Potomac couple starts organization to help Allegany County Animal Shelter

John Camp and Mindy Farber, founders of Friends of Allegany County Animal Shelter, with Lulu, a mixed breed they found at the shelter. Photo by Lisa Helfert

On a sunny morning in late April, longtime animal advocate Mindy Farber and her husband, John Camp, are hitting the road in their white Dodge Ram pickup, its bed crammed full of donated pet food and products that fellow animal lovers had left on the front porch of their Potomac home. Nicky, a 9-year-old dachshund mix, and Lulu, a black mixed breed, bounce around in the back seat of the truck’s cabin.

Their destination: the Allegany County Animal Shelter, where they plan to drop off the donations and pick up a 4-year-old abused Shetland sheepdog in need of a loving home. The shelter is about 120 miles away in Cumberland, one of the poorest cities in Maryland. It is the county seat of Allegany County, where the poverty rate is about 15% and the median household income is less than $50,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent figures.

Farber and Camp have been traveling to Cumberland regularly since late in the summer of 2020, when they founded Friends of Allegany County Animal Shelter (FOACAS), an organization dedicated to helping the financially strapped nonprofit that runs the municipal animal shelter. The organization helps find foster and forever homes, mostly in Montgomery County, for some of the Cumberland shelter’s cats and dogs. Forty-five members who pay annual dues that help fund the group’s work also organize pet-food drives and raise money—nearly $80,000 in the past year alone—for veterinarian expenses and other needs, according to Farber.

For Farber and Camp, helping the shelter is an all-consuming passion.

“It’s so geographically, culturally and economically different from here,” Farber, a retired employment and civil rights lawyer, says of Cumberland.

“It’s only a two-hour drive, but you feel like you’ve been to another world. The needs there are so tremendous.”

The shelter’s executive director, Tina Rosa, and manager, Patty Collison, say they are astounded by the generosity of the FOACAS supporters and their enthusiasm for helping a shelter so far from their wealthier environs in Montgomery County, where the median income is about $112,000 and the poverty rate hovers under 7%. A year ago, a GoFundMe campaign sponsored by the group raised $26,000 in a matter of days to help buy a vehicle to replace the shelter’s broken-down animal-control truck. Along with some of its own funding and a donation from a Virginia dealership, the shelter was able to buy a used four-wheel drive Chevrolet Silverado pickup.

“When we raised the money to buy a new truck, I thought [Tina] and I were both gonna, like, drop over dead,” Collison says. “It didn’t take weeks to do that. It literally took days to do that.”

Roughly two hours after leaving Potomac, the pickup rumbles up a gravel driveway and pulls in front of the shelter’s intake building, one of several structures on the 7-acre campus on the city’s outskirts. Farber climbs down from the passenger side, effusively greeting Rosa and Collison with hugs, as Camp hops out and starts unloading bags of kibble and dozens of cans of pet food, along with several animal-transport crates and large homemade pillows suitable for dog beds. Nicky and Lulu, a shelter dog being fostered by the couple, jump out as well.

Soon, Farber and Camp are following Becky Shreve, the part-time adoption coordinator, back down the driveway to the shelter’s veterinary clinic in the basement of a brick building that formerly housed the county sheriff’s department. It’s time to meet Sparkle—the reason they’ve traveled so far.

Voluntarily surrendered by a breeder in late April after an animal control officer found her wandering outside, the Shetland sheepdog, or sheltie, was suffering from an allergic reaction to fleas that left her “skin on fire,” according to Shreve, and her hind quarters devoid of the long white fur, flecked with brown and black, that covered the rest of her body.

“Boy, she’s tiny,” Farber says as Shreve brings out Sparkle, who is shaking from head to toe under a teal cloth wrap that protects an incision made during spaying surgery. “She’s only about 15 pounds,” Shreve says, noting that a normal sheltie would weigh about 25 pounds. “She could probably gain 5 pounds and be a good, healthy weight.”

Though Sparkle is skittish, she greets Farber and Camp with a wagging tail. Shreve says she contacted Farber about finding a home for Sparkle because she wanted the dog placed with someone willing and financially able to provide the care she needed.

