By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Apr 16, 2008 at 5:29 AM

For an animal lover, a visit to a local shelter can be a heartwarming experience. Adorable puppies and kittens are in high demand, and for a moment, it's easy to imagine that the problem of stray animals is being solved by these well-funded no-kill shelters.

But what about the less adoptable dogs and cats, the ones you rarely see at the shelters? Large breeds, older animals -- or dogs that might resemble pit bulls and simply scare away potential families?

That's where Amy Christiansen, founder of the Companion Animal Resource and Adoption Center (CARAC), comes in. The mission of her Southridge Mall shelter is to place the stray animals that are harder to adopt. Working with the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission, or MADACC, she's built a no-kill facility that is saving the animals that otherwise wouldn't make it into loving homes.

"MADACC accepts nearly 12,000 animals a year, and the overwhelming majority face euthanasia," says Christiansen. "There is just nowhere to go with them and every day more are coming in -- without CARAC, the euthanasia number would be even higher."

Three years ago, Christiansen began CARAC after hearing about an opportunity from the Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha. Its executive director, Lynn Olenik, offered to temporarily sponsor this program with MADACC, providing it would become self-sufficient within six months. So Christiansen, a Milwaukee native, moved back home from Kansas City and began her labor of love.

"I work every day, all day, because if I don't, animals die," she says.

The group initially worked out of a conference room at MADACC, but eventually settled on its space at Southridge -- on the second floor, near Kohl's -- which once housed an arcade.

Says Christiansen, "The mall-type setting allows for great visibility and accessibility, requires minimal exterior maintenance, and provides tremendous security for the animals and volunteers.

"It gives us the opportunity to reach a lot of people."

At the storefront -- which doesn't look a whole lot different than it did as an arcade (minus the video games, of course), the shelter houses a few dozen cats. Most get adopted eventually, but the ones who don't live out their lives with the center's 30 active volunteers. Dogs, particularly large breeds and older animals, live in 15 foster homes, and are taken to local pet supplies stores to be shown on weekends.

"We don't discriminate against an animal for entrance to the program based on age, breed or health, as long as the animal can maintain a reasonable quality of life," says Christiansen. "Right now, CARAC has two heartworm-positive dogs and a senior dog all receiving advanced medical care. We believe that once an animal enters our program, it is treated as one of our own."

Additionally, the center provides animal education through the Downtown YMCA. Together, they created "MYPAW" -- Milwaukee Youth Promoting Animal Welfare. The group meets twice each month to learn about and ask about various animal-related topics, like spaying and neutering, puppy mills and the consequences of animals in advertising.

Christiansen admits that she was naïve when starting the shelter, not fully understanding all the challenges in donor support and public recognition. Like all non-profit groups, CARAC could use better funding, upgraded space and more resources to bolster its budget.

She says, however, that every little bit helps -- and if given the chance to do it all over again, she would in a heartbeat.

"Get involved on whatever level you feel comfortable," urges Christiansen.

Whether that's donation, adoption, volunteering or educating -- any assistance helps save a stray's life.

Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.