Rendering of the Connecticut Humane Society Animal Resource Center planned for Wilton Credit: Animal Arts & Amenta Emma

Can an organization’s history set a roadmap for the future?

The Connecticut Humane Society is poised to step into that future in the spring of 2024 by reflecting on its visionary beginnings when it opens what it says will be a state-of-the-art Animal Resource Center and Veterinary Clinic in Wilton.

A Century of Healing Communities

More than a century ago, the American Humane Society was founded to protect and defend children and animals building a safety net before laws existed for those with no voice.

The same perseverance energized high school senior Gertrude Lewis to start the Connecticut Humane Society in 1881, during the same time period that women were mobilizing for their right to vote. Lewis introduced protections for children, wild and domesticated animals, and all creatures utilized for work and sport — the only statewide protective services for children until the CT Department of Children and Families was established in 1965. 

Today, the Connecticut Humane Society continues to be a trailblazer in recognizing and adapting to the changing dynamics in animal welfare and pet ownership.

“Organizations must reach beyond caring for animals and embrace caring for entire communities,” Connecticut Humane Society Executive Director James Bias said. “The model of this Resource Center exemplifies our mission to keep pets in their homes where they are the happiest by supporting pet owners when circumstances beyond their control happen,” he added.

Bias pointed to the planned Resource Center offerings — including affordable medical care, access to a pet pantry, and education services to teach owners and trainers optimal pet care — as efforts that will support that mission of keeping the family intact and reducing pet surrenders. The facility will also house low-stress space for pets seeking adoption into permanent homes.

A Resource Center Model for Today and Tomorrow

Once it is fully operational in 2024, the Resource Center at 863-875 Danbury Rd. will come online at a precarious time — nationally animal sheltering facilities are seeing an uptick of pet surrenders with the continuing economic fallout from the COVID pandemic. With the increasing costs of household goods and services, more and more pet owners have had to choose between putting food on the table or feeding their pets.

James Bias, Executive Director, Connecticut Humane Society stands at the existing 18-acre property at 863-875 Danbury Rd. in Wilton, the future home of the Animal Resource Center and Veterinary Clinic. Credit: Barbara Naugle / CT Humane Society

Annual Connecticut Humane Society intake numbers and pet profile trends also reveal an increasing need for more medical care and behavioral rehabilitation. 

By design, the Resource Center is meant to be a stopgap for allowing pet owners the time to recoup from unforeseen setbacks and take back their pets under better circumstances. Bias shared one example of how the model is already working in ultimately returning a pet back to its rightful place — home with its owner.

“A pet owner needed to address her own medical issues and was unable to care for her pet. We were able to take in and provide her pet with necessary medical care until the pet owner was back on her feet to bring her pet back home. In this instance, the pet owner was so grateful she paid it forward by raising money to take care of the next pet owner who found themselves in similar circumstances.”

Bias shared that paying it forward is one result of the innovative ideas implemented in the Resource Center design, identifying pet owner needs today and for the future, “We reassessed our five-year design plan when the pandemic brought to light the crucial need for a pet pantry. Access to good nutrition can mean the difference between somebody giving up a pet or acquiring a pet. Our pet food pantry is really a bridge until families can get back on their feet.”

Access to affordable veterinary care was another important piece of the puzzle in providing comprehensive pet welfare. Bias acknowledged the challenge of growing care costs well above the means of working-class families.

“With costs running in the thousand dollar range annually to care for a dog or cat, the average pet owner cannot afford a vet bill or qualify for care credit,” he said

According to a recent Forbes Advisor survey, a vet bill of $999 or less would cause 42% of pet owners to go into debt. The fallout of COVID followed by inflation is troubling for pet owners resulting in more surrenders — a statistic that Bias and his team are constantly monitoring.

“Our outreach with other supportive family organizations allows us to be proactive in addressing insecurity challenges. We’ve connected with the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness to understand who is in the process of losing their homes. Can we step in to provide medical support for their pets? Can we emergency foster their pets? What are the reasons for surrender that we can be made aware of? Knowing more upfront can help us keep the family intact.”

Size Matters In Offering Flexibility For Future Needs

Being forward-thinking was a key priority in designing the 15,000-square-foot Resource Center situated on the 18-acre property. Size-wise, the building is smaller than most shelter facilities across the country, according to Humane Society officials. The focus on size makes the Resource Center need to adapt to changing pet populations by utilizing foster homes, while remaining flexible for expansion capabilities to add new or existing services based on community needs.

Bias, a 40-year veteran of cruelty prevention and management of animal welfare organizations and shelters, worked closely with architectural experts and the operational team who will work day-to-day at the Resource Center. The result — a softened, professional environment offering natural light and quiet spaces for healing pets and people.

Interior spaces have been designed to offer a calming and discreet environment. Pets will be housed in adaptable “pods” to reduce transition stress. Environments including indoor play spaces for dogs and free-roam rooms for cats will provide a quiet, safe space for healthy living and healing. Separate entrances for medical services and pet adoption and surrender provide privacy and compassion for pet owners.

Outdoor activities in the vast exterior green space include walking trails, an agility course for dogs, and cat patio — or “catio” — areas.

Wilton’s Resource Center will replace a seven-decade-old Westport facility with a campus too small to expand or redevelop. Once the Center opens, Bias said it will continue the close partnership between the Fairfield County location and the Humane Society’s facilities in Newington and Waterford.

“We can move animals in and out based on need. Our Waterford medical team recently removed mammary tumors from a dog at our Newington facility. Once in recovery, the dog can stay at either facility depending on capacity. Shifting populations around and providing the best possible outcomes means we are fulfilling our mission to improve animal welfare.”

A Century-Long Commitment to Teaching Animal Welfare Comes Full Circle

The Connecticut Humane Society also has a long history as a public advocate for animal welfare training. Bias referenced a 16-page Connecticut Humane Society manual from 1898 for school teachers to educate children about animal welfare and cruelty prevention.

“[Now], 125 years later, we’ve come full circle. A grant allows us to conduct animal care training programs across the state for animal patrol officers, not-for-profits, and government entities. We also have access to the best people to train our own staff and volunteers to keep current on quality care practices in and out of the shelter,” he said.

Officials plan to host a variety of community education programs on and off campus for new pet owners while encouraging learners of all ages to appreciate pet welfare.  

A Way Forward — Fundraising Now Underway

Grants may support education programs, but the Resource Center construction and ongoing operational costs will be entirely funded by supporter private donations. The Connecticut Humane Society has created a Together Forever Campaign, with fundraising now underway to provide the remaining funding necessary for the Resource Center, which Bias estimates to be more than $3 million. This figure, he said, accounts for rising costs in construction materials and labor as well as staffing expenses for additional veterinarians and technicians.