Pet and people find homes and healing at Berkshire Humane Society
Photos by Megan Haley
A few hours a week, foster-care teens can spend time with half-grown kittens or a husky mix who wants a walk. When an animal finds a home, the kids know. In this, the Berkshire Humane Society helps animals, and it helps people.
Women in abusive relationships, families in rough economic times, people who are sick or elderly and need care—all have reached out to the Berkshire Humane Society (BHS), says executive director John Perreault. For a shelter its size, BHS offers an unusual number and range of programs—from education for people and training for dogs to collaborations with the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Berkshire Medical Center, Elder Services, and local colleges.
And the number of programs keeps growing: Humane society instructor Lizzie Brown started the collaboration with teens in local foster care this year, working with the Key Program, an agency in Massachusetts.
In its 25th year, BHS has become a refuge that never turns an animal away—parrot, ferret, llama, iguana, goat, goose, pony, or pig. It has cared for plenty of rabbits and guinea pigs, too. Almost all animals 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 stay as long as they need to. BHS will euthanize an animal, Perreault says, only in the rare case when one is too sick, in too much pain, or too unsafe to adopt out.
Perrault has led the Berkshire Humane Society through those 25 years. (A birthday bash and benefit will celebrate from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday, October 22, 2017 at Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre. More details at berkshirehumane.org.) During that time, animal welfare has changed. And his work has changed and grown.
In the beginning
Perreault began as an animal-shelter manager for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) in1987. Then, Berkshire County had many more animals than homes for them. Animal shelters had been around in the U.S. since the late 1800s, Perreault says, 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 Perreault’s job dealt with a constant stream of homeless animals. That meant choosing between euthanizing an animal or turning it away, knowing the owner would let it loose. “There was a time when kittens weren’t cute to me,” he says. Times have changed, and the humane society has expanded in ways he could not have imagined. “We got to this point because we have a community that does care.”
The MSPCA was 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 its own organization. So, with the guidance of local attorney Robert Fuster, Perreault and a local group raised funds and created the structure for a new, local organization.
“The community rallied around us,” Perreault says. The new humane society began with three employees—Perreault, Lisa Corbett, and Cheryl Truskowski— who are all still at BHS. Truskowski is the shelter manager, and Corbett is lead instructor for the family-dog school.
BHS runs solely on donations and benefit events. Starting with an annual budget of $140,000, Perreault now manages a $1.3-million shelter that covers public programs, veterinary care, 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.
In 2003, BHS moved to its present building on Barker Road in Pittsfield. The satellite Purradise cat shelter opened in Great Barrington in 2010. BHS is the only open-admission shelter in the region, Perreault says, accepting any animal. Dogs are given a safety test to make sure they will not harm staff or adopting families; more than 90 percent pass.
BHS has also worked hard to bring down the number of animals coming in. Instead of 3,000 animals a year Perreault saw in the 1980s, he now sees about 1,200. To prevent unexpected puppies and kittens, the shelter offers spaying and neutering programs, and works with a wide network of Berkshire veterinarians. “There’s probably not another model in the U.S. with this kind of relationship with local vets,” Perreault says.
The family-dog school, which debuted in 1992, trains dogs and teaches people how canines communicate and act, so they understand what their dog is doing and why. The shelter keeps in touch with people who adopt a dog, which helps keep small problems from becoming large ones.
Finding homes has become much easier, too. Perreault has seen a growing willingness to adopt animals who once would have been passed over. In his early years, people only wanted puppies. If someone brought in a two-year-old neutered male dog, good with kids and well-trained,
that dog would never find a home. Today, people would be waiting in line. Perreault can even find a home for a 14-year-old dog or a cat with a chronic illness.
BHS takes in sick animals and cares for them until they are 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 adopted him sent photos of Lucas on hikes and camping trips.
In the community
Dogs are not the only survivors of abuse the humane society has helped. In 2000, the Elizabeth Freeman Center (a non-profit that provides services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault) approached Perreault: People were staying in abusive relationships because of their pets, he says. Abusers would threaten their partner—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 pets safely while their owners found a safe place for themselves. The shelter received more than a dozen requests in the first month.
Some clients at Berkshire Medical Center and Elder Services had animal-related problems as well—I can’t have surgery because I have no one to look after my cat. So, BHS expanded its safe-pet program again. The shelter also has opened a pet-food bank to help people care for their animals in lean times.
Beyond obedience school
In a sunny classroom, BHS instructor Lizzie Brown introduces two inhabitants—cecropia moths named Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, now cocooned for the winter. She runs a summer camp and has also started Humane Heroes, a program for kids, aged eight to 14 who want to work with animals. The humane society can’t allow volunteers that young, but with Brown they can learn how the shelter works from the inside.
Her class talks about timely and sometimes difficult topics, like animal testing, endangered animals, and puppy mills. She holds ethical debates with students, 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,” Brown 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, 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 rewards for levels of points. The highest honor they can reach is staff-for-a-day. The shelter estimates more than 2,100 people of all ages come through its programs each year. 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, but they can earn the privilege of helping Brown at the shelter and spending time playing and socializing with the dogs and cats, puppies and kittens.
Brown says this new partnership is deeply rewarding—the kids are excited to be there and are responsive to her: “On every level, they identify with these animals, wanting to be loved, wanting a home.”
While Brown plans new college programs and action groups, the humane society is offering free vaccine clinics in North Adams and seminars on current topics in the animal kingdom, from wild horses to urban chickens. It is also actively addressing some hot topics.
For example, the Internet gives people many ways to find pets, especially dogs, but Perreault warns that not all of these channels are created equal. People have largely stopped getting dogs from pet stores, 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 experienced 25 years ago. Some may get puppies cheaply and charge as much as $800 to bring one of them to a place like the Berkshires, where puppies are now in short supply.
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 there are safeguards in place for both dog and owner. The shelter can look over the dogs, have them checked by a vet, and evaluate their behavior.
As the number of homeless and unwanted animals shrinks in the Berkshires, Perreault expects his job to continue to change. 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 the same.
BONDING Community events raise awareness and support for the Berkshire Humane Society. At Jacob’s Pillow, National Dog Day was celebrated with a dance choreographed for dogs and their caregivers. “Partnering is fundamental to many dance genres, and the partnership between dogs and their companions is unlike any other,” says Pillow director Pamela Tatge. (Pictured to the right and in the photos above.)