Great Plains SPCA in Merriam ambitiously takes on the big jobs

Updated: 2013-06-26T05:31:13Z


Special to The Star

A chocolate Labrador retriever noses over a wire fence, lapping the fingers of a giggling girl. Her family calls her inside the Great Plains SPCA shelter in Merriam. She hurries in to find a new furry pal.

As the family walks the halls, they notice there’s something different about this animal shelter. Orange and yellow color the walls, and dogs snuggle in plush comforters on cots raised off the ground. It is even relatively quiet, aside from a 1-year-old terrier named Destiny chewing on a squeaky toy.

This is a stark contrast from the incessant barking that reverberated off the cinder-block walls of Johnson County’s former shelter, Animal Haven, which closed when the new shelter at 5424 Antioch Road opened in December.

Plexiglas doors separate the animals from potential owners, creating a friendlier alternative to crates or cages in an area known as “Saving Grace Lane.” Some of the animals even have their own “canine suites,” 5-by-5 rooms with open doors for visitors to interact with the pets in person.

Sprawling 10,000 square feet, the facility can house up to 200 animals — that’s three times larger than Animal Haven, which was a family’s house before it was converted into an animal shelter in 1965.

The comforts are not lost on Fiesta, a black and white Labrador mix. In her suite, she bathes in the sunbeam streaking through her large, ceiling-to-floor window.

“Sometimes I wonder if the dogs even know they’re in a shelter,” Great Plains SPCA volunteer Megan McGee said. “It’s more like a hotel for lost dogs.”

It’s not just the shelter that has had an extreme makeover. Two years ago this month, Animal Haven combined efforts with No More Homeless Pets KC, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic, and set upon a mission to transform animal welfare in the metro area.

Since then, Great Plains SPCA has emerged as a powerhouse in animal rescue and protection, billing itself as “Kansas City’s most comprehensive resource for pets and their human companions.”

In addition to opening the Merriam shelter, the new nonprofit:

• Added low-cost veterinary care for pets by expanding services at what was the No More Homeless Pets KC spay-and-neuter clinic;

• Added extensive programming aimed at educating the public, helping animals stay in their homes and increasing the quality of residents’ lives through pets;

• Took over the operation of a new no-kill animal shelter in Independence, meaning fewer than 10 percent of the dogs and cats would be euthanized;

• Launched an edgy marketing campaign and aggressive fundraising efforts to support its work.

• Opened a retail store called MetroPAWlitan Pet Supply at its adoption center in the Merriam shelter and opened one in the Independence shelter. Next up: online shopping.

• Just last year, Great Plains took in more than 4,300 homeless pets, spayed or neutered 8,673 privately owned pets and cared for 9,645 patients in its vet clinic.

Heady stuff, but not surprising for an organization whose goal is to turn Kansas City into a “lifesaving no-kill community.”

To help along such ambitious change, Great Plains leads by example: 97 percent of its animals in Merriam and Independence leave the facilities for another no-kill agency, for a new family or are returned to their owner. No-kill shelters generally target a “live-release” rate of 90 percent.

Last year, the organization found homes for 3,213 pets and reunited 841 families with their lost animals.

The organization hasn’t been without growing pains. In a costly and high-profile stumble, it was forced to change the name it chose when it merged in 2011, Heartland SPCA. An Overland Park vet clinic, Heartland Animal Clinic, sued. After spending $200,000 to brand the new organization, last year it agreed to drop the name, becoming Great Plains SPCA, which stands for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

And taking over the Independence shelter has proved a significant drain on resources because the shelter has taken in so many more animals than anyone expected and it is committed to its no-kill mission.

But Great Plains chief executive Courtney Thomas is undaunted.

“My greatest aspiration is for people to understand who we are and what we do,” Thomas said. “If we have the opportunity to tell our story, they’re sold. They want to be part of our life-saving mission.”

Bird chirps resound from the northeast wing, but the shelter does not house homeless parakeets. Instead, the shrill music plays from two flat-screen televisions in the cat complex, streaming video of birds in nature, entertaining the playful calico, Tasha. Like the dogs, some kitties have their own condos, where they perch on their windowsills and stare at the world outside.

Two sisters in their 20s slip into an open cat playroom, chatting excitedly about the prospect of adopting a new feline friend. Natalie and Kelly Carter had been to several area shelters without luck; their hearts were set on an orange tabby.

But after strolling through Great Plains SPCA, their opinions started to change. Its happy atmosphere seems to bring out the best in the cats.

“Now that I see some of these guys, I’m not so sure,” Natalie said. “It’s all about their personalities.”

In the end, Natalie selected a black cat named Tucker, and Kelly chose Toppers, a fluffy white kitten. After completing a survey and speaking with an adoption counselor, the women took home their new pets.

That’s just the result officials were hoping for when they opened the shelter. In fact, Great Plains has seen a 28 percent increase in adoptions at the Merriam shelter so far this year over last year.

The former facility, Animal Haven, perpetuated the negative connotation of a shelter, Thomas said. The dim, drab 3,300 square feet were crammed prisonlike with kennels, yet still the shelter took in 4,300 animals in 2012.

