Eighty years of saving lives

  • Written by Dermot Connolly


The Animal Welfare League has come a long way since it was founded 80 years ago, mainly to look after neglected horses that pulled wagons carrying everything from coal to watermelons through the streets of Chicago.

Originally named the Illinois Citizens Animal Welfare League when it opened in 1935, the non-profit organization now focuses on the care and adoption of stray or unwanted dogs, cats and other domestic pets. But a wide range of animals still come through the doors of the main Animal Welfare League facility at 10305 Southwest Highway in Chicago Ridge.

“We see 16,000 animals a year, coming from 54 municipalities, mainly the suburbs,” said Terri Sparks, the marketing and public relations manager for the non-profit organization, which is holding an 80th anniversary gala at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, at Giorgio’s Banquets, 8800 W. 159th St., in Orland Park.

“We’re celebrating 80 years of saving lives,” said Sparks. The $60 tickets for the gala will include a full buffet dinner with carving station, dessert and unlimited soft drinks with a cash bar, and DJ music for dancing. There will also be raffles and silent auctions.

“The only thing we won’t have is animals there. They won’t allow us to bring them,” said Sparks.

The smaller, original Animal Welfare League site at 6224 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago, remains the largest no-kill shelter on the South Side of Chicago. Between the two facilities, the AWL annually takes in about 10,000 stray animals and more than 13,000 animals given up by owner for one reason or another.

“We see an average of 110 clients a day in the clinic (in Chicago Ridge). It is like Cook County Hospital,” said Sparks with a smile.

She said that in addition to the cats and dogs, birds, and small mammals like rabbits and hamsters that come through the door regularly, other, more exotic animals have ended up at the Animal Welfare League too. 

“We have had alligators, monkeys, and there is a picture of me somewhere with a tiger cub too,” said Sparks. “Wolves and coyotes also have been here.”

She recalled that an unknown person once just abandoned a box in the middle of the busy admissions area. “When an employee noticed, and opened it, there were something like 60 snakes inside, causing her to emit an ear-piercing scream,” she said.

Sparks explained that the exotic animals are typically turned over to rescue organizations that handle that type of animal specifically. Only organizations with special licenses are allowed to handle them, so they cannot be adopted like dogs and cats.

One bird that was turned over about 20 years ago, and has taken up residence at the Chicago Ridge shelter is Clancy, a colorful parrot, who will say a few words when he wants to. “He won’t do it on command,” said Sparks. “He is not up for adoption. He is like one of the family.”

“We have about 1,200 animals that are available for adoption here now,” she said. Dozens of volunteers help out by exercising and bathing the dogs, among other things, she added.

During a recent visit, it seemed that as soon as one family left happily with a newly adopted dog, someone else came to the counter with a dog being dropped off.

“We’re about the only shelter that takes in stray animals any more. Our main concern is the welfare of the animals. We don’t want to turn any away, because what would happen to them if we did? Where would they go?” she wondered, noting that the facility is open 24 hours a day for animals to be brought in.

Heather Lathus, of Oak Lawn, and her daughter, Addyson, 6, were among the happy ones, leaving with their newly adopted puppy, “Blue,” an American Staffordshire terrier. The friendly little dog had been with them for a few days, and gets along well with all three of her young children, Lathus said.

Sparks said that people adopting pets go through a vetting process, and in cases where pitbull-type breeds with reputations for fighting, house checks are done to see where the dogs will be going.

“We also do 30- , 60- and 90-day checks,” she added.

In addition to adoption, the AWL provides veterinary care, low-cost spaying and neutering services, and microchips animals to help ensure lost pets are reunited with owners. The League also has a foster-care program for sick and injured animals, wildlife rehabilitation, and educational programs about the humane treatment of animals, as well as pet assisted therapy programs for elderly or physically challenged individuals.

Sparks said she fosters animals, and has four of her own dogs and five cats.

“You want to take all of them home,” she said, noting that fostering many types of animals has been a learning experience for her children too.

More information about the AWL, and tickets for the gala, may be obtained by visiting the website at