By Barrett White
Salise Shuttlesworth knows that every pet life matters. And that’s not a belief she holds lightly.
Shuttlesworth, who hails from Sugar Land, is an animal activist, out lesbian, and proud pet parent to six cats, two dogs, and three ferrets. She’s also the founding face behind Friends for Life, a no-kill animal adoption and rescue shelter in the Heights that specializes in the adoptions of dogs, cats, and the occasional ferret. Friends for Life is the only LEED-certified no-kill shelter in Houston, and one of roughly 200 in the nation.
“In 1989, a man named Edward Duvin coined the term ‘no kill’ in an article called ‘In the Name of Mercy,’” Shuttlesworth explains. “He was not an animal activist at all, but a social-justice newspaper publisher, author, activist, organizer, and the chair of an ethics institute. He’s been a treasured mentor of mine since the beginning.”
For today’s animal lovers, the no-kill movement might seem like a fairly straightforward idea—a shelter where every animal is adopted by a loving family, and not a single one meets their end by euthanasia. Makes humane sense, right? Sadly, in the not-too-distant past, it didn’t even seem possible that a no-kill shelter could last in Houston—a city where the sheer number of homeless pets has been called an “epidemic.” Past attempts to create a no-kill shelter have been dismissed as fervent activism.
“I had a love for animals before I ever knew the word activism,” Shuttlesworth says. “But I don’t know that I’m much of an activist. My strength is more in doing things that seem pragmatic. If we believe we owe life to a dog who is too terrified to come out of his cage, we’d better get a plan around how to rehabilitate him—and a business plan to scale and sustain [our goals]. But let’s go with ‘activist.’ It sounds cooler than ‘planning wonk.’”
After attending the University of Texas at Austin and earning a law degree, Shuttlesworth returned to the Bayou City, where it didn’t take long to notice that Houston, we have a problem. Houston’s longstanding shelters used tricky language to deem certain animals as “unadoptable,” thereby allowing shelters to justify euthanizing problem animals.
“The ‘unadoptable’ groups include animals like pit bulls, seniors, cats with FIV, dogs who are evaluated as behavior challenges, nursing kittens and puppies, pregnant mothers, animals missing hair, with a cold, or with myriad other treatable conditions like heartworms or kennel cough,” Shuttlesworth says. “One shelter in Houston proudly states, ‘We adopt out 100 percent of our adoptable animals.’ It sounds great until you think carefully about the language, and who doesn’t get on that lifeboat.”
Combining her love for animals and business know-how, Shuttlesworth decided to challenge the notion that a no-kill shelter couldn’t survive in Houston. Along with the help of two close friends, she founded what would come to be known as Friends for Life. “We just traveled, read, built a team, and planned,” she says. “We were determined to start the shelter with a plan—not with animals.” After two years of planning, Shuttlesworth and her friends-turned-activist-partners took in their first adoptable animal.
“Salise was able to create Friends for Life and get it off the ground in a time of no-kill naysayers,” adds Marilyn Oliver, the organization’s operations manager. “She changed the landscape of Houston animal sheltering.”
Friends for Life initially started holding adoptions at the PetSmart on Shepherd at West Alabama, operating solely out of that store for four years. In 2008, the organization was able to open a brick-and-mortar shelter of their own on West 19th Street. But at less than 3,000 square feet, the operation quickly overwhelmed the space. “The business grew wildly, and we outgrew that space within a year,” Shuttlesworth says.
In 2012, with a generous donation from Don Sanders, Friends for Life opened their new, larger Heights location at 107 E. 22nd Street. But even then, Shuttlesworth knew that their new location would need to expand, since there is always work to be done. Today, her team of activists offers a plethora of services in Houston, including Fix Houston, part of the “Healthy Pets, Healthy Streets” initiative that teams with Houston’s municipal BARC shelter to offer free neuter, spay, and vaccination services in low-income parts of town. (Friends for Life offers these services to families with cats, while BARC specializes in dogs.) Through Fix Houston, Friends for Life has fixed over 1,500 cats, stabilized 489 feral cat colonies, and prevented more than 30,000 births, keeping stray cats off the streets to an impressive degree.
Although Friends for Life helps those furry friends already on the street, they also do their best to prevent pet homelessness from happening in the first place. The organization has donated over two tons of food to their food bank to help pet owners who need assistance in caring for their pet. Additionally, the Friends for Life crew has clocked in hundreds of hours of free behavioral consults and provided micro-grants for veterinary services. They even sent a crew out to help a family build a fence that allowed them to keep their dog.
“I think of one gentleman who pushed his cats in a shopping cart over a mile to get in line by 5 a.m. to have them spayed and vaccinated,” Shuttlesworth says as she recalls one of her most rewarding moments thus far. “People bring flashlights and lawn chairs to line up with their animals pre-dawn at surgery events. Some have walked long distances with their animals to get the services.”
Friends for Life employees and volunteers find their greatest rewards in the smallest of moments: a death-row dog finding comfort in his first soft bed in a real home; a senior or diabetic animal finding a new forever-family, or the fact that, to date, Friends for Life has adopted out over 8,000 furry family members, an estimated 75 percent of whom would have been deemed “unadoptable” at other shelters. Since 2008, the Friends for Life adoption rates have accelerated by a stunning 580 percent.
“I remember Pepperoni, the blind cat who not only was adopted, but who learned tricks for a video!” Shuttlesworth laughs. “I also loved that our behaviorist referred to Pepps as a ‘beautiful and courageous person.’”
The future of Houston’s animal-rescue services looks to be just as remarkable. Friends for Life has commissioned the renowned architecture and design firm Gensler to construct a medical clinic adjacent to their Heights facility. This new Friends for Life shelter clinic will also provide an affordably-priced veterinary medical care option to the public, and offer surgical support to the Fix Houston spay-and-neuter program.
For more information on Friends for Life, visit friends4life.org.
Barrett White is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.