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After crisis, Niagara County SPCA is 'the little shelter that could'

The dozen happy dogs being walked by volunteers on the Wheatfield property of the Niagara County SPCA on a recent mild day were a tangible demonstration of change.

Less than 10 years ago, volunteers were actively discouraged. Today, Executive Director Amy Lewis said, the volunteer ranks range between 150 and 220, depending on the season.

"There were very few volunteers when I came, so hiring a volunteer coordinator was one of the first things I did," she said. She also hired a dedicated full-time investigator to compile evidence in animal cruelty cases, she said. "That is very, very important when your primary mission is to investigate animal cruelty, and that was lacking when I came on."

Lewis left the SPCA Serving Erie County five years ago to take over the troubled Niagara County shelter in the wake of a damning report about mismanagement and cruel and unnecessary killing of animals. As she marks her fifth year in the job, Lewis paused to look back at the changes she and the new Board of Directors have made, and to consider the future.

"We are just now discussing brand strategies, because we are out of that mode where we were putting out little fires," she said. "I'm particularly proud that our little shelter does an awful lot with the resources that we have, so we're kind of playing with the idea that we're the little shelter that could."

The 9,000-square-foot shelter, built in 1988, is fitted with serviceable but outdated wire-front kennels that are aired out when garage doors to a passageway behind the kennels are opened.  The shelter's permanent housing for 74 dogs and 105 cats can be supplemented with temporary cat condos, and often is, in kitten season.

Amy Lewis, executive director of the Niagara County SPCA, cuddles Houdini the office cat. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The increased staff and the larger numbers of adoptable animals in the building has brought home the fact that it's a small shelter, said Lewis. "Certainly it wasn't a small shelter when there were only 10 dogs in the building, but it has become small now."

When Lewis took over in March 2012, she found that about 54 percent of the animals who came into the building as strays or surrendered by their owners were euthanized. An investigation by then-Erie County SPCA executive director Barbara Carr, done at the request of the Niagara County SPCA's board of directors, revealed that their deaths were not only unnecessary but painful. Several staff and board members resigned, and local attorney Paul Cambria accepted a request from the then-board to oversee the transition.

In July 2012, Lewis and the board took a giant step away from the shelter's distressing history by designating it "no kill," a term that can be confusing. "A lot of people think that 'no kill' means that  no animal is ever euthanized, and that is not the case," said Lewis. "We couldn't, with a good conscience, allow animals to suffer, so we do perform euthanasia for suffering animals and for dogs that would pose a threat to the public." Today, she said, less than 10 percent of the animals who come into the shelter are euthanized.

The no-kill mission, she said, means not only that dog kennels and cat condos are full, but that the shelter is committed to providing medical care for injured or sick adoptable animals. All dogs have behavioral evaluations to make sure they are safe before they are offered for adoption.

In her five years at the helm, Lewis also increased the staff from 15 to 24 employees. A development director was hired after Lewis said "we hit a plateau in fundraising a couple of years back" That post was filled about two years ago by Polla Milligan, who had spent a decade with the Food Bank of Western New York.

"We had to come back from a lot of controversy, a lot of negative thinking," said Milligan. "So my strategy was multi-faceted. First, I needed to get our name out there, but I also needed to bring back some of the folks that had decided that we weren't their cup of tea."

Unlike the SPCA Serving Erie County, which is supported by donations, the Niagara County SPCA gets the bulk of its funding from the municipalities that hire it by contract to pick up and house stray animals. Those are the cities of Niagara Falls and Lockport, and the towns of Niagara, Cambria, Pendleton, Lockport and Wheatfield.

The SPCA must honor its contracts with the municipalities and accept all strays, which are held for five business days before being evaluated for adoption. Owners who wish to surrender their pets are placed on a waiting list and contacted as space becomes available, unless it is an emergency. "We don't have the luxury of space," Lewis said.

A larger building would solve some problems, said Lewis. "Last year we took a look at expanding our physical space. We had some drawings drafted and we have a monetary figure that we could work toward. It is not planned now, it's just something that we would like to do within the next five to 10 years."

Lewis said about 47 percent of the stray dogs that come to the shelter are from the City of Niagara Falls, many of them pit bulls whose adoptions are slow because of the stigma associated with the breed. Although Lewis, who shares her Lewiston home with pit bulls Maia, 6, and Lyla, 4, and Orion, a Great Dane puppy, works to challenge the stigma, she also advocates for spaying and neutering to reduce the pit bull population.

With a surgical trailer rented from the SPCA Serving Erie County, the Niagara County SPCA's part-time veterinarian spays and neuters animals every week, including those at the shelter, feral cats brought in by colony caretakers through the Orange Cat program, and cats owned by lower-income owners.

When Lewis looked through her shelter's records, she found that into 2011, the Niagara County SPCA was still adopting out intact animals, taking a deposit of $25 that was refunded when the adopter submitted proof of spaying or neutering. Many adopters never bothered to have the surgery done. "I looked at all those deposits that were never returned, and they were all potential births," Lewis said, shaking her head.

The Niagara County SPCA refuses to euthanize healthy feral cats, which studies have shown is ineffective to control the size of cat colonies. "We offer spay-neuter programs, we bring them in and spay and neuter them, vaccinate, de-worm them and give them a flea treatment and put them right back where they came from," she said. "As long as the resources are still there and they aren't fixed, they are going to continue to reproduce, and you're not even touching the problem."

The best part of her job, said Lewis, is the animals she and her workers and volunteers are able to help. "I am very committed to our mission here at the Niagara County SPCA, but I'm also committed to see better for this shelter," she said. Although the Lockport native discovered she was "at heart a Southern girl" after living in Florida for a time, she plans to endure the cold until she's accomplished her goals.

She would like the shelter to be able to hire a full-time veterinarian, she said. Now the shelter's part-time veterinarian does spay and neuter surgeries. Since Dr. Susan Persico, a volunteer veterinarian and board member at the Niagara County SPCA, died in January, her husband, Dr. F. Ed Latson, has worked some volunteer hours caring for the animals. But, said Lewis, "we rely pretty heavily on outside veterinarians for care, and sometimes that's difficult, if they are busy and can't accommodate us."

"I want to see the shelter get to a place where we have an in-house surgical suite," rather than just a trailer, she said. "I have a vision of the Niagara County SPCA being the low-cost spay and neuter clinic for Niagara County, because there isn't another clinic until you hit Blasdell. That's my vision for this shelter, and I'm not going to leave until I see that become a reality."

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