NEW RICHMOND -- Colleen O'Shaughnessy originally bought her kennel/boarding business, Mally’s Sunshine Kennels, in August 2004. Several weeks later, she rescued an injured golden retriever on the side of the road. Sunny ended being just the first of many rescues and surrendered pets that led to the formation of Gregory’s Gift of Hope in 2005. GGH is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, no-kill rescue/shelter and adoption center located on the premises of Mally’s in New Richmond.
GGH is open 56 hours a week, 52 weeks a year including holidays. Currently the shelter operates with an unpaid director, a part-time paid dog person and volunteer who helps for cats and kittens. On any given day in 2019, GGH regularly sheltered more than 100 cats and kittens and up to 25 dogs including sanctuary animals.
A shelter operating with that volume of animals would normally require, in addition to the director, two full-time staff and two part-time staff, according to O'Shaughnessy. She figures she has a pool of 25 reliable volunteers. She could use twice that number.
The GGH's 2019 operating budget was $185,000 or about $500 day, funded solely by adoption fees (20%) and donations. GGH accepts animals from St. Croix and Pierce counties as well as from Minnesota. The combined population of Pierce and St. Croix counties is 129,000.
Realistically, a bare-bones basic operation the scale of GGH with minimum wage staff, rent or mortgage, utilities, medicine, vets, insurance, food, etc. would cost at least $1,000 day. Since its inception in 2005, O’Shaughnessy estimates GGH has adopted out more than 2,100 cats and 350 dogs.
The Eau Claire Humane Society accepted 1,038 cats and 509 dogs in 2018. The site has a paid staff of seven and a budget of $370,000 in 2018 or a little over $1,000 day. Eau Claire County’s population as of 2017 was 103,671.
Compassion has a limit
Step through the front door at GGH and you are immediately swallowed up by all of the love and the compassion as well as the frustration and desperation. A shelter is not a throwaway business. It is not somebody’s hobby, a thing you do on the side because you love animals. It is a business, an important business, important to the welfare of hundreds of animals and equally as important to the health and welfare of the community it serves.
As I sit down to interview O’Shaughnessy, we are not alone, there are ears everywhere, literally. Cheryl repeatedly bats at Gracie while Holly slowly patrols atop the back of the couch. Icarus checks out my camera bag while Robert eyes up my lap. Cheeto sleeps on the shelf while Jester seems determined to wake him up. Despite the large number of cats with whom we are sharing the room, it is remarkably peaceful.
Where there are people, there are going to be cats and dogs and almost always, more cats and dogs than responsible pet owners. Until education and public policy can change people’s attitudes about treating animals like property, can convince pet owners to spay and neuter their animals, and can stop the overpopulation of pets, shelters play the critical role allowing that evolution in our thinking to take place.
“When people have kittens and they don’t feed them, they don’t take responsibility for them, they start wandering around to the neighbors. Then the neighbors bring them in to us because they feel bad and ‘They’re not mine," O'Shaughnessy said. "A person rescues a dog in rough shape on the side of the road. No tags, they bring the dog to us because, ‘He’s not ours,’ and the vicious cycle continues.
"As a shelter, we can only take so many animals. Compassion, taking care of cats and dogs people don’t want takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money. What would people do if we said, ‘They’re not mine.”
The heart of the issue lies with people who treat animals like property. Animals are not a couch or a refrigerator or a toaster. You don’t throw them away when they’re not working, or because you’re tired of that color, or because your schedule suddenly got busy and caring for a pet is no longer convenient. Animals, pets, dogs, cats, ferrets, they are a commitment, a responsibility, a relationship. They require time, money and compassion. In a healthy pet relationship, they return that love and care many times over.
O’Shaughnessy’s team and board of directors have lots of ideas to help tackle the problem.
To start, do not adopt a pet or purchase a pet unless you are completely prepared to care for the pet for its lifetime.
“It all comes down to commitment. You have to take care of them just like a child. I am committed to my dogs and I have gone without some things sometimes, like I do with my daughter. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t have them,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Pet owners also need to spay and neuter their animals to prevent the propagation of more unwanted animals.
A plan is needed to organize and coordinate the care of shelter animals between all of the local veterinary clinics. Spreading the burden would help everyone. For example, each clinic could agree to alternate each month to help spay and neuter animals.
GGH along with a handful of smaller rescue organizations have been receiving, caring for and adopting out animals since the Pierce-St. Croix Humane Society closed in 2006.
O'Shaughnessy contends that municipal and county governments need to draft legislation that pays for capturing stray animals, enforcing fines and helping to support shelter operations in cooperation with donors.
Shelters also need to work collaboratively with schools and such organizations as 4-H and FFA to develop and execute programs that educate all students about potential pet ownership and pet care. Hands-on opportunities expose students to the problem of unwanted pets and encourage them to make better decisions as adults. Students learn about other ways to satisfy their pet fix such as pet sitting, pet walking and volunteering at a shelter.
“Lots of tough cases come through our door. Take Jester. He was frozen to the ground and his pads got torn off. He’s doing great. He will heal and he’ll hopefully find a home. They’ll send me pictures of him living this great life," she said. "What’s so sad is, we struggle every day to try to get those people to help us pay for that. So many people see and say how great we are, but they don’t support us. We’re missing that connection, the last chapter in the story."
To write that last chapter and strengthen that connection, Gregory’s looks to emphasize a stronger donor model, a sustaining donor. Modeled after public radio sustaining memberships, a sustaining donor pledges a given amount of support each month. That provides the shelter with a dependable, predictable funding mechanism.
Maybe you have a dog or two or a cat or just a soft spot in your heart for animals. Maybe you have witnessed that bond between a service animal and their charge or an elderly person and their pet companion. Or maybe your pet relationship is more of the swollen eyes and hives kind of thing. Whether you are a responsible pet owner, good Samaritan, pet free person, or someone who treats their animal like a microwave, it comes down to a choice.