By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette — It was exactly one year ago that a Gazette investigation rocked the SPCA of Niagara with allegations of the routine killing of dogs and cats and a pervasive failure to provide necessary medical care to animals left at its shelter.
What a difference the last year has made.
When the story first broke, multiple sources, inside and outside the shelter, told the Gazette that from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15, 2011, 473 cats and 100 dogs had been euthanized at the Lockport Road shelter. Sources familiar with the situation at the shelter called the number of killings “staggering.”
The survival rate for animals brought to the shelter then was 47 percent
A scathing review of the local shelter operations, conducted by Erie County SPCA Executive Director Barbara Carr, led to the firing of its executive director John Faso and the resignation of its entire board of directors.
In May a new board of directors took control of the shelter. Their changes were rapid and dramatic.
“You actually have a working board (of directors) now,” said the new Board Secretary Michelle Madigan. “You have a shelter director and an executive director all focusing on the same mission.”
The new board tapped the former Deputy Director of the Erie County SPCA, Amy Lewis, to take over the shelter’s operations. Then they reached into their own ranks and named Andrew Bell to run the administrative and fundraising side of the organization.
The new board members say they knew they faced huge challenges in taking over the troubled shelter.
“It’s been interesting and challenging,” said Board Vice President Dave Bower. “It took a lot of effort to get this change. Was it tough? Oh yeah.”
For Bell, a former pet shop and kennel owner, he knew there would need to be a culture change at the facility.
“I think the community, now, is recognizing that we have changed,” Bell said. “And that this is a good place to come (with animals).”
But perhaps no change that the new board has taken has been more profound than making the shelter a “No Kill” facility. As a result of that decision, the survival rate at the shelter today has risen to 90 percent, making it one of the highest in the nation.
“It’s nice to tell people that I work at a place that saves animals,” Bell said.
Not only have the changes been a lot of work, they haven’t come cheap. Both Bell and Lewis have admitted the new way of doing business is significantly more expensive than the way the old board and executive director operated.
“The main hurdle we face is financial,” Bower said. “We need that public and corporate support.”
The new board treasurer, David Urban, said that despite what some members on the old board had insisted, the shelter had been “left with a financial mess.”
“I thinks it’s been our biggest struggle,” Urban said. “We struggle every week to meet our commitments.”
But that hasn’t deterred either the new board or Lewis and Bell.
“Sometimes the challenges seem overwhelming,” Madigan said. “ But your love for the animals carries you through it.”
In efforts to win back the community’s trust, the organization has conducted free vaccination clinics in the Falls. It’s held a series of creative fundraisers on the grounds of the shelter to left the public see the changes that have taken place.
Even the group’s finances are now posted on the shelter’s website.
“We need continuing donations and we need corporate support,” Urban said. “We are not going back to the old days, but it’s taken time and a lot of money (to re-make the shelter).”
And more money will be needed in the future. The shelter’s capital improvement needs are many.
A new surgical suite, new kennels for the dogs, an isolation ward for animals who arrive with infectious diseases and a new crematory for those animals who die from natural causes have been requested.
Also high on the list of needs, a full time veterinarian to provide care for the animals and to establish a low-cost spay and neuter program.
The organization had applied to local foundations for grants, but those in charge say without community support their mission will be in trouble.
“It’s taken a lot of work to get the community trust back,” Urban said.
After a dip at the height of the trouble at the shelter, the number of volunteers has rebounded as well. Around 100 volunteers now take turns helping with the shelter’s day-to-day needs.
“I can’t say enough about the volunteers,” Bower said. “They are right in there with us.”
Perhaps one change that stands ut most from one year ago and today are the adoption rates from the shelter. On New Year’s Day 2012, dogs and cats had a better chance of dying on Lockport Road than finding a new home.
“The number of adoptions this year will smash all our (previous) records by a long way,” Bell said. “We can adopt our way out of shelter killing and we are doing that.”The Gazette is counting down its top 10 stories of the year through New Year's Day. The list: n 10: Tumultuous year for Falls air base n 9: Airport takes hit with Direct Air shutdown n 8: Lewiston Road's rough ride to repair n 7: Culinary institute opens in downtown Niagara Falls n 6: Gruesome mysterious death stuns Falls n 5: Child murder shocks the community n 4: Change is afloat for the Maid of the Mist n 3: Falls struggles in absence of casino cash n 2: SPCA reborn after scandal n COMING TOMORROW: Walking a fine line with top story