It started as simply an intellectual challenge. On New Year's Eve at the dawn of 1996, Betsy Saul, then an urban tree planter, and her husband, Jared, a medical student, were tossing around ideas for creating the perfect site on the nascent World Wide Web.
But unlike many people who were thinking of posting their family photos or putting up pages about their latest vacation, the Unionville, N.J., couple had a higher purpose in mind. They wanted to develop a site for a nonprofit or government agency that otherwise couldn't afford it.
They threw around several ideas until one gave these animal lovers goose bumps: They could use the Web to connect adoptable pets in animal shelters with potential adopters. And, just like that, Petfinder.com was born.
Within two weeks, the website was up and the couple were listing pets. In the first year, 80 groups in New Jersey listed animals; many of them reported that their adoptions doubled that year.
The Sauls invested thousands of dollars - and hours - in running the site and keeping it up-to-date (all while keeping their day jobs).
In those early days, the Sauls decided that their time and money would be well-spent if their efforts resulted in a single animal's life being saved each month.
But the site grew faster than they ever imagined. In 2002, Petfinder.com facilitated the placement of 1 million animals. Currently, the number of participating shelters and adoption organizations has ballooned to more than 6,000. At any given time, some 130,000 animals (dogs, cats, ferrets, birds, horses, even pigs) are listed.
Today, Petfinder employs 18 people, but all its services are free not only to participating shelters and animal rescue groups but also to potential adopters, thanks to corporate sponsorships. The carefully selected sponsors have unobtrusive ads on the site, which, in June 2003 alone, had more than 5 million visitors.
Potential adopters can search the site by type and/or breed of animal they're interested in, with results sorted by proximity to the searcher's ZIP Code.
Animal shelters and rescue groups create individual Web pages, usually with a photograph, for each available animal.
Experts say that the return rate for animals adopted through Petfinder is lower than for those adopted at a shelter, where it's easier for people to fall in love with (or take pity on) an animal that might not be right for them.
Debbie Allen of Chesterfield, Mo., searched Petfinder after Rocky, her Labrador retriever mix, died suddenly. There, she saw Bear, a black Lab with a face hauntingly similar to Rocky's. He was in Granite City, Ill., not far from her home.
"When I saw Bear's picture on the Animal Network's Petfinder site, I just went on over to Granite City," says Ms. Allen, who adds that she wouldn't have found Bear without Petfinder.
Animal shelters - large and small - find the site just as helpful as individuals do. "Petfinder has had a significant impact on our adoption numbers," says David Williams, director of operations for the Michigan Humane Society, which copes with some 50,000 animals a year in its three shelters. "Over the last three years, we have seen a 35 percent increase in adoptions."
He credits Petfinder with at least half of that increase. One way that the site has been particularly helpful to his group is by allowing dogs who are placed in private foster care due to minor illnesses to be adopted without ever having to return to an overcrowded shelter.
Through Petfinder, people have come to the Michigan Humane Society from as far away as California to adopt an animal. The site also allows shelters to reach people who might not have the time or inclination to come into the shelter, Mr. Williams says. "We are probably attracting people who wouldn't otherwise have adopted from us."
Petfinder's success is deeply satisfying to the Sauls, because it furthers their mission of ending the euthanasia of adoptable pets, Betsy says.
"If anybody needs any evidence that a single person can make a difference, it is that a medical student and a tree planter created something this big," she adds. "If you have an idea that gives you goose bumps, you need to do something about it."