Maisey’s green eyes beckon in the photo of her online profile. She likes quiet conversation, has a charming personality and enjoys cuddling. She’s even housebroken.
The gray tabby cat is among 200,000 homeless pets seeking human companions at Petfinder.com, a searchable database of cats, dogs, chickens, rabbits, horses, hamsters, pigs, iguanas, llamas and more at 9,000 animal shelters nationwide.
Thanks to Betsy and Jared Saul of Pittstown, N.J., founders of Petfinder.com, these animals have a face and a voice. The matchmakers have been responsible for more than 7 million pet adoptions in the past decade.
“They’re pioneers and innovators,” says Rich Avanzino, an animal-welfare advocate in Alameda, Calif. “The beauty of Petfinder is that it levels the playing field for grassroots shelters in small towns with the big metropolitan shelters.”
This means that Clinker, a congenial bluetick coonhound in off-the-beaten-path Mountainburg, Ark. (pop. 682), gets the same exposure and chance of finding a home as a big-city hound when more than 6 million people visit Petfinder.com each month.
The Sauls started Petfinder.com in December 1995 as a New Year’s resolution to help homeless animals. They were driving to dinner and discussing ways to use the Internet.
“I said, ‘You know this could be huge for animal shelters,'” says Betsy, 37, who always has had a tender heart for animals. At age 12, she spent her weekends volunteering with an animal-rescue group in Joplin, Mo. (pop. 45,504).
The Sauls envisioned a free online database where people could find and adopt pets from shelters and animal rescue groups. Jared, a radiologist at Herndon Medical Center in Flemington, N.J. (pop. 4,200), was in medical school at the time. He had been teaching himself computer languages since age 13 and was up to speed on the technology.
Betsy had goose bumps when they vowed to create their matchmaking website, imagining how many people could find loving companions. That weekend, Jared wrote a computer program for the service and Betsy started contacting shelters in New Jersey. They didn’t have a fax machine, but a neighbor lent his so that 13 shelters in the state could provide information on animals available for adoption. Betsy typed in the information and scanned photos to post on the website.
“We began receiving testimonials from the shelters and adopters right away,” says Jared, 36. By the end of the year, a thousand people were visiting the site daily and shelters reported that adoptions were skyrocketing because of Petfinder.com. More and more shelters were becoming members.
In August 1998, the Sauls decided to expand the service to animal shelters nationwide. Betsy gave up her job as an urban forester to run Petfinder.com full time.
The couple set a lofty goal: to arrange 5 million animal adoptions within five years.
Tales of happy matches abound from adopters like Tyler Harnish, 12, of Dansville, N.Y. (pop. 4,832).
“One of my friends had a ferret, so I already knew they were cute and adorable,” says Tyler, who with his brother, Zachary, 9, checked Petfinder.com for about a month before adopting a ferret from the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm in Fairport, N.Y. (pop. 5,740). The boys named their pet Timone.
“You hold Timone up to your face and he kisses you,” Tyler says. “I put him on a leash and take him to soccer games. He’s our mascot.”
People can search for a pet by kind, breed, size, age or location. Each animal has a snapshot and background story, if known, with a personality description. Some animals end up in shelters as a result of the owner’s lifestyle change, such as a divorce, relocation or move to a nursing home. Others have been abused or abandoned.
Adoption fees vary with each shelter and may cover medical treatment and other expenses. Petfinder.com doesn’t charge adopters or shelters, but is supported by advertisers including Purina and PETCO.
“For the service to be free, it’s just fabulous,” says Bambi Haywood, president of the King George Animal Rescue League in King George, Va. “We could not exist without Petfinder.” Volunteer rescuers in the village of 450 organized in 1998 and foster animals in their homes until they are adopted.
“We get a lot of puppies and we post them online, and we get calls from as far south as Florida and as north as Vermont,” Haywood says.
Natasha Kemp of Cookeville, Tenn. (pop. 23,923), planned to spend several hundred dollars for a pricey purebred pup until she heard about Petfinder.com. “I hadn’t even thought about a shelter dog,” Kemp says. Then she clicked and stared into the eyes of a fluffy white dog at the Humane Association of Wilson County in Lebanon, Tenn. (pop. 20,235).
“I found myself going back to his picture over and over again,” says Kemp, 24. “Here was this little dog who just wanted one person to want him.” Two hours before the shelter closed, she drove an hour to see him.
“He’s absolutely adorable,” Kemp says about Charley, the wheaten-terrier mix she adopted for $75. “He loves swimming in the lake and walking in the park. Life without Charley is unthinkable.”
The number of miles between the adopter and the adored pet usually isn’t a problem. Sharon Shadduck of Vestal, N.Y. (pop. 26,535), and her daughter, Olivia, 11, searched for a dog after their Labrador retriever, Jake, died of cancer. They set their hearts on finding a Great Pyrenees and even settled on his name, Luca.
A few months into their search, Sharon opened an e-mail from Petfinder.com and couldn’t believe her eyes.
“There he was—a 5-month-old pure Pyrenees already named Luca,” Shadduck says. The puppy was 850 miles away at Jennifer’s Rescues in Chattanooga, Tenn., but Shadduck made the 15-hour drive to pick up the family’s new pet.
“I knew the minute I saw him that he was the one,” she says.
The Sauls are heartened that so many homeless animals are getting the attention and affection they deserve. “All these animals are waiting to enrich our lives,” Jared says. “They’re good companions. Kids who have a hard time bonding get help with a pet. People heal faster with pets.”
Like millions of other pet lovers, the Sauls have opened their own hearts and home to animals whose profiles were posted on Petfinder.com. The couple’s 65-acre farm is home to a menagerie, including four elderly horses, Dot, Harper, Mort and Tina; a blind pony, Pony Baloney; two goats, Biscuit and Macy; a sheep, Angus; and two dogs, Kobie and Sophie.
Caring for the pets is a welcome break for Betsy after directing 25 employees across the United States from her home-based office. Petfinder.com, which has grown into a multimillion-dollar business through the sale of online advertising and merchandising, now employs computer programmers and Web designers, help-desk people and staff members who work with animal shelters, corporate sponsors and the media.
After a long day at the computer, Betsy leads a 36-year-old crippled horse named Dot from the barn to a spacious pasture. “Look how straight this girl is walking,” she brags.
When Betsy finishes feeding the animals, she plops on the floor to rest and Kobie scrambles onto her lap where he gets smothered with kisses. The dog gazes at Betsy with adoring eyes.
It’s another perfect match, courtesy of Petfinder.com.