Staff at the Humane Society Waterville Area had every reason to howl along with their caged dogs in the past year or so.
In the fall of 2017, a distemper outbreak killed 20 cats and kittens.
In early 2018, the shelter became home to a stray named Dakota, a husky that was on death row until then-Gov. Paul LePage pardoned her and a District Court judge granted her a reprieve.
Then came Bentley and Cole, two pitbulls sentenced to death by a Maine court that escaped the shelter and still are on the lam.
After that Lisa Smith, the former executive director, resigned.
The low point came in August, when new Executive Director Lisa Oakes realized the shelter had run out of money. She sent out a public plea for funding, saying the shelter otherwise could close within three months.
“I started the ‘save your shelter’ campaign last August,” Oakes said. “We barely made payroll in August. We had three or four months of funds left.
“We put out the Bat-Signal,” she said referring to the distress call from the Batman movies. “There are always situations like the pitbulls that people grab onto. We were able to learn from that situation so it doesn’t happen again.”
Her strategy is to be as open as possible when something bad happens at the shelter, such as the distemper outbreak.
She also publicizes situations when the shelter helped animals, like the 12 cats that were found last fall locked in a storage container for 17 days. Five died but seven went up for adoption.
And more recently, she highlighted the case of 1-year-old Siberian husky siblings, Kane and Kiara, that came in as strays with parvo, a contagious and sometimes fatal viral disease, but were treated successfully. The inseparable pair soon will have a meet and greet with their potential new owners from the Waterville area.
Since last August, the shelter has raised more than $180,000 toward its goal of $250,000. No single donation exceeded $5,000, meaning there was a lot of community support coming back, she said. The shelter still is seeking contributions to make its $600,000 annual budget.
The shelter, with 12 full-time and four part-time employees, gets 20 percent of its budget from the 24 communities it serves. The rest derives from grants and a 25 percent increase in adoption fees that started in January.
The shelter handles up to 2,000 animals a year, finding more than 97 percent of them homes. The rest are typically euthanized because of sickness or other reasons, she said.
Shift to no-kill shelter
The shelter’s downfall didn’t come just from bad publicity surrounding a few condemned dogs and the feline distemper case that killed cats.
Oakes said that under previous management, fundraising was a low priority.
Now, it is a focus for the shelter.
And Oakes does credit Smith, the executive director who left after the pitbulls escaped, with saving a lot of animals.
“Four years ago, we had a 67 percent placement for animals, which meant 30 percent or more of animals were euthanized for space and time to care for them,” she said. “We’re now saving as many animals as possible, with 97.5 percent placed in homes. But that costs more.
“So under Lisa Smith we changed from a high-kill to a no-kill shelter,” she said.
The shelter works with other animal groups for placements, such as a recent partnership with the Community Cat Advocates, a feral cat rescue organization in Buckfield. The Humane Society Waterville Area was able to place several ferals with them.
The cats in turn went to homes with heated barns and heated water bowls so they could stay mostly outside.
It also has an agreement with the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland to spay or neuter kittens. The Portland shelter will spay and neuter all the kittens from Waterville for free, but keeps half of them to rehome.
Students pitch in
Waterville and the surrounding communities have responded to the shelter’s need for help.
A Colby College Jan Plan class, in which students focus on a specific topic for a month, focused on philanthropy and raised $10,000 through two anonymous donors to dole out to charities. The animal shelter received $6,000.
“Our dog adoption floor is very loud at 95 decibels,” she said. That’s about the same as a running motorcycle engine. The shelter is using the Colby money for baffles to quiet the dog area.
And four Benton Elementary School sixth-graders raised close to $3,000 this January in a Cause for Paws fundraiser for the shelter. The fundraiser was done as a penny war, in which each student tried to raise the most money by collecting extra pennies from their classmates each morning.
“We want to make sure we make connections between the people and animals,” Oakes said. “It improves lives.
“We’ve turned a corner. We are in repair mode,” she said. “So many things need to be fixed, updated and improved. But we’re getting there.”