Organization protects dogs and cats in East St. Louis, IL

A small army of animal lovers who call themselves the Gateway Pet Guardians are trying to transform the way society — and their industry — protects dogs and cats.

Command central is the former Miles D. Davis Elementary School in East St. Louis.

The sprawling 54,000-square-foot building houses an animal shelter and adoption wing, but most efforts focus on reuniting or keeping dogs and cats with their owners, not taking them away and finding new homes.

“We understand that some folks live on fixed incomes, or they have financial crises,” said Jill Henke, 39, director of community programming for Gateway, a non-profit organization that moved from St. Louis two years ago.

“They lose their jobs, or their cars break down and money is tight. We don’t think that means you should give your pet to a shelter. We want your pet to be able to stay at home with you, and we can help with pet food and some of the veterinary care, and things that may come up while you’re working through that financial struggle.”

Many cases of animal neglect and abuse result from lack of resources and other social problems, Henke said.

Donors and volunteers help Gateway’s staff operate a free pet-food pantry, a low-cost pet supply store and a subsidized veterinary clinic. They plan to eventually offer baths and grooming.

“It’s beyond rescuing pets,” Henke said. “We’re trying to create a thriving pet community.”

The organization gears most services toward residents of the largely poor communities of East St. Louis, Washington Park, Fairmont City and Cahokia Heights (formed by recent merger of Cahokia, Alorton and Centreville). But anyone can take advantage of its vaccination program.

kennel.jpg A pit-bull mix was one of three dogs being housed on Friday in the kennel at Gateway Pet Guardians. Derik Holtmann [email protected] exterior.jpg The former Miles D. Davis Elementary School in East St. Louis is now home to Gateway Pet Guardians. Derik Holtmann [email protected]

Feeding the homeless

Gateway’s roots in East St. Louis go back to 1995, when a St. Louis woman named P.J. Hightower drove through the city on her way to a relative’s house in Belleville and saw packs of homeless dogs roaming the streets. She started stopping and leaving food for them.

Nine years later, four women who had been contributing to Hightower’s cause formed the nonprofit organization.

Their big break came in 2012, when veterinarian Ed Migneco, owner of Hillside Animal Hospital in St. Louis, allowed them to use a 2,400-square-foot building on his Manchester Road property as an animal shelter at no charge.

“Life’s been good to me,” Migneco said last week. “It was my way of giving back.”

Migneco recently sold his 35-year-old private practice to his daughter. He’s now a Gateway employee who runs its veterinary clinic, which is believed to be the first ever in East St. Louis.

On Friday, Migneco performed four spays and one neuter, fixed an eyelid abnormality on a pit bull and pulled some bad teeth on a shih tzu.

“It’s a very rewarding job,” Migneco said. “That’s what I always tell my friends. The people are so appreciative of us being here, and the police department has been very supportive.”

East St. Louis officers sometimes bring in strays for possible adoption, and once Migneco treated their police dog for heat exhaustion, he said.

gateway vet.jpg Gateway Pet Guardians veterinarian Ed Migneco sold his private practice to run the organization’s clinic. Derik Holtmann [email protected] training room.jpg Stuffed dogs wait for the next round of volunteer training at Gateway Pet Guardians in East St. Louis. Derik Holtmann [email protected]

Vacant for four years

Built in 1982, Davis Elementary School was being used as a kindergarten center five years ago, when East St. Louis School District 189 closed it as part of a reorganization plan. Swings and other playground equipment still stand behind the tan-block building.

Namesake Miles Davis, a legendary jazz trumpeter, grew up in the city in the 1930s.

“We’re actually going to be working with a local artist to do a mural to memorialize Miles Davis and the school itself because I think it had a big impact on the community before it was closed down,” Henke said.

Today, the fenced grounds are surrounded by signs of urban decay — a boarded-up apartment building, homes with collapsed roofs and vacant lots filled with trash and overgrown weeds.

But it’s proven to be an ideal location for Gateway, which bought the property in 2019 for $201,000, according to staff.

“It’s right off (Interstate 64),” said Intake Manager Sara Cordevant, 35. “MetroLink is right on the other side of the highway, and there’s a walking bridge that comes right up to our building, so it’s very accessible.”

Gateway staff and volunteers moved into the building in January of last year with plans to open to the public in March, but COVID-19 restrictions delayed that until August.

