WHEATFIELD – A year ago, the SPCA of Niagara was in the doghouse.
Its director had been fired and the organization was receiving scathing reports of unnecessary and cruel euthanasia and poor medical treatment of animals, as well as mismanagement. In March, the board of directors was fired, and staff members rededicated themselves as a “no-kill” shelter.
These measures appear to have taken hold and were on display last week as the new and seemingly improved SPCA of Niagara dealt with the huge influx of Pomeranian dogs – many of them puppies – seized from a Lockport home Feb. 2.
“We will find a way,” said Andrew M. Bell, the agency’s new executive director. “We will do whatever it takes in any situation we come across to make room for the animals and make sure we find homes for the animals. That’s how no-kill works, and these situations kind of define it. The staff and the volunteers have the mindset that we will work this out.”
The SPCA re-entered the spotlight last week after the news that Ellouise M. Magrum, 50, who lived at the house on Royal Parkway South with her husband and two children, appeared to have been selling the Pomeranians on her website. She was charged with animal cruelty, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and several town violations for running a nonpermitted kennel out of her home. She was released on her own recognizance after being arraigned Tuesday in Lockport Town Court.
Bell said SPCA staffers spent the weekend round-the-clock getting the shelter ready for the 64 incoming Pomeranians. Shelter Director Amy Lewis said volunteers stepped forward to lend their support once they heard about what happened.
“It’s been heartwarming, really. We had teams of volunteers watching the puppies, two groomers bathing the dogs, and two vets volunteered and spent the day checking their health and giving them vaccinations,” Bell said. “It’s just been a real community effort.”
He said that in the last three months, the new SPCA of Niagara has signed up more than 200 new volunteers, an increase that he said was helping the agency look better.
New Board Member Lawrence M. Eggert, who is also the chief of the Lockport Police Department, said that more than 100 foster homes have been lined up by Lewis and board member AnnLouise Carosella.
“This gets them out of the shelter and more acclimated to humans. Any animal in a shelter too long loses their socialization,” Eggert said. “Before we got these Pomeranians, the shelter was only about a quarter-full because the rest of the animals were with foster families.”
Bell said that all the Pomeranians with puppies and those that are pregnant went to experienced foster homes.
One of the most telling statistics about the SPCA is this: Since the new board took office, the survival rate of animals has gone from 54 percent to 99 percent. Eggert said the changes have been positive for the SCPA of Niagara and for the animals.
“It’s cheaper for us. It’s better for the animals,” he said. “And though it is still week to week, we are starting to re-energize our fundraising. The donor base we had was pretty much destroyed with the negative past.”
Now the SPCA is dealing with a situation full of negatives and trying to turn it into a positive.
Town of Lockport Dog Control Officer Barry Kobrin said neighbors, who had long complained about the dogs at Magrum’s house, stood inside their houses and clapped or gave him the thumbs-up as the dogs started coming out in crates Monday. The house was temporarily condemned pending a cleanup, after a buildup of feces and urine was found on the dogs and in the house and garage in areas where the dogs were living.
“It was the nastiest thing I’ve seen in my 35 years on the force,” said Eggert, who was at the scene Feb. 2. He said two vanloads of puppies were taken out.
Kobrin said Magrum had been contacted in the past but licensed at least three of the dogs and moved all of the dogs out during their most recent inspection.
Former Dog Control Officer Joan Coe went to the home each time a complaint call came in, but she was never able to get inside the house to see what was happening.
“It was a cat-and-mouse kind of operation,”Kobrin said.
Kobrin said police needed a search warrant or subpoena to get inside, but he hopes to see that changed in the near future with a revised town ordinance or U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, which would allow a dog-control officer “with great suspicion” to enter the premises.
“It was terrible, and I feel bad for the children in the home, and I feel bad for the dogs living in filthy conditions. This was a puppy mill,” Kobrin said. “She was selling these dogs for a lot of money.”
Kobrin praised the SPCA of Niagara’s work on the case. “They handled this very well,” he said. “They worked with me very closely. Under the new management, the SPCA is a new place. I can’t commend them enough.”
The public also is responding to the recent changes at the SPCA. “When the word went out that we had this problem, we were immediately overwhelmed with offers of support,” Bell said. “That wasn’t always true in the past. I think that’s very telling. I think the word is getting out that we are a can-do kind of place. Everyone involved now is aware that we are part of the solution.”
Bell said officials had to cut off the waiting list of people wanting Pomeranians after receiving 110 calls in the first few days.
“We literally had 500 phone calls from people wanting to adopt these animals,” Bell said. “We had to bring in extra volunteer help to deal with the people calling and dropping off donations.”
He said the agency is using the increase in demand to remind people that they have lots of other dogs available for adoption.
“The bigger dogs need homes just as much as these little guys,” Bell said.
“In the end, we should be a happy place, a place where we adopt our animals, not a place where we incarcerate them.”