For her 12th birthday, the only thing Megan Hahn wanted was to volunteer at Dubuque Regional Humane Society.
“You could volunteer as long as you had an adult overseeing your activities,” recalled Hahn, now 27. “It’s all I wanted to do.”
The Dubuque resident got her wish and started cleaning cages, walking dogs and socializing animals as a volunteer. When she was 14, she began fostering cats, specializing in taking in pregnant females or females with newborn litters.
“For me, it’s always been moms and babies,” she said. “I’ve grown up with cats, and they’re what I’m familiar with. I love every single one of them.”
Meanwhile, Linda Beegle, 75, of Galena, Ill., loves adopting older dogs. She appreciates that they are housebroken and have experienced a bit of the world.
Beegle has adopted four senior dogs and one cat from the humane society.
Beegle said even though senior animals come with more health issues than younger ones, she always has gravitated toward older dogs and cats.
“Of course, I don’t know anything about what they’ve been through or what their life was like before I got them,” she said. “But they are wonderful pets.”
Beegle recently said goodbye to Diamond, her 13-year-old pit bull.
“I never thought I’d own a pit bull,” she said. “But they had her behind the desk (at the humane society), and she was just spending her days there. She was just a sweet dog. It didn’t matter what her breed was.”
Besides Diamond, she has given a home to a German shepherd named Rebha, a labrador named Coco and a beagle named Molly. All are gone now, except for 13-year-old Lily the cat.
“They all knew they were home when they came into my house,” Beegle said. “They still have a lot of love to give, and they give it wholeheartedly. I’ve got my eye on a few dogs (at the humane society), but I’m on the fence as to whether I want another one at my age. But I sure enjoyed every single one I’ve had.”
A long journey
Dubuque Regional Humane Society has come a long way since the days when stray animals were kept in a coal room in the basement of City Hall.
Through a number of locations and reorganizations over the past 120 years, including a rented house on Jackson Street, a chicken coop and a seven-acre farmette, the nonprofit moved in 2013 from its Crescent Ridge location, where it had been for two decades, to a new facility that had previously been the home of Carlisle Investments at 4242 Chavenelle Road.
DRHS bought the property in 2011, thanks in part to a $2 million donation from a Longmont, Colo., philanthropic organization. After two years of remodeling and retrofitting, Kinsey’s Campus opened. The campus was named for a disaster response and rescue golden retriever owned by Nan Hadley, head of Hadley and Marion Stuart Charitable Foundation, which made the donation.
Comprising 4.7 acres, the property includes a 27,518-square-foot building that can house up to 400 animals at a time, staff offices, a veterinary clinic and storage. Other amenities on the campus include a members-only dog park, dog runs and dog walking trails.
In 2021, DRHS completed 1,101 dog adoptions, 1,248 cat adoptions and 253 adoptions of “critters:” gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits and the occasional reptile. So far in 2022, 783 dogs have been adopted, while 1,129 cats and 135 critters have found homes.
The average annual operating budget for DRHS hovers around $1.1 million.
Behind the scenes, there are many people, both staff and volunteers, who keep things running and assist in helping a lot of animals find homes.
A history of serving the community
Including volunteers and paid staff, there is a culture at the humane society that the community doesn’t often see.
From the veterinary staff that takes care of health needs, to the animal care technicians and volunteers who make sure every shelter resident is fed and loved until they are adopted, to the administration that dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s, the job of getting animals into safe, loving homes is a collaborative effort, and it’s just a small part of what Dubuque Regional Humane Society does for the community.
“We have about 30 employees on staff here, both full time and part time,” said Executive Director Noelle Chesney. “That includes veterinary staff, community care and animal care.”
There has been some form of a humane society in Dubuque since the early 20th century, when a group of volunteers formed Dubuque Benevolent and Humane Society. The original bylaws stated that the society would work to protect the rights of children, animals (primarily horses) and companion animals, mostly dogs and cats.
A huge part of the society’s work involved public education, including regular articles in the newspaper describing the rescues of children from abusive homes and the distribution of calendars and pamphlets to remind people of their responsibilities to their animals.