Before traveling to the shelter, on Easter Sunday night, Farber posted a photo of Sparkle and her story on the social media site Nextdoor. “By Tuesday, we had 21 applications” to foster her, Farber says. FOACAS handles the vetting of potential fosters and adopters for animals that it takes to Montgomery County, and also pays to spay or neuter the animals and for vet exams. “Sixty to 70% of the time we find something that’s wrong, and we take care of that,” Camp says.

Farber and Camp usually handle applicants for dogs, while other FOACAS members deal with those for cats. For Sparkle, they chose a Northern Virginia couple who have two other dogs, including a sheltie, and were willing to take on the medical care that Sparkle required.

“I thought it was better for her to have the best life possible, and a lot of the times that’s with the people down in Potomac,” Shreve says.

John Camp unloads a truck full of supplies for Allegany County Animal Shelter. Photo by Lisa Helfert

Farber, who grew up on Long Island and says she’s “always been a big animal lover,” traces her passion for dogs to when she was 8 and her parents decided to get rid of the family mutt by driving it to another town and leaving it there. Distraught over the loss of her pet, she told her parents she was “not going back to school, not going to eat” until the dog came back home, she recalls. Her guilt-ridden mother then began “systematically” searching local shelters until she found the animal, which had been turned in, Farber says. The family then kept the dog for 14 years.

A longtime volunteer, Farber has served on the boards of the nonprofit PetConnect Rescue in Potomac and the Montgomery County Humane Society. She says she and Camp, both of whom lost their first spouses to long illnesses, decided after marrying in 2019 to “retire and do charitable work.”

Toby, an ailing older pit bull who’d been thrown from a moving vehicle, was the inspiration behind the founding of FOACAS. “That was the dog that put the ball in motion,” says Marlene Schooler, a member of the FOACAS executive board who also chairs the Animal Matters Hearing Board in Montgomery County.

Farber learned about the Allegany County Animal Shelter from a Potomac friend who was looking to adopt a poodle mix in the summer of 2020. People who knew about Farber’s involvement with animal rescue groups often asked her for help in locating a pet. Knowing it would be difficult to find the popular mixed breed locally, Farber told her friend to try the shelter in Cumberland on the suggestion of Camp, who knew about the city through his work in commercial real estate development.

Farber says the friend ended up adopting a poodle mix from the Allegany County shelter and, after witnessing the poverty of the area, suggested that Farber contact the facility to see if it needed help. Farber spoke on the phone with Collison, who told her about Toby in hopes of finding him a home.

Farber took to social media to spread the word about the abandoned dog, who was emaciated, covered in mange, missing teeth and suffering from kidney failure. Dozens of people responded with offers to help pay for treatment, but no one was interested in adopting Toby until the Lindstrom family of Bethesda decided to travel to Cumberland to meet him. Though the family of six already had an 11-year-old golden retriever and a 2-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, they agreed to adopt “super-sweet” Toby, knowing he might not live much longer. “It was more about really giving him a good home and end-of-life experience,” says Shannon Lindstrom, the mother of four sons ages 13 to 20.

The family brought Toby home in September 2020 and soon could see that the large dog loved car rides and cuddling with his new family members.

“Toby would think he was a lapdog,” Lindstrom says. Her younger sons walked him every day. But the transition wasn’t smooth, and it required patience and flexibility; Toby didn’t get along with one of their dogs, so the animals had to be kept apart in the house, Lindstrom says.

The family fed Toby the same diet of a raw ground-meat mixture that their other dogs ate, at a cost of as much as $500 a month for his share. Lindstrom credits the mixture with helping him live another 15 months, during which he enjoyed rides in the family convertible. Lindstrom says it was difficult to lose Toby when he died in mid-December 2021, but the family took solace in the fact that they helped him to live his best life during the time he had left. “He was a great dog and we loved him a ton,” Lindstrom says.

Finding a home for Toby galvanized Farber into trying to help the animal shelter. She began posting about its needs, and by late 2020 had gathered a group of about 40 interested people from Potomac, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Rockville and Silver Spring who joined together to form FOACAS.

