Seeing her in a sprawling Gold Coast residence, sitting in the (literal) lap of luxury, it’s hard to believe that two months ago Josephina, a shy black-and-white terrier mix, was struggling to survive on the streets of Greece. But every dog has its day – and last September, she was lucky enough to be found by one of the country’s foremost stray advocates: Paula Fasseas.
It’s not the first time the founder of PAWS Chicago — the city’s beloved no-kill animal shelter — has brought home a pup literally plucked from the streets while on vacation. But she’s gone far beyond the occasional rescue; this business-savvy philanthropist has been the savior of thousands of cats and dogs, while reducing the number of euthanized pets in the city by 70 percent through spay/neuter programs in low-income communities.
On Nov. 15, the organization will host its biggest event of the year: the PAWS Fur Ball, a pet-friendly, black-tie gala where even the animals are encouraged to dress up. Started by luxury retailer Escada, the party has grown over the last 12 years to host more than 700 guests and 150 canines at the landmark Drake Hotel (140 E. Walton). With celeb supporters like Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan donating a private dinner and concert, PAWS hopes to soar past last year’s $1 million mark, with all proceeds benefiting its pet-saving services.
The whole operation began 16 years ago, when Fasseas had an awakening. She and her husband, founders of North Community Bank, were vacationing on the Greek island of Crete when a stray terrier followed their daughter, Alexis, back home. After learning the fate of Greece’s stray dogs — according to Fasseas, they are poisoned by farmers — the family decided to add one more furry member, bringing Pippen home to Chicago.
“I started reading all things dogs,” Fasseas remembers. “I started seeing articles about dogs being killed in Chicago and I was surprised. Why would shelters be killing dogs? I didn’t see strays around here, so I didn’t think that was an issue.” Fasseas did some research at the city pound while Alexis volunteered at a humane shelter, and the two learned the troubling statistics that spurred them to action: At the time, more than 40,000 dogs in Chicago were being put down each year.
Armed with this new information, Fasseas set out with her two-pronged approach: Find homes for existing pets, and spay/neuter animals to reduce the future population.
Sixteen years later, she’s built PAWS into the largest no-kill animal shelter in the Midwest and one of the largest in the nation. The organization gives medical treatment and a guarantee of life to every animal that enters its doors (only euthanizing animals that a behaviorist has certified as inherently violent or animals with untreatable suffering). Between PAWS’ adoption, spay/neuter and vaccination programs, 36,000 animals come through its doors every year.
At its first event, PAWS had 26 dogs and found 26 homes. Fasseas remembers, “The next day, I had 50 calls to my office. People saying, ‘That was fabulous, we want to help, what’s the name of your group? We want to volunteer.’ ” That was in 1997. In 2012, she found homes for 5,606 cats and dogs.
Fasseas was at the forefront of a movement to make stray dogs more desirable to a purebred-loving public. Using classic marketing tools, she decided to “rebrand” her strays by hosting adoption events in luxe retail stores like St. John and Ralph Lauren, swaddling adorable pups and kittens in the labels’ upscale reputations. Suddenly, PAWS pets were a point of pride — and adoptions soared. “Partnering with luxury retail was an amazing combination. Ralph Lauren built a puppy bed out of mahogany and we put these homeless puppies in it and they got adopted like they were the most in-demand item. It helped change that whole image,” Fasseas says. Now, “It’s a badge of honor saying ‘Oh, mine’s a rescue.’ ”
Through PAWS, Fasseas oversees 5,000 volunteers, 100 staffers and four veterinarians. As any pet owner can attest, vet bills have a way of adding up, so the organization has a yearly budget of $7.5 million (more than the city’s animal control budget), raised entirely through philanthropy. That’s why the Nov. 15 Fur Ball is such a critical fixture on the PAWS calendar: It raises 20 percent of the annual budget.
With the gala around the corner and new projects on the horizon (PAWS will be opening a Highland Park location in 2014), Fasseas is riding high. She’s on track to transform Chicago into a no-kill city in the next three years. “We’re on our way,” she says. “When you see a problem like this that’s so solvable, I felt that we had to get people in the community doing great things.” And for Fasseas, it’s been her goal to lead by example, changing the world four paws at a time.
Since she started PAWS, Fasseas has been constantly taking in cats and dogs, adopting or fostering them until they find loving homes. She’s lost exact count, but says that she’s played mom to 250 to 300 four-legged friends. “Probably more,” she laughs. Here are some of ones that have stood out to Chicago’s resident pet patron.
Daisy: Daisy was Fasseas’ first pup, a beagle that her godfather won in a golf game. “It went everywhere [with me],” she says. “My father said, ‘There’s a doghouse, the dog stays outside.’ The dog never stepped foot in that doghouse. It was in my bed from day one.”
Koukla: Fasseas fell head over heels for the long-haired Chihuahua when she saw her wandering a drive-in theater in Tucson. “She was the sweetest thing, just like a little doll,” Fasseas says. Which is why she chose the name Koukla: It’s Greek for “doll.”
Piper: “Piper was from our first adoption event,” Fasseas remembers. “She had a cold and we were afraid if we took her back to animal care that we’d never see her again. It was sort of a failed foster.”
All of these dogs will be available to adopt at the PAWS Fur Ball: Nov. 15, Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton. For tickets, visit Furball.pawsevents.org.
Oscar de la Renta: coat, $3,390 Courtesy of Saks Fifth Avenue, 700 N. Michigan; Saksfifthavenue.com
A. Marek Fine Jewelry: grey moonstone and diamond slice earrings, $6,000; Cynthia Back diamond necklace, $26,725, 3021 Butterfield, Oak Brook; Amarekfinejewelry.com
A. Marek Fine Jewelry: mixed-cut Spring diamond earrings, $32,500; sapphire and diamond necklace, $93,000; mixed-cut diamond bracelet, $80,000; diamond line necklace, price upon request; cushion-cut sapphire and diamond ring, price upon request; 3021 Butterfield, Oak Brook; Amarekfinejewelry.com
Photographer: Kirsten Miccoli
Video: Fig Media/James Gustin (Editor: Tony Burke)
Hair: Darrin Goins for Anthony Cristiano
Makeup: Sarah Lukasiewicz for Amazing Cosmetics
Styled by: Kit This
Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios
Splash staffers fall in love with PAWS’ four-legged friends