That mission is to champion humane treatment and adoption of companion animals, provide quality care for homeless pets, and promote animal welfare through education and advocacy.
“Save as many as you can”
Twenty years ago, the Bangor Humane Society saw an average of 10,000 animals coming through their doors each year. Because of sheer numbers quick decisions had to be made.
“You’re going to be an easy adoption - you’re not,” Stacey Coventry told me during a recent interview conducted at the Bangor Humane Society facility on Mt. Hope Avenue in Bangor. “That was literally how those choices were made.”
Sadly, nearly half of those 10,000 animals were euthanized each year due to a combination of the area’s animal overpopulation, a lack of adopters and a lack of available space within the facility.
At that time, the organization was in the process of moving out of their old building and into their current larger facility located next door.
“One of our employees, [Shelter Operations Manager] Chris Young, has been with us for about 27 years,” Coventry said. “One of the reasons he is still here is because he is so dedicated to making it right.”
In this case, “making it right” means doing what’s best for the animals while also exploring all available resources to connect those animals with their potential forever home.
“The mindset was you tried to save as many as you can,” Coventry continued. “Suzan [Prendergast-Bell, Executive Director] shared this analogy: picture all of these cats, kittens, dogs and puppies going down a river. And here we are at the end of the river, trying to pull as many out as we can to save them. If you don’t go upstream to see where they’re coming from to try to stop it at the source, you’re never going to get ahead. What we discovered, especially with our feline intake, was that it was as simple as spaying and neutering.”
Tackling the animal overpopulation
February is National Spay/Neuter Awareness Month. A fertile female dog is capable of producing two litters per year with an average of six to 10 puppies per litter.
Fertile cats can have up to three litters per year, with four to six kittens in the average litter.
One of the most significant ways the Bangor Humane Society has been able to tackle the area’s overpopulation of cats and dogs is to guarantee that every adopted pet is either spayed or neutered before going home.
“It’s actually a Maine law,” said Coventry. “Some shelters offer a voucher that can be redeemed at a veterinarian’s office and some have a program like we do where we have a rotation of visiting veterinarians who visit two or three days per week.”
Those visiting vets examine every animal that goes up for adoption and provides necessary medical care in the form of vaccinations and - if needed - a procedure to sterilize them. The area vets who work with Bangor Humane Society do it at a reduced rate, according to Coventry.
“We do pay them, but it’s nominal compared to what it would cost if we sent the animals to them individually,” she said. “We give them a list of animals that need to be checked with a physical exam; they do vaccinations and spay or neuter them if they aren’t already.”
David Cloutier has been practicing veterinary medicine with Veazie Veterinary Clinic for 25 years. Veazie Vet is one of the rotating clinics who work closely with Bangor Humane Society to provide exams, vaccinations and spaying and neutering procedures for every animal placed up for adoption. Dr. Laura Tardiff of Veazie Vet visits BHS every other week to perform those procedures on-site.
When an animal is sick or needs surgery, they are usually sent to Veazie Vet Clinic or another area veterinarian; these include Broadway Veterinary Clinic in Bangor (also part of the rotating visiting vet program), Kindred Spirits Vet Clinic in Orrington, Penobscot Veterinary Services in Bangor or Eastern Maine Emergency Veterinary Clinic in Brewer.
Cloutier, currently on the Bangor Humane Society’s boardof directors, recalls that the voucher program, which used to be in place to cover the spaying and neutering of a newly adopted pet, wasn’t a practical solution to the area’s animal overpopulation.
“Even with those vouchers, we discovered that just over 50 percent of people adopting would actually follow through and get the procedure done,” Cloutier said. “Of course now, doing it at Bangor Humane Society, every animal is spayed or neutered, which is fantastic.”
Is spaying and neutering an animal a good idea for the animal’s overall health? Cloutier says consensus wavers on that topic.
“It’s getting looked at and re-debated,” he said. “Spaying and neutering reduces the risk of mammary gland cancer in female pets as well as testicular cancer and prostate problems in males. However, it also increases the risk of some orthopedic problems and other things related to the animal’s health. When we look at that balance, it starts to become a little more cloudy.”
In spite of that, Cloutier said, there is another factor to consider with a pet that is unaltered.
“When you add in the vast majority of dog bites in people – particularly very significant dog bites – they occur from intact male dogs. From a safety aspect, there is a distinct advantage to neutering males. The reduced risk of cancer is a distinct advantage to spaying females.”
At what age should an animal be spayed or neutered? According to Cloutier, each animal’s situation needs to be considered.
