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The Chaffee’s Got Heart Committee honors local businesses and individuals who have gone above and beyond by doing extraordinary things during these uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today we sat down with Amber Van Leuken, Executive Director for Ark-Valley Humane Society, to find out how the pandemic has changed operations.

The Chaffee’s got HEART recognition is highlighting businesses that are finding innovating ways to thrive despite trying circumstances. These efforts range from showering struggling members of our community with generosity to prioritizing the health and safety of our most vulnerable, these businesses and individuals. Those businesses have been nominated for this honor by fellow community members.

The kennels emptied and pets at Ark-Valley Humane found foster homes when the pandemic hit. It was a win-win for the animals and the people caring for them. Photo courtesy Ark-Valley Humane.

“Prior to COVID-19, we were shelter-based,” explains Van Leuken. “Before the stay-at-home order, the majority of animals came into our shelters and stayed there until they were adopted or reclaimed by their owners. Once the stay-at-home order came into effect, we shifted to a foster-based model of care, which is now the standard for the majority of animals in our care.”

“Another big change was that we shifted to virtual services. We first scrambled to get all our forms and service information available through our website and made it possible for people to pay through our website for our services. We now provide counseling and other types of support by phone or video call, and in doing that we focus more on services by appointment, although we are still available for emergencies.”

Van Leuken says that Ark Vallen Humane Society really feels this is a positive shift for the animals because the animals are going to be much happier in a foster home rather than a kennel; a silver lining, that allows the organization to give more focused one-on-one individual care for our clients.

“Another shift in our way of doing business last year was to look at what the community needed from us and how that might have changed due to COVID-19. We created a Pet Food Pantry, which is available free to Chaffee County residents in need. We also provide hundreds of pounds of food to the Salida community center that gets distributed monthly for dogs and cats through the food drive.”

Ark Valley Humane Society’s mission is to ensure the welfare of companion animals through compassion and care. Operating an animal shelter is just one of the things it does. “The stay-at-home order affected pet owners in a number of ways,” adds Van Leuken. “We shifted our focus on improving ways to reach at-risk pets and keep them in homes rather than see them end up at the shelter. There was expanded behavior, spay and neuter, and boarding support for community pets, and established community pet emergency funds.”

Asked where she saw examples of the “Chaffee’s Got Heart” messaging in the organization’s work, she responded quickly.

“The most striking example was our call to action to empty the shelter of animals. When the stay-at-home order went into effect, we knew that the safest option for our staff and the community would be to empty the shelter and have our staff work from home as much as possible. We saw that Chaffee’s Got Heart when an unprecedented number of people stepped up and adopted or fostered the animals in our care. It was incredible to see over a five-day period the entire shelter empty out; there wasn’t a single animal in any of the kennels.”

According to Van Leuken, while a shelter building will always be needed to receive stray animals, the future of animal welfare is about doing whatever can be done to support the human-animal bond. The focus is no longer on animal sheltering, it is about continuing to adapt programs and services to increase safety nets that keep animals in loving homes. “It’s about improving the lives of pets who are in need of our community, regardless of whether those animals are homeless or those animals are in need of other support services,”concludes Van Leuken.

For those who ask she has some ideas of how the community can further support the work of hte Ark Valley Humane Society. “We are continuing our fundraising events this year as virtual events. Donations and fundraisers make it possible to do the work we do. This spring we will have a virtual Tails on The Trail event (happening now) and recently concluded a successful Good-Bad Pet Portrait fundraiser..

She invites AVV readers to go to their website or follow them on Facebook to keep informed of opportunities to donate and participate in their events. “We are always welcoming new foster families for cats and dogs. Information about all our programs and how to get a hold of us is on our website.”