That is a tenet that the society continues to this day.
“We’re always open to people coming in and asking questions about anything they need help with, even if they haven’t adopted an animal from us,” Chesney said. “We have families who bring their children in to take tours and see the animals, and we’re able to take that opportunity to educate them on what we do.”
Sheltering animals from everywhere
The local humane society takes in a large number of animals from American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, high-intake shelters in other parts of the country and area shelters that are struggling.
It also contracts with municipalities to take in strays that the police department or other city workers pick up.
“We don’t just serve those who want to adopt animals,” said Director of Operations Bri Eickhoff. “If we were to close our doors any time soon, the city would be without an animal shelter, and they’d have to figure out what to do. It would probably be a very costly situation. People don’t necessarily realize that even if they’re not an animal lover or supporter, the humane society is something that benefits them as well.”
Chesney explained further what a city without the humane society’s services might look like.
“You might end up with a feral cat neighborhood or stray dogs roaming the streets if that’s not kept in check,” she said. “People may not even necessarily give it a second thought, but we’re providing a valuable service to the entire community.”
Eickhoff’s duties cover a wide range of responsibilities. Most followers of the humane society’s social media will recognize her as the human most often seen in videos featuring adoptable animals. “Break with Bri” is a popular video series posted on the society’s Facebook page, but it’s just one small part of the duties of Eickhoff, who has worked at DRHS since 2016.
“I oversee the animal-care side, the front desk, the clinic and just basically handle the day-to-day aspects of the shelter,” she said. “Working with animal control, working with other shelters, whether it’s transfers coming in, neglect cases, hoarding cases, things like that. I also deal with municipal contracts, strays coming in from animal control, whether that’s the city or the county or any of the smaller municipalities we contract with, such as Farley and Epworth.”
The path to adoption
However an animal finds its way to the shelter, arriving is just the beginning of the journey. If the animal is temporarily lost and is reunited with its owner within a few days, that’s an outcome that the staff loves to see. But more often than not, the staff prepares the animal to be put up for adoption, and that involves a lot of people and a lot of hard work.
Once an animal arrives at the shelter, whether it comes from another shelter, a municipality that has picked it up as a stray or a private citizen who has brought the animal in, the first step is getting the animal acclimated to its surroundings.
“We won’t do behavior evaluations or anything like that for a few days,” Eickhoff said. “It’s a horrible time to do that (right away) because they’re stressed coming into the building. Sometimes, it takes three or four days before we can realistically do anything with them. A dog or cat that’s brought in scared and hungry isn’t going to act like itself for at least a few days.”
The average stay for a dog at the shelter before it’s adopted is 12 days; for cats, it’s 45 days.
“We’re in the middle of kitten season right now,” Chesney said. “A lot of the stray cats that are brought in are pregnant.”
Eickhoff said that tends to skew the numbers a bit.
“In Iowa, all dogs and cats have to be spayed or neutered before they can be adopted out,” she said. “It’s the law. None of the animals are eligible for surgery until they’re 8 weeks old and weigh at least 2 pounds. So if you have a mom that comes in with day-old kittens, mom and all the kittens have to stay at least 58 days to get to the point where the kittens are even eligible for surgery.”
Sami Graff, director of marketing and community engagement for DRHS, helps on the adoption journey by working with volunteers and foster parents such as Hahn. In addition to volunteer recruitment and training, she also oversees social media, signs up volunteers to help at fundraising and other events, and administers the foster program.
Graff only has been in her present position for a few months and is working on streamlining the volunteer application and orientation process. She hopes that will make it easier for people to volunteer.
“I think the hardest part (of my job) is retention of volunteers,” she said. “Many people are excited to play with the animals, but we have a hard time finding people to help with other tasks.”
Graff is happy to combine her love of animals and service to the community.
“I feel so rewarded when these animals find homes,” she said. “It feels really great to be a part of something that is helping the community.”
Seeing to their health
Veterinary technician Isabelle Schaefer sees almost every animal for surgery before it is adopted. She has been with DRHS for almost a year.
