New Wellness Center at Animal Friends to serve people and pets in need

Animal Friends is calling it “a center of hope and healing.”

The new $8.5 million, 18,400-square-foot building known as the Howard Ash Animal Wellness Center will have a grand opening 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., next Saturday on the Ohio Township campus that also is home to the organization’s shelter for homeless pets.

The center will enable Animal Friends to provide more low-cost spay and neuter surgeries, more low-cost vaccinations, and more pet food for people who are having trouble feeding their dogs, cats and rabbits.

“The Wellness Center is the crowning jewel in Animal Friends’ efforts to end the cost and suffering of pet overpopulation,” said president and CEO David Swisher.

There will be tours, music, food and family friendly activities. Mr. Ash, a longtime Animal Friends volunteer, board member and major donor to the Wellness Center, will attend. 

In addition, a specially commissioned life-sized sculpture will be unveiled of Tyson, an adopted cat who is special to Mr. Ash and symbolic of the Animal Friends mission.

Tyson “looks like a brown tabby,” Mr. Ash said in a recent telephone interview, except for the fact that he weighs 26-28 pounds — and he isn’t fat. 

Tyson has behavioral issues that almost got him euthanized at another shelter. He was transferred to Animal Friends, where he stayed for more than a year. 

The cat was aggressive and a biter, and very few people could handle him. Mr. Ash, who for many years has fostered shelter cats with behavior issues or medical conditions, took Tyson to his own home.

“He’s very smart. They taught him tricks at Animal Friends,” Mr. Ash said. On command, Tyson shakes hands, gives high fives, and will sit, stand or spin. “But he still bites, so I kept him.”

Tyson’s statue will be in the lobby of the Wellness Center and come with a legend: “When everyone else gave up on me, Animal Friends gave me a home,” said Kathleen Beaver, chief operating officer at Animal Friends.

Mr. Ash commissioned artists Mercedez Linke of Moon and Devin Seman of Irwin. Both work for Tolin FX, a company that does special effects for television shows and movies.

Ms. Linke did most of the sculpting, using clay to replicate Tyson, Mr. Seman said. The statue was cast in urethane plastic and painted. The eyes are green with blue in the center.

“We met Tyson. He looks like a wild cat mated with a domestic cat,” Mr. Seman said. “I didn’t pet him.” The artists also worked from the many photographs they took. 

As far as the Wellness Center, “It will be a center of compassionate support for pet owners who have the desire to keep their pets healthy and compliant with the law but may not have the financial means to do so,” Mr. Swisher said. “It will improve local communities by supporting the mutually beneficial relationship we have with our pets.”

Ms. Beaver agreed. “The whole building is for people who are struggling. Sometimes people who are struggling are the ones that most need the love of a dog or cat. We want to help keep pets in their homes, which is where they belong.”

Staff will not be asking clients to verify that they are low-income. An honor system will be in place, Ms. Beaver said.

While spay and neuter surgeries can cost several hundred dollars at private veterinary offices and clinics, the center will charge $40-$55 for cats and $60-$85 for dogs.

Currently more than 10,000 spay and neuter surgeries are performed at Animal Friends a year, and that number is expected to rise to 15,000 with the Wellness Center services. Moreover, staff hopes to double vaccinations to 30,000 per year. As many as 10,000 families will get pet food at the Chow Wagon Pet Food Bank, now in the new building.

“We are not looking to compete with private veterinarians,” Ms. Beaver said. “We are serving people who do not have the money to go to a private veterinarian.”

Animal Friends also has bought more land to expand the 13-acre campus to 75 acres and accommodate the Wellness Center and walking trails and exercise areas for the dogs.

Animal Friends is at 562 Camp Horne Road, Pittsburgh 15237. A big crowd is expected for the grand opening, so additional parking will be up the street at Stone Quarry Crossing, 811 Camp Horne Road, and shuttles will transport people to Animal Friends.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064 or on Facebook.