Shelter Spotlight: Wisconsin Humane Society

By Karen Vitale

Shelter Introduction

Shelter is a word that can mean so many different things: a makeshift refuge, a safe haven from harm...and even a last resort.

But when it comes to animal shelters, the Wisconsin Humane Society (WHS) is giving the word, and experience, a whole new meaning for animals and people alike.

“Our goal is to make the shelter experience as positive as it can be for anyone who walks through our doors,” says Angela Speed, Director of Communications for WHS.

And those doors are many; WHS includes five separate shelter facilities in counties all along the western side of Lake Michigan, plus a Spay/Neuter Center and the state’s largest Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

For animals, that commitment means access to so much more than shelter and sustenance. It means life-saving medical care — like the emergency surgery that recently removed a 9-foot extension cord from a shelter dog suffering intestinal blockage.

It means expert wildlife rescue — like the careful extraction of a great horned owl entangled in a soccer net.

And it means an army of animal welfare workers and volunteers with one mission: to place and keep animals in homes that are a good fit for both them and their new families.

People-Centered Approach to Animal Adoptions

Each year, WHS helps an average of 13,000 pets find their forever homes. According to Speed, a major part of that success is due to the organization’s progressive people-centered approach to animal sheltering.

“We not only love animals, we love people. So we work really hard to build relationships and remove barriers to adoption, instead of making it hard for people to adopt,” says Speed. “We serve clients with the same compassion, respect, and kindness that we give to the animals in our care.”

A few examples of programs and policies inspired by this people-centered approach:

No Application Adoptions - WHS shelters do not rely on standard adoption applications. So there are no automatic approvals or denials based on factors like whether there are other pets or young children in the home, or a fenced back yard.

Instead, adoption counselors meet with prospective families first to understand their environment and what they are looking for in a pet, then work with them to find options that will fit their needs. More like a modern-day matchmaker for pets and people.

Foster Facilitated Adoptions - WHS relies on a huge network of fostering families to help keep animals safe, happy, and loved while awaiting adoption. To leverage the power of this network, WHS encourages foster families to seek out potential adopters among family and friends they know and trust. If WHS agrees it’s a good match, the pet can go right from the foster home to their new family...which is a much easier transition for everyone.

No-Fee Cat Adoptions - Since 1999, WHS has waived adoption fees for all adult cats. This is a win-win-win for all: Not only is this a significant savings for cat lovers looking to adopt, which attracts even more potential adopters, but it also helps cats get adopted faster, which is great for the cats and allows shelters to make room for orphaned kittens.

Benchwarmer Program - Some dogs find their families the minute they hit the adoption floor. Others, typically senior dogs or those with medical or behavioral challenges, often take longer to find the right fit.

WHS believes there’s a right family for every pet. No animal is euthanized at WHS due to space concerns or length of stay. Still, placing pets in the right home quickly is always the goal.

The WHS Benchwarmer Program helps harder-to-place dogs find their forever home faster. Any dog who hasn’t been adopted after 10 days is featured on the WHS website and social media accounts. Plus, their adoption fee is reduced to just $25, which can save adopters between $50-$300. Usually, that nudge is all it takes to help these animals get 'back in the game' and find fantastic homes.

Stronger Together

It’s innovative programs like these and so many more: Furry Friends Pet Food Bank, Junior Veterinary Camp for kids, Low-Cost Spay and Neuter services, to name a few, that have helped WHS grow to become such a leader in the field of animal welfare.

But that growth has also come from a series of beneficial mergers with other shelters in neighboring counties over the years.

Streamlining services like IT and Marketing across multiple shelters has enabled everyone to do more with less. And that means a stronger network of WHS shelters that’s better able and equipped to serve the animals, people and wildlife of a much larger community.

Shelter Support Matters More Than Ever

That type of cooperation and partnership is becoming even more critical these days. Though shelter intake numbers are dropping nationwide, the cost of care is rising quickly.

“In recent years, we’ve served more homed animals than homeless animals,” says Speed. “That’s wonderful, and it’s largely due to low-cost vaccines and spay/neuter programs. But 60% of the animals that come to us require some sort of medical care. Often families are forced to surrender their beloved pets because they can’t afford healthcare costs. It’s heartbreaking.”

And that’s why the WHS team is working so hard to engage the community in every way they can...because they believe the greatest impact they can make on animal welfare is help the humans who love and care for them.

Or, as Speed puts it: “You start working in Animal Welfare for the animals, but you keep working for the people.” And she has been honored to share the stories of so many pets and people over the course of her 14 years with WHS.

There was the woman who drove over 900 miles from her home in North Dakota to Wisconsin for a tearful reunion with her long-lost dog, who had been surrendered to a WHS shelter.

There was the rush to find homes and foster families for shelter animals in the early weeks of the pandemic...and the moment when, for the first time in its 100+ years, the Wisconsin Humane Society ran out of animals to foster or adopt, because the community stepped up in such a huge way.

There was the heart-warming story of two orphaned mammals rescued by the Wildlife team—an infant gray squirrel and eastern chipmunk. Deprived of their families, both were in critical condition. So the specialists paired these 'cousins' in their own little litter, where they cuddled and snuggled each other back to health.

“We have so many amazing stories to share. And with everyone stuck at home, people are craving positive, feel-good interactions,” says Speed. “So until we can connect with people in person again and see a child’s face light up when they lock eyes with their new, furry, four-footed best friend, we’re bringing our animals to people online and wherever else we can connect.”

And there’s no shortage of ways to connect: From virtual story hours and birthday parties with shelter animals on Facebook, to websites like 24Petconnect that connect potential pet parents with adoptable shelter animals. WHS also provides video vet visits, helps foster families rehome animals over social media, and even donates pet food bank resources to food banks for people — so families in need don’t have to choose between feeding themselves or their pets.

For more information about the Wisconsin Humane Society or to enquire about adopting, visit: