20 Questions: Changing Adoption Standards

Executive Director of the Jefferson County SPCA Heather Spezzano.

Heather L. Spezzano has used her time as the executive director of the Jefferson County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to drive up fundraising, increase adoption rates and transform the shelter’s image. NNY Business sat down with Spezzano to talk about the future of the SPCA and the importance it plays in the north country.

NNYB: When did you become the executive director?

SPEZZANO: I officially took over in September of 2017.

NNYB: Why did you decide to apply?

SPEZZANO: When I found out that the position was open in 2016 and that the previous executive director was going to be resigning, he actually came to me after knowing me for years at PetCo, and said ‘I think that you would be amazing at this job.’ I applied for the position and the board held I think 98 interviews and luckily I was chosen. I really just wanted to give the organization some youthfulness, re-brand it and use my connections with the community to increase adoptions and make things better.

NNYB: The state of the main and PetCo shelters were much different before you were hired. When you first became executive director, what were your priorities?

SPEZZANO: The biggest thing was just to put some money back into the building, to make things nicer for the pets and my staff. The building is 60 years-old, it was definitely falling apart, and it just wasn’t in the best condition. I immediately started fundraising and doing media spots to try and bring in some money and since then we’ve put $50,000 into the building.

NNYB: Overall, what changes or improvements have you made to the main shelter?

SPEZZANO: Our vet room is three times its size, we’ve been able to put in new flooring and make our operations better. We upgraded all of our computers and software, and things like that end up making you more efficient.

NNYB: What changes have you made to the PetCo shelter?

SPEZZANO: Originally when I was involved with the PetCo shelter six or seven years ago, that was the last time any upgrades or renovations had been made. When I took over the position, I saw that it was just kind of dingy and worn, the walls were torn, the molding was falling off. I immediately contacted Home Depot and was able to secure a $5,000 grant with them. We went in and re-did everything; we tore it apart from the floor up. It has all new floors, all new paint, updated cat cages and housing and made it feel more like a home environment rather than a shelter environment for the animals. Since then, we’ve seen a decrease in their sickness and they seem to be healthier, happier and more adoptable because they are more socialized. It’s been a great plus.

NNYB: What is the role and importance of having a nonprofit, no-kill shelter in a community?

SPEZZANO: I think, especially in the north country, the importance of having us here is we give everybody a fighting chance. Because we don’t kill for space, we take every step to make sure every animal gets their chance at life and happiness. There aren’t a lot of shelters around that can do that, but lucky for us we are really able to get our animals out there with the media. We are so blessed in this area because everyone reaches out to me and they want to get our shelter animals out there, whether it’s TV, newspaper, magazine or radio. They are really good at getting these animals’ stories out, which, in turn, gets them adopted quicker and gives us more space. We never really have an issue where we’d have to euthanize for space, which is nice.

NNYB: What is your main goal for the shelters, long-term and short-term?

SPEZZANO: Long term would be to make it nicer, more efficient, cleaner and increase our adoptions. That has already happened at PetCo; our adoption rate is up about 110 percent there. For the main shelter, my biggest goal would be to move to a better location, more land, more use of space and a brand new facility. Unfortunately, are facility is so old and has been patched together so many times that we are just putting a bandage on every time we are trying to make things better. With how fast our shelter is growing, the amount of animals we are taking in and the adoption rates increasing, we are almost growing out of it. I’d like to get away from the old way of the shelter where we just have the big kennels and everybody is locked up, facing each other, barking, stressing each other out. I want to make it more like PetCo where it’s individual rooms and they actually have couches and beds and they feel like they are in a home environment, so they’re not so stressed out and have a better chance of being adopted.

NNYB: What are some challenges you’ve faced as executive director?

SPEZZANO: I think the biggest challenge was just trying to educate the community on what we do. A lot of times people will come up to me and say ‘Why can’t you take in 3,000 cats this month?’ Well, we don’t have the space. Not only do we not have the space, we don’t have the resources. The community sometimes will say ‘What do my tax dollars pay for?’ I think that my biggest struggle is getting it out there that we aren’t funded by the county or the city. We don’t just have big checks coming in every day. Our checks are from these little grandmas who send in $25 per month or a business that did well one month and decided they could give. That’s how we stay afloat, it’s the community, it’s not taxes or big government.

NNYB: How do you handle the financial struggles that come with running a nonprofit organization?

SPEZZANO:  We’re trying to do more with our track, neuter, release program, so we are trying to do surgery five times a week, which comes at a big cost. You’re talking $5,000 per month just for surgical supplies. So what I have really focused on is really getting there and getting as many grants as I can, reaching out to places like the Northern New York Community Foundation, Walmart Foundation, big corporations, anything I can do and holding as many fundraisers as I possibly can. That money goes toward making the organization being able to do ten times more than it did. If you don’t go out and reach for it, you don’t try to get the money, you’re going to stay where you are and basically provide the same services as you always did. That’s not what I took the job for, so we are going to continue to fundraise.

NNYB: How has the community helped you and the organization?

SPEZZANO: The community is what keeps us here. One of the things I love to do is community events and fundraising, so what I try to do is reach out to different local businesses and ask them to help, whether it is just letting us do an event there, doing a donation drive or sponsoring a certain event. I am almost overwhelmed by how much support the community gives because I think the number one thing is people come to me and say ‘We always knew the SPCA was there, but now, you can’t get away from it.’ I think that brings this new light to what we do, how we help and why we are here, so people have no problem giving back because they see what we are doing and where their money is going. I put statistics out monthly so that way they know that last month we adopted out 120 animals, we took in 178 and we did 115 surgeries, so they see exactly where their money is going to. Even upgrades to the shelter, they’ll see that $10 monthly donation will help fix the cat room up. The community has just been amazing.

