Since its inception in 1978, the Humane Society of Charlotte (HSC) has rehabilitated and rehomed tens of thousands of dogs and cats while providing low-cost medical services to countless pets in the community. Yet for the past several years, its aging facility made it harder for staff to do their critical work.
Crumbling walls, bugs, vermin, tight quarters, improper infrastructure and unhygienic conditions were among the daily challenges employees and volunteers faced at the nonprofit’s longtime shelter on Toomey Avenue next to Brookhill Village in south Charlotte.
HSC left those struggles in the past this week as they celebrated the opening of a new 27,000-square-foot animal resource center, fully funded by community donations — $15 million in donations, to be exact.
The facility offers more room for staff and animals, an expanded veterinary clinic, adoption center, community education center, a pet food bank for families in need, cat café and, later this year, a public dog park. Sitting on 17 acres of land on Parker Drive off Wilkinson Boulevard in west Charlotte, the HSC resource center opened its doors on Wednesday, June 1.
Staff say the new building finally mirrors the quality of service the organization provides the community.
“It was just so obvious, the need,” said Donna Stucker, HSC’s chief philanthropy officer. “You could tell the story but then also, like, look at the building.”
“That building has been a challenge for us in many ways and I think people’s perceptions are easily tied to what a building looks like, unfortunately, and the quality of care and quality of work just did not match,” added HSC president and CEO Shelly Moore.
Humane Society of Charlotte’s new home
The Humane Society of Charlotte has been headquartered on Toomey Avenue since the 1990s. Its main building was originally used by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Animal Care and Control division, so it was designed for containment, rather than rehoming and rehabilitation.
HSC has been renting it from CMPD for $1 a year but recently closed the building — fostering the animals inside — while transitioning operations to the new animal resource center.
The facility was mostly outdoor with limited climate control for the animals, antiquated plumbing and improper air handling for hygienic standards, which created a higher stress environment for both animals and staff.
Quarters were tight, so much so that there wasn’t enough room to host educational groups, provide resources for behavior modification, hold effective training and owner education, or offer expanded spay/neuter surgeries and other veterinary services. Some employees, including Moore, had to work out of a separate building down the street.
The new resource center has enough room for everyone to fit under one roof, Moore said, including HSC’s 64 employees and more animals than could even be kept outside at the former location.
In its new home, HSC will be able to provide adoption services, expanded spay/neuter surgeries, veterinary wellness visits and community outreach services for more than 30,000 animals annually, a 40% increase in capacity.
There are multiple cat colony rooms that can hold dozens of cats and more individual cat enclosures, as well as more kennels for dogs and expanded public interaction areas for all animals. Cats also have three times the space to roam freely, with access to an outdoor “catio.”
In the veterinary clinic, there are multiple exam and recovery rooms, a surgical suite with six surgical tables and room for medical equipment to perform X-rays and labs, which allows HSC to do more in-house diagnostic work, Stucker said.
Designed with intention
The first feature visitors see after passing through the doors of the Humane Society’s new animal resource center is the cat area, and that’s by design. Moore said more cats tend to end up in shelters than dogs and they’re harder to adopt out.
“Typically, people come and they want to adopt a dog, they want to adopt a puppy,” Moore said. “We wanted to feature cats to kind of drive people to just look at them initially. They’re not far from the dogs, but you’ll have to walk by cats to see dogs. It’s part of the plan.”
Large tempered-glass windows allow visitors to look into cat colony rooms and individual enclosures. There’s also an indoor/outdoor cat café where visitors can interact with adoptable cats as well as buy drinks, pastries and pet accessories.
The new facility features a climate-controlled environment with improved cleaning and sanitation systems. There are 24 large, tempered-glass public suites and 36 indoor dog kennels that include flushable drains and interior and exterior play areas for meet-and-greets.
Additional kennels, which aren’t accessible to the public, serve as a holding area for dogs that aren’t yet ready to be adopted. When a dog is adopted from a public suite, another dog can be moved from the back room to take its place.
Moore said it’s a huge improvement from the 50 outdoor chain-link kennels that faced each other at the old facility.
“Everything was in one area, which we call general population, so as an adopter, you’re really looking at everything, which is really not ideal,” Moore said.
She said dogs were often nose-to-nose, which can be traumatic and even spread disease.
“If they have a traumatic experience, it takes longer for that dog to decompress. It may even make that dog unadoptable. It may bring out some kind of behavior in that animal that is detrimental to its adoptability,” Moore said.
Being able to take dogs out of public viewing and give them time to decompress is crucial to their mental health, she explained. “When we designed this place, we were really adamant about low stress. Just getting [some dogs in] general population away from adoption speaks volumes.”
Aside from expanding adoption and low-cost veterinary services, Moore said having a space to provide community education was a core piece of the initial vision for the animal resource center — a component the old shelter always lacked.
The education center in the new building will focus on childhood education and adult programs, as well as host summer camps, field trips, kids tours and other activities.
“It has a lot to do with starting at a young age, setting those children up to have positive experiences with animals and ultimately be able to enjoy that human-animal bond as an adult in a responsible way,” Moore said. “It’s really built around character traits — compassion, empathy, responsibility, kindness — all the things we want them to instill, not just with pets, but with each other.”
More than a shelter
When Moore joined the HSC in 2010, she was recruited for her experience managing shelters, specifically the Asheville Humane Society and the Humane Society of Washington County in Tennessee.
She said the plan for HSC’s animal resource center has been a decade in the making, though it took her a few years to stabilize the organization. In 2016, HSC bought 17 acres on Parker Drive for nearly $1.7 million and launched a $15-million fundraising campaign the following year to pay for the construction.
HSC reached that goal in May, which means it’s moving into its new center debt free.
While the opening marks an exciting new chapter for the organization, Moore wants the public to understand that the animal resource center is not a new shelter, nor is it a new adoption center.
“The whole purpose and vision is creating a community center for people and pets where they can acquire a new pet through adoption, get support for their current pet if they’re in crisis or use our low-cost clinic, and bring their kids to summer camp,” she said. “There’s things in this building that you wouldn’t see in a regular government shelter or probably most shelters in the country.”
Moore hopes its uniqueness corrects one of the biggest misconceptions about the Humane Society of Charlotte: that people only go there to adopt a pet.
Finally, HSC has a facility that better tells the story of the nonprofit’s mission and its future: that it’s more than just a shelter for pets awaiting their forever homes, it’s a community hub for animal lovers.