How the SPCA was Won

Philip Episcopo recalls the day in April 1958 when he took his little sister to the Delaware SPCA to find her a puppy. Then-director Charles McGowan led them to the first cage, where a litter of five Spitz-Golden Retriever mixes romped around their mother. 

“Four of them were beating up on this one, biting his ears, beating him up. So Charlie said, ‘Which one do you want?’ And I said, ‘I want the one that they’re picking on.’”

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They named him Teddy, and he quickly won the hearts of the Episcopo family, so much so that his older sister headed to the SPCA the following day to adopt one of his sibling assailants, whom she named Rusty.

In September 1971, after Teddy became paralyzed and had to be euthanized, Episcopo returned with him to the SPCA, where he was laid to rest in the pet cemetery. When Episcopo heard last summer that the land was to be sold, he retrieved Teddy’s stone and placed it in his landscaped yard.

“These dogs become family members,” he said. “They’re not just dogs. They’re just like your children.” 

Episcopo’s emotional connection to the state’s oldest animal welfare agency is shared by countless Delawareans who have adopted from the organization’s Stanton and Georgetown shelters, relied on their low-cost spay, neuter and wellness services, or interred their loved ones in the cemetery. So in May, when the nonprofit abruptly announced on its Facebook page that it would be shuttering the Stanton Shelter and selling the land, the community demanded answers.

SPCA volunteer Kathie Herel, my sister, turned to to draft a petition on behalf of a newly formed group, Citizens United to Save the DE SPCA Stanton Shelter. It quickly gained momentum, gathering more than 2,500 signatures, mostly from local residents. 

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Among those pledging support were two Massachusetts residents, Emily and Everett Bramhall, names unfamiliar to many in the community. But it was their grandmother, Emily duPont, who had donated the land in 1970 to make the Stanton Shelter a reality. I had tracked them down after an exhaustive search, hoping they could influence the board.

In signing the petition, Emily Bramhall wrote of her grandmother: “She was dedicated to the SPCA. She was very proud of this facility, and I remember her visiting it regularly. She was also an ardent conservationist and was dedicated to open land as well as city parks and gardens. I believe the selling of this land she gave for development purposes would be strictly against her wishes and intent.”

The Stanton Shelter was closed on June 17. Its adoptable animals were transported to the Georgetown Shelter, and virtually all of its staff lost their jobs.

Today’s SPCA, dedicated to the welfare of Delaware’s pets, traces its roots to 1870, when chemist Ferris Bringhurst began discussions with friends about combating the cruelty against livestock commonly witnessed on the streets of Wilmington. The precursor to the SPCA, the Wilmington Fountain Society, was formed on Feb. 19, 1871, and went on to erect drinking fountains for the animals throughout the city. 

Bringhurst’s involvement, however, would be short-lived. He died in an explosion on March 16, but his concerns lived on. The Delaware Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was incorporated on Feb. 20, 1873; his father was installed as president.

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For much of the past century, the SPCA has provided the state’s animal control.

Throughout the years, animal control officers wrangled ponies escaped onto U.S. 40, intercepted inhumane shipments of tropical birds, busted cock-fighting rings and responded to calls of errant or injured exotic snakes, snapping turtles, alligators and Pelly, a directionally challenged pelican who showed up on the grounds of a Sussex County poultry plant. 

The group also set about teaching children to treat animals with kindness, sending copies of “Black Beauty” to be read by public school teachers to their primary grades. And, it launched the annual Children’s Dog Show.

In 1956, it held its first rabies vaccination clinic. In 1973, it opened a mini zoo and nature walk at the Stanton Shelter to accommodate some of its more unusual charges: “Ponies, goats, an unsheared ewe, ducks, squirrels, guinea pigs, rabbits, monkeys and a deodorized skunk.”

The following year, it established Delaware’s first large-volume, low-cost spay and neuter program. 