“I still say it depends on the individual dog and the situation. If I have a shelter pet, I’m going to spay and neuter young. If a client brings their puppy to me and they’re OK with dealing with heats in females or behavior in males, I might wait until they’re about nine months of age. Several years ago, there were studies done that showed it was fine to spay and neuter at a very young age – six weeks of age. If we had a chance, maybe it would be good to wait until they’re full-grown – especially in large breed dogs.”
Tackling the area’s animal overpopulation problem is not a recent endeavor but rather an ongoing situation, tweaked and modified through education about the importance of spay/neuter, according to Coventry. The proof that it’s working is in the numbers of homeless animals who come through the door.
“When I started working here about six years ago our annual intake was about 4,000 animals,” she said. “Last year, I think we were down to about 2,700. What’s awesome about that is not that we’ve solved the problem – there are still lots of animals out there who need us – but it allows us to offer more outreach.”
Coventry added that over the last several years, Bangor Humane Society has seen a dramatic decrease in their homeless feline intake, although it is remains difficult to contain.
It is estimated that just one unspayed female cat, producing two litters of kittens per year, can ultimately be responsible for more than two million cats within eight years if her offspring also remain unspayed.
For potential low-income adopters, Bangor Humane Society has continuous funds available to cover the cost of spaying and neutering. Coventry said the program is working, thanks in part to the area vets who are part of it.
“We’re lucky that we have vets in the area who understand the significance of spay/neuter and have been involved in the program to reduce and cap what they charge and then we help pay a portion of it,” she said. “People just have to show proof of financial hardship.”
Changing perceptions and a complete shift in mindset
According to Coventry, changing the way we think about animal shelters has been a pivotal shift and a huge step forward for the welfare of the animals.
“Instead of thinking of a shelter as ‘just a shelter’, think of us as a ‘re-homer,’” she said. “When you work in a shelter, it’s difficult sometimes dealing with the people who come here to surrender animals and the different reasons why they do that. In the past, we’ve had difficulty dealing with some people who wanted to adopt an animal but we didn’t feel it was a good fit for whatever reason. Sometimes we get very protective of the animals.”
Coventry says the focus for employees of Bangor Humane Society has evolved over time in what she terms “a cultural shift.”
“When we hear a story about a cat that has been in a shelter for two years or has grown up in a shelter, that is redefining what it means when a life is saved,” said Coventry. “A ‘re-homer’ means that animal is not safe until it’s in a forever home. That was a cultural shift for the staff. We had a huge staff turnover because we had to relax some of our policies and change the way we talk to people.”
Coventry told me that part of the cultural shift for Bangor Humane Society involved adopting the “five freedoms” outlined by the ASPCA.
“Are they free of hunger and thirst? Are they free of discomfort? Are they free from pain, injury and disease? Free from fear and distress? Are they free to express normal behavior? Those are the things that we measure now when we place an animal into a home.”
What have been the results of these changes for Bangor Humane Society in terms of the percentage of animals placed into homes? According to Coventry, they are significant.
“When I started working here (six years ago), our adoption rate was somewhere in the sixties. Last year, our rate was almost 94 percent. That’s amazing because we have an open policy. We’re never going to have a zero percent euthanasia rate. We accept every animal that comes through the door as is. In most cases, there are no issues with the animals. They just need a good home. But if there is an aggression issue or a health issue, we say ‘Come on in – let’s figure it out.’ Once the animal is here we try to determine if the animal can be rehabbed or placed into foster care. Can we have a surgery to save the animal? Basically, is the animal able to have a good quality of life?”
Coventry says that changing the way they have operated has been extremely important for the overall well-being of the animals being placed into homes as has the public’s perception of the Bangor Humane Society – something that has been furthered by advocacy within the community.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the community to reshape our image to become more adopter-friendly,” said Coventry. “At the same time, we’ve been able to cut down on the number of animals coming through our doors. We see this as a temporary place for the animal to stay – kind of like a hotel. How can we make our guest’s experience as positive as possible while they’re here? They’re meant to check out.”
According to Cloutier, becoming a “friendlier facility” is something Bangor Humane Society has worked very hard to achieve.
“That hasn’t always been the case,” he said. “There were times in the past when people didn’t feel welcome when they went to Bangor Humane Society. Today, it’s a very welcoming place to adopt a pet or surrender a pet if you need to and it’s so noticeable.”
Shifting from a facility that shelters homeless animals to one that prepares animals to be adopted into a caring home within the community has been a remarkably positive change, according to Cloutier.
“That isn’t a semantics shift,” he said. “That is a complete shift in their mindset; that their job is to make these animals healthy physically and also behaviorally and then find the perfect home. They are focusing on the fact that there are good people out there with good homes and their job is to get them matched up with these pets.”
“We do our best to work with people who deserve to be matched with the animal they are looking for,” Coventry concluded. “Sometimes that can take a while and sometimes it’s immediate. We do great work here and we deserve those success stories.”