Two local animal shelters in desperate need of repair are each a whisker away from a $1 million face-lift.
The Queens-based Bobbi & the Strays, and the Little Shelter Rescue and Adoption Center, in Huntington, L.I., are among the 20 finalists vying for top prize in a national shelter makeover contest sponsored by ZooToo.com.
"Our dream is to build a bigger shelter so we can bump up adoptions and take in more animals," said Sandy Unger, adoption coordinator for Bobbi & the Strays, which operates out of the dreary Vetport at Kennedy Airport.
The nonprofit, no-kill facilities, which rely on private donations, fund-raising events and small armies of volunteers were picked from 974 other shelters across the country.
Pet lovers nominated their favorite shelters on ZooToo.com, a user-generated Web site where people share their opinions and experiences about all things related to pets.
On Tuesday, ZooToo founder and former Meow Mix CEO Richard Thompson joined judges from the Humane Society of the United States on a visit to the two facilities. It was the first stop on a month-long site tour before announcing a winner on May 15.
The runnerup will receive $10,000 and each of the remaining shelters receive $5,000 for shelter renovations.
But both New York shelters are more than worthy of winning the big prize.
Since 2001, Bobbi & the Strays has run its bare-bones operation from a cramped and dismal cement building - two rooms lined on both sides with two rows of cages, plus a sink room and an outdoor run - which currently houses 21 dogs.
"It's like a cement jail cell," Unger said. "A lot of the dogs are depressed and volunteers quit because they can't take it."
Due to lack of space, cats are housed in a small donated retail space in a Glendale mall.
High on the shelter's wish list is one central large space with room for storage, a room dedicated to adoptions and a quarantine room to house sick animals.
The ultimate hope, Unger said, would be to acquire and renovate a new building that's more conveniently accessible by public transportation.
Still, working in an inadequate shelter space hasn't stopped them from saving animals. Last year, the group rescued and found homes for about 500 cats and dogs. Many were taken from the streets, pulled from the city-run Animal Care & Control shelters or surrendered by their owners.
Founder Bobbi Giordano does everything she can to make the animals happy, including cooking roasted chicken.
"She eats, sleeps and drinks these animals," Unger said of Giordano. "She has one mission in mind: To save as many cats and dogs as she can, and put them in homes so she can save more animals."
At Little Shelter and Adoption Center, president Maryann Chernovsky shares the sentiment.
"More attractive accommodations will help the animals' chances of being adopted," she said. Last year the shelter found homes for 600 dogs and 400 cats.
Built in 1927, the cement-and-tile shelter, which currently houses 384 cats and 53 dogs, is showing its age. Upgrades and repairs ranging from electrical wiring and larger kennels to a new floor and roof are sorely needed, but Chernovsky says it cannot be done without donations.
Little Shelter's top priority, however, is to build a medical facility that could perform procedures including spay and neuter surgeries, so animals don't need to be transported off-site.
Surprisingly, while each shelter would love the $1 million makeover, the two New York shelters aren't in competition. Regardless of which shelter wins, the outcome will be that more New York animals will be adopted.
Unger says even Oprah is calling on the public to adopt, not buy. After airing a segment that exposed the atrocities of puppy mills last week, Oprah vowed never to buy another dog from a store, and urged her viewers to adopt from shelters.
Unger said, "Maybe people will finally get it."