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In 1984, a small group of volunteers formed the Santa Maria Valley Humane Society, holding spaghetti dinners and bake sales for funding and fostering homeless cats and dogs in private homes.

Since then the organization has grown, with an annual budget of $2.3 million, a state-of-the-art shelter that takes in and adopts out well over 1,000 cats and dogs annually and a community veterinary clinic that it operates.

This year, the organization celebrates its 35th anniversary as a tax-exempt charity and its sixth year at its new facility at 1687 Stowell Road, just west of Santa Maria city limits.

In the past three years, the Humane Society has instituted programs that have more than doubled the number of animals adopted out, while reducing the average amount of time dogs and cats spend at the shelter, said Executive Director Sean Hawkins.

“When I first got here [in April 2017] it was really hard to adopt a pet,” he said. “We had a whole bunch of rules. If there were other pets at home, you had to bring in copies of their medical records. If you leased, we had to see a copy of your lease. If you had family, we required that the entire family be present for the adoption.

“Nothing when you look at it as a one-off was overly complicated but when you added all of the steps together, it made the adoption process not family-friendly,” Hawkins said.

So the shelter instituted a more conversational process, allowing shelter staff to get a sense of the adopter’s lifestyle and home environment to point them to animals that would be a good fit.

“The Adopters Welcome Here’ program says we trust the community,” Hawkins said. “I had a problem with building a $5 million facility and then saying, ‘We don’t trust the people walking in the doors to adopt.’”

Combined with a training program that involves familiarizing animals with meeting strangers, hand feeding and teaching dogs basic commands and good manners, Hawkins said the Adopters Welcome Here program increased adoptions while also reducing the shelter’s return rate from 13% in 2016 to 7.8% last year.

“Each day every animal in this shelter will interact with at least 20 people,” Hawkins said. “Every animal in our building is going to go home with someone they don’t know and the more accustomed they are to meeting unfamiliar people, the more confident they are and the better they present when you meet them.”

Last year the shelter took in 1,334 animals — a 176% increase from the 483 animals accepted by the shelter in 2016. During that same period, the shelter witnessed a nearly 150% increase in adoptions.

“We’ve increased adoptions but the percentage of returns has decreased, meaning we’re doing a better job of putting the right pets in the right homes,” Hawkins said.

As the shelter looks to the future, the primary concern is building an organization that is financially secure for the long-haul, said Claire Sheehy, a longtime Humane Society volunteer that has served on the organization’s board since 2009.

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Opening the Stowell Road facility in 2013 “was truly a leap of faith,” Sheehy said. “It was built based on expected population growth, which we’ve been seeing, but we knew our operating expenses were going to increase.”

Animal welfare isn’t always at the top of people’s minds when they think of charitable giving and many have the misconception that the organization receives government funding.

In recent weeks, the shelter has scaled back transfers of animals from neighboring counties — where animals can be euthanized for lack of space — and programs like Chrissie’s Fund, which sponsors veterinary care expenses for the dogs of low-income owners.

In a community like Santa Maria — which has a high poverty rate compared to the rest of the county and the state as a whole — programs like Chrissie’s Fund and the community veterinary clinic are especially needed, Hawkins said, adding it was also fiscally more responsible to help keep a pet in its home than have it end up returned to the shelter because the owners can’t afford the veterinary care.

The shelter has more than doubled its revenue from general donations, fundraisers and grants over the past few years but the new programs have driven costs up beyond the available financial resources.

“We’re spending a million more than we were three years ago,” Hawkins said.

Sheehy and Hawkins both said a key part of ensuring the shelter can continue to operate with its full-range of programs will be a planned merger with the better-resourced Santa Barbara Humane Society.

The proposed merger would create one organization with two shelter locations.

While a final merger agreement hasn’t been reached, the board of directors of both organizations have spent the past 15 months negotiating an agreement that would unite the two largest independent animal welfare charities in the county.

A merger would expand the fundraising footprint of both nonprofits, creating an organization that can make more efficient use of donor dollars to help dogs and cats in the county, Sheehy said

Hawkins and Santa Barbara Humane Society Executive Director Kerri Burns said they’re hopeful it will be finalized by the end of the year.

“The long-term plan is to create a single entity with two locations that has a very broad funding base so that we can continue to provide the services for this community,” Hawkins said. “This part of the county desperately needs the services and one countywide organization will ensure that we can continue to provide those without missing a beat.”

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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City Government

Razi Syed covers city government for the Santa Maria Times. He is a graduate of Fresno State University and New York University.