For animals’ sake
Butte Humane Society’s new director hopes to improve the shelter’s reputation
Chicoans sure do love their animals. They also love their shelter, the Butte Humane Society, though over the past few years the facility has gotten a bad rap—and for good reason. The shelter’s young, new executive director, Heather Schoeppach, hopes to change all that but admits her limitations—particularly where the facility is concerned.
When the CN&R last looked into the Butte Humane Society, the group was in the midst of a power struggle with the city of Chico and was reeling from an overwhelmingly negative review from the Butte County Grand Jury.
That was two years ago. Now, two directors later, the facility appears to be a healthier place. A veterinary technician has just been hired, new cleaning guidelines were adopted, and a computer system that works is in place. Unfortunately for those who work there—and ultimately, the animals—the place is still a dump.
“Our greatest need is more room,” said Schoeppach, who took over as shelter director in July. That was the same complaint the staff had two years ago. Except, back then, there were also problems with cleanliness, illness and bookkeeping.
“It’s a lot better,” said Kim Thompson, the shelter manager, who has worked at the facility for four years. “Now when people walk in, they get more of a pleasant feeling because they didn’t just see sick kittens without a blanket.”
Schoeppach agreed and, during a tour of the facility, pointed out how things had changed over the past few years. The most noticeable difference, from this reporter’s perspective, was the odor. These days, a new cleaning checklist and more stringent oversight have the shelter smelling far less pungent.
The tour also proved something Thompson offered about her new boss: Schoeppach is more open to the public than previous directors. Two years ago, a press tour began with what’s open to the public and ended in the sick-cat room (where a stray was running loose). Last week, an entire wing was revealed—it dates back to 1946, and is in major disrepair.
Upon introducing herself, Schoeppach almost apologized for her attire.
“You don’t see many directors wearing their organization’s T-shirt,” she joked.
But that’s just one of the ways she makes herself accessible to her staff, viewing them more as a family than employees.
It was clear from the tour that Schoeppach knows the Butte Humane Society intimately. As she walked around the property, she addressed every employee by name. Indeed, she addressed the animals by name, too, often checking the ones she knew weren’t eating regularly or needed extra attention.
The blankets appeared soiled in the sick-cat room, and Schoeppach quickly made sure the status was noted on a checklist, which the shelter’s new vet tech looks over throughout the day.
Schoeppach isn’t your average nonprofit director. For one, she’s just 28, and hardly has the experience of running an organization. But her heart has been with the shelter since she started volunteering there as a Chico State student nine years ago. That’s a third of her life.
Back in 1999, Schoeppach was doing a project for one of her journalism classes. The subject was pet therapy, and it brought her to the Butte Humane Society. After the project, she started volunteering at the shelter, joining the long-range planning committee in 2000.
“We still haven’t finished everything on the list,” she said.
Schoeppach was soon offered the position of volunteer coordinator, but she turned it down to finish her schooling. She ended up doing a thesis paper on sociological factors, problems and solutions to pet overpopulation. Living in Chico, she took the area—and its large student population—into consideration. Here, she said, a lot of people move away each spring, and they often don’t take their four-legged friends with them. That’s an issue the shelter deals with each year.
After college, Schoeppach took a job at the Butte College Foundation, where she stayed for two years and learned a lot about working for a nonprofit. The money wasn’t great, so when she was given an opportunity to return to BHS professionally, she jumped at it. (She doesn’t earn big bucks at BHS, either, but “at least I’m doing what I love,” she said.) In July, when Greg Lavin left his position as executive director due to health problems, the BHS Board of Directors asked Schoeppach to take over.
“They asked me, ‘Do you mind taking on a few extra responsibilities?’ and then they came back to me and said, ‘Actually, do you mind just taking the job?’ “ she said. “And that’s how I got to be 28 and running an entire nonprofit.”
While she’s been on the job less than half a year, some of the changes she’s made are already apparent.
“There’s a lot more open communication with staff,” said Thompson, the longest-running staff member. “She’s also upfront with the public about what’s going on, and she’s open to change. I feel like she’s really listening and hoping to get the shelter’s good reputation back.”
BHS has run the Fair Street shelter for 21 years now, and it serves a dual purpose. Along with fostering pet adoptions, the BHS facility holds stray animals picked up by the Chico Police Department’s Animal Control division.
Over the past five years, under previous Executive Director Cathy Augros, BHS has given the city two similar ultimatums: renew our contract or we’re leaving. The first, in 2004, resulted in a new one-year deal. The second—and more tense—was in 2006. It took the city about six months from when the contract with the shelter expired (in June) to when a new five-year deal was struck.
Two years ago, the relationship between the BHS and Animal Control was at an all-time low. Animal Control Supervisor Kathy Wintroath was quite vocal about problems she saw regularly at the Fair Street shelter. Record keeping was probably her biggest gripe. It was impossible to tell, she charged, whether an animal had been vaccinated or even if it had been adopted.
Stories of sick dogs not getting medication and microchipped animals not being found in the shelter’s records were cause for concern, she said then. At the time, her department was planning to take control of sheltering operations, leaving BHS to handle adoptions only.
