Photo by George Lauby
A rescued cat, Gilligan, and Jenn Porter-Milne
Photo by George Lauby
Porter-Milne in the commons room of the new pet rescue shelter.
Photo by George Lauby
Dixie Lehmkuhler and Rhonda Castille of the North Platte Animal Shelter.
Animals saved the life of Jenn Porter-Milne. Now, she is returning the favor.Porter-Milne runs the cat rescue section of “Fur the Love of Paws” a homegrown effort to rescue cats and dogs that are without a home.
Abandoned pets turn up at the North Platte Animal Shelter and if shelter workers cannot find a home for them, Fur the Love of Paws takes over.
Porter-Milne concentrates on cats. Her colleague Jessica Sprague handles dogs.
In following her passion, Porter-Milne has become one of North Platte’s most active advocates, gathering support and donations for the cause, organizing affiliated activities and also fostering community discussions on a wide range of issues through facebook.
It's been a transformative experience for the woman who, just eight years ago, mostly stayed home, afraid to go out, suffering from post-traumatic stress and drinking to deal with it.
“I had a rough life,” she said. “I had a traumatic childhood. I was sexually abused as a child and raped as a teenager.”
Porter-Milne dropped out of high school, but earned a GED later.
At her lowest point, her pets were her biggest comfort.
“They literally saved my life,” she said.
Six years ago, she hit bottom and resolved to get sober. She checked into treatment. Afterwards, she slowly rebuilt her life, overcoming her fears without the solace of alcohol.
She’d always loved animals.
As a child she dreamed of being a veterinarian, but didn’t pursue it because of the troubles in her life.
So when she got sober, she went to the city animal shelter to see if she could volunteer. That ambition became her guiding force, the one thing outside her home with which she felt truly comfortable.
Through repeated visits, she gained the trust of the shelter director, and started helping find homes for abandoned cats.
She created a facebook page, showing pictures of the animals that could be adopted. She publicized what information she could find about the potential pets. And she tried to help pet owners find animals they lost.
About the same time, she met Sprague, who was trying to do the same sorts of things for dogs. They made a natural team. Another fortuitous helper, Jolene Sabin, offered to help the keep the books and became the business manager.
They formed a non-profit business in 2011 – Fur the Love of Paws.
Similar operations – the North Platte Pet Food Pantry, Lost Paws and Cans for Critters – followed.
At the Pet Food Pantry, people can donate unsued pet food to those in need. The group Lost Paws reaches out in every way possible to connect missing pets with their owners.
Cans for Critters collects aluminum to sell to recyclers and help fund the effort. Collection sites are set up all over town.
The rest of the operating money comes from donations, fundraisers, sweat equity and the help of many volunteers. Everyone involved -- the owners and their staffs -- volunteer their time.
The pet support businesses are a good fit with Paws-itive Partners, an existing North Platte group that strives to spay and neuter dogs and cats, reducing the numbers of neglected and abandoned pets.
Both groups have earned the support of veterinarians, many of who agree to work for reduced rates to support the cause.
"One of our biggest passions is helping people and their pets stay together," Porter-Milne said.
Their efforts have borne significant results. According to city records, the number of pets adopted in 2016 rose 30% above the total in 2012, due to the work at the animal shelter and Fur the Love of Paws.
Animal Shelter Director Dixie Lehmkuhler said the shelter handled 1,425 animals in 2012, considerably more than last year, when the number fell to 1,158.
The number of pets that had to be euthanized at the shelter fell from 76 to 22 during those years.
Porter-Milne calls her work a life-long dream.
“This is what I’m here on earth for,” she said.
In late 2015, Fur the Love of Paws organizers found an opportunity to take another step – to buy a building and create a sanctuary for pets who face euthanasia at the city shelter.
They found a building for sale near B and Bailey, but didn’t know how they would raise the $25,000 down payment.
The building is a complex of offices, with three other businesses whose rent covers the monthly mortgage payments. Still, Fur the Love of Paws needed to raise the down payment.
Porter-Milne said she didn’t see any way to raise that much, but after a couple days, decided to try anyway. Facing a two-month deadline, she and the other volunteers organized fundraisers and collected private donations.
They raised the money and purchased the buildings.
Then came 9-10 months of remodeling, courtesy of husband Pat and Jenn's father, Bill Porter.
"They were terrific,” Porter-Milne said.
Porter-Milne said the “Fur the Love” group saved countless dogs and cats before they opened their own shelter. If a home couldn't be found for an abandoned pet locally, they sent the pets to other cities and states.
But now, they want to help Lincoln County be responsible for pet ownership. They have moved beyond lining up foster homes for felines to finding permanent homes.
The clean, spotless rescue shelter has rooms for recovery, lounging, socializing with cats and people, a small office and a place where a new owner can play with the cat, forging a new bond before the cat leaves the familiarity of the shelter.
The staff analyzes each cat to check its health, its temperament, its likes and dislikes, and see if it gets along with people and other cats. If the cat doesn’t have a name, it receives one, along with shots and an identifying microchip.
It is ready for adoption for $100, about half the cost that a veterinarian charges.
Porter-Milne’s dedication has also brought her a new job. She is a pet groomer, which is a good fit. She can express her abiding love for pets, and also work flexible hours.
She went through a lot of mental turmoil for many years, but she’s past it now.
“I don’t look back,” she said.
This report was first published in the Bulletin's April 19 print edition. It is reprinted by request.
In follow up comments, Porter-Milne said:
At times throughout a pet’s life, they can reach obstacles that sometimes pet owners just don't know how to handle -- such as no longer wanting to use the litter box, behavior issues or health related challenges.
Many of these issues can be fixed or adjusted with simple lifestyle modifications. We encourage pet owners to reach out for help when they feel frustrated, because they are not alone and there is help out there.
Working on solutions with pet owners helps pets stay out of shelters and in homes with the families they love.
You can always contact Fur the Love of PAWS for guidance or with any questions you may you have, at any age, or stage of pet ownership.
Gilligan is the cat pictured above. He is a 10-year-old gentleman. He went on a trial run to a new home a few days ago. It's looking like it might become his forever home.
Gilligan's entire history is unknown, as he was found as a stray, but we worked hard to find out what he wants for his future. We invite you to check out our facebook page at Fur the Love of Paws and learn more about our sweet cats!