“Some of the old language around the shelter was, ‘Oh, it’s so sad. It’s hard for me to go there,’” Thomas said. “It was definitely not an ideal facility to reduce stress or to encourage people to come and visit.”

Animal Haven had struggled to raise money for a new shelter, but an anonymous donor stepped in and paid for the new clinic.

Shannon Blizzard, chief operating officer of the Merriam campus, wants Great Plains SPCA to be welcoming. Presentation is key, and she explains the reason the shelter is kept in tip-top condition is to let the animals shine. When the animals are happy, so are the people.

“We want to increase the status of shelter pets from being something that people thought of as damaged, passed-up goods to being healthy, adoptable pets who just lost their way,” Blizzard said.

McGee had volunteered at several animal shelters in the area, but when she found Great Plains, she fell in love. The happy environment, devoted staff and noble mission of the shelter kept McGee coming back, week after week. She now runs the merchandise store in the shelter, MetroPAWlitan Pet Supply, which directs all its profits back to animal care.

“It’s the colors and the atmosphere that got me,” McGee said. “I don’t feel sad for the dogs when I leave.”

The previous doom-and-gloom inspired the development of Great Plains SPCA. Although the new animal shelter only opened seven months ago, Great Plains SPCA celebrated the second anniversary this month of the merger of Animal Haven and No More Homeless Pets KC.

For two years, Great Plains has been a multifunctional group offering extensive programming and services.

“True success only comes when you take your blinders off and hold hands to figure out how to accomplish great things together,” Thomas said of the merger.

Leaders had to “take their blinders off” and address the pros and cons of both organizations in order to improve. Animal Haven was known for its near half-century of work joining animals with new owners at its shelter, but had limited space and resources. No More Homeless Pets KC was a nonprofit animal welfare organization focused on programming to support no-kill goals, but its mission was hazy and community members were confused about its purpose.

“Both organizations had been around for a while and they had some familiarity and awareness,” Thomas said. “But what we’re trying to do now is to change that awareness and what people always thought of around the organizations to be something completely different.”

No More Homeless Pets KC and Animal Haven leaders formulated a plan to combine the working aspects of both organizations. In addition to its expanded facility and veterinary clinic, the organization provides several specialized programs aiding and educating the Kansas City community.

One such program called, SASSY, or Saving Animals by Supportive Seniors, partners with local Meals on Wheels volunteers to deliver pet food to recipients alongside their human meals. Thomas said many elderly pet owners were sharing their own plates with their animals because of financial strain or lack of mobility.

Another program, Hero, named after the organization’s motto — “heroes for pets, partners for life” — provides pet food to needy families and sends volunteers into neighborhoods to offer at-home help with animal behavioral problems and education on proper pet care.

These services, alongside Great Plains SPCA’s shelter and veterinary clinic, help sustain a high live-release rate by keeping animals in loving homes and out of the shelter’s “suites.” Thomas knows from experience the multipronged approach works. She implemented similar strategies during her eight years at another Kansas City area animal shelter, Wayside Waifs Inc., lowering its euthanasia rate from 72 percent to 8 percent.

“You can’t adopt your way out of the problem we have with pet overpopulation,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to do more on the front end and the back end to really create success.”

In addition to adding programming, Great Plains changed how it used the facilities it inherited in the merger. The old Animal Haven shelter is now used as the intake center for surrendered animals, while the No More Homeless Pets KC former headquarters is now Great Plains’ affordable veterinary clinic.

Previously, No More Homeless Pets KC used the clinic at 5428 Antioch primarily for spay and neuter services.

When Thomas joined No More Homeless Pets KC as a consultant three years ago, she saw the asset it was providing the community. However, during the 2010 talks with the group about the upcoming merger, she asked questions, seeking more.

“You’ve got this great facility and you’re doing great things, but during the day this facility sits empty,” Thomas probed. “Most of the animals we were seeing come in for spay and neuter services had needs beyond what they covered. So, how can we meet those?”

That’s when they converted the high-volume spay-neuter clinic into the current multipurpose low-cost veterinary clinic now run by Great Plains SPCA. The clinic last year served 9,645 animals and is booked six weeks out, Thomas said.

“The demand for our services is astronomical,” Thomas said.

Services are offered at a lower price than at private shelters, which Thomas attributes to reducing euthanasia and shelter intake rates.

“The work we are doing is preventing pets from entering area shelters because people now have a choice,” Thomas said. “It is reasonable for me to treat my pet. It’s affordable. I can still have food on my table to feed my family and take care of my pet.”

Donna Cassity found herself in a similar heart-wrenching situation. During the back-to-back February blizzards, while Cassity’s mother was hospitalized with heart problems, her pug, Little Bit, needed a tough surgery on his right eye.

Little Bit’s regular veterinarian gave Cassity a $4,500 quote for an experimental procedure that wasn’t guaranteed to work. Although crushed by the surgery’s price tag, she was determined not to euthanize Little Bit.

“For us, our animals are family,” Cassity said. “They just walk on four legs and have fur.”

