MONDAY Q&A: Animal rescue owner takes job 1 day, 1 pet at a time
April 18, 2011 3:00 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: Crystal Collins-Johnson is the founder of Starfish to the Sea, an animal rescue group. The name comes from a story called "The Starfish," in which a boy throws starfish back into the sea despite an older man telling him that there are thousands along the beach and he can't save every one.

The boy's response -- that while that may be true, he can make a difference to at least one -- is a philosophy that Collins-Johnson shares. She recently sat down with Gazette staffer Rebecca Singer to talk about Starfish to the Sea.

Question: How long have you been running Starfish to the Sea?

Answer: About 6 1/2 years now. It started in September of 2004. I had worked at the humane society and I had volunteered with several others, but I was never 100 percent happy with any of them. I thought, "well, I think I have all the basics in place and I can probably do this on my own," so I took the plunge and 6 1/2 years later we are still here so … it's definitely been a long journey with lots of growing pains.

Question: How many animals have you helped?

Answer: I think the number is up to around 145. That's just the ones we've directly taken in. That's not including the ones we've helped with adoptions or taken from their owners, or helped keep them in their homes by helping to counsel their owners.

Question: Those would be the ones that need training?

Answer: We try to get that for people. We try to help people calm down and take it a day at a time and realize they can make it work. A lot of people that contacted us were so emotional, and once we were able to talk to them, they were able to calm down. We consider all of those to be little successes.

Question: Any time you can make an animal and owner happy, that should count.

Answer: Yes, and we've fostered animals for other rescue groups if we have space and we don't have anything taking up space. We will help other rescue groups if they are overwhelmed.

Question: What types of animals?

Answer: All types. We regularly take in dogs, cats, guinea pigs, or others things -- rats, birds -- we even took in a turtle once. I'm not looking into repeating that experience anytime again soon because it was just so … I had to go so far outside of my realm of knowledge with the turtle, but it was a learning experience. He required heat, certain things in his diet. He was really malnourished, and it took a while for him to come back. It can get really expensive and it is hard to find a vet to treat them. We had to actually go to Pittsburgh and find an exotic specialist. We do that with our rats and guinea pigs, too.

Question: Do you have funding to help with that?

Answer: No. We hold fundraisers several times a year, mostly in the summer. Sometimes we will set up in a pet store and we also do fundraising on the website and we get donations from people. We don't have any other method of funding. We do get a little bit back from the adoption fees, but not enough to cover half the vetting we put into the animals.

Question: Are there any state programs that can help you?

Answer: No, and because the rescue is so small, we don't qualify for a lot of grants. They want to know the money is going to help this vast number of animals, and we don't have that because we take quality over quantity. We don't try to take in more than we know we can handle.

Question: What are the biggest animals you've had to deal with? Any farm animals?

Answer: No. The closest we've come is a large pot-bellied pig. And we did have a foster home that was really seriously considering it, but we were able to find another place for him to go that was more equipped. It's always a learning experience when a new animal comes in, so I would have to learn how to take care of it while we looked for a foster home for it. We do a lot of research so we will be better prepared next time. We found another rescue we directed the owner to. We do have one foster home that has the capacity to take care of something like a horse or a goat or something that would come in, but right now she's on hiatus from fostering, so I wouldn't ask her. Without a foster home that is equipped, we can't help an animal. We try to help, but we just can't take them all.

Question: How many pets do you have?

Answer: Some of the animals we have at home are ours, some are fosters. We have five dogs, nine cats, five guinea pigs and three rats. It's not a huge home, but it's clean and it's a lot of work. That's why I don't have another job anymore. It's sort of like running a little miniature shelter. The guinea pigs and rats have nice big, big cages. We spend time together every day. Most of them, like the cats especially, the reason I have so many is it's difficult to find homes for them when they are special needs animals, and it's difficult to find homes for them when every time you open the paper there are ads for free kittens, and there's always healthy cats at the shelter. So usually, like it or not, they end up staying. They just become a member of the family and we love them. Their treatment doesn't change whether they are fosters or permanent.

Question: The dogs -- are they little, big or some of each?

Answer: They are all between 45 and 70 pounds. I have three English setters, an Irish setter and a mixed breed dog. My dogs are like one unit. They share their space and we never have any problems. They have made it so easy to foster, because a foster dog comes in and even if it's had issues with dogs in the past, my dogs are so mellow and so cool, they adapt well. They are able to calmly teach the new dogs how to deal with living in a group situation.

Question: Feeding them must be interesting.

