Animal Shelter of the Week: Episode 59 – Champaign County Humane Society

Champaign County Humane Society

Champaign County Humane Society

Champaign County Humane Society is an independent non-profit organization and the only open-admission animal shelter & pet adoption facility in Champaign County IL. They are funded entirely through charitable donations and enjoy the support of a generous community! They have many volunteers (including foster homes) who help them provide excellent quality of life to the animals in their care. In addition to providing shelter and medical care to homeless animals and finding them new homes, they are committed to addressing the causes of pet homelessness through education and outreach programs.


Website: http://www.cuhumane.org/“Welcome to the Animal Shelter of the Week podcast, where we feature outstanding organizations from around the country that are helping animals and the people who rescue them. This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert connects animal shelters with volunteers to do animal transport and fostering. Learn more and sign up for free at www.Doobert.com. Let’s meet this week’s featured animal shelter.

 Champaign County Humane Society is an independent, non profit organization, and they are the only open admission animal shelter and pet adoption facility in Champaign County, Illinois. They’re funded entirely through charitable donations and enjoy the support of a generous community. They have many volunteers, including foster homes, who help them provide an excellent quality of life to the animals in their care. In addition to providing shelter and medical care to homeless animals and finding them new homes, they’re committed to addressing the causes of pet homelessness through education and outreach programs.

 Hi, Mary. Welcome to the show. Hi. Thank you for having me. Of course. I am so intrigued to learn what you have going on in Illinois over there. So can you kind of share with me a little bit about your organization and what your role is over there? Sure, I’m the Executive Director at the Champaign County Humane Society and Shipping County is in East Central Illinois, and we’re the home of the University of Illinois’s largest campus. So we’re a university town, surrounded by corn and soybean fields. We’ve been here, incorporated as a humane society, since 1951. Although we’ve been able to trace the history of a humane society here, going back to the late 1800’s. Oh wow! Yeah, there’s been a big concern for animals in this area for a long time. That’s awesome. No, I mean you don’t really. You know, you hear about organizations that have been around for a while, but the fact that it’s been open for so long or you have traces of it, that’s awesome. So would you say that your community as a whole is still very into its animals? Yes, I think I can safely say that. We are very well supported, and we feel very fortunate about that. Perfect. Well, that’s always good to hear.

 How long have you been in your position currently? I’ve been the Director since fall of 2007. Before that, I was on the board for two years. So I’ve been affiliated with it since 05. Wow. So you definitely have seen quite the change and the ups and downs, for sure. I guess so. Goes by fast. Well, I mean, definitely. It seems like you love what you do and love the organization that you’re a part of, to be there for so long. So that’s always good. Yeah, that is true. It has been a pleasure, and it’s always changing and we’re supported by great people here. And I love my staff and, you know, just doing good work. We love hearing that. You know, if you’re with the organization for a long time, you definitely have that connection. And that’s definitely a sign that you guys are doing awesome things over there, for you to be a part of that organization for so long. Thank you. 

So I guess overall, just what is it that you guys do? Do you guys focus on specific breeds or are you more like towards the disabled animals? Kind of just share with us a little bit about that sort of area. Yeah. Our primary focus is companion animals. So dogs, cats and all the small pets. And we’re the only open admission shelter with an adoption program, here in Champaign County. So we’ve always been committed to taking all homeless pets that need us, regardless of age, medical condition or the suitability for adoption. And that’s very important to us. We take animals that are owner relinquished, but we also take a lot of animals from Champaign County Animal Control. So they have a facility, but not an adoption program. So those are the two main sources of animals, and then we also take animals from surrounding shelters when they need our help. So we have a robust veterinary program right here. We have a veterinarian on staff, and we have a great relationship with the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine, so that gives us access to some expertise when we need it. So really, there’s nothing that we won’t consider treating. We’ll do all kinds of surgeries and treatments if there’s, you know, a likelihood of a good outcome, and we’re very proud of that. 