The first time Farber and Camp visited the shelter, she says they brought two tons of donated pet food. As of late April, the group had helped more than 135 cats and dogs, according to the couple. In addition, members have organized a program to neuter cats and have raised money to provide the shelter staff with Christmas bonuses, Schooler says.

FOACAS serves as the shelter’s “safety net,” Rosa says.

“If something out of the ordinary comes up and we need a little extra help, it’s nice to know they’re there. They’re such good people that will step up to the challenge and help us any way they can.”

Until 2010, the Allegany County Animal Shelter operated as a kill shelter, euthanizing about 85% of the animals it received, primarily because there wasn’t room to house them, Rosa says. That year, word got around that a family who couldn’t take their dogs along when they moved decided their pets had a better chance of surviving in the wild than if the family left them at the shelter. “That sort of sparked a community uprising, and a ban was placed on euthanasia until they could get a handle on things, and, honestly, we just never went back,” says Rosa, who left a 20-year career as a state employee to become the shelter’s executive director in 2013.

Now, the shelter euthanizes an animal only if there’s a medical necessity or its behavior is so extreme that it can’t be rehabbed, according to Rosa. The facility holds the distinction of becoming the first no-kill municipal shelter in the state, according to its website. “We do not euthanize for space,” Rosa says.

Rosa, Collison and Shreve work for the nonprofit Allegany County Animal Shelter Management Foundation, which has contracted with the city since 2013 to run the shelter. Its annual operating budget is about $750,000, and the foundation receives just under $500,000 from the city, Rosa says.

By contrast, Montgomery County officials were planning to spend more than $2.7 million to run the county’s animal shelter and adoption center in Derwood as part of the $8.7 million budget proposed for the county’s Office of Animal Services for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Allegany County Animal Shelter Management Foundation makes ends meet by applying for grants, holding fundraisers and events, and taking both financial and in-kind donations, like those provided by FOACAS. The shelter also works with several rescue organizations. Still, staff members struggle to meet the shelter’s needs. Veterinary treatment for some of the animals can cost thousands of dollars.

“It’s very, very difficult,” Rosa says. “For a lot of years we struggled because of the space and moving animals [out of the shelter].” The shelter now includes a dog kennel that can accommodate 44 dogs, a shed that’s used as a nursery during kitten season, and a revamped mobile home that serves as a cat kennel.

In late April, the shelter was housing about 40 dogs and 150 cats, but the cat population was expected to swell to about 1,200 once kitten season heated up in late spring, according to Collison. Earlier this year, Farber suggested that the shelter should hire a part-time adoption coordinator to ease Collison’s workload, and offered funds from FOACAS to pay half of the position’s $27,000 annual salary. Shreve, who started in March and works 26 hours a week, serves as the shelter’s liaison with FOACAS and posts photos and bios of adoptable animals online, which has “really made a difference in bringing people out to the shelter to adopt as well,” Rosa says.

FOACAS’s outreach efforts have built a network of people in Montgomery County and in Northern Virginia who want to help the shelter’s animals. Collison recalls when a cat named Sandy needed surgery that would cost $6,000, so she called a cat-loving supporter in Montgomery County to see if he could help. “He didn’t even blink an eye. He said, ‘I’ll give you half the money.’ I was like, ‘Really? I’m just absolutely speechless,’ ” Collison says, laughing. “And that’s the truth.”

Alixe Siegel with Simon, a 4-year-old Lab-pit bull mix she found through FOACAS and fostered before adopting. Photo by Lisa Helfert

The big, brown beseeching eyes of a beagle nearly fill the frame of the photo posted on the FOACAS Facebook page. “Lost and bewildered as he roamed the hills outside Cumberland, Lucky Jr. the Beagle was picked up and taken to the Shelter,” the post says. “We brought this two-and-a-half year old beauty down to Montgomery County. FOACAS found him a wonderful foster and someone who would work with him so he could find joy again.”