Answer: My dogs are well trained. At meal times they will line up and lie down and wait for their food. When new dogs come in, if they are good eaters, they actually end up eating all their food as training treats. I will actually go through breakfast and dinner without having them sit down for the first couple of weeks. Once they learn to lie down, they can join my dogs lying down. So it's actually bizarrely calm. The cats are actually more work than the dogs, because the dogs learn that lying down means they will be fed quicker. If you have a group of dogs this large in your house, and they are not small dogs, I especially want to make sure they are well-mannered. When somebody comes to my house, I don't want the dogs jumping on them and barking. I want them to have manners. All of my dogs are actually canine good citizens; they've passed the test for certification that says that. We try that with all the fosters. We try to get them as close to that as we can so they know house manners.

Question: Once placed, most animals stay in their new homes?

Answer: It's all about making a successful adoption. We have very few animals that have ever been returned. And all of them have been returned because of something that the new owner could not control, like a health issue that came up or they had to move. When the recession hit we had a couple of animals that came back because the owners were forced to move into a tiny apartment and couldn't take the animals. Most of the time that's the only reason our animals come back to us. We do the best job that we can to be sure they fit into the family and they are prepared. I want foster dogs to go to a new home and look and act like they've been living in a house. We encourage the new owners to go to classes so they can actually continue making progress. Most dog owners won't take classes, so we try to teach the dogs as much as we can so they have a better chance of fitting into the home. It takes us a little longer to get them adopted out, but we wait until they are ready. We think it makes for a better life for them. Our job isn't to get them moved out quickly so we can get another one in; it is to be sure they are ready to go.

Question: How many people work for or with you?

Answer: Aside from my husband -- he pitches in and does everything at the house and he's amazing with the dogs -- I do have a small group of core volunteers who are always there, always dependable and reliable. Even beyond that, we have supporters that have been behind us the whole time, mostly people who are involved with other rescues and they try to help out. We do have some dedicated volunteers, I would say. It's especially difficult if I'm the only one that can foster. I don't think it could have been this successful for this many years without them.

Question: Do you have someone else helping with the website?

Answer: If I had somebody else, it would probably look a little better. It's been with us since we started in 2004, and I am the one who maintains it.

Question: Do you get much response?

Answer: Yeah, we do, and our website is integrated in with other areas where animals are listed, so people come here from petfinder.com. We get inquiries from somebody who stumbles across the site, and we get a lot of referrals from other sites. I think our site has been very helpful to a lot of people. We try to put up information to be helpful to people, too. We have educational articles and links to other websites where you can learn more, because we see ourselves as educators.

Question: The animals that come to you, do they come from referrals or how do you find them?

Answer: Most of our animals are actually from shelters. (Shelters) know to call for certain kinds of animals that they know we've worked with before. My small animals usually aren't from shelters. Rats and guinea pigs are usually from people that have seen our ads placed on the Web and contacted us, or they are people that we've reached out to. My current guinea pigs were living in a tiny cage, and I contacted the owner and politely educated her on the Internet that the bedding they were sleeping on was not safe for them and the cage was too small … if she would like, we could take them and help. I don't do that often but when we got the guinea pigs in, you could tell there was something wrong with them. The one was misshapen. The next day we took her to our exotic pet specialist in Pittsburgh and she confirmed that she had enlarged ovaries. The owner never would have known that something was wrong with her. She's now been spayed and she's doing well at my house.

There's just not a lot of information that is readily available to people. That's one thing we try to do with our site. If I can help an animal to have a better life, I'm going to do everything I can.

For more information or help with any pet issues or to find out more about volunteering or providing a foster home, go to www.starfishtothesea.org.

NEXT WEEK: Tom Norris, who is in charge of the West Nile virus spraying program in Indiana County.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Do you know someone who would be a great subject for the Monday Q&A? If so, please call Jason Levan at (724) 465-5555, ext. 270.

Crystal Collins-Johnson, at a glance...

Job: Running Starfish to the Sea, an animal rescue organization

Age: 28

Residence: Lucernemines

Where I grew up: Lucernemines. I actually live in the house I grew up in.

Family: Husband Ross Johnson; parents

Hobbies: Dog training; I dabble in arts and crafts

Favorite food: Any kind of ice cream

Food I refuse to eat: Broccoli

Favorite movie: "The Lion King"

Favorite way to spend a day: Hiking or geocaching

Pet peeve: I don't like mean or rude people.

Life goal: To make an impact while I'm here. I want to do as much as I can to make the world a better place.

People who most inspired me: People that go out and do things for other people

Something most people don't know about me: I always wanted to be an artist.

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