And Here’s How They’re Doing It

Story and photos by Laticia Headings 

Friends of Homeless Animals has rescued and found homes for more than 16,000 dogs and cats during its 47-year existence. The shelter was founded in 1973 by Judge Anne Lewis, who later bequeathed her 40-acre property in Aldie to the continuation of what she had started. 

In the late 1960s, Lewis found a feral mother dog and pups on her family’s property and turned them over to an organization that euthanized the dogs. Heartbroken and disillusioned by the fact that no other no-kill shelter options existed in the area, she vowed to create a safe haven for homeless, abandoned, and abused animals by starting a rescue of her own.

At full capacity, FOHA can house 65-70 dogs and 30-40 cats. Upon entering the picturesque property, located on Goodpuppy Lane, an expanse of land can be found with endless wooded walking trails, three large enclosed dog play areas, both open and covered, two catteries, an adoption center, a senior center for aging animals, and a sizeable cabin (the former Lewis residence), where potential adopters can experience dogs in a “home” environment. 

FOHA, a strictly no-kill shelter, pulls dogs and cats from high-kill shelters throughout Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, and sometimes from as far as Memphis, Tennessee. The shelter is one of the few that will take heartworm-positive dogs during its intake of roughly 15 dogs and five cats every two weeks.

 “We never know what we’re getting but … once a dog or cat comes to us, they get the best care possible. Last year, we spent about $250,000 on medical care,” executive director John Borgersen says. 

The facility, which uses solar panels to generate some of its own electricity, goes to great measures to relax the dogs and cats that find their way to FOHA. They use aromatherapy in the kennels and calming music in the veterinary clinic to help settle and comfort the animals. 

“We believe there are no bad dogs and cats here,” Borgersen says. “There are just misunderstood dogs and cats.” 

Enrichment is another key factor at FOHA. Volunteers and staff members spend a significant amount of time with the animals. Dogs are regularly walked, and a feline program is designed specifically to cozy up with cats, aptly named “cat snuggling.” One volunteer even frequently reads to the cats. 

“A lot of times, you’ll see an employee clock out for the day and then come back and sit with a dog or a cat just to spend time with them,” Borgersen says. 

Volunteers play an invaluable part by providing the highest level of animal care possible. FOHA has an enthusiastic group of over 200 volunteers who assist with the daily duties and activities at the facility. “There is a core of about 30 people or so that are here all the time,” Borgersen says.

FOHA also has a unique senior program, where aging dogs have their own “village.” Instead of being housed in a kennel, each dog has a sizeable doghouse with heat and air conditioning and a small front and backyard run. There are currently 10 spots in the senior village and plans for more to be built. For people who adopt a senior dog, FOHA waives the adoption fee and provides a $1,500 voucher to aid with the medical expenses of having an aging animal.

The shelter raises funds mainly through donations and major fundraisers each year, but also has a consignment shop in Chantilly, called the Treasure Hound, that donates all of the proceeds to FOHA after expenses. “We would have a hard time meeting our mission without the support of the ‘Hound,’” Borgersen says.

With an approximate annual operating budget of $1.2 million, 10 board of directors, hourly staff, four full-time employees — including a facilities manager, a medical coordinator, and a shelter manager who currently lives onsite — FOHA is a busy facility. 

“It’s a challenge logistically to run a place like this,” Borgersen says. “It’s similar to running a small city.” 

Borgersen hails from a 35-year career in environmental consulting as a vice president of Strategic Planning and has been an animal lover his entire life. He has three dogs of his own, a great pyrenees named Siobhan, a blind 17-year old cichon/king Charles mix named Abbey, and the newest member, Meredith, an Australian shepherd/pyrenees mix adopted from FOHA after four months on the job. Borgersen and his clan can be seen any day of the week walking around downtown Leesburg. 

“Everyone knows us,” Borgersen says, laughing.

FOHA dogs come from a variety of challenging situations. For example, when Meredith first came to the shelter, she had given up on life. She wouldn’t come near people, refused to walk, and would stand in her kennel and shake. After working with Meredith every day to overcome her fear, Borgersen was able to take her home where she seamlessly fit in with his other two dogs. 

When Borgersen was sick with COVID-19 symptoms in April 2020, Meredith was by his side, watching closely. When he’d been on the couch too long, she would nudge him. 

“She literally pulled at my pants as if to say, ‘We need to get you up, John,’” Borgersen says. “In animal rescue, we frequently ask the question: ‘Who rescues who?’”

FOHA has actually seen an uptick in business due to the pandemic. In the first six months of this year, 218 animals were adopted. Though protocols have changed, and visits are now by appointment only, the adoption rate has skyrocketed due to more people being home and having time to care for a pet. Potential adopters can expect a thorough application process, including a home visit (now done virtually) and vet check to assess prior pet histories.  

In addition to providing medical care and rehabilitation, FOHA’s goal for 2020 is to fund a formalized behavioral program, which will include hiring a behavioral specialist to do onsite assessments of each animal to determine the mental aspects of their issues. 

“We are trying to make their lives as great as possible while they’re at this ‘in between’ time of their life,” Borgersen says. “That’s why our mission statement is ‘Home with us until they are home with you.’”

With their 50-year anniversary around the corner, FOHA plans to keep improving its successful track record by helping every animal be their best until they find a loving forever home.

“Life is good when you work on Goodpuppy Lane,” Borgersen says proudly. ML

This article was first published in the August 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.