The bad reputation culminated in a memo from then-City Manager Greg Jones to the City Council in August 2006, stating that city staff “has lost all confidence in shelter management over the past several years for several reasons, including poor financial accounting, customer complaints, poor facility maintenance and overall distrust of the executive director.”
Hundreds of pet-lovers packed City Council chambers, concerned about what the city’s takeover would mean for the animals. Many were relieved when the city and BHS worked out a new agreement, which included performance-review provisions.
These days, Wintroath said, things seem to be working more smoothly over on Fair Street. A new computer system—one that doesn’t crash as often as their old one—is a sign, at least, of better things.
“We’re getting along and both working to see that the animals are well cared for,” she said, adding, “I have no complaints. Everything seems to be running well.”
City Manager Dave Burkland—who, as assistant city manager, negotiated the current contract—agrees.
“Things are going quite well over there,” he said. “They meet with the city regularly.” (Communication had been one of the city’s prime concerns two years ago.)
One thing Schoeppach is particularly excited about is the recent hiring of Helena Morales, a tech who has completed the schooling and worked in a vet’s office. The shelter had previously employed health techs with love for the animals but little to no experience in the field.
“It was really hard to find a vet tech willing to accept what we can afford to pay,” Schoeppach said. “It really ups the level of care we can give.”
Other changes she and Thompson, who oversees the everyday workings of the office and kennel staffs, have implemented include better use of volunteers, training the front office to better screen potential adopters and, perhaps the most visible, the cleaning checklist.
“A few years ago, you’d come in and the smell …,” Schoeppach started. “Now we have sign-up sheets for food, water, health and cleanup.”
She says she’s working with volunteers to give them more specific tasks than in the past, and Thompson pointed to adoption screening as being key in lowering the incidents of owners returning animals to the shelter. She also started temperament-testing every animal to ensure adoptability.
“Before I was manager, the animals weren’t evaluated at all,” she said. Thompson helped turn BHS into a low-kill shelter, which means only animals that are too sick or unsuitable to be pets are put down.
“I don’t want an animal to die,” Thompson said. “I want them to be humanely euthanized.”
Animal shelters in California are required to hold a stray animal for five days after it’s brought in. That means the city of Chico pays BHS for each animal’s care for those five days. After that, it’s up to the shelter. Thompson has worked to evaluate the health of each animal quickly to lessen the possibility of its dying or passing on infections to others. In addition, this past year, BHS has taken in 120 adoptable animals slated for euthanasia in other shelters around the state.
One thing that helps increase an animal’s adoptability is whether it’s trained, and BHS recently added a dog trainer and also gets psychology interns from Chico State who help with socialization and determining which dogs need to get out of their kennels more.
Despite all the improvements that have been made, Schoeppach admits there’s a lot still to be done. And while she’s optimistic about zootoo.com’s $1 million shelter makeover contest (see sidebar, page 17), she hasn’t put all her eggs in that basket.
One of the problems she sees as most dire is the two cat rooms, each of which is recommended to hold a maximum of 25 felines at any one time. During this December visit, there were at least 30 in one room, and the summer mating season brings with it an influx of kittens.
Another problem is the state of the building’s left wing, built 62 years ago and showing its age. Animals that have been recently surrendered or dropped off stay here for five days, to give owners enough time to claim them, before being placed in the right wing, or outside, where potential adopters can view them.
Even between the two wings, the shelter just isn’t big enough to hold the 200-300 animals that stay there each day.
“Half of our dogs are kept outside,” Schoeppach said. And while the kindness of volunteers does offer some relief—one man offered to build new outdoor pens in lieu of paying the adoption fee for a shelter dog, another recently donated an animal scale—the facility’s limitations are an obvious hurdle the staff must contend with each day.
“As always, they’re doing the best with what they’re given,” said Animal Control’s Wintroath. “Their hearts are always there for the animals.”
Burkland agreed, saying: “The facility—we’d sure like to see improvements for that. We just don’t have the money right now.”
One alternative Augros mentioned two years ago was moving to a piece of property on county land along Highway 99, owned by BHS. Schoeppach said that as much as the shelter needs more space, it doesn’t make sense to run a facility outside the city limits, since half the funding comes from city coffers, “and we’re not capable of running two facilities. The adoption/surrender fees wouldn’t cover it.”
Unfortunately, the economy has put pressure on pet owners, too, and the shelter is seeing more people surrendering their beloved furry friends merely because they can’t afford to feed them anymore or their smaller living spaces won’t accommodate a pet.
“A lot of people are having to downsize—they’re moving into apartments and can’t take their animals—or they’re moving out of the area to find jobs,” Schoeppach said.
The number of animals coming through the shelter just continues to increase. In 2004, the shelter handled about 3,900 animals; last year, that number shot up to nearly 6,000.
“We are seeing an impact of the economy and people not being able to care for their animals,” Wintroath agreed. “As always, we need more people to come in and adopt.”
Even with an influx of animals, Schoeppach remains upbeat about the shelter and the direction it’s going.
“We’re all here for love of the animals,” she said.