We also focus a lot on the behavioral health of our animals. We do enrichment, you know, for the cats and dogs while they’re here. We will work with dogs that have some issues, you know, if they’re not dangerous, we’ll try to work with them on their manners. And basically we focus a lot on psychological health for all the animals as part of keeping them physically healthy while they’re in shelter. That’s definitely new, the psychological health for them. I haven’t really heard about organizations doing that. I hear about the behavior in the training and everything of that nature. But it’s kind of interesting and neat to me that you guys really do focus on that psychological health for them. Because, like you mentioned, the shelter life and all of the things that come with it aren’t easy on animals. So I’m kind of intrigued, which I do want to come back to that.

 I want to kind of touch base, you said you guys have a vet on site, but you also were close with the university. So, do you guys get a lot of the college students that volunteer and are they a part of a lot of what you guys do as an organization? Yeah, there’s a few different ways. We do have animal science externs every semester, and so they sign up to be an extern in animal care, medical adoptions or behavior. You know, we get a little extra help from about 15 to 20 externs each semester, and they get college credit. We also work with the vet school in a variety of ways. We’ve had different iterations over the years. Sometimes we have senior veterinary students doing a rotation, where they work with our vet for two weeks at a time and get to hone their skills in surgery. And other times it’s smaller scale. So we’ve done a lot of different experiential learning things with the vet school. Okay, that’s a good way to kind of get them involved and the fact that you guys offer that is really neat. And I’m sure it’s super beneficial for them as well. Yeah, they’ve developed a whole Shelter Medicine Program as part of the Vet School, and they have a mobile spay/neuter truck that they now take around to a variety of communities that don’t have access to a lot of low cost, you know, veterinary help. So they’ve been great. And the fact that their students get some exposure to what shelter medicine is, is really great. I mean, even if they don’t go into shelter medicine, if they’re taking private clients, it’s good for them to understand what’s going on in shelters. Absolutely. 

Now, is that mobile vet, is that through the university itself? Or is that something that you guys do together? That’s the university’s. Okay, well, I mean, still that super neat. And like you said, even if they go into that private practice, they still get that experience. And, you know, the shelter life. It’s definitely different from a lot of other areas. Yeah, I think if you work in sheltering and the veterinarians in your community have no idea what goes on in your shelter, there could be kind of a disconnect and sometimes some negative judgement. As they see you know, their clients come in with a newly adopted animal, and they might make assumptions about the quality of care at the shelter. I think it’s great when those students get exposed to what it’s really like here in the shelter and what’s going on behind our decision making and what are the challenges that we’re facing.Just to know that. We get that background and, you know, we always prefer it. If a veterinarian sees an animal that came from here and it’s sick. for some reason. where we missed something, you know, call us. Call our vet, ask us what we’re doing. Why are we using this drug? How did we miss this? Because we’re happy to share and to learn. And, of course, if we miss something, we want to know. Yeah, but I think that that’s a good outlook to have because, like you said, it’s hard, especially you guys being an open in take shelter, you know, you guys kind of get everything. You know, you get the very lowest of the lows of cases, sometimes. Decisions aren’t as easy to make. So I think it’s great that you guys have that opportunity for those students, but also to kind of help out the animals within your organization. Just, you know, for enrichment. And just that extra helping hand. Yeah.

Mary, can you share with me a little bit about your community? I know you’re near a university and everything, but what overall is your community like for I guess, the community, the people, but also for the animals? Champaign Orbanus, so we’re in one of those communities. That’s too like twin cities. So the total population of Champaign County is about 209,000, but the University of Illinois is a huge part of it. It brings diversity at the student level, but also the faculty level. And apart from the university, I think the biggest industry is agriculture, farming. Then there’s a lot of local business. For the animals, it’s a great community. There’s a lot of people here who really love pets, and that’s across, you know, whether university types or the local people. Everybody seems to love cats and dogs, and we can all bond over that. We’re political. We just love dogs. I guess. That’s good, though. You know, some communities don’t have that animal advocacy backup they’re kind of just like, some people love animals and some people are like um, no they’re not for me, you know. So it’s great to hear that you have that great support for animals within your community. That’s why I feel I feel like that’s just across the board. Everybody is supportive of what we’re doing, and couldn’t be in a better community. 