Those who support FOACAS or have adopted dogs through the group say the social media postings, often written by Farber and including a heart-tugging story, are the key to the group’s success at finding homes for animals. Laura Richardson of Rockville was looking for a dog last year when she came upon a FOACAS posting. “I immediately wanted this dog,” says Richardson, who didn’t want to share details about her pet. “Mindy has a way with words. She just blew me away.”

Farber says FOACAS will take animals from the shelter on a case-by-case basis and “typically tries to tell one story at a time,” making sure to be transparent about an animal’s condition and its issues. She’ll also call Shreve with requests for dogs that meet specific requirements, including size, temperament and an ability to be good with kids.

Shreve and Collison say they contact FOACAS when they have an animal whose best chance for survival is to leave the shelter as soon as possible, or one they know would be adopted quickly.

“We know if we call Mindy and her group, those animals are going to live the life of Riley,” Collison says.

On rare occasions, the shelter will ask Farber to take an abused dog that has been impounded or brought in to lessen the chance that it will be returned to its owner. Such was the case in March, when Collison called Farber and arranged to meet FOACAS members at a highway truck stop to hand over an abused dog that had been turned in by a relative of its owner.

According to the county’s animal control laws, the shelter must keep an impounded animal for at least 96 hours to allow an owner time to claim it. Any animal not claimed in that time period then can be put up for adoption, the law says. Collison, who joked that the dog was going into “witness protection,” says she and Rosa wanted the animal away from the shelter before its former owner came looking for it. The dog was adopted by a Montgomery County family, according to Farber.

“It’s heartbreaking when you have to give them back” after the animals have been mistreated, Collison says.

Finding a home for Simon, a 4-year-old Lab-pit bull mix, is considered one of FOACAS’s biggest successes. The roughly 50-pound dog had lived in the shelter his entire life and needed some behavioral training in order to be adopted. A retired couple in Great Falls, Virginia, agreed to foster him during the summer of 2021 and work on his training. Others donated money to pay his vet bills and for him to go to a positive-training boarding center in Middleburg, Virginia, where he was “No. 1 in his class,” according to Camp.

“Here was this dog we were told couldn’t get along with anybody,” he says. “Shelters just have so much stress. Our job is to get them out of the shelter so they can be the dog they can be.”

Though Simon received gifts of toys, a dog bed and a training leash, he ended up back at the shelter at the end of the summer. Hoping to find someone else willing to foster him, Farber posted a long message titled “Sweet Simon has never had a home” and three photos of the tan and brown dog on Nextdoor in August 2021. “Most of all, Simon would love to be adopted,” Farber wrote. “He is so patient but so perplexed waiting for his turn. On the few occasions someone walks by, he looks up hopefully. He knows he shouldn’t be there and wants everyone to know he’s a sweet and loving boy.”

Alixe Siegel, who grew up in Bethesda and now lives in Takoma Park, was still mourning the recent loss of her 8-year-old pit bull, Meatloaf, when her mom texted her after seeing the post on Nextdoor. “She said, ‘I think this could be your next dog,’ ” says Siegel, a pre-kindergarten teacher.

She contacted Farber, agreed to foster Simon, and says she quickly fell in love with the dog. After spending a month with him, she decided to adopt him, becoming what’s known happily in pet rescue circles as a “foster fail.” She takes him on a 3-mile walk in Rock Creek Park after work and is continuing his training. “I really don’t know how he was in the shelter for so long. I think it’s just such a high-stress environment that no one could really see his true self,” Siegel says of Simon, who now weighs about 65 pounds.

For Farber and Camp, the commitment to helping the shelter animals goes beyond their work with FOACAS. They also adopted a dog in need of a home: a 14-year-old miniature poodle that had been abandoned in a parking lot. The dog was blind and suffering from mange when he arrived at the shelter, according to Farber. “We just took him. We gave him the best time of his life,” she says. “We’re hoping he had such a good life with us that he never remembered” his mistreatment. The dog died four months after the couple brought him home.

“We do these things,” Farber says. “I don’t know how we could stop. I can’t say no.” 

Contributing editor Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring.