Berkshire Humane Society celebrates 25 years

Teenagers in the Berkshire foster care system can earn the chance to spend a few hours a week with half-grown kittens or a husky mix who want a walk. And when an animal finds a home, the kids know. As the Berkshire Humane Society helps animals, it helps people, says executive director John Perreault — women in abusive relationships, families in rough economic times, people who are sick or elderly and need care have all turned to BHS.

For a shelter of its size, he says, it offers an unusual number and range of programs — not only education for people and training for dogs, but collaborations with the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Berkshire Medical Center, Elder Services, local colleges …

And the programs keep growing. Lizzie Brown, Humane instructor, started the collaboration with the Key Program, working with people in local foster care, within the last eight months.

Compassion, Perreault says, is at their core. In its 25th year the Berkshire Humane Society has become a refuge that never turns an animal away — parrots, ferrets, llamas, iguanas, goats, geese, even ponies and pigs. (They also have also plenty of rabbits and guinea pigs.)

Almost all will find homes within six months and often much faster — often within a few days, and sometimes even before they come in. Animals up for adoption can also stay as long as they need to. BHS will euthanize an animal, Perreault says, only in the rare case that one is sick and in pain or too unsafe to adopt out.

BHS has run this way for many years, but life at local animal shelters has not always been this way. Perreault’s job has changed, and animal welfare has changed. He has led the society through its first 25 years — and he remembers a different era.

In the beginning

Perreault began working as an animal shelter manager in the Berkshires for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1987.

In those days, he says, the county had an overpopulation of cats and dogs and other pets — more animals than people with homes to give them.

Animal shelters had existed in the U.S. since the late 1800s, he said, as havens for animals who were injured or mistreated. But in the 1960s, as people moved to the suburbs and had more room for cats and dogs, the animal population boomed along with the human one.

“No one knew about spaying and neutering then,” he says.

Most of his job then dealt with a constant stream of homeless animals. Often that meant the choice between euthanizing an animal or turning it away, knowing the owner would turn it loose. Euthanasia was at least painless.

“There was a time when kittens weren’t cute to me,” he said.

He might see 70 kittens in a day, and he would know they would not find homes, and he would have to deal with them. But times have changed — exponentially. The humane society has expanded, Perreault says, in ways he could not have imagined when he came into this field.

“Every day I shake my head that we got to this point,” he says. “And we got to this point because we have a community that does care.”

Going local

The community formed BHS in the beginning. Twenty six years ago, the county had a shelter run by the MSPCA, a state agency run out of Boston, and in 1992 the state announced it would cut funding to the Berkshire shelter. The MSPCA gave the community a year to start their own organization.

With the guidance of a local attorney, Robert Fuster, Perreault and a local group led efforts to raise the funds and create the structure for a new, local organization, built from scratch.

Berkshire Humane Society began with three employees — Perreault, Lisa Corbett and Cheryl Truskowski — and they are still all here. Truskowski is the shelter manager, and Corbett is lead instructor for the family dog school.

“The community rallied around us,” Perreault says.

BHS receives no state or federal aid now: It runs on donations and benefit events. Perreault started with an annual budget of $140,000; now it’s $1.3 million, between public programs, veterinary care, the the new building and a staff of 29 or 30, many of them part-time.

They work alongside a corps of volunteers who walk dogs, clean, run educational events and the reception desk and sometimes foster an animal. They might take in a mother cat about to give birth until the kittens are old enough to find homes.

BHS moved to its present building on Barker Road in Pittsfield in 2003, and the satellite Purradise cat shelter opened in Great Barrington in 2010. BHS is the only open-admission shelter in Berkshire County and the region, Perreault says: BHS will accept any animal. (Dogs are given a safety test to make sure they will not harm staff or adopting families, a test more than 90 percent pass.) With the new buildings, the shelter has enough room to handle all of the animals that come in.

Changing times

BHS has also worked hard over the years to bring down the number of animals who need to come in. Instead of 3,000 animals a year Perreault might see in the 1980s, he now sees about 1,200.

In the early years, he says, he had to spend most of his time reacting. Now BHS has time for prevention and outreach. The shelter works with people to help them keep their pets, he says. When someone brings in an animal, he will first try to help the family keep the pet at home.

BHS started family dog school in 1992, teaching dogs and teaching people how dogs communicate and act, so they understand what their dog is doing and why. And the shelter keeps in touch with people and families who adopt a dog, aiming to keep any small problems from getting large.

They also work to prevent unexpected puppies and kittens. They offer spay and neutering programs and work with a wide network of Berkshire veterinarians.

“There’s probably not another model in the U.S. with this kind of relationship with the local vets,” Perreault says.

Finding homes has become much easier too. He has seen a growing willingness to adopt animals who would once have had no chance.

