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Plans to close end tumultuous run for Lancaster SPCA

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Problems started for the Lancaster County SPCA long before it announced plans to close.

The shelter, in fact, would have shut its doors months ago if not for a $200,000 bequest it received in 2016, spokeswoman Jennifer Ericson said.

The Lancaster animal rescue announced Tuesday that it plans to shut down, likely around mid to late August, after a sometimes tumultuous four and a half years of operations. It is now making a plea to the public to adopt the remaining cats, dogs and Guinea pigs there.

To some, the news of the closure did not come as a surprise. Much of the shelter's revenue comes from adoption/surrender fees and notoriously unprofitable contracts to take in strays from local municipalities, Ericson said. That money is far from enough to keep dogs fed, cats neutered and wages and other expenses paid.

By the time the shelter realized it needed to aggressively seek charitable donors to fill its funding gaps, it was already too late. A heavy dose of negative press last year that ended with the founder's resignation did not help. 

"Our business model was flawed from the get-go," Ericson said.

Good intentions

The Lancaster County SPCA was supposed to solve a problem.

For years, the Humane League of Lancaster County took in the thousands of strays that municipal police wrangled off the streets. But around 2012, the shelter discovered the same hard truth that the SPCA has now discovered - municipal contracts don't pay the bills. And asking municipalities for more money just causes them to seek services elsewhere.

The Humane League stopped accepting city, township and borough strays in early 2013, revamping its business model and becoming a no-kill shelter in the process. The move outraged some officials and animal advocates who feared the county's lack of open-admission shelters - rescues that accept all animals but euthanize some when space grows tight - would lead to an influx of unwanted pets roaming the county.

The Lancaster County SPCA stepped in to allay those fears.

Founding executive director Susan Martin formed the nonprofit solely to operate an open-admission rescue after the Humane League's restructuring. This new shelter would house its animals in a building owned by the city, which would receive free stray management services in exchange for covering the rescue's utility and facility costs.

The SPCA's revenue would come largely from animal control contracts with other municipalities, which would bring in their stray dogs for a fee. Other revenue would come from adoption and surrender fees.

A pack of more than 20 townships and boroughs rushed to set up contracts with the new shelter, Martin told LNP in January 2013. One municipal leader called the SPCA a "practical, and hopefully cost-effective" solution.

Tax records show the SPCA brought in $153,550 from municipal contracts in its first year in 2013, covering just under a third of the shelter's expenses for the year. Adoption and service fees covered about another third, while "contributions and grants" brought in $142,000. The shelter closed out the year a little more than $9,600 in the red.

Financial conditions appear to have improved in 2014 and 2015, the most recent years for which the SPCA's tax records are available online. Municipal contract revenue stayed relatively even, but adoption and service fee income nearly tripled in those years. Annual contributions to the shelter exceeded $240,000 by the end of its first two years in operations.

The SPCA had just over $31,200 in revenue after expenses in 2014, and more than $76,700 the year after.

The shelter also had a real impact on many of its animals and the people who made them part of their families. Even as of its closure announcement Tuesday, four- and five-star reviews on its Facebook page far outnumbered the bad ones.

There are a couple complaints from people with stories of supposedly friendly cats being deemed feral and put down, and another about staff supposedly mistaking scared dogs for aggressive ones. But far more common are stories from thankful adopters and volunteers. 

"Thank you so much for letting us adopt him!" one woman wrote of her family's new dog, which she said they adopted as a Father's Day gift in 2014 and named Arthas. "He is perfect and even snuggles with us when we go to sleep."

"This place was a miracle find for me," one shelter volunteer wrote.

Too few donations, too much negative press

The SPCA ultimately could not escape the financial fate that had befallen its open-admission predecessor. A string of bad press didn't help.

The worst of that negative publicity started with a bug-eyed Boston terrier named Libre.  

Someone found the now-famous puppy sick and emaciated on a southern Lancaster County farm in the summer of 2016. Images of the dog fighting for his life circulated through almost every local media outlet.

Outraged animal lovers across the state demanded justice. When SPCA founder Martin, who also served as the county's primary humane officer, declined to press charges against the dog's owner, those animal lovers channeled much of their outrage toward her.

Attempts to reach Martin for comment this week were not successful.

Martin voluntarily gave up her authority to handle cruelty cases in August 2016, not long after the Lancaster County district attorney's office threatened to suspend that power because of "substandard of conduct normally expected of humane society police officers," according to LNP. 

She resigned from the SPCA less than three months later. 

The debacle hit the SPCA at a time when its leaders were starting to realize they had made a huge mistake in their funding model, Ericson said. 

"When our shelter first opened, the business model that it opened on was, I'm going to say, probably untested," Ericson said. "It was thought, proposed that, all of these (adoption, surrender and municipal contract) fees would sustain the shelter."

"Fees alone, that was not a sustainable business model."

The SPCA has annual expenses of roughly $740,000, Ericson said. This money covers care of the animals, insurance and wages for the shelter's 13 employees, among other expenses.

The rescue still had 28 municipal contracts as of its closing announcement, not including the City of Lancaster, Ericson said. Still, the shelter has an annual shortfall of between $100,000 and $150,000, and only brings in about 12 percent of its income from donations, Ericson said.

Those numbers differ dramatically from 2015, when the shelter reported $76,728 in revenue after expenses and $240,149 in income from contributions and grants. It was not immediately clear Wednesday why the difference was so marked, and Ericson could not immediately be reached to clarify.

