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A woman on a mission for the Niagara County SPCA

WHEATFIELD – The creative Polla Milligan has worn many hats in her career, but it is clear that her stop as the Niagara County SPCA’s director of marketing and development is a good fit.

How many other people have a blog for their rescue dog with a backstory that reads like a novel?

Henry Higgins’ Blog of the Dog tells the story of her beagle’s journey from puppy mill to beloved pet of a divorced professor, whose wife cheated on him. The story continues when the dog’s owner died and he was surrendered to a bad family that mistreated poor Henry.

Compelling to say the least, but all made up, admits Milligan, 64, of Cheektowaga, who also has written a few unpublished novels. She has a degree in English literature from the University at Buffalo and associate degrees in community mental health and in travel and tourism.

She spent 10 years as a grant writer for the Food Bank of Western New York, prior to taking on the new marketing position for the Niagara County SPCA one year ago.

But she joined the SPCA as a board member in 2012 after it restructured and became a no-kill shelter. The shelter is recovering from accusations of incompetence and inhumane euthanizations of healthy animals.

Milligan said changing people’s perception of their shelter is one of her top priorities, as well as raising funds and awareness of what is involved in being a no-kill shelter.

Director Amy Lewis said, “The public really needs to know we need their support. There was so much publicity when the scandal happened but there are still pockets of the community that don’t realize we are a no-kill shelter and are so dependent on community support. Without it we can’t do what we do. Being a no-kill shelter is really, really expensive.”

Milligan also started a Facebook page dedicated to helping people find lost pets called – WNY Lost and Found Pets. The page hosts 23,000 users and is used regularly by local dog control officers, rescue organizations and SPCAs in Western New York, Southern Ontario and Western Pennsylvania.

“It’s just exploded,” said Milligan. “You lose your pet and say where you lost it and 100 people will be out there helping you look.”

Did you always want to work for the SPCA?

For me it was my dream to work with animals. It always has been. But I couldn’t be here every day and see what people do to animals. I would not be a good candidate for that because I tend to be an empath. Luckily, I am out in the field. I get an awesome opportunity to meet with all kinds of people. Every time I get money for this place it’s like – yeah!

What led to your job as a grant writer for the Food Bank?

I started as a file clerk. I had a nutrition puppet show with a dragon that only ate candy. The kids loved it. I did that for four years. Then my boss, who was doing the grants, left and they asked me if I could write grants. I said I would try and lo and behold the first grant out the door I was able to get a $10,000 freezer door from M&T. It was pretty exciting. I was floored. Then I just went crazy writing grants. It was really fun.

What did you want to do when you started out?

I’m the daughter of professors. I didn’t go to college right away. I wanted to play rock and roll in bars. So that’s what I did for 20 years, professionally. I lived in Los Angeles for awhile. It was so much fun. I don’t have any two-legged children so consequently I’m free. I played music, but I’ve always done volunteer work.

So you came back to the area.

I got married and had family here and I just wanted to return. I was born in Michigan, Ann Arbor, but we moved here when I was 11.

What is your role with the SPCA of Niagara County?

I’m the first development director they’ve had and that’s very important. Amy ran the whole show and put on the events.

What is a no-kill shelter?

The shelter became a no-kill shelter in 2012 and we were assured at that time that the community would give us tremendous support and that hasn’t happened. So consequently we need help, lots of help. Many no-kill shelters are folding because they can’t keep it up. It’s twice as expensive because you get older animals, unwell animals, and your commitment is to keep them alive until you can find them homes, to the best of your ability. Obviously, if an animal is so unwell, it has to be euthanized, or so aggressive. It happens sometimes. But for the most part we give everyone a really good chance.

Have you seen this shelter struggling?

I know the shelter is definitely struggling. I know people are loath to let go of that old perception of us so the campaign has to be multifold. Obviously, we need money and volunteers, but we also need community love. A lot of members of the community think we are in the bad ol’ days and are unwilling to let go of that. Others don’t know who we are. Besides bringing in funding and new volunteers, my job is to get our name out there. I’m trying to establish the fact that we are a community partner.

What types of fundraisers do you have planned?

We did a calendar last year, but this year’s calendar for 2017 will be a Valentine to Niagara County. We did a photo contest with rescue animals. Twelve of them won, including a ferret and a bunny. We are going to take those animals all over Niagara County, from Artpark with Henry Higgins and the mounted sheriff patrol, dogs eating ice cream at Lake Effect Ice Cream, dogs at the locks, dogs on the boardwalk at Olcott with merchants and their animals, Old Fort Niagara with soldiers and wenches and dogs at the opera at the Riviera Theatre. It’s just going to be this huge love affair with Niagara County. All the business associations and travel and tourism are going to help us promote it.

What other things have you done this year?

The first event we did was Hounds and Heroes. I expanded on what they were already doing. We had it here on the grounds, but this year [11 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 25] we are going to have it in Reservoir State Park. We are going to have the hound hike, a classic car show. It’s all things American, honoring our veterans and first responders.

What ideally would the SPCA of Niagara need to function better? Are you trying to expand?

We would love to expand to function better with bigger kennels and better ventilation. We can’t afford the extra staff we need. I never feel like I’m overworked because I love what I’m doing. I can work 70 hours and not even feel it because I love it. But we need to expand. The kennels are way too small. We are all crowded. Our industrial washing machine was being held together with bungee cords and now it died. We have two residential washers and volunteers and staff are taking laundry home.

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If you want to donate, volunteer, learn more about Henry Higgins or needed expansion visit the Niagara County SPCA online at niagaraspca.org.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.