BRUNSWICK, Maine — A dispute that included the dismissal of five volunteers has leaders at Coastal Humane Society concerned about their ability to conduct a campaign to raise nearly $4 million for animal shelter improvements.
The disagreement also has some board members mulling spending money to counter claims by the former volunteers that the shelter conditions are unacceptable.
The five volunteers, who were dismissed in August, claim the shelter has poorly maintained yards, inadequate storage space for food, unreliable supplies of special-diet food, and unreliable climate control in the dog isolation area, among other issues.
However, no complaints have been filed with the Maine Department of Agriculture’s Animal Welfare Program since 2006.
“Every time I have been there, I have seen the same thing that I see at all the shelters across the state — a lot of hard-working staff and volunteers trying to do the best they can for the animals and the community they serve with limited resources,” said Liam Hughes, the program director.
The dismissed volunteers — Samantha Malsch, Cathy Paquette, Rebecca Leeman, Susie Hobart and Amber Jensen — said rather than filing a formal complaint, they hope to effect change by word of mouth.
“We would love to see dogs’ conditions improved and isolation area fixed now, and not fixed three years from now,” Jensen said. “We’d also love to see the administration changed.”
Karen Stimpson, the shelter’s executive director, said the volunteers were dismissed because their criticism was creating an uncomfortable environment that led staff and other volunteers to quit.
She said volunteers have left in groups before because of new protocols or different philosophies, but they had never been this outspoken.
“When the volunteers started causing us to lose other good staff and volunteers,” Stimpson said, “that’s when … we had to take some action.”
Jensen disagreed with Stimpson’s assessment.
“We were dismissed because we spoke up and questioned their practices,” she said.
Stimpson and other shelter officials admit, however, that conditions are not ideal at the aging facility at 30 Range Road. They acknowledge it has poorly maintained yards and fluctuating temperatures in the dog isolation area. But they said conditions are not inhumane.
Tony McDonald, president of the shelter board of directors, said the board invited the Humane Society of the U.S. to conduct an audit a few years ago and have since hired a new veterinarian to help implement the group’s recommendations.
He said they hope ultimately to resolve any issues through plans to renovate the facility and transform their 190 Pleasant St. office into an adoption center.
“What [the critics] don’t seem to be willing to accept is we have to take care of 250-some odd animals on a very light or deficit operating budget,” McDonald said. “We can’t make everything perfect, so we’ve got to do the best we can with the money we have, and they don’t accept it.”
The society is conducting a three-year campaign to raise $3.8 million in four phases:
— $400,000 to pay off a loan the shelter used to buy the Pleasant Street office two years ago and perform temporary renovations.
— $2.5 million to build a new adoption center at to the Pleasant Street office.
— $400,000 to renovate the Range Road facility for intake and pet rehabilitation.
— $400,000 to renovate the Pleasant Street office into an animal community center.
The campaign is currently in a preliminary “silent phase,” where shelter board members are assessing how much the community is willing to donate.
Besides providing improved facilities for animals and staff, Stimpson said the project will attract more attention from potential donors, adopters and the general community.
The adoption center, in particular, will provide “client-friendly open areas and adoptions rooms [that] will allow visitors and pets to meet and bond in a relaxed environment, ensuring a lower rate of returns,” according to a campaign presentation.
And the animal community center will create space to “accommodate school programs, workshops, lectures and humane education events for children and adults,” along with space to hold parties and animal-oriented events.
“Once you have a beautiful place, people come flooding in,” Stimpson said. “But if you’re at the end of a dead end street, with not that great of an appearance, people don’t come flooding in.”
She said the new facility will also allow most animals to move into real homes much more quickly than they do now.
Katie Hanberry, Maine state director for the Humane Society of the U.S., said minimizing the stay of shelter animals is in the animals’ best interest.
“The quicker you can move them through the shelter the better,” she said. “… Minimizing stays is definitely in the best health and interest of the animals.”
But before the shelter can fully move forward, McDonald said Coastal Humane Society is still grappling with how to handle criticism from the dismissed volunteers.
In recent weeks, he said, the shelter has been using resources to answer questions about alleged issues that were mentioned in two local newspaper reports. The shelter also posted a response on its website, to reassure supporters about its commitment to animals and offering tours for anyone who asks.
“[The criticism is] an annoyance to us and it takes away our energy away from the important work of this capital campaign and improving conditions,” McDonald said. “I don’t know what they want. I can imagine we all want the same thing.”
He said the criticism has also prompted him and another board member to contemplate spending money on a campaign to reverse any damage.
“Do we need to take precious resources to go on a public relations campaign to counter what they’ve been saying?” McDonald said.
Jensen, one of the dismissed volunteers, said it’s not her group’s goal to shut down the shelter or hurt the animals. She said they hope to bring about a change in leadership and a faster improvement to conditions at the Range Road facility.
Jensen said it didn’t occur to her if her group’s efforts will hurt the shelter’s campaign to improve facilities.
“Our whole goal is to get the public aware of what’s happening,” she said.
Hughes of the Maine Animal Welfare Program said shelter leadership and the former volunteers likely have the same goal at heart — to provide the best care for animals — but a different way to get there.
“A lot of the shelters in the state are operating with shoestring budgets and trying the best they can for all the community,” he said, “so not everyone is going to agree about how it should be done.”