By 2016, the SPCA clearly needed more donations to survive, Ericson said. A direct mail campaign in February 2016 and Pacer for Pets 5K that spring were the shelter's first real attempts at large-scale fundraising. That March, the SPCA also paid $500,000 to buy a building next to the shelter in hopes of opening a revenue-generating thrift shop.

The store opened in September 2016 but never turned a profit. It stopped accepting donations earlier this month and will close Aug. 1.

A $200,000 bequest from someone who died and left money to the shelter kept the doors open through 2016, Ericson said, but that money dried up quickly.

Buying the thrift store was a mistake, but not a fatal one in and of itself. The negative publicity didn't help, but it wasn't the nail in the coffin. The business model was flawed from day one but kept the doors open for four years.

It was a combination of all of those factors, Ericson said, that ultimately led the shelter to close.

"Whoever said that there is no such thing as bad press was mistaken. Yeah, the bad press, that did hurt us significantly in terms of donor support," Ericson said. "But I want to be clear that that alone is not why we're in the situation we're in."

Shelters, municipalities brace for impact

The SPCA had a single, clear message as it started to winds down its operations:

Adopt our animals. Please.

The shelter had 55 cats, 58 dogs and 11 Guinea pigs and rabbits before the closing announcement, Ericson said. In an effort to empty cages quickly, the adoption fee for dogs is now $100, as much as $95 less than normal, depending on the animal's age. All other pets are free. Adopters still must fill out an application and pass usual vetting processes.

The plea for adopters reached receptive ears. The shelter adopted out nine cats, 15 dogs, three Guinea pigs and four rabbits Tuesday. Several other pets are on hold for potential adopters. 

Less than 48 hours after the closing announcement, all of the shelter's immediately adoptable animals were gone. 

Also on Tuesday, the last day the SPCA accepted animals other than stray dogs, the shelter received four owner-surrendered cats, five stray cats and three owner-surrendered Guinea pigs. The shelter also brought in one stray dog and euthanized another at the request of the owner.

It plans to continue accepting stray dogs from municipalities for several weeks. Any animals remaining after the closing, which the shelter expects to happen around mid or late August, will hopefully find temporary homes at other rescues, Ericson said. The SPCA has spoken with several area and national nonprofits about helping out.

"If it's an adoptable animal, we want to place it with a rescue or in a home," Ericson said. "Our goal is not to euthanize an adoptable animal."

The shelter's 13 employees will lose their jobs in phases over the coming weeks as operations scale down. The SPCA has about $25,000 to make it through the coming month, Ericson said.

The City of Lancaster is searching for a "sustainable, professional and mission-driven" rescue to handle the city's strays, said Pat Brogan, Mayor Rick Gray's chief of staff. 

Brogan declined to name any of the rescues with which it has had contact, but leaders from the Lancaster County Animal Coalition said Tuesday they have offered to move into the city's building and take over where the SPCA left off.

Several local rescue groups formed the Lancaster County Animal Coalition in 2016 as a proposed alternative to the SPCA, which was then embroiled in the Libre controversy. It has yet to open a physical shelter but does employ a humane officer, former SPCA operating manager Jennifer Nields.

Nields said she had heard good things about the SPCA's leadership after a new executive director, Becki Meiss, took over for Martin this March. Still, having a new rescue handling strays might be just what the city needs, she said.

"The SPCA was in such a negative light. Maybe just having a new group all together will help shed a positive light," Nields said.

Humane Pennsylvania, an organization that includes the Humane League of Lancaster County, also reached out to Mayor Gray's office after hearing news of the SPCA's closing Tuesday, Humane Pennsylvania president and CEO Karel Minor wrote in a blog post Tuesday. But the organization can only do so much.

Minor's question now echoes the one other rescues and officials expressed in 2013, when the Humane League got out of the municipal stray game: What will happen to all of the county's unwanted cats, dogs and other critters?

"Humane Pennsylvania is here to work with anyone who wants to find a high-quality, equitable, and effective solution to the crisis about to face Lancaster’s stray animals," Minor wrote. "However, we are not here to simply be counted on to open our doors to every one of these animals. We can’t."

Pennsylvania has a long history of not properly taking care of its strays, Minor continues. State law requires state and local governments to take responsibility for stray dogs, but those governments often want to pay too little to the nonprofits, like the SPCA, that take in those animals.

The job often goes to the lowest bidder. Shelters continue accepting these contracts anyway out of a desire to help the animals. And they end up euthanizing many of them or going out of business like the SPCA, Minor wrote.

"Until no charity takes one of these awful, deadly contracts and we all stand up and tell our elected officials, 'Yo, this is your responsibility, pay for it! Do it right, or we will vote you out and replace you with people who will!' we will repeat this cycle of crisis."

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Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at Follow her on Twitter, @jenni_wentz.

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Mark Hiester July 27, 2017 8:47 am

Municipalities are required by state law to care for stray dogs but not cats. Municipalities typically do not want to pay for sheltering other animals. The shelters want to care for all animals. That is part of the issue.

Pa Citizen July 27, 2017 8:39 am

A whole lot of this problem is due to animals not being spayed and neutered. There are hundreds of thousand free roaming cats in the Central PA area. Feral is a much mis-used term. There are organizations who successfully adopt the Trap Neuter and Release policy- which does work- proven many times over. Look at the Alley Cats Allies and Nobody's Cats Foundation websites. Time for people to step it and at the very least be sure all pets are spayed and neutered.