The organization still took in 820 dogs and cats and adopted out 782; served 86 families in the food pantry, which is temporarily drive-thru; spayed, neutered or treated 1,010 animals at the veterinary clinic; and provided 2,511 hours of dog training, according to a 2020 impact statement.

Kimberly and Jessie Smith, of Cahokia Heights, are among Gateway’s biggest fans.

Earlier this year, they had their two cats, Carli and Sadie, microchipped and spayed and received free collars and tags. Four days later, Carli went missing after slipping out of the house through a cracked door. Someone found her and called the Smiths.

“If it weren’t for them, I would have never gotten her back,” said Kimberly Smith, 57. “I don’t know what would have become of her. She’s my baby. We’ve had her since she was born.”

CarliCatMissing.jpeg Carli, a cat owned by Kimberly and Jessie Smith, of Cahokia Heights, is back at home, safe and sound. Provided store.jpg People can get low-cost leashes, toys and other supplies at the Gateway Pet Guardians store. Derik Holtmann [email protected]

Room to spread out

Many people are surprised that they don’t hear dogs barking when they walk in the front door at Gateway. Its 13 large kennels occupy a former preschool space on the opposite side of the building.

Only three dogs — a pit-bull mix, a Rottweiler-shepherd mix and a purebred English bulldog — were being housed on Friday.

“We have 54,000 square feet, so that allows us to spread out, and animals don’t stay here long,” Henke said. “They either get adopted right away or we send them to foster homes. We pride ourselves on that.

“Dogs don’t do well in shelters. There is so much constant change and stimulation, different sounds and smells, and that’s not good for animals that thrive with structure and routine.”

Gateway has 17 staff members, including Executive Director Emily Stuart, a trained social worker with a background in nonprofits.

Their work is supplemented by more than 100 volunteers, such as Katy Perry, 37, of St. Louis, who was cleaning kennels and walking dogs on Friday.

“I love animals. I love dogs,” Perry said, noting that she volunteers in memory of a rescued shepherd-chow mix she owned from 2005 to 2019.

“Her name was Kassie. She was the greatest dog I ever had, a soulmate, really. If I hadn’t taken her in, she would have died. And working here at Gateway, I have the opportunity to help other dogs find their loving forever families.”

colunteer walks dog.jpg Gateway Pet Guardians volunteer Katy Perry, 37, of St. Louis, takes an English bulldog for a walk. Derik Holtmann [email protected] bathroom sign.jpg Gateway Pet Guardians went for a little humor when posting this sign for the men’s bathroom. Derik Holtmann [email protected]

Even a photo studio

Elsewhere in the building, Gateway has converted classrooms into pet playrooms, clinic exam rooms, staff offices, volunteer-training rooms and spaces where feral animals can be separated and socialized.

One men’s bathroom became a doggy spa with two large tubs. The gym provides storage for cat litter, animal cages and other donations, as well as straw given away for dog beds.

There’s even a photography studio, complete with professional lights, furniture and props for making dogs and cats look adorable for potential adoptive families.

“(The building is) so big, we have a walkie-talkie system to communicate,” Cordevant said.

Other services include a telephone hotline and a monthly trap-neuter-return program to reduce the population of “community cats.”

Gateway’s new metro-east operation is a source of pride for staff members, some of whom left higher-paying jobs in the corporate world to work for a nonprofit dedicated to animal protection, according to Henke.

Now they have a building that matches their giant vision and agenda.

“It is the largest pet-resource center in the region,” Henke said. “You have to go to Chicago or Kansas City to find something similarly sized.”

Gateway Pet Guardians is at 725 N. 15th St. in East St. Louis. Hours are 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Appointments for veterinary care are available on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. For more information on getting services, making donations or adopting pets, call 618-687-8007 or visit

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. Thursday to clarify that free spaying and neutering are limited to the organization’s service area (East St. Louis, Washington Park, Fairmont City and Cahokia Heights).

surgery center.jpg Lead veterinary technician Rhianna Louis holds a pit bull recovering after eyelid surgery at Gateway Pet Guardians. Derik Holtmann [email protected] photo studio.jpg Gateway Pet Guardians has a full studio manned by volunteer photographers who help animals get adopted. Derik Holtmann [email protected] dog food.jpg Bags of dog food are mixed and stacked in the Gateway Pet Guardians pantry for pick-up. Derik Holtmann [email protected]

Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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