Well, good. So how many animals would you say that you guys have in your care at any point in time? What’s the average amount? It varies a lot. I think, right now we probably only have about 60-ish. But it’s more often, like in busy months, so spring, summer, early fall, it’s closer to the 100’s. And then it can go above that easily, with kitten season. Oh, yes, it’s coming, right? Yeah, it’s  right around the corner. Well, but still, I find it funny how you’re like, well, only 60 right now. And I’m like, holy smokes. Only 60. It’s gone down, you know, over recent years, the numbers have gone down for us and primarily in dogs. So it seems like it’s not the kind of pressure we used to have, which is good. Yeah, I was going to say that’s a good problem to have. That means whatever you guys are doing and your other local organizations, whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Right. Well, good.

 So let’s kind of come back and shine light to some of the programs that you had mentioned. I do want to start with the psychological health that we previously talked about. Can you share with me a little bit about that? And how you guys, you know, kind of interact with the animals to keep them sane in that crazy shelter environment? I started thinking about that, several years ago, when I went to a conference that HSUS put on and I heard some people speak. I think Dr. Hurley might have been one of them, about cats. And they talked about studies that were done looking at how much geographic area a cat will roam in, if left to their own devices. And then they measured cortisol levels as an indicator of stress. As you took away that degree of space for living, and what we’re doing is extreme. We’re taking cats who would normally roam, you know, a few blocks and we’re putting them in a often two foot by three foot cage. And that fact alone causes a high level of stress for a cat. Doesn’t matter how good the cage is, doesn’t matter anything else. Just the fact that you’re taking away its ability to have ample territory, causes stress. And stress and cats is directly related to disease. 

So if you want to keep shelter cats healthy and not have that source spread of upper respiratory disease that shelters have struggled with forever, you have to first be aware of why it’s happening. And then what are all the little things you can do to make it better? So, you know, we’re one of the shelters that had the portholes installed between all our stainless steel cat cages. So that if you don’t have a full population of cats, you can open the porthole and each cat can have basically a doublewide. And you know, we only use those stainless steel cages in cat holding, cat isolation and one of our cat adoption wards. The rest of the cages are more kind of, hodgepodge of what we buy and roll in. And so we’ve been buying bigger ones of those. So we’re very aware of trying to give our cats as much real estate as we can.

 And then the other things that they need are levels. They like to be able to perch higher. They need a place to hide, and they need a certain amount of space between the litter box, water, food and resting space. So we do that. You know, we try to do that. Some of our cages are too small, but we try to make up for it in other ways. We have, you know, of course, the scratching boxes get hung in cages and we try to introduce stimulating elements for both dogs and cats. Throughout the day, we might go through and spray some aromatherapy. We’re not sure what aromatherapy really does. But we do see that if you go in the kennel and you start spraying, whatever scent it is, could be lavender, but also it could be bacon, you see the dogs start to air sniff. They stop what they’re doing and they’re thinking about it and they’re looking and they’re sniffing. And we think that allowing animals the opportunity to experience all their senses is one form of enrichment. I mean, but that’s what makes life rich, is experiencing taste, touch, smell. It definitely is, and that one is becoming a very popular enrichment for animals. I mean, I talked to a lady, which actually did a tiger rescue, and they do the same thing. They spray different scents, and some cats like it and some of the cats didn’t. But I have cats and I would never think about spraying different scents for my cats. But believe it or not, that is becoming a thing. It’s good enrichment for them, like you said to get that scent in. And, you know, some people like bacon and some people like the smell of Axe. You know, you don’t, you just don’t know.

 But I think it’s cool and I think it’s very unique and fun that you guys are, you know, starting to experiment with stuff like that. Very cool. Yeah, and we also have the cat videos that play in the cat rooms, and I’m still always amazed when I see cats interacting with the flat screen. Cracks me up. It’s a good video of a lot of birds hopping around, chirping and eating bird seed or little chipmunks and squirrels. Seems like that, more so than fish. Definitely. Probably makes the cats go crazy. Yeah, you know, we have them in the communal cat room, but also in the cage cat room. The communal one is funny, cause some cats will get, like right up to the screen and start pawing on it or trying to look behind it to see where the noise is coming from. That’s cool. I like that. That’s something I personally haven’t heard of having the screen in there so the cats can interact. So definitely I love that. That’s a good idea. Yeah, and we turn it on and off if you leave it on too much, it.just background noise. Oh, yeah, it’s something again.

