For the Delaware SPCA, the latest chapter represents a tale of rebirth following a turbulent 2016.
The oldest animal welfare agency in the state spent the better part of last year mired in controversy, thanks in large part to financial difficulties that forced the temporary closing of its Stanton location. The abrupt shuttering, fueled by miscommunication, led to many questions and some heartbroken owners scrambling to Newark to exhume the remains of their cherished pets. Compounding the issue, several grieving families had difficulties finding remains in the older section of the cemetery.
“It was a shock,” recalls Delaware SPCA volunteer Kathie Herel, who helped the owners—many of them senior citizens—with the arduous process. “People were so afraid of losing that connection with their pets. There was a lot of anguish, a lot of heartbreak. They were in tears.”
Yet with the negativity and bad press came a glimmer of hope. Herel had volunteered for the Delaware SPCA for five years, but through this unnerving experience, she saw the true power Stanton had on the residents of New Castle County and beyond. She knew it couldn’t stay closed for good.
“You would be hard pressed to meet someone who didn’t have a pet from there or had to take a pet there at some point,” says Herel, who owns two cats and a Pekingese courtesy of the Delaware SPCA. “It’s a landmark.”
The financial woe for the Delaware SPCA came from a “quantum change” in the services provided, says president Diane Ferry.
For most of its 140-plus years, the Delaware SPCA handled animal control and complaints of cruelty to animals. When the Office of Animal Welfare was created in 2013, it was decided animal control should be a statewide activity handled by one SPCA, Ferry says. In a move that surprised her and other board members, the Stanton SPCA lost the bid. It instead went to the unaffiliated Brandywine Valley SPCA. (Because there is no national organization, each SPCA operates independently, even within Delaware.)
“We were geared up to do animal control, particularly at Stanton,” says Ferry, an associate professor of management at the University of Delaware. “We couldn’t support that payroll without animal control. Suddenly, we had to adjust to making the money to support what we had.”
The predicament forced the board to close Stanton in June and refocus efforts on the Delaware SPCA’s second location in Georgetown. Ferry quickly squashed chatter that the agency was going out of business or was in bankruptcy.
“We were bleeding money without having the income from animal control, and it just had to stop,” she says. “We simply needed some time to reshape our business model.”
Ferry admits the organization closed abruptly and did not adequately notify the public, especially as news began to swirl around the prospective selling of the property on Stanton Christiana Road and the uncertain future of the 1,600 animals buried there. “I don’t think the pet cemetery was given due consideration, and we really couldn’t respond when that became the major issue,” she says. “We could have done better.”
Tiffany Briddell, interim executive director of the Delaware SPCA, says it was a difficult time for the organization.
“A lot of people got their remains because they thought we were going to build apartments over top their beloved pets,” she says. “They lost faith in us.”
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Not everyone turned away from the Delaware SPCA. Herel didn’t feel anguish only for the mourning pet owners—her heart also went out to the unemployed Stanton staff, many of whom with strong attachments to the animals they cared for.
“They weren’t just leaving paperwork behind,” she says.
Her feelings for the staff—along with the fiasco at the pet cemetery—lead Herel to mobilize the Delaware SPCA volunteers in a grassroots campaign. With the help of her sister Suzanne Herel, they created a soon-buzzing Facebook group, Citizens United to Save the Delaware SPCA Stanton Shelter, which swelled to several thousand members. They also initiated a cemetery cleanup (even though its future was up in the air), started a Change.org petition that received over 2,500 signatures, encouraged people to write letters to the editor, and took out newspaper ads announcing their displeasure with the move.
Herel describes many of the comments directed toward the Delaware SPCA board as “blunt and raw.” Balanced with the angry notes, however, came rational arguments, some urging critics to take the long view.
“We’re a community that needs the services being taken away—low-cost vaccines, spay and neuter, wellness care,” Herel says. “What would that mean for animal over-population in the state or people not getting their pets vaccinated?”
Determination and relentlessness fueled the campaign, which didn’t fall on deaf ears. Ferry, who owns a mutt named Luc, heard the rallying cry.
“These aren’t fringe people,” she says. “They’re concerned citizens and lovers of the Delaware SPCA, and they will help us make this all work.”
Ferry says the outpouring of support gave her the confidence to move forward in October. She pressured the board to first rescind the vote to sell, then vote to reopen Stanton. It was unanimous.
“It was a demonstration of how people with a common goal really can make a difference,” says Herel. She notes that the vocal Facebook group now has a new name: Friends of the Delaware SPCA Stanton Shelter.
Announcing the re-opening of the SPCA at Stanton: New Castle County Councilman Ken Woods and Buster, acting
Like Herel, Briddell has high hopes for the future of Stanton, especially after experiencing all the recent ups and downs. She has worked with the Delaware SPCA for the past four years. She started as executive director in June, right when everything came to a head.
Briddell sees the reopening as a way to streamline services to better fit the needs of the community more specifically.
“We can go back to our past and pull out things we think will be essential to the Delaware SPCA,” she says. “We now have a fresh pair of eyes to look at everything differently and not make some of the same mistakes.”
Goal No. 1: Everything has to pay for itself.
“That’s the only way we’re going to be here another 140 years, which is what I’m planning,” Ferry says. “There’s no reason why we can’t be self-sustaining. We have the resources, and we have the property.”
Stanton reopened methodically in stages to get its bearings straight after the rough-and-tumble summer. First, in the fall, it held two popular vaccine clinics, plus pet photos around the holidays. The agency really started to hum in January, when it began offering surgeries, such as spay and neuter and dental procedures, once a week, as well as twice-weekly dedicated wellness visit days. Basic vaccines and even end-of-life services, including cremations, fit under the wellness umbrella. (The veterinarian must examine the animal to be sure it’s a true end-of-life situation.) Stanton operates a food pantry as well on its open days.
All these services fall into the desired business model, Ferry says—the vets work for a reasonable rate, and pet owners pay a varying fee depending on the care provided.
“You can be assured that as a business professor, I’m going to make sure we’re moving forth in a fiscally sound way,” Ferry says. “Sustainability is the watchword. If it’s not self-sustaining, we can’t afford to do it. Maybe in the future when we’re better able to fundraise, we’ll be able to add more frills.”
Both Ferry and Briddell have enrolled in courses through the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement, which provides development guidance among its services.
As another way to secure its finances and generate a solid revenue stream, DE SPCA will develop the front of the Stanton property for commercial leases—a long-talked-about plan that never came to fruition until now, says Ferry, a board member for eight years. With the engineering and traffic studies completed and final approvals recorded, work is expected to begin this spring.
“This will be support in a way that other animal welfare organizations don’t usually have,” she says.
Other plans in the pipeline include forming partnerships with like-minded groups in the state and building a garden in the cemetery as a peaceful place for owners to scatter their pets’ ashes.
With the garden, Ferry hopes the volunteers will once again come together—this time with design ideas and help to plant. “I really want to involve the community because they’re so invested in the Delaware SPCA,” she says.
Going forward, Briddell promises more transparency from the private nonprofit organization, especially after the many hurt feelings from last year.
“We will try to be 100 percent honest with what we’re doing, explaining any plans we have in place and how we will implement them,” she says. “That’s how we will build back trust.”