“We see animals from the time they come in until they’re walking out the door,” she said. “We do intake vaccinations, which are normal vaccines, dewormer and flea and tick prevention. We’re checking their sex, checking their age, making sure they’re healthy.”
It’s a big job for a team of three — veterinarian Dr. Jerry Schrader and vet techs Schaefer and Cori Windsor — at a large shelter where there often are more than 200 cats and close to 100 dogs in residence at any one time.
“A big portion of my job is neuter and spaying preparation for the vet to do surgery,” Schaefer said. “They get shaved. They get their nails clipped. They get chipped. If they’re old enough, they get their rabies vaccine.”
Along with surgery, Schaefer also does daily care for animals who are on medication and post-op surgery care.
“It’s not uncommon for us to do other kinds of surgeries,” she said. “We’ve done limb amputations, tumor removals. Hernia repairs are common.”
Schaefer’s favorite part of the job is seeing an animal who comes into the shelter in bad shape regain its health.
“Those neglect cases are always hard to see,” she said. “I love those happy stories, especially when they come in really sick and get better and go to amazing homes.”
In 2017, DRHS adopted a no-kill policy, responding to community criticism and the shelter’s own policy changes.
Schaefer said as much as she loves her job, there are tough days.
“There are definitely times that we go home and cry,” she said. “I feel like people think we just play with animals all day. And yes, we do get to do that. But we’re working hard dealing with hard medical cases sometimes. The shelter setting isn’t the best for these animals. It’s stressful. It’s noisy. But we’re trying to make them as comfortable as possible as long as they’re with us.”
Animal Care Supervisor Cassie Anderson and her team of 13 animal care technicians handle the day-to-day responsibilities of making sure every animal is fed and well-cared for while they await adoption.
“We make sure they’re happy and healthy as much as they can be here,” she said. “That includes daily cleanings of all the enclosures, feeding and watering all the animals, loving them and socializing them, and supervising visitations between a potential adopter and an animal.”
Anderson said seeing an instant connection between an animal and a human is one of the most satisfying aspects of her job.
“Seeing that bond form — I love being able to experience that joy from both people and animals,” she said.
Anderson said one of the best perks of her job is being able to play with the animals, but it’s not all play and no work.
“I think it would be surprising to people how much work goes into each animal,” she said. “We spend hours every day cleaning and caring for every animal in the building. And then, we do it all again the next day. We provide animals a safe and comfortable place to be, whether they’re with us for a day or a month or however long it might be.”
Humane society staff said it’s hard not to fall in love with every animal that comes through the door, and those who foster find it even harder not to lose their hearts to an animal.
“You form some really deep connections,” Hahn said. “But if I adopted them all, I couldn’t foster anymore, and that would be less lives that I could help. Saying goodbye is the goal of fostering.”
The final goodbye is usually said at the front counter by a member of the community care team, which Becca Cunningham supervises. She also oversees the Pet Pantry program.
“We chose ‘community’ instead of ‘customer’ because our client base is much more than our customers,” she said. “Helping our community bridge the gap between animals and people, helping those in the community who may not have adopted from us but who may need help feeding their pet, helping to unite a family with the perfect pet. Those are all things we do.”
In the month of October, DRHS took in 153 cats, 34 dogs and a guinea pig.
“Doing those intakes or processing adoptions is probably what most people see us do at the front desk,” Cunningham said. “But we also take in donations from the community, issue dog park memberships, help with shelter care and cleaning. It can be stressful, but I always tell my staff that if things get to be too much, go play with a cat or a dog. That makes everything right again.”
Cunningham said the hardest part of her job is seeing both animals and humans in distress.
“It’s hard when strays come in infested with fleas, have broken bones, have a collar embedded in their skin or when they come in dehydrated and emaciated,” she said. “But it’s also very hard to see an owner fall apart because they have to rehome their dog for any number of reasons, or seeing someone get emotional because the kitten they brought in as a stray didn’t make it.”
It takes a lot of time, money and effort to get an animal happy and healthy and to the place where it belongs, but through the efforts of Dubuque Regional Humane Society and its dedicated staff, many animals get there.
“They all deserve to be in a home where they can be the animal they’re meant to be,” Schaefer said.