 Well, fun. I love hearing about the different enrichment programs and, you know, just kind of how you guys interact with the animals that you take in because that’s one of the most important things in making sure that they’re comfortable. Yeah, we have a very organized volunteer program and behavior program to make sure that whenever the dogs go out on a walk, they are handled in the same way. So there’s consistency, and when they’re out on a walk, they’re getting trained on basic manners as well as getting their exercise. So mental and physical exercise, and that’s worked very well, and the dogs become better behaved instead of just deteriorating while they’re here. Then we also focus on the things I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of shelters do a frozen Kong toy every day. We’ll make some frozen Popsicles. You hang on the kennel so they have to lick at the ice and get to the treats that are all frozen inside. Other food delivery toys that slow down their eating. Like I said, we do the scents. We do playgroups when we have dogs that will get along. We’ll take them out to do playgroups and give them interaction. Sometimes we’ll have students that come through on a tour, from the university. We’ll have them go in the kennels and teach the dogs with clickers. You know how to come up to the front of the kennel and sit to get a treat so that they present better to adopters. And we’ll train cats too. We do clicker training to get cats to reach their paws out of the cage, to snag their next human. How cute. I love the enrichment programs. I love that you guys take the time to really connect with the animals in your care and just ensure that they’re happy and they’re getting better prepared for their next family.

 And this kind of leads me down that next topic of what’s a big challenge for you guys as an organization? Is it, you know, lack of volunteers or lack of adopters? Share with me a little bit about that? That’s a good question, and I did think about it in advance, and it’s hard to say right now. We have a lot of current struggles just with our infrastructure, our shelters’ old. But we are addressing that. So it’s almost like, you know, we’re getting, we just did a capital campaign and we’re in the process of plans for renovation and new construction. So we are gonna address. It’s a challenge and the solution is in progress, thank goodness. But we’ve been really struggling with just keeping the air conditioning working and that kind of stuff. It’s good that you guys have the capability and stuff to start renovations and stuff like that. 

So would you say that this whole Coronavirus situation has impacted your organization in a big way? Or how are you guys kind of handling this whole pandemic? Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s yet to be seen how it’s going to affect us, long term, cause we’re so not even in the middle of it, right? We’re kind of in the beginning and we have a fundraising event. We were gonna do it in mid May, and now we’re looking to move it to the end of June, hoping that by then will be able to have that. It’s our dog walk. But I know a lot of nonprofits are kind of stuck facing events having to be cancelled, and that could have a financial impact that right now, you know, I’m not really seeing. It’s affected operations. You know, for the few weeks that we’ve been dealing with it. That’s on my mind, as a leader, in terms of how to keep my staff healthy. How to comply with the directives coming out of Washington and Illinois. And, you know, can we do adoptions? Can we not? How do we do them? Everyday it’s like another new thing happens that we have to make a statement about or respond to. But that’s just life right now. You make priorities and you address it, and we’re fortunate. It has been determined that under our governor’s order, sheltering in place, we can still do adoptions. We’re just doing them by an appointment now, instead of being open for people browsing and, you know, congregating at the shelter. Which would make sense, you know, they’re having lots of the, “no more than 10 people around”, so definitely makes sense. But it’s good that it hasn’t quite impacted too much lately. Hopefully it kind of stays that way. You know, we can hope.

Yeah, we’re a little worried because we haven’t seen, I was talking to our Animal Control Director the other day and she said, Normally, this time of year, she’s already spayed a lot of pregnant cats, that people have brought in, and she hasn’t really done any. People here are not out looking for adult cats. Right now they’re hunkered down, and she works with the university’s low cost spay/neuter Shelter Medicine Program, and they shut down because the university shut down. So she’s worried that when it comes to the kittens being born, in the next couple weeks, that we’re gonna have a huge kitten season, just because nobody’s been dealing with adult cats for the past month. It’s a good thing that you guys have thought about that. I don’t think many people have. You know, if nobody is spaying and neutering their pets, here it comes, you know? So, yeah, The best thing is to kind of just prepare yourself that that’s gonna happen and kind of hope that it’s not near as big or crazy of a situation as you think it is. So yeah, and let’s hope we’re not still in a, I don’t want to use the word locked down, but not in a situation where people are hampered in moving around and dealing with these things.

