WESTBROOK — Hayley Chaimowitz has an enviable job title during her volunteer shifts at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland.

The 24-year-old South Portland resident is a “cat socializer.”

Once a week, she spends an afternoon playing with cats while they wait to be adopted. This week she could be found in the kitten room of the Animal Refuge League’s new shelter in Westbrook.

The animals and staff moved last week into the 25,000-square-foot building on land behind their former home on Stroudwater Street, where it has operated since 1956.

“All the space for the cats is amazing,” Chaimowitz said. “It’s huge. They get to walk around.”

The Animal Refuge League previously operated in three separate buildings with a combined 12,000 square feet. Four years in the making, the new shelter brings all operations under one roof with features that include a modern surgical center, isolation rooms for sick animals and outdoor play areas. The nonprofit raised $6.5 million for its construction, including a $1 million donation from Portland developer Arthur Girard, for whom the adoption center is named.

“The goal is really to showcase them,” said Jeana Roth, director of community engagement. “We made more space for each animal.”


The Animal Refuge League oversees more than 4,000 adoptions each year. It finds adoptive homes for stray and surrendered cats, dogs, rabbits and other small animals.

The old shelter had a capacity for about 300 animals. The new building isn’t meant to increase the number of pets available for adoption; instead, it will give each one more space to live and play.

The new location opened to the public last Friday, and Roth reported 49 adoptions in that first weekend – including three cats that spent nearly one month at the old shelter. The animals had moved into three new rooms with glass windows that look onto the lobby, where visitors immediately noticed them.

“We’re seeing the benefits of the thoughtful design, and it’s definitely helping animals find new homes,” Roth said.

Cats roamed or napped on the ladders in three new multi-cat rooms, which in nice weather will have access to a screened-in outdoor “catio.” Most cats lived in kennels at the old shelter.

“The goal was to have more free-roaming, natural spaces for them,” Roth said.

Justin Reid, 33, scratched the ears of a black cat named Charlie. He was planning to adopt a cat to keep his friend’s cat company at their Portland apartment, but he had not chosen one yet.

“Let it happen organically,” he said, watching Charlie play with a stuffed Santa Claus on the floor.

Large dogs had smaller kennels at the old shelter, but their new rooms are bigger, with glass doors instead of metal grates. So Peg Gautier has ample room to visit the large dogs like Titan, a 7-year-old American pit bull terrier mix. When Gautier retired about seven years ago, she joined more than 250 regular volunteers at the shelter.

“They’re all great dogs,” she said. “They have had a certain amount of socializing.”


The new shelter also has an updated surgical room for spay and neuter procedures, as well as a classroom. Roth said the Animal Refuge League will now be able to run camps for young students out of its home base.

“We know if we can teach kids at a young age to responsibly care for pets, they’ll grow up to be adults that responsibly care for pets,” she said.

Fay Harrington and Kylee Austin, both freshmen at the University of Southern Maine, giggled as they petted a 2-year-old orange tiger cat named Ollie. Harrington’s cat Pebbles recently passed away, and she’s been thinking about adopting another from the Westbrook shelter.

“They all need homes,” Harrington said.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at 10:30 a.m. Friday, and the shelter’s annual open house event is set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.


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