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New director of SPCA Serving Erie County has big ideas, ‘big shoes to fill’

When he worked in Florida, the new head of the SPCA Serving Erie County developed a Meals on Wheels for Pets after noticing that recipients in the traditional food program were so financially strapped that they shared their delivered meals with their pets.

That initiative reflected Gary A. Willoughby’s view that animal welfare is not just about rescuing animals, but that their condition is inextricably linked to that of their owners.

Willoughby, successor to Barbara S. Carr, who led the organization for 23 years, said he is still feeling his way around the SPCA and the community. But another idea – one he has tried elsewhere and is considering for Erie County – is the opening of SPCA thrift stores whose sales of merchandise benefit animal adoptions and other services.

If that happens, Willoughby said, he envisions the first one on Ensminger Road in the Town of Tonawanda, site of the SPCA’s current headquarters.

With backgrounds in both animal welfare and human services organizations, Willoughby sees connections between the conditions of pets and their owners.

“Frequently, there are underlying causes to animals being given up for adoption, animal hoarding and animal cruelty. It could be financial or people taking their frustrations out on an animal or other reasons,” he said. “The larger issue is that what we do is not just about animals; it’s also about the people who own the animals.”

Besides being a passionate advocate for animal welfare, the SPCA’s new executive director is a former college basketball player and committed vegan. Willoughby said his main goal right now is to “get to know the community, make connections with other social agencies, and learn how we fit in and how we can be most effective.”

He spent his last day, March 11, heading the Toledo Area Humane Society after three years at the helm. And last Monday, he already was familiarizing himself with the SPCA’s staff and facility at the Ensminger location.

But he won’t be spending a lot of time there.

One of his top priorities is overseeing construction of a new $14.7 million, 52,000-square-foot building in West Seneca that will provide the organization with nearly double its current space. Work is scheduled to start in May.

The current facility, which opened in 1962, is cramped and considered outdated by modern standards. In addition to adoptions and animal-cruelty investigations, the SPCA increasingly over the years has taken on additional work, including veterinary care and wildlife rehabilitation. More room is needed to adequately provide all the services expected of the SPCA, officials say.

Willoughby brings experience in new builds, having overseen the construction of facilities in Toledo and, prior to that, in Aiken, S.C., where he served as chief executive officer of the SPCA.

“The major challenges are what you might think – staying on budget and on time. There also is a lot to know about ordering the right equipment, and I can help in that aspect, as well,” Willoughby said in a recent interview.

He also led capital campaigns at both organizations and will do so again in Erie County. The SPCA already has raised about $11 million for the new facility.

Willoughby said that following Carr as executive director is both “intimidating and exciting.”

“I have huge shoes to fill. She put so much into this,” he said.

From 1993 to 2007, Willoughby served as a volunteer or board member of a number of animal-welfare organizations in Florida while working at a senior citizens community. He also served as a board member for the Florida Council on Aging and as a regional representative for the Meals on Wheels Association. That’s where he developed the four-county Meals on Wheels for Pets program.

Willoughby holds a certificate in nonprofit management, a bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from the University of Mobile in Alabama, and a graduate certificate in gerontology and a master’s in public administration, both from Florida Gulf Coast University.

He is a native of Ypsilanti, Mich., and his family moved to Florida when he was young. He played high school basketball with Deion Sanders, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, and went off to college – the first in his family to do so – with a scholarship to play basketball and dreams of going pro. He later played in a pro-am league and had an offer to play professionally in Spain, but turned it down because it would have meant life apart from his wife, Meghan.

Basketball remains a big interest, both playing and watching it. How big a fan is he? Willoughby owns a 1976 basketball card for the Buffalo Braves’ Ernie DiGregorio.

“I still have it, but never thought I would be living here,” he said.

He and Meghan have been married for 25 years, and she is a big reason why Willoughby sought the job. She is originally from North Tonawanda and still has family in the area. Willoughby said the couple has wanted to move back, and the timing of the SPCA job offer was perfect for them.

They have yet to buy a house, but it will have to be large enough to accommodate them and their three rescue dogs and two rescue cats.

In his time off, Willoughby enjoys looking for antiques and traveling. He and his wife also are vegans who refrain from eating any animal products, a diet choice he made for health and animal welfare reasons.

Asked to sum up what he loves about the SPCA, Willoughby said that it was the reward in the work.

“Everyone here,” he said, “is here for the right reason.”