the shelter in her care and actually go home for some vacations and summers. Each year, I'd run OASIS during the school year, and Vera would run it in the summer. And when I graduated and moved out of Oberlin, Vera took over permanently. I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't found her. Maybe I never would have left-- because I wasn't willing to let OASIS cease to exist after we'd saved so many lives (over 400, by the time I graduated in 1993), and with so many lives yet to save. But, although I loved Oberlin and OASIS, I didn't really feel my permanent home was Oberlin, and so I was so lucky to have found Vera. I knew that I could trust her with OASIS forever.

Even with all the changes we'd made, the inadequacy of the "dog pen" was painfully clear. After I graduated, Vera went to work planning a way to move OASIS to a better site and build a "real" shelter building. And as you know, they have recently achieved that goal.

My precious Barney has since died, but I feel strongly that OASIS is his legacy. I consider that life-saving shelter a beautiful tribute to both him and Buffy, and the amazing way they both touched my life. I now have three wonderful ex-OASIS residents living with me; Ralphy, Tyler and Ava. They remind me every day of the shelter, and of that very important time in my life.

And that's the story!

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