Father John, a retired clergyman, cared so lovingly for his cattle in the 1940s that when he died, the road next to his farm in Lafayette, New Jersey was named for him. New generations of animal lovers continue his legacy of compassion through Father John’s Animal House, built on land he used to oversee. the shelter has experienced crises and, at times, faced an uncertain future. But there must be perseverance deep underground because shelter director Garret Barcheski and his team are saving hundreds of animals, and they have no plans to stop.
Did you have pets growing up?
It was always a zoo in my house. my parents are animal lovers so i grew up with dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, snakes, birds, a chinchilla and a mouse named kirby. they cultivated my appreciation for animals.
Where did you go from there?
I got a degree in animal behavior from the university of new england in maine, and volunteered at shelters, observed obedience classes, trained shelter dogs, everything. I got a job at an animal welfare society right out of college, taking care of dogs and facilitating adoptions. there, i met a four month old pit mix named doug and that was it! he was my best friend.
how did father john get started?
Our property has housed animals since the 1940s, when Father John was engaged in agricultural research. after his death, a family with a kennel took over the property, housing dogs and pigs. then in 1999 some people from the community bought the property to start a shelter for stray animals. by 2012, the roof was collapsing and they said, “is this the end or the beginning?” The board decided it was time for a fresh start and they raised enough funds to build a state-of-the-art facility complete with ventilation systems, sound absorbing panels, free movement areas and more.
how did you connect with father john?
He ran a dog-training business, lectured on dog language, and taught dog-handling techniques to rescue groups. I first visited Father John’s in 2015 and became the kennel manager, which was a perfect match.
With an increasing number of “pandemic puppies” being returned, how do you make sure the animals stay in your home?
we help people understand the negative impact surrender has on a dog. We offer coaching and telephone advice. because when you have a puppy, and they’re chewing and pooping on everything, you need support. or if someone has a big vet bill, he may need help. there is so much conflicting and incorrect information that people need to know where to turn.
How is your day to day in the hostel?
As a shelter manager, there is no typical day. it’s unpredictable. I’m a to-do list guy, and the plan usually ends up being scrapped. recently, we were planning to work on an outdoor project, but a dog came in with very little medical history. we gave him a tick treatment and the dog started having seizures. so we spent the whole day watching it. we have to be open to what happens and put the animals first.
How do cats and dogs end up at Father John’s?
We have a problem with feral cats in this area. we will get 300 to 500 cats a year from sussex county. many are deliveries from homeowners, from people who are in the midst of a housing crisis or a life crisis. or people will find kittens outside. dogs come from everywhere. we will retain a stray, and they are usually recovered. we accept deliveries and receive about 30 of them each year, usually due to behavioral issues.
but the main way they get there is through our rescue partners in mississippi. In the Southeast in particular, there is a problem with a high supply of dogs and low demand. so we found a rescue partner that aligns with our mission, ethics, and quality of care.
To what do you attribute your success?
two years ago was a turning point here. despite the pandemic we decided that we have to do more. So we made changes, like creating a streamlined adoption process, increasing our responsiveness to adopters, and providing phone counseling to prospective pet parents, and we found homes for 765 animals in 2021! our success comes from the 17 motivated and genuinely caring people who work here and all of our volunteers. we are focused on understanding how to support the adopter, community, staff, and board. we want to reach 1000 adoptions this year!
How do you pair a pet with a family?
our team is very good at this process. we are matchmakers. we live it and breathe it. we are giving someone the joy he is thirsty for. The process begins with filling out a questionnaire. people need to take an honest look at their lifestyle and family. then it’s a phone call or walk-in visit. it is a conversational adoption process. no one adopts without this advice.
if you want a cat, we have several free-roaming cats so you can observe their personalities. you will have the opportunity to interact with a dog alongside an expert, who will advise you on where they sleep at night, how many times the dog needs to go outside and how much stimulation he will need. we look at the interaction and see if there is a connection. we talk to people about what to expect and make sure it’s the right choice.
How do you get funding?
We spend between $1,200 and $1,300 per animal on medical care or behavioral training. Father John’s is a non-profit organization. almost everything is from donations. our biggest fundraiser is a steak dinner. during the pandemic, we couldn’t do it, but 90 percent of the guests said they’d rather donate the money, it was amazing.
Is there a particular time you’ll never forget?
in January 2021, we welcomed four pregnant dogs who had 36 puppies in 14 days. that reinvigorated us after the pandemic. we made it out alive!
what are some misconceptions about shelters?
People think the shelter is going to want all this personal information. we’re moving away from that because we want to remove barriers to adoption. if someone has already made this decision, then let’s help them.
Sometimes people think there must be something wrong with a shelter animal. but just like humans, they are products of nature and nurture. some will come with terrible pasts, some will not; some are not so sturdy, some are. It depends. a newly adopted cat can stay under your bed for two months. they don’t know they are being saved! if you can take an empathic approach, it’s a rewarding experience when the cat comes out from under the bed.
What is the most rewarding thing about this job for you?
we’ve created a space for someone to experience fellowship. It’s amazing that every day we give people the opportunity to receive unconditional love.
for more information about the shelter and to donate or adopt, visit fatherjohns.org.
For more inspiring animal stories, subscribe to all of God’s creatures magazine.