News - June 26, 2017 - by Ray Hagar

By Ray Hagar
Nevada Newsmakers

The idea for Noah's Animal House came to Staci Alonso more than 10 years ago, when a 19-year-old woman showed up at the door of the Shade Tree shelter for victims of domestic violence in Las Vegas.

The young woman carried a garbage bag full of clothes and her best friend -- a cat.

"She refused to check-in because they were not allowing her cat," Alonso said Monday on Nevada Newsmakers, adding less than 3 percent of domestic violence centers in the U.S allow pets.

"She went on to say that, 'The one person who believed in me the entire time was my cat and you can't ask me to give her up. I'd just rather go back (to abusive situation)," Alonso said.

Things got straighten out. Alonso took in the cat while the young woman stayed at the shelter. She assured the young woman her cat would be taken care of. Alonso even let the cat drink out of her cereal bowl.

That encounter was the start of Noah's Animal Shelter, a shelter founded by Alonso next to the Shade Tree, that is specifically designed to shelter pets of abuse victims.  The shelter has cared for about 1,400 pets with more than 90,000 boarding nights in a 10-year span, Alonso said.

And it all started with a 19-year-old seeking shelter for her cat.

"The one thing I said that resonated the most was I asked her if she had other clothes in her bag," Alonso said about that first encounter. "I told her I'd leave the room but I asked her, 'Take off the shirt you are wearing and put another shirt on and give me your shirt, so the cat could have your smell with it at all times.

"I think that understanding gave her reassurance and support," Alonso said. "And the cat went home with me that day and she (young woman) stayed long enough to heal and reconcile with her family from another state. We brought her cat back to her many times and that reunion pretty much put a driving force in me that was unstoppable that this was not going to be a barrier because the women and children have to have their pets by their side in order to heal and first off, escape."

Noah's success has left Alonso -- a executive with Station Casinos -- with  an "encore" career and retirement plan -- to grow Noah's Animal House nationally. Staying close to pets in times of crisis helps with the healing, Alonso said.

"I have gone through difficult times in my life and my two dogs were my rock," Alonso said on Newsmakers. "They are excited to see you and sit there and stay by your side. And I thought how can a woman, or a woman with children who had the courage to leave an abusive situation be expected not to bring their pet with them and have them by their side when they needed them the most?"

The first step in growing Noah's Animal House will be breaking ground on a Reno office in July -- at the residential campus of the Committee to Aid Abused Women shelter. The CAAW shelter cannot currently accommodate pets.

"We are thrilled to be bringing our services to Northern Nevada," Alonso said.

The Reno Noah's Animal House will probably attract abuse victims and pets from many states. The Las Vegas Noah's already does, Alonso said.

"We serve women from New York, Texas, New Mexico, Virginia and obviously, California," Alonso said. "We've had plenty of woman who have driven from Reno to Las Vegas because they would not leave their pet behind. So to be able to offer our services in the north and south, it is just a great accomplishment. And I can tell you that the demand is there and we can't wait to help the (Reno) community."

Meeting abuse victims and their pets who have traveled hundreds of miles to escape a bad situation is "incredibly overwhelming," Alonso said.

"It certainly explains how strong the human bond is at the time and just how much we really rely on our pets when we are going through a difficult time," she said.

"We had a woman who came from Virginia with three dogs," Alonso added. "We've had a young lady that came from New Mexico after her partner had taken her small dog, grabbed him by the tail and spun him around and broke his tail.

"She just got on a bus and found her way," Alonso said.

"It is pretty powerful when a U-haul pulls up at the Shade Tree shelter from an East Coast state, looking for a fresh start with their pet."

Surveys show that more than 70 percent of women coming to shelters experience pet abuse at their homes, Alonso said.

"Often, there are two situations that became prominent: The first is that at a time the abuser was harming the woman or child, the pet moved in to save (them) and the pet got abused," Alonso said.

"The other component is often the pet is abused, harmed and tortured as a way of controlling the woman," she said. "We have heard, 'If you leave, I will kill the dog.' Or, "We'll injure the dog and say 'This is what will happen (to you if you leave).' Those are often an early indicator of abuse that is happening in the home."

Pets show up at Noah's Animal House as battered victims, too, Alonso said.

"We've had some heartbreaking issues with the health issues of the pet coming in, once Noah's was built and serving our clients and even during our construction, where the pet jumped in and took the punch."

Fundraising has yet to finish for the Reno project, Alonso said, adding, "If we could raise an additional $20,000 ... "

Noah's is staffed by volunteers and more are needed for the Reno venture. Volunteers to walk dogs are always needed.

"We will be very volunteer-heavy on the day-to-day operations and that's going to be just around the corner," she said.

In 10 years, Alonso wants to have at least five Noah's Animal Houses across the nation.

"If we could have five Noah's, I think we will have made a mark. so I would set the goal at 5 in 10 years. I really believe when we have two operating (in Las Vegas and Reno), the story becomes even easier to sell outside Nevada."

When asked if five locations in 10 years was underestimating the growth potential, Alonso said, "It's always better to beat forecasts."