That’s when she thought to seek help from an area nonprofit pug rescue organization, which directed her to Great Plains SPCA.

“They took a hard time for me and put my heart at ease,” Cassity said. “I would call them animals’ best friends, a very special group of people.”

The affordable care clinic charged Cassity $250 to remove Little Bit’s right eye, significantly cheaper than private veterinary clinics charge.

“They are there for the animals,” Cassity said.

A few months later, Little Bit is back to his old self after an adjustment period of “running into things” on his right side.

Thomas said Cassity’s situation is not unusual and is motivation for the Great Plains SPCA affordable clinic’s staff.

“We don’t want to take clients away from private veterinarians,” Thomas said. “What we’re trying to do is meet a need and fill a gap – a huge, gaping hole in our community.”

Thomas envisions a future where the entire veterinarian community — private and public — works together to come up with options and resources to fill this void.

“They have to make a living — we totally get it — but how do we all look at this as a value-added service to this community?”

Great Plains’ no-kill efforts even extend to feral cats. It kept a program run by No More Homeless Pets KC called Trap-Neuter-Return, where feral and roaming cats are caught, dropped off for neutering surgery, then released back to the habitat in which they were found.

“This age-old view that you reduce the cat population by euthanizing them simply doesn’t work,” Thomas said. “If you alter them and re-release them into their natural habitat, they just end up dying of natural causes. The theory is that when cats are given routine medical treatments while eliminating their ability to reproduce, stray cat colonies are healthier and diminish in size on their own.

“Just let them live out there like squirrels,” Thomas said. “We aren’t trapping squirrels and bringing them in and killing them, so wild cats should be considered the same.”

Great Plains isn’t afraid to raise eyebrows to get its message across. It has turned to television commercials to promote spaying and neutering, with production costs — everything but air time — donated. In their 2012 advertisement, a black and white King Charles cavalier spaniel gets “romantic” with a throw pillow. After 15 seconds of raunchy behavior, a message displays, “Do less laundry. Spay or neuter your pets,” followed by the organization’s logo.

Thomas said the tongue-and-cheek advertisement served a specific purpose: to reach a demographic likely not to neuter their pets.

“Just saying, ‘Spaying and neutering your pets is the right thing to do,’ isn’t going to convert the person who struggles with their dog no longer having the visual identity ‘intact,’” Thomas said.

Marketing has been key to rebrand the new organization, and the efforts have been successful, despite the controversy with its name. A single donor paid for the cost of the lawsuit brought against it so that none of Great Plains’ budget or other donor funds were spent on the case, Thomas said.

“We came out of an unfortunate situation much stronger than we were before, with a cohesive look and feel to all of our marketing and outreach platforms,” Thomas said.

Thomas doesn’t want Great Plains’ can-do power, growth and slick marketing to give the community a false sense that it doesn’t need money. It does.

Taking over operations of the new Independence shelter, which opened in April at at 21001 E. Missouri 78 , has caused the most financial strain.

“We’re struggling on the Independence side, I will say that,” Thomas said.

Originally, the city of Independence planned to run the shelter. In 2009, Jackson County agreed to build a $5 million shelter on Independence-owned land. The city agreed to run it and shut down its old, substandard shelter.

But the agreement fell apart last year when Jackson County Legislator Dennis Waits questioned whether the City Council was budgeting enough to run the facility as a “no-kill” shelter.

The city countered that the management agreement didn’t call for that standard at the outset, only that Independence “work towards the goal of maintaining a ‘no-kill’ shelter.”

The budget was too small to operate the new, much larger facility as a no-kill shelter. Great Plains estimates it will need to come up with $735,000 a year to cover the shelter’s operating budget of about $1.3 million.

Already, the 27,000-square-foot shelter — four times larger than the old shelter — has seen a 144 percent increase in pets dropped off by animal control and a 65 percent increase in animals brought in by the public.

“The volume of animals coming through the door has skyrocketed,” Thomas said.

Last year, Independence animal control took 2,926 animals to the shelter. Great Plains has already taken in 1,438.

“And we haven’t been open 80 days,” Thomas said this week. “Just this morning, we took in 28 cats and kittens. Just this morning. … It’s insane. In the 20 years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never seen as many cats and kittens as we have in this building right now.”

To get influx of animals adopted, Great Plains has been deeply discounting the fees it charges new owners. Half-price specials. Buy one/get one free specials. Fee-waived specials.

The discounts take their toll. Great Plains budgeted that it would bring in $42,000 in adoption fees in Independence in May; but with the specials, it only took in $11,000. And because of the added expenses of so many pets, Great Plains suffered a $53,000 loss for the month for the Independence shelter.

Great Plains had budgeted to lose $63,000 on operating the Independence shelter for the whole year. Thomas and her staff are working out a plan to get the community involved by donating, volunteering and adopting.

Thomas said she was struck by how much the community pushed for Great Plains to be awarded the contract to run the Independence shelter and “how people said they would be there for us.

“We need to see those things now,” she said. “We’re here. We’re making a difference. We’re fulfilling our no-kill commitment to this community and we need the community to fulfill its commitment to us. To help us.”

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