The need never stops, and Sue Davis never stops striving to meet the need.
The kennels and cages at Humane Society of Southwest Missouri often are full, but today, they’re overflowing.
Davis, executive director of the nonprofit no-kill shelter, says spring’s predictable production of kittens and the surge of inflation-related surrenders have everyone on staff scrambling to care for the animals.
But Davis and her team have found creative ways to meet the needs of pets that extend beyond shelter and its medical and adoption services. They’ve created programs designed to keep people and their pets together and to stem the flow of unwanted animals.
“We do everything we can to keep animals out of the shelter system,” Davis says. “We adopt almost 3,500 animals a year, and if people can’t take care of their pets’ medical needs, that’s a problem.”
On April 1, the shelter opened Cooper Clinic, a low-cost veterinary clinic open to those who can’t afford to cover private-practice care. It joins other support programs, such as a pet food bank, low-cost dog training courses, and spay and neuter clinics.
Dr. Ana Smith is the head veterinarian for Cooper Clinic, after she spent eight years working in private practice. Her transition stems from “being able to feel like I was giving back to the community in a different way. Private practice is great,” she said, “but it’s difficult when you live in an area where everyone isn’t able to afford veterinary care.”
Much of Davis’ career was in banking. In 2013, she shifted to running Paws Chicago, a no-kill shelter owned by the family who owned the bank where she worked.
“I’m a firm believer in (no-kill shelters), but it is the most expensive model. You best know your marketing, medical and financial to make it a win because it’s almost an impossible model to deploy,” says Davis, who has led the local shelter for six years.
She says the current economy has ratcheted up pressure on the nonprofit that is entirely dependent on donations and grants. It has no municipal support and is not affiliated with any other Humane Society. Its annual operating budget is about $1.4 million.
“It’s a very challenging position to be in,” she says. “We are doing the best we can to keep all of our required services as low as we can. We do price checks, quantity buys, hold our vendors accountable. We market our animals as best we can and move them in and out as fast as we can.”
Erin Hession, director of administration and operations, says short stays are vital for the animals’ health.
“The goal here is not to have anybody here too long. Shelter life – as phenomenal as this place is and my staff is – we have 300 animals here right now. Over an extended period of time, dogs do deteriorate,” Hession says.
The pet food pantry and Cooper Clinic – a $200,000 investment, officials have said – are two ways the shelter works to keep animals out of the system.
“With the economy the way it is, people are unable to afford their animals, so they’re surrendering at a higher rate. We do have a pet food pantry for the community, and if someone is thinking of surrendering, if we have the resources in the pantry, we will encourage them to keep their pet,” Hession says.
The clinic was made possible through a donation from longtime board member Mary Cooper and husband John.
Smith says even before inflation began ramping up, prices for veterinary care were out of the reach of many families.
“I’ve had so many people tell me they were not able to afford even a basic exam at their prior veterinarian,” she says.
The clinic, which typically charges $25-$35 for exams, also provides an additional revenue stream for the shelter, and officials say the money generated will be poured directly back into caring for sheltered animals.
Despite the gains made by team at the Humane Society in the last few years, , they have no intention of slowing down.
“I’m not a stagnant kind of gal. I believe in evolution. I would love to see (the clinic) grow. Maybe we get another veterinarian so we don’t have such long wait times, or ultrasound equipment, for example,” Davis says.
Because it’s not a no-pay clinic, Smith suggests an angel fund could be created to cover expenses for pet owners who cannot afford needed vet services.
“It hurts my heart when they’re trying their best but they don’t have anything,” she says.
Among its fundraisers and events, the Humane Society is holding the Empty the Shelter adoption program July 18-23. Adult dog adoptions will be $25 and adult cat adoptions will be $5, and the animals are spayed or neutered, microchipped and current on vaccinations.
Outside of the shelter, Davis has a plan for delivering services where they’re needed most.
“We know locations that are deserts for vet care in the area, so our goal is going to be to take those services if they can’t come to us,” she says.
With collected donations, Davis ordered a 37-foot mobile unit.
“It’s literally a rolling surgical suite,” she says, noting it won’t be up and running until the second quarter of 2023 because of production delays.
Davis says more volunteers can help ease burdens as needs grow. With about 700 volunteers on the books, that includes a couple hundred who volunteer regularly, some once for an hour annually and a handful who volunteer daily.
Davis says working with animals is physically and emotionally taxing. But “these animals need ya. That’s what gets me out of bed every day.”
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