102617 Nonprofits: Theologian takes charge at St. Frances
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Nonprofits: Theologian takes charge at St. Frances

By Emily Topper
Coastal Observer

Devon Smith has a master’s degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, but her clients don’t care about her credentials. They’re more interested in squeaky toys and belly rubs.

Smith is the new executive director for St. Frances Animal Center, a nonprofit animal shelter located at 125 Ridge St. in Georgetown that currently houses 80 cats and 102 dogs.

Smith, a 38-year-old Hagley resident, started at the center in early April.

“I have sort of a sordid background,” Smith said. “For a long time, my professional career was academia.”

She studied international relations and theology and later taught, taking a brief break to work in Harvard’s funding office. In 2011, she realized it was time for a change.

“I was spending about 40 to 50 hours per week doing animal rescue, and about 10 hours per week doing academia,” Smith said. “I thought, ‘There’s no balance here. Clearly what I care more about is animal rescue.”

After relocating to Cincinnati, Smith began working as the director at Ohio Alleycat Resource and Spay-Neuter Clinic (OAR). She applied for the executive director position at St. Frances when it became available.

“I interviewed in December 2015,” Smith said. “I loved my job in Cincinnati, but I was getting a little bit antsy. I can be a bit nomadic.”

But when she told OAR that she was thinking about relocating, the staff worried that they wouldn’t be able to sustain some of the clinic’s existing projects.

“So I said, ‘OK, that’s fair,” Smith recalled. “I turned down this position. We worked at OAR the next year at making those projects sustainable, and not dependent on me as a person.”

The job at St. Frances opened up again about a year later.

“And I thought, ‘Now is the time,” Smith said.

Though her background might show otherwise, Smith said switching to a full-time career in rescue was a natural choice.

“I’ve always worked in rescue, in some form or another,” she said. “My dad actually runs a very small nonprofit animal rescue and both of my parents were animal lovers.”

Smith grew up in a small rural town in Vermont that didn’t have an animal shelter.

“In fact, they still don’t,” she said. “So someone would find a stray animal, and they would take it to our local vet’s office to board it.”

Her father, Mark Smith, would then pay the boarding fee through his rescue, Save A Dog, Save A Cat. Through his job as a newspaper publisher, he would run photos of the animals in the paper to get them adopted. “My dad taught me how to do trap, neuter, return before it was even called that,” Smith said. “We were doing that in the early ’80s with the kittens that lived outside.”

It’s no surprise that Smith eventually made the transition to working in rescue. Her passion long ago seeped into her personal life. She currently has 10 cats.

Her husband, Justin, is allergic. Smith said that Zyrtec is a major expense for the family.

“One of my friends calls it the House of Horrors,” Smith said. “We take home the ones that are unadoptable. The one we took home from here [St. Frances] has hyperthyroidism, so he’s skeletal. We call him Slim.”

Smith’s mother Karen died about 10 years ago and didn’t see her daughter make the switch to rescue as a career, but said that she would have seen it as a natural fit.

“When I went to get my Ph.D., she said, ‘This is a terrible idea, this isn’t who you are at all,” Smith recalled. “She passed away in 2008, but this is what she could see me doing for sure. Honestly, this makes sense for who I am. I have been an animal lover as a hereditary thing forever.”

Smith said she was attracted to St. Frances because of the shelter’s particular difficulty — the passion was there, but the finances were not.

“My heart is with animal rescues that sort of have all of the right philosophical leanings, but are maybe having a hard time getting over the financial hump or the logistical operations hump,” Smith said. “Their mindset is there. They know what they have to do and they’re committed to that — and that’s not true of all rescues — but for whatever reason, they don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle quite yet. And that’s exactly what was going on here.”

St. Frances is an open admission shelter, Smith said, which means that they have to take in all animals.

“We can’t turn them down,” Smith said. “Even if we’re full.”

With a high intake rate, the shelter has still decreased its euthanasia rate.

“Basically, an animal doesn’t get euthanized in this shelter unless it’s a true euthanasia,” Smith said. “That means that, truly, the animal must be in suffering and there’s nothing that we can do about it. We’re here to save lives. We’re not here to end them because we can’t think of a better plan.”

The shelter has a staff of 17 and a vet who works as a subcontractor. St. Frances contracts with both the city and the county of Georgetown. When the new fiscal year started, the county granted 25 percent more funding to the shelter and the city granted 50 percent more funding to the shelter than the agencies had in 14 years.

“I saw that their biggest challenge was financial,” Smith said. “I felt like I could offer what they needed. This year, we got $75,000 from the city and $100,000 from the county. It was a huge increase for them.”

But the center can’t rely strictly on agency funding. Since starting, Smith said she has been more aggressive about grant writing and seeking individual giving and donations from the public.

She’s also implemented programs to help the shelter better serve every animal. The center formerly offered a trap-neuter-release (TNR) program for $55, but only serviced three cats in September of 2016. The shelter has since waived the fee, making the program free to the public. In September 2017, 54 cats went through the TNR program.

The program is open to residents of both Georgetown and Horry counties, Smith said.

“And we want to be doing far more than 54,” Smith said. “We need to be doing more than 54.”

Smith has also focused on making otherwise ‘unadoptable’ animals available for adoption. One of the biggest issues, she said, was working with dogs who were fearful and feral.

“We decided in April to stop euthanizing dogs for being fearful,” Smith said. “And then we were thinking, ‘OK, now what?’ ”

Smith began calling other shelters for ideas, but kept hitting dead ends.

“They all said they euthanized,” she said. “I couldn’t find anyone. I called no-kill rescues, I called open admission shelters. Everyone said, ‘We would euthanize them.’ ”

So the shelter took an unconventional route — and a hands-off one.

“We started a shy dog program,” Smith said. “We use volunteers, but they can’t touch the animals. They come and they sit in a folding chair. They don’t look at the dogs, but they read to them and they throw treats to them.”

The program, Smith said, is working. Since it was implemented over the summer with 16 dogs, two have already been adopted.

Margie Harris is one of the volunteers. She sits outside of a fenced-in kennel and reads to the dogs in a beach chair over barking.

“I come every day,” Harris said. “I read for about a half hour.”

“It’s working,” Smith said. “But it’s very slow.”

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