The predecessor of today’s shelter in Stanton was located on land annexed to expand the New Castle Airport. The grounds housed the SPCA’s first pet cemetery, which by 1969 counted 351 dogs, including Captain, an SPCA rescue who went on to become “the first state police patrol dog in the country,” according to his marker. In addition, there were 34 cats, one monkey, a guinea pig, a raccoon and a parakeet.

The following year saw the cemetery’s largest burial, of a grizzly bear who came to the Wilmington Zoo from Yellowstone National Park in 1937 at the age of 7 months. The SPCA employed its large animal sling to lower Old Yellowstone, weighing nearly 800 pounds, to his resting place.

After Emily duPont donated the 11 acres where the Stanton Shelter would be built, the SPCA began exhuming the graves and monuments and reinterring them in the new cemetery at the back of the property at 455 Stanton-Christiana Road. Old Yellowstone did not make the trip.

With exacting precision worthy of a military cemetery, unofficial funeral director Frank “Chuck” Russell and assistant shelter manager Robert Murphy placed the graves in perfectly spaced rows. Burials continued into the early 1990s and included such notables as Igloo, a black bear from the Wilmington Zoo, along with his “friend,” a 250-pound tortoise. 

But in the intervening years, monuments sank, grass and brush overgrew the stones, and even those who remembered the old cemetery couldn’t know the scale of its inhabitants on what simply looked to be some rolling hills. However, it was those graves that would nudge one of the first stumbling blocks in the way of dismantling the facility.

Herel didn’t know what to do when she learned of the pending closure, but she knew she had to do something. She spent her birthday buying hundreds of orange surveyor flags from Home Depot and marking as many stones as she could. She suspected that some who had buried their pets would want to remove their monuments, and she wanted to make the painful process as easy as possible. She expected there would be several hundred graves, but as she continued to methodically walk the grounds, banging a shovel into the grass to detect the clinking sound of metal striking granite, the cemetery grew larger and larger. It stretched clear to the back fence, where many stones were too covered by brush to access.

Those with pets interred in the cemetery began showing up each day. Some had in-hand contracts in which the SPCA promised from 25 years to perpetual care of the graves. A number filed complaints with the state Attorney General’s office, which launched an investigation.

Several of the bereaved wanted more than to retrieve their stones. They hired professionals to dig up remains, or exhumed them themselves. The animals had been carefully placed in heavy plastic bags, which in several cases also held their favorite toys or blanket.

As visitors wandered the cemetery trying to find stones, many remembered the story of a woman whose ashes had been interred with her dog. If that were the case, the SPCA would be compelled by law to register the land as a human cemetery, committing to its perpetual care. While many had heard the tale, no one could recall the details, or where the human’s marker was.

Then a clue appeared. In the Cemetery Report from the minutes of the Dec. 16, 1980, Board of Managers meeting, it was recorded: “Miss Ligon’s ashes will be interred in our cemetery.” Indeed, a Miss Maurine Ligon of Old New Castle had contracted to bury her collie, Lady, in the cemetery in 1973. The stone she ordered specified two names: Lady (1957-1973) and M. Ligon.

As the cemetery was left untended for years, so, too, had its map gone missing. But as Herel helped people find their monuments, a pattern denoted on the contracts in sections, rows and lots began to emerge. Ligon’s stone most likely would be back toward the fence, in the area overtaken by brush.

Herel contacted Gebhart Funeral Home, the most likely to make the arrangements for a long-time Old New Castle resident, and verified that Ligon had been cremated. Her ashes had been remanded to her power of attorney, a local couple named John and Lillian Flannigan. They have since passed away, but their son, Paul, still lives in his childhood home.

He had been about 10 when Ligon died on Nov. 29, 1980, from injuries sustained in a car accident the previous summer. But when contacted, he vividly remembered the day his parents took her ashes to the cemetery, where they were buried at her request with her beloved collie. He also recalled a series of written correspondence with the SPCA to receive permission for the burial.

