By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — WHEATFIELD -- Beware Lockport Road on Saturday.
What you'll see will be creepy, crawly and just downright scary.
But, it will also be a whole lot of fun for kids and adults and is shaping up as the biggest fundraising event of the year for the newly revitalized SPCA of Niagara.
The first annual Niagara SPCA Zombie Fest is set for 2 to 11 p.m. Saturday at the organization's shelter and surrounding grounds and is offering up a host of Halloween-themed events.
"It was (SPCA Board of Directors Vice Chair) Dave Bowers' idea and the more the board thought about it, the more they thought it could be an incredibly fun event," SPCA Executive Director Andrew Bell said. "And it's grown incredibly since then."
For the kids, there will be a bounce house, a maze and a costume parade. For the entire family there's hayrides, a barn and a costume contest featuring pets.
"They can expect the best haunted hayride in the area," Bell said, "And the haunted barn will have amazing effects and live actors."
Bell said folks will be able to compete to see who has the scariest scream and for those who might be hungry, there'll be the spiciest chili cook-off and something called a Brain Eating Contest.
"We're hoping it will be our biggest event to date," Bell said. "Since we've become a No Kill shelter our veterinary expenses have gone up significantly."
The shelter was rocked by reports of mismanagement and animal maltreatment contained in a Gazette investigation that broke on New Year's Day. The Gazette storlies led to the firing of the then shelter Executive Director John Faso and a review of operations there by Erie County SPCA Executive Director Barbara Carr.
In a scathing, 115-page review, Carr called the operation of the Lockport Road shelter “chaotic” and “dysfunctional” and said many of the practices there were “totally improper,” “awful” and “excruciatingly painful” to some of the animals in its care.
The report led the shelter's board of directors to call for the election of a new board and the rewriting of the organization's by-laws. The new board has moved aggressively to turn the operation around and stabilize the organizations finances which severely impacted by the revelations of mismanagement and maltreatment.
"(The shelter reorganization) is going well," Bell said. "We can see the changes in attitudes in the community toward the organization. Donations from the public are turning around, but we still need corporate support."
Bell's counterpart, Shelter Director Amy Lewis, said Zombie Fest is another important way for the shelter to engage the community.
"I think it's huge," she said. "I think it's going to be really successful. Like the Dog Days event (this summer), it's trying to get a good feeling going for the shelter."
Lewis, and much of the staff and many of the shelter volunteers, will be in full "zombie mode" on Saturday. The shelter director even dressed for the part earlier this week.
"Yeah, that was my first experience at "zombie-tizing" myself," Lewis said.
Bell said he'll forgo the zombie experience.
"I originally had planned to (make himself up like a zombie)," Bell said with a chuckle. "But I think I need to stay available and recognizable."
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the event will be the Zombie Dog Walk into the meadows that surround the shelter.
"The zombies will go out into the meadows and do what zombie's do," Bell said.
When asked by reporter, "What do zombies do?" Lewis replied, "I would imagine they'd be looking for a victim to eat their brain."
Ultimately, Bell said, fun events like Zombie Fest can go a long way toward both raising badly needed funds and changing the community's view of the shelter.
"People are trusting us to do our job now," Bell said. "One of the things we believe is the shelter should be a happy place, where animals are brought to find new homes, not brought to die. Our adoptions are way up and this is part of a whole changed attitude here."