NNYB: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

SPEZZANO: Every time you see that pet that didn’t have a chance, whether we found it on the side of the road or maybe its a dog with the severe aggression, and we are able to change that animal and put them in the perfect home for them and save their life, that’s the best part of the job.

NNYB:  Just weeks after completing your renovations of the main shelter, a water-pipe burst and caused $50,000 in damages. What was that experience like?

SPEZZANO: The day they called and said there was a leak, I thought, ‘Oh just go mop it up.’ Then we walked in, and you see months of hard work and energy destroyed. For me and my staff, the shelter is our home. It’s not a retail job where you can just clock-in and clock-out, we are here 24/7. It really felt as if your home was destroyed and we had to rip up everything we had just done and then some. Then when we learned we had to be closed for a couple of weeks while they tore everything out, I just thought ‘Oh, no. What about the animals?’ Not that the animals were hurt or never in any jeopardy, but how are we going to get them seen? How are we going to get them adopted? If we can’t have people coming in the shelter, my adoption rates are going to plummet and these dogs are going to end up sitting here for weeks. So my first thing was to put a plan in place to make sure the adoptions are continuing to be adopted. All staff was kept on the entire time and they either helped with flood repairs or they were transporting animals up to PetCo. They were either walking dogs around with their adoption scarves to show they were adoptable or bringing cats, rabbits and guinea pigs up there. We just really focused on keeping PetCo full and keeping the dogs where people could see them. Even with being closed those two weeks, we still did 114 adoptions that month. I feel like that was our biggest struggle and I knew eventually money would come in, people would donate, insurance would kick in to cover most of it, but it did stress me out. Now, looking back, my contractor was amazing, he knew how horrible it was for us to be shut down. It was devastating, but we came back stronger and we are excited to go forward.

NNYB:  How did you stay motivated through the stress that came with the water-pipe burst?

SPEZZANO: Just walking back in the dog kennels and seeing the dogs crying. You know you see their eyes and their soul and when it’s up to you to save them and get them homes, it’s all for them.

NNYB: Where does your passion for animals stem from?

SPEZZANO: I’ve loved animals since I was an itty, bitty baby. I was born and raised on a dairy farm, we had chickens, goats, dogs, bunnies, pheasants, cows, everything. My family is huge animal lovers. I remember my first dog when I was three years-old was a black lab mix named Midnight. I always had cats, I rode horses. I have always loved animals and there is just something about their love for a human, no matter what they’ve been through, they still love you. We see these dogs who come in that have been abused one, two, three times and yet they will still wag their tail and lick your face and sit on your lap and you just think, ‘How can you still love a human so much, after what you’ve been through?’ I just have felt this special connection, some people have it and some don’t. Animals have just always been my thing; I’d keep them all if I could.

NNYB: How do you find animals, either in or out of the area, to bring to the shelter?

SPEZZANO: For in state, a lot of times people drop them off to us, particularly cats. There are thousands and thousands of stray cats in Jefferson County, all you have to do is go to an apartment complex and you’ll see hundreds of them running around. Community members will find them and will try to take care of them or maybe they don’t have the means to, so they’ll bring them to us. On average, we could get up to 50 calls per day about stray cats, whether it be moms, kittens or litters. They come to us; they look to us to help them. We try our best and it’s not that we don’t want to help; it’s usually a resource issue. We’re sitting here in our administration building, but you wouldn’t know the whole basement is filled with stray and injured cats. As far as dogs, it’s usually owners that are moving, maybe the pet doesn’t fit in the family right anymore, but as long as their healthy and non-aggressive we will take them. We do work with other shelters in the area, so if they don’t have space or they need to euthanize, if we have space we will take them in. Last year we transferred in 60 dogs, this year we’ve already transferred in around 75 dogs. We are planning on big, big numbers this year. Down south, I work with a few different groups that will bring in small to medium dogs that are about to be euthanized. This last transfer we got in we had 20 dogs and we had every single dog into a foster home within three hours. We are planning to do it again because the dogs came in extremely healthy, super nice and they were all small to medium breeds, which is what people tend to be looking for around here. Not everyone has a big yard or can handle a big dog, which are usually what we get in. The ones from the south, not only are we saving their lives, but we are filling a need. I have no problem transferring them in because there’s a need. At some point if my adoption rates plummet and people aren’t adopting anymore, I might relook at the business plan and make some other decisions. But for right now, I can’t turn them away because people want them.

NNYB: What is your adoption rate at currently?

SPEZZANO: Last month, we were at 120 adoptions. In the winter, we are a little bit slower, but come spring time we will be up again to around 180. That is dogs, cats and small animals.

NNYB: How many dogs do you have at the shelter?

SPEZZANO: We have five.

NNYB:  How many dogs can you hold at one time?

SPEZZANO: We have enough kennel space for 27.

NNYB:  How many cats do you have at the shelter?

SPEZZANO: Between the two we have about 90 and then we have approximately 50 more in foster care.

NNYB: How many cats can you hold at one time?

SPEZZANO: Between PetCo, the main shelter and our isolation area we can hold about 90.

NNYB: What other animals do you have for adoption?

SPEZZANO: I have guinea pigs, mice, ferrets and I had one bird but he just got adopted. We take in pretty much anything; we’ve had turtles, snakes and lizards before too.

~This interview was conducted by Olivia Belanger. It was edited for length and clarity to fit this space.