Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
It’s been about a year since the local animal shelter left the OSPCA to merge with the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society. But for Jack Kinch it feels much longer.
In a recent interview with the Gazette, the executive director for the Kitchener-Waterloo and Stratford-Perth humane societies said the last 12 months of operations at the Douro Street facility – a period marred by the resignation of the shelter's well-liked manager while many long-time supporters questioned the new management's philosophies and practices – were difficult but necessary to get the agency to where it is today.
Since the merger, adoptions in Stratford have increased and cases of euthanasia are down 30 per cent. Kinch said those successes, along with the recent purchase of a building on Griffith Road to house a new shelter, point to an organization with a clear directive and renewed focus for the future.
“None of that existed before we came on board; there was no plan, no future,” he added.
Yet, Kinch suggested “there's a small group of individuals who continue to agitate, who continue to question the intent and the actions” of the humane society. As a result, he requested an interview in an attempt to put to rest any unresolved issues and clarify some of the misinformation that he believes still exists in the community.
Kinch said one of the criticisms he's heard is that the humane society is using money raised in Stratford for operations in Kitchener-Waterloo, which isn't the case. He said each branch operates its own budget and keeps its own books. Additionally, both humane societies report to and are governed by the Animal Welfare Agency South Central Ontario (AWASCO), a volunteer board with representatives from both communities that formed after the merger.
There have also been calls in the community for greater accountability, which Kinch believes the agency has responded to appropriately by beginning to report adoption and euthanasia statistics quarterly to the shelter’s volunteer community council as well as on its website, where annual financial statements are also available.
Kinch said such transparency did not exist when the shelter operated as a branch of the OSPCA.
Further to that, Kinch believes the shelter will benefit greatly in the years to come from the humane society’s network of resources, including a pool of trained staff more than five times the size of that in Stratford and a strong working relationship with professors at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph.
“I think we have more knowledge and experience. That doesn't mean (the shelter in the past wasn't) doing things right; they were doing right based on the information and experience they had,” Kinch said.
Looking back, Kinch admitted he was naive to think people in Stratford would fully support the merger, and he takes responsibility for what he acknowledged was a lack of communication with the community when the partnership was formed.
Following the merger, the humane society reviewed practices at the local shelter and implemented a series of changes, among them new cleaning and hygiene practices and disease management protocols, that Kinch indicated were met with some resistance from the shelter's staff and volunteers.
The humane society also introduced a volunteer coordinator position and mandated that volunteers review and sign an agreement. Kinch noted at least one long-time supporter has refused to sign the agreement, but suggested he has invited the individual to come in to try to resolve the matter.
Fears over the loss of local autonomy hit a breaking point last winter when 21 cats were put down while then shelter manager, Sarah Tickner, was away on training. She abruptly resigned, along with another staff member.
In an interview with the Gazette following the incident, Tickner said it was a difference of opinion and in protocol between her and the shelter’s new leadership team that led to her decision to leave.
“We have the same goals, but how we do things are different,” she said.
Kinch still defends the decision today, noting the shelter acted on a veterinarian’s recommendation, and that the cats were sick, not responding to medication, and posed a threat to other healthy animals at the facility.
But Feline Friends Network president, Cheryl Simpson, believes the incident, which she called a “cull,” wasn’t necessary, noting euthanasia should be used only for terminally ill animals or those with severe behavioural issues.
She also believes the humane society should have handled the situation differently, noting, “to do it while the manager was away, and she wasn't even aware of it, was an appalling blunder.”
At the same time, however, Simpson said the incident was a blessing in disguise, noting soon after the cats were put down Feline Friends, a volunteer group concerned about cat overpopulation and homelessness, began discussions with the humane society on how to prevent another incident like that from happening again.
From those talks the humane society agreed to adopt what is known as a no-kill policy, wherein the shelter aims to achieve a 90 per cent live-release rate, meaning nearly all animals that enter the shelter are either reunited with their original owners or adopted to a new home.