In his early years, he says, people wanted puppies. If someone brought in a 2-year-old neutered male dog, good with kids and well-trained, that dog would never find a home. Today he would have people waiting in line — he can find a home even for a 12- or 14-year-old dog or a cat with a chronic illness.

BHS will take in sick animals and care for them until they can be adoptable. The shelter has also taken in animals found in abusive situations. Perreault recalls a dog named Lucas, who was tied in a garage and so matted that the fur on his legs had fused together and he couldn’t move. The family who later adopted him would send photos of him on hikes and camping trips, kayaking and canoeing.

Working within the community

Dogs are not the only survivors of abuse the society has helped. BHS has grown deeper roots and longer reach.

In 2000, the Elizabeth Freeman Center approached Perreault. People were staying in abusive relationships because of their pets, he says. Abusers would threaten an animal — if you leave I’ll run over your cat, put your bird in the microwave, stab your dog. So BHS started a program to board animals safely, to give their people the breathing room to find a safe place for themselves. They had more than a dozen requests in the first month.

Then Berkshire Medical Center and Elder Services spoke with him. People in crisis, they said, would refuse help for the same reason — I can’t have surgery, because there’s no one to look after my cat. And BHS expanded its safe pet program again.

The shelter has opened a pet food bank to help people in lean times keep their animals at home, so they will not have to surrender them because it costs too much to feed them.

BHS’s education programs have also grown far beyond dog training. In the early days Perreault visited local schools. Now, he says, in the days of MCATS teachers rarely have the time for visitors, and BHS has built its own programs.

Teaching beyond obedience school

In a sunny classroom, Brown introduces two inhabitants — two cecropia moths named Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, now cocooned for the winter.

She runs a summer camp, and she has invented a Humane Heroes program for kids age 8 to 14 who would like to volunteer at the shelter. BHS can’t allow volunteers that young, for many reasons including safety and liability, but with Brown they can learn how the shelter works from the inside.

They can talk about timely and sometimes difficult topics, like animal testing, endangered animals and puppy mills. She will hold ethical debates with them, encouraging them to think through their opinions, to stand up for them or to change them as they learn more.

“They get hot over it,” she says. “That fire in their eyes — you’re not going to tell me what to do — just delights me.”

She also dreams up creative projects, like asking the kids to invent their own constellations and stories (to go with creatures already in the sky, the dog and bears, dolphins, scorpions, crab …), then cut their constellations out of tinfoil plates and sit in a circle in the dark, shining flashlights through the stars and talking about their homegrown myths.

The kids can earn points by getting involved, and the highest honor is staff-for-a-day — they get to shadow her behind the scenes.

The shelter estimates more than 2,100 people come through its programs each year, people of many ages. And for some the connection can run deep.

This year Brown has begun working with teens who live at a local long-term foster care facility. They can’t have animals where they live, she says, and they earn this time as a reward — the chance to come to BHS and spend time with the dogs and cats and with her, to clean litter boxes, feed and walk dogs, play with and socialize the kittens.

She has found this new partnership deeply rewarding, and the kids seem to agree. They are excited to be there, she says, and responsive to her.

“They watch the animals get adopted,” she says. “On every level they identify with these animals, wanting to be loved, wanting a home.”

She has run the pilot program for less than a year and will return to it this fall.

“So far I’m totally in love with it,” she says.

Looking ahead

While Brown plans new college programs and action groups, BHS is offering free vaccine clinics in North Adams and seminars on current topics in the animal kingdom, from wild horses to urban chickens. They are also addressing some hot topics actively.

The internet is giving people many ways to find pets, Perreault says, especially dogs — and not all of these channels are created equal.

People have largely stopped getting dogs from pet stores, he says, so puppy mills now create websites calling themselves rescue groups.

Other organizations have begun bringing homeless animals from parts of the country that still have the kind of overpopulation the Berkshires saw 25 years ago. They will get dogs cheaply in places where there are too many and may charge $600 to $800 to bring a dog to a place like the Berkshires, where puppies are now in short supply.

Someone may see a photo of a dog online and accept it without knowing either the dog or the organization, he says. Massachusetts has laws about bringing animals into the state, so the buyer often meets the seller at a McDonald’s in New York or Connecticut to collect the dog — and after that, if the dog has any kind of problem, the seller is not responsible.

BHS has begun transports of its own, to make sure they have safeguards. When those transports come through animal shelters, he says, the shelter can look over the dogs, have them checked by a vet and evaluate their behaviour.

As the number of homeless and unwanted animals shrinks in the Berkshires, Perreault expects his job to keep changing. But he expects no shortage of work to do. He thinks in time animal shelters will evolve closer to the kind of haven they were in the 1800s, places for animals who need help and rehabilitation, and for people who need them too.

“Someone who cares for an animal so much that they won’t help themselves,” he says, “that’s someone I want to help.”

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