 Yes, I think it’s great. You guys seem to kind of have a handle on it. You’re staying informed with what’s going on, but I really want to kind of get your opinion since you have been with this organization for quite some time. How has your organization changed over the years that you have been there? We have very fortunately grown financially stronger, and that is a big change that’s due to a lot of work by a lot of people, but also a lot of generosity. We’ve been able to build cash reserves and endowment funds, through plant giving, so people that have left us money in their will, have allowed us to build reserves, so that we don’t have to worry. You know, if we have a few years where you know our fundraising events and are all our efforts or requests don’t come in and we end the year with a deficit. It’s okay. We just carry on at the same level of staffing and, you know, same mission. And then we’ll sometimes have a few years in a row where we do really well. We get a lot of generous gifts from people who left us money in their will, and we don’t just spend that money. We invest it so that it is there to help us cover the next time we have a less successful year. So we have developed a great amount of stability, which I’m very proud of and which helps us be a stable and professional organization. A lot of challenges for organizations in this field are, you know, funding. It’s a huge accomplishment that you guys were able to gain that stability. That’s truly awesome for you guys. Yeah, it is, and we recognize that, we know that we’re fortunate and just couldn’t be more thankful to the people who made us a priority. And have put their trust in us, to look out for the animals in our community. Yes, very neat. And the fact that you know you’ve grown, you know, you were able to kind of see that, started where you were when you first started and see that grow. 

So, Mary, you kind of strike me a little bit here. How do you get started in the animal welfare industry? Was that something that you knew you always wanted to do or was it something that just kind of fell in your lap and you took advantage of it, now you absolutely love it? That’s kind of a long story. I did not foresee a career in animal welfare. I grew up in Connecticut. I went to college at Hofstra University, outside New York City. Was a theater major, and my first career was as a Professional Stage Manager in New York and then Minneapolis and then a little bit in Chicago. When I was in Chicago, I decided to change careers and left the theater career behind me and went to law school. So I worked full time to support myself and my two dogs and cat and did law school at night, for four years. And I loved it. Law school was awesome, and my dogs were, one was from a shelter in Minnesota. One was from a shelter outside of Chicago, where I had volunteered for a little while, and my cat was just kept that a coworker didn’t want anymore. So anyway, I guess that was my first shelter experience was volunteering in Evanston, Illinois. And then when I graduated law school, I was, like I said, living in Chicago, I was ready to get out of a big city. I had only lived in big cities because I was in theater. And I actually grew up riding horses, which was my main hobby as a kid, so I wanted to live back in a more rural area.

 So I looked for jobs in law outside of Chicago, ended up moving down to Springfield, which is the capital city of Illinois, was in Springfield for a year working for the appellate court. And then I got the opportunity to work as a law clerk for an appellate court judge over here in Urbana in 1999, I guess. And so that got me to this community. And while I was working for the judge, which I did for seven more years, I got involved in animal welfare, in a variety of ways. As a volunteer. I volunteered with Illinois Bird Dog Rescue, who I adopted from. I volunteered to form a local nonprofit that did humane education, and I used my legal skills to help them form. And I got on the board of this organization. So it was really through, you know, volunteering and made friends with a local woman who did Dog Behavior Consults. She’s an absolutely top notch dog behaviorist, and I had dogs with issues, of course. So went to dog training and behavior conferences and stuff and was totally into that. So that’s kind of how I got really interested. 

