Tucked away on a forested islet in the middle of the Neckar River is a small, but helpful animal shelter that serves the people of Esslingen, Germany. This tiny oasis might not get noticed among the tall lush trees and slow moving river that line the walking path around the shelter. Welcome to the Tierschutzverein Esslingen, or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Esslingen.
A system of biking and walking trails line the Neckar River that flows alongside the town Esslingen and it is the main site of outdoor recreation for the citizens of this community 14 km southeast of the manufacturing center of Stuttgart. Along this path are waterparks, cafes, art museums and rowing clubs. Amidst such beauty and peacefulness next to the local aquarium and before the yacht club sits the Tierschutzverein. If not for the barking dogs, few would realize this is an animal shelter.
Cornelia Nickolai, or Connie, is one of the shelter managers as well as an animal therapist. Although shy because her English isn’t as fluent as she’d like, she happily shows me around the shelter. She says they are a small shelter, but perform a great service to the community. I asked her how the shelter, which has been here for over 40 years, came to be in such an out-of-the-way location.
“The City owned the property and they thought it was a good place [to put a shelter] at the time because it’s away from people. Dogs barking wouldn’t bother anyone,” she says. They house about 30 dogs, 40-50 cats, many birds and rabbits and a few other critters adding up to about 200 animals.
One of the things Nickolai is most proud of is that they are a no-kill shelter. In the nine years she has worked there, only three dogs have been put down and all were for medical reasons. She says that Germany is in general a no-kill country and that they do everything they can to rehabilitate and rehome animals, which makes them different from some of their neighbors.
“In most families, pets are a part of the family. Dogs can be working and live with sheep, but are still a part of the family. We [Germany] have the space here,” she says, referring to animals having room to roam. She also says there are very few stray dogs in Esslingen.
“Some stray cats, yes, but not dogs,” she adds. Most of the dogs in the shelter are dogs that were given up by owners for various reasons. Sometimes the owner has died and the dog has nowhere to go or an owner doesn’t have the time to care for the animal properly and voluntarily gives it up to the shelter. There is also a dog from Turkey that they took in because he was injured. He had to have one of his front legs amputated. Nickolai says if they have room, they will take in animals from other countries that need help.
There are also a few dogs that were given up for behavior issues. Nickolai and her staff do their best to help these dogs. One of these dogs has been at the shelter almost seven years and she isn’t giving up on him yet. She tells me he’s a good dog as she shows me his kennel. Turns out he is a large dog, which could be why they haven’t found the right home yet. Homes in Germany are quite small and the homes in Esslingen, built upon the foundations of a medieval village, are postage stamp small without yards.
When asked about attitudes towards pets in Germany, one thing she notes is that respect toward shelter animals is increasing.
“Year by year more people are learning ‘used’ animals are better. For a while people only wanted purebreds or puppies, but they are learning that the animals here are just as good if not better,” she says. “The animals here are already toilette trained. Much easier for people than puppies,” she adds with a smile.
Nickolai then shows me their cat house, which is an amazing structure. It’s a small trailer divided into large cages with two to three cats in each one. All the cats have access to an outdoor enclosure where they can get together. Nickolai says the cats love being able to go outside and sit in the sun and that they all get along well because of the contact. She also tells me two of their newest cat arrivals were saved from a burning house. She is hoping to adopt them together.
Along with cats and dogs, the Tierschutzverein also houses small mammals, birds and reptiles. They have also cared for the occasional pig and taken in injured wild deer. Spring is rabbit season and they currently have an abundance of rabbits. Nickolai says that potential rabbit adopters must take at least two rabbits. All animals are spayed or neutered before being adopted.
The Tierschutzverein does not receive any government funding, relying on private donations to cover their costs. Although the city has a “dog tax” none of that money comes to the shelter. The biggest source of funding is through annual memberships by people in the community. They also receive a lot of volunteer help. Anyone not wearing a Tierschutzverein polo shirt is a volunteer, which is a majority of the people I see on this visit. Nickolai says that all the secondary schools require some sort of community service before the students graduate and that a majority of them prefer to volunteer at the shelter. Several students were helping to feed and clean small mammal cages and take the dogs on walks on the trails behind the shelter during my visit. The Tierschutzverein also has a full service animal medical clinic open to the public.
Before leaving the facility I was met by the shelter’s “greeters” Gizmo and Diego. Although up for adoption, both dogs have such easy-going dispositions they are allowed to roam the main entrance and greet people as they come and go. Anyone interested in adopting Gizmo or Diego can contact the shelter for more information.
The Tierschutzverein Esslingen is just one of many shelters in Germany with the simple idea that all animals deserve a good home and loving care. Small shelters like this one help to make the world a better place for the creatures that enrich our own lives. Memberships for 2011 are 32,00€. If you read German, you can visit their website at www.tierschutzverein-esslingen.de.
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