Safe Haven misses rescue meeting

May 25, 2010

A meeting that sought to clear the air between Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary and other Sussex County rescue groups fell short when no representative from the Safe Haven board of directors attended the meeting.

After questioning Safe Haven’s motives, funding and plans for more than an hour, the county’s other animal rescue groups decided to focus instead on their own efforts.

No one from Safe Haven officially attended a Friday, May 21 meeting set up by the rescue groups. Construction of Safe Haven, a $3.5 million, green technology, no-kill sanctuary near Georgetown, is scheduled to begin in June.

Bonnie Palen, director of Feral Friends of Millsboro, said she would take the lead role to form a coalition of Sussex animal rescue groups in memory of Vivian Barry, the late animal advocate who founded the Historic Lewes Cat Society. “We need to all come together for Vivian,” she said.

Barry formed the first Sussex County Animal Coalition about seven years ago. The group disbanded after three years, said her husband Bob Barry.

More than 50 volunteers representing at least five animal rescue organizations, animal advocates and staff from the Sussex and Kent County SPCAs met at Millsboro’s Atlantic Inn.

Palen said the meeting was scheduled with hopes that Safe Haven board members would attend in an effort to clear the air and answer questions. Safe Haven representatives declined the invitation, although two volunteers, who thought the meeting was sponsored by Safe Haven, were in attendance, said Anne Gryczon, Safe Haven executive director.

An email from the Safe Haven board stated the board did not sponsor the meeting and never agreed to it.

“We feel it necessary at this time to clarify that we are not a foundation set up to support other groups – our mission is to build the sanctuary and operate it once we open,” the email stated.

It seems that message is not getting to the grassroots animal rescue groups throughout the county, and to confuse matters, a section on Safe Haven’s website claims in 2006 partnerships with local rescue groups were formed.

“Everything they say is a contradiction,” Palen said. “They said the meeting was about getting money; it’s not about the money. They need to step up to the plate and answer some questions.”

Some small rescue groups, which operate on a shoestring budget and are looking for funding, have in the past requested donations or cat traps from Safe Haven. Palen said sometimes those requests are granted, sometimes they aren’t and at times promises have not been kept.

“The small rescue groups have done more good than Safe Haven,” Palen said. “The many small groups work together. We are struggling and working down to our last penny.”

In a previous interview, Gryczon said Safe Haven’s emphasis has been on fundraising for the new facility. Limited amounts of money have been set aside for projects, although Gryczon maintains her organization has helped other groups; provided for trap, neuter and release of stray cats; provided food for animal owners in need; and transported unwanted dogs to new homes.

Although Palen disputes just about every Safe Haven claim about its programming, she said rescue groups are most upset that Safe Haven allegedly sheds a negative light on the Delaware SPCA. “This is wrong – the SPCA is trying to change,” Palen said.

Anne Cavanaugh, director of the Georgetown shelter, said Delaware SPCA has reduced its euthanasia rate by 70 percent in the last two years.

Cavanaugh said in 2009 Delaware SPCA shelters in New Castle and Sussex counties took in more than 4,100 unwanted or homeless dogs and cats. Of those, 3,279 were placed in new homes, returned to their owners or transferred to rescue organizations.

“We are looking for the public’s help as well, and we want to work together with other groups,” she said.

She said many are under the mistaken perception the SPCA is a government agency. She said the organization, which is running a $600,000 deficit, is a private, nonprofit group operating on donations and fundraising events.

Cut on other’s funding
Many at the meeting expressed concern that Safe Haven’s fundraising efforts over the past six years have hurt small, grassroots groups.

Barry said some groups survive off donation cans placed in stores. He said donation cans were providing about $200 a month income to the Lewes group. “The income was not huge, but when Safe Haven put their cans out, our income was cut in half,” he said. “I have to admit they have done a good job fundraising.”

Safe Haven has been able to garner several grants and loans during a capital campaign to purchase 14 acres and build its $3.5-million sanctuary, including grants of $700,000 from the Longwood Foundation, $100,000 from the Welfare Foundation and a $3.3 million rural development loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s on top of several years of successful fundraisers coordinated by Safe Haven as well as other businesses doing benefits for the organization.

Scope of the project
Several meeting attendees questioned the time involved and the scope of the Safe Haven project. “We all welcome another animal sanctuary in Delaware,” said Kate Hungerford, a former Safe Haven volunteer who now volunteers with the Delaware SPCA.

“But it’s taken seven years, and there is not one stick in the ground.”

Hungerford said they could have started small, gotten the facility up and running and then added to it.

“My greatest concern is that they will fill their kennels and not have the money to operate. Then what happens to the animals?” Hungerford asked.

Gryczon previously said the sanctuary would be able to handle as many as 400 dogs and cats a month. As a no-kill sanctuary, those that can’t be adopted would be allowed to live at the facility.

Those in attendance agreed Safe Haven has cornered political support and placed influential people on its board. Barry said requests were made to place representatives from some of the grassroots rescue groups on the Safe Haven board, but that didn’t happen.

“They have the prominent people backing them; they have the money,” said Sam Harrison of Millsboro. “We are just the little people, but we have love for animals.”

“If we join forces we can become stronger than Safe Haven,” Palen said.

But some said accountability is still an issue. “It’s disrespectful they aren’t here tonight and don’t want to be accountable,” Hungerford said.

In response to questions raised at the meeting, Gryczon said, “It is very sad that there are so many groups that are opposed to no-kill sheltering. With the will and proper policies all shelters can and should be no-kill. Progressive communities and countries around the world have proven that no-kill can be successful and it is the only ethical alternative.”

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