And then, after being on the board of this organization for two years, the Executive Director resigned and I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I felt like I could use my legal skills in this job and use my management skills, from when I was in theater and my nonprofit knowledge to do something good. This is what I love about asking this question, a lot of times people don’t know, Hey, I want to work in the animal welfare industry or some people kind of have that feeling, but that’s not really the path that they go down. So I love to kind of hear your story a little bit because it just goes to show you like you seemed very successful in what you were doing and you loved and you know, the theater and moving from Big City, the big city and it’s really cool. It’s neat to hear kind of your journey and how you got into the position that you’re in now. So thank you for sharing that. Oh, you’re welcome. I always hope it’s a little bit inspiring to anybody who’s feeling stuck, because I was in my thirties when I went to law school. And it was the best decision I ever made, you know, from a career and life of learning standpoint. It was great to go to school for something that I really wanted to do, and then of course a law degree is useful in almost any business situation. Yes, I think that you’ve got many different traits that you bring to the table, which is probably why it helps you where you’re at now. Like you said, you got to use some of your skills and I’m sure you learn new things every day. 

But anyway, I really enjoyed talking with you today and learning more about your organization and what you guys experience on a daily basis. And you know how you guys are dealing with the whole craziness of the world right now. It’s great to see that you guys are hanging in there and you guys are keeping your head up. 

So do you have anything else you’d like to share with me today before we wrap things up? One is the you know, I’ve tried to focus, since I took the position, on preventing pet homelessness in the first place. So you know, as much as the enrichment is about setting the animals up for success in their next home, we also do dog training classes and puppy socialisation classes, and we keep those affordable, so that people can get a good chance of success with their new pets. We do low income support, in terms of spay/neuter programs for low income people. Vaccine clinics. So not as regularly as I’d like yet. And we’ll give away donated food and supplies that you know, our humane investigators. They’ll go out on calls to investigate neglect. And we look at that as an opportunity for education. As most people are being neglectful because they lack knowledge or they lack resources and so it’s our role to help them understand the needs of their pets and help them meet those needs. So I kind of think that if you just focus on the sheltering and the adoptions, you’re sort of starting with the Band Aid. You’re not addressing why we’re needed in the first place. Yeah.

 Do you guys offer all those trainings right there at your facility? Not yet. But after construction, we will. Okay. So is one of your challenges actually circling back to that. We have to hold our dog training classes, luckily, there’s a local pet supply business that you know he can make a little room in his warehouse, and that’s where we hold our dog training classes. Our spay /neuter, low cost program, we do right here in the shelter and for vaccine clinics, we’ll  set up, we’ll rent some tents and do those right on our property. But finding space for programming is definitely a challenge. And we’re gonna build an education building on our property in the year ahead. That’s definitely a good thing. And you’re absolutely right. Saving the animals is, you know, top priority. You know, you want to make sure that you give them a better life, but you’re absolutely right in supporting you know, those animals and the adopters too. I mean, that’s definitely an important part to keep animals in their homes.

 Yeah, and there’s always gonna be a need, you know, to be a safety net for when people go into a nursing home and they need to surrender their pet. Or there’s a death in the family or, you know, true family crises. You know, sometimes finances and children, they do come first, and sometimes it’s the right decision to relinquish a pet. And you know, I hope everybody has a great shelter in their community, where they could do that and feel good about it. But, we also want to help pet owners so that they can benefit from their relationships with their pets and keep them to their old age. Oh, good. I’m happy to hear that. You guys have recognized that. And that’s a priority for you guys because you’re absolutely right. It is definitely important. Thank You.. Of course. 

So, again Mary, thank you so much for joining me today. And I hope that our listeners can take something from our conversation and either go out and volunteer, go out and switch professions. You know, they’re not happy with what they’re doing. So let’s just switch. No, but seriously, you guys are doing awesome work over there. I can’t wait, Thank you. To catch up with you guys and see how your renovation turns out. Get caught up with all the new stuff. And hopefully this whole world crisis will be over. Oh, yes, I really hope so. We were very excited about what we’re about to undertake. It’s gonna be stressful, but it’s overdue. And we’re very excited that we were able to raise the money and make it happen. Definitely well worth it. 

Thanks for tuning into today’s podcast. If you’re not already a Dooberteer, sign up for free at www.Doobert.com. At Doobert, we know that together we can save more animals.”

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