To reach that goal, the humane society has developed an expanded network of foster homes for sick animals and implemented a more aggressive adoption strategy. Kinch noted the shelter also now has routine veterinarian checks on-site to ensure the animals are being viewed in their regular environment, whereas in the past the animals would be taken out of the shelter.
Though the shelter was able to achieve its 90 per cent target for the first quarter of the year, both Kinch and Simpson acknowledged there remain some ongoing issues that need to be resolved between the two agencies, which are scheduled to meet next week.
Feline Friends has asked for reports on each individual incident of euthanasia in Stratford to ensure it’s being used only as a last resort – something Kinch said the humane society is not comfortable disclosing.
“We rely on a veterinarian to make that recommendation, and to have individuals in the community challenge that and want to debate that doesn't add anything to our operation,” he said, adding the humane society is held accountable already, but to AWASCO, not any other agency.
Also likely to come up at the meeting next week is what Kinch described as an ongoing negativity towards the humane society from the Feline Friends board of directors.
Simpson didn’t refute that, admitting that there are still some hard feelings from the incident last winter with the cats but also because of what some feel has been a lack of real action taken by the humane society to maintain a 90 per cent live-release rate year-round.
Simpson is a proponent of a shelter model called the no kill equation, which includes 11 steps that address everything from adoptions, to volunteer support and public relations.
“What I'm seeing is they're doing bits off (the strategy), but unless you do it comprehensively, you're not really going to get there,” she said.
Simpson added the biggest piece of the no kill equation is spay/neuter services, noting many people in the area cannot afford to take their pets to a veterinarian, which leads to animal homelessness and overcrowding at the shelter.
Kinch told the Gazette the Stratford-Perth and Kitchener-Waterloo humane societies, along with the Guelph Humane Society, Ontario Vet College, and other concerned organizations, are working at implementing a low-cost spay/neuter program for the region.
“It is hoped it will be in place in the next year and provide spay/neuter services for rescues, trap-neuter-return programs as well as those that don't have access to regular vet care,” he said.
From all the turmoil has come an improved relationship between the humane society and its community council in Stratford.
Kinch suggested in the past the council was relied upon too heavily to assist with operations at the shelter, but that with the management team in place now the council can focus on its original mandate of supporting the shelter through fundraisers and community relations.
Community council chair, Rachelle Czartorynskyj, agreed with Kinch's assessment.
“I think we're moving forward in a very positive direction,” she said, adding the council recently formed a communications committee that consists of council representatives and shelter staff to ensure there remains open lines of communication between the two parties.
“Before there was a lack of communication between the two bodies, the management of the shelter as well as the committee itself. But now we've kind of bridged that gap,” she said.
Improved communication is seen as the biggest step if the humane society hopes to begin a capital campaign for its new building. Kinch noted the unanimous feedback he received at a stakeholders meeting in May, attended by representatives from the community council, chamber of commerce, major donors, and volunteers, is that now is not the right time to ask the community for donations.
Kinch noted a new location is needed desperately to replace the Douro Street facility, which he said has design limitations that create less than ideal living conditions for the animals. Ninety per cent of cats that move through the shelter require some form of medication, whereas only between two and five per cent of cats in Kitchener-Waterloo ever require medication, he added.
“Right now, Douro Street is a dump,” he said bluntly. “I think everyone that works there and is associated on a volunteer basis would say that's a fair description.”
The Griffith Road building has been purchased by the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society with the long-term plan being its sale or lease to Stratford-Perth. First, the agency hopes to raise enough capital to renovate the space with a design that better serves the animals.
Despite its nearly 8,500 square feet of space, Kinch said the building has not been secured to increase capacity. Rather, the focus is to have an improved adoption area that enhances the experience for families and to further develop the shelter’s local educational programming.
But for any of that to happen, Kinch said the humane society has to settle any differences with the community.
“If we continue to have this disconnect with the community we'll never be able to run a capital campaign, we'll never be able to have a new shelter.”