“For her, it was all about the animals. Her partner was her loyal dog,” he said of Ligon, a sculptor, nurse and writer who never married. 

Determined to find the stone that might help save at least part of the land, Herel asked Kerns Brothers Tree Service if they would be willing to volunteer to clear the brush. They obliged.

And there it was, nestled into the ground in the second spot from the fence: Ligon’s stone.

With the attorney general investigating the complaints against the SPCA, and the SPCA registering the remains of Miss Ligon, shelter supporters were beginning to feel a glimmer of hope. Also helping the cause were about two dozen stray cats who live on the land, fed daily by a volunteer. They weren’t tame enough to be adopted out, but they also couldn’t survive on their own. They would have to be trapped and moved.

Then a search for the deed of the property, undertaken to look for any language restricting a land sale, turned up an unexpected document: The SPCA was being sued for breach of contract by Bariglio Corp., a company that had helped them find prospective tenants who would develop a portion of the property, providing $2 million in lease payments to finance the shelter.

The suit maintained that Bariglio held first right of refusal if the land were ever to be sold, and that former SPCA executive director Andrea Perlak had started shopping the deal around.

A quick land sale was beginning to look unlikely. Meanwhile, the SPCA board was shrinking as negative publicity mounted. The board finally announced that the land was not for sale, the feral cat colonies would not yet be moved and the pet cemetery would remain.

Then president Diane Ferry offered to facilitate an Aug. 22 meeting with a small group representing Citizens United. There, she agreed to present a new vote on the land sale and greenlighted a “pet cemetery cleanup day.” 

The cleanup, held Sept. 10, drew about 50 people armed with rakes, shovels, shears, weed-whackers and all manner of landscaping equipment. Among them were New County Councilman Ken Woods, state Sen. Jack Walsh and state Rep. Kim Williams.

A second meeting with the board was held on Sept. 19. The second cemetery cleanup day, on Oct. 8, welcomed an important visitor: Ferry arrived to read the statement everyone had been hoping for—the Stanton Shelter would reopen.

That day, Citizens United to Save the DE SPCA Stanton Shelter disbanded and reorganized under a new name and Facebook page: Friends of the DE SPCA Stanton Shelter. Together, we are rejuvenating the facility that holds such an important piece of Delaware’s heart and history.    

Through collaboration, Delaware SPCA in Georgetown continues to Thrive

While turmoil became a focal point at Stanton last year, the Delaware SPCA’s second location in Georgetown continued to hum along relatively unscathed, save for some phone calls from concerned animal lovers.

The only brick-and-mortar animal shelter in Sussex County currently employs one full-time and two part-time veterinarians and two full-time veterinarian technicians, says Bob Harrison, a Delaware SPCA board member since 2014. It offers a free pet food pantry, low-cost spay and neuter services, wellness clinics five days a week, and end-of-life care and cremations. Plus, adoptions continue to increase.

Applying the theory of supply and demand to animal rescue has helped Georgetown to form collaborative relationships with other facilities on the East Coast, Harrison says.

“For instance, Delaware has more than its share of cats, and although we adopt many of them out, we also can send many adoptable cats to rescuers in states who don’t have our overpopulation problem,” says Harrison. He has served on the animal issues committee of his hometown of Rehoboth Beach for the past 17 years. “On the other hand, dogs move very quickly in Sussex County. We reach out to states with high dog kill rates and take many of their surplus dogs here for adoption. We also assist the Brandywine Valley SPCA—which has the animal control contract for the state—by taking dogs off of their hands.”

Now with Stanton reopen, Georgetown only will continue to improve, says Tiffany Briddell, interim executive director of the Delaware SPCA. “Both locations together make us a stronger organization.”

When Philip Episcopo heard last summer that the Stanton SPCA was going to be sold, he retrieved the stone of his
deceased Retriever, Teddy.

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