Published Sept. 11, 2014
Hinsdale Humane Society builds
Now into its seventh decade, the organization touches the community in
By Ken Knutson
Until 1953, unclaimed and unwanted dogs in town were kept in a ramshackle, unheated pound with a single light bulb and a cold water spigot.
Horrified at the conditions, a group of Hinsdale women set to work establishing a safe facility to house and care for animals. They footed the costs for needed supplies and acted as pound receptionists from their homes. One even rounded up strays in her Cadillac Deville.
That dedicated grassroots effort would lay the foundation for the Hinsdale Humane Society, the first such agency in DuPage County.
“We call them our founding mothers,” said Lori Halligan, the humane society’s executive director. “At that time, pets didn’t have the stature that they have within families now. Pets in general ran at large in the village.”
The shelter building at 22 N. Elm St. was dedicated on Sept.17, 1959, at a cost of $25,000. The building had 11 kennels, a small room for dogs and cats and a reception area.
That has expanded to 22 kennels and room for 75 cats today. Multi-level “cat condos” provide vertical space for feline climbers, and a memorial garden outside offers a comfortable area for dogs to get a bath or enjoy play time.
While the amenities improve, Halligan, now in her seventh year at the helm of the humane society, said the agency’s mission remains the same.
“The mission is always to help pets who cannot help themselves and helping people learn to be compassionate to all living creatures,” she said.
The shelter typically hosts between 40 and 50 animals at any given time and adopts out about 900 pets a year. This past August, the shelter processed 119 adoptions, a record in Halligan’s tenure.
“We always say every adoption is special,” Halligan said.
She said the adoption rate is roughly even between cats and dogs and noted that many families have both, debunking the perception that they can’t coexist.
The Hinsdale Humane Society was one of the forerunners in the area of pet therapy, launching it Pet-a-Pet program in 1982 to send trained owners and their pets to nursing homes to provide emotional and mental soothing as well as physical stimulation.
According to Halligan’s estimates, the program has grown to serve at least 20 different nursing homes and, through the more recent Reading Education Assistance Dogs initiative, reach into numerous schools and libraries to help children develop their reading skills as non-threatening listeners.
Halligan related the case of an autistic boy who, when first introduced to a dog, registered no reaction and had to be physically guided in petting it. A week later, the scene was totally different.
“The child is leaning forward, holding eye contact with the dog and touching the dog,” she said. “It’s transformational.”
Halligan said the agency relies heavily on some 300 volunteers who perform a wide spectrum of services, from running errands to being foster care parents.
“We have volunteers that do administrative work and volunteer groomers and volunteer veterinarians,” she said.
The 12-member volunteer board of directors helps steward the humane society, and a team of HHS Ambassadors spread awareness through outreach and events. Last May, the Junior Board was formed to give high schoolers a way to support the organization.
Volunteer Cami Booth said she has always been an animal lover and delights in seeing others make a heartfelt connection at the shelter.
“It warms my heart to hear how a cat or a dog can make the difference in their lives,” Booth said, adding that her family has adopted three cats from the shelter.
Halligan said about 70 percent of the humane society’s budget comes from donations, while the rest is from adoption fees. The agency also regularly donates pet food to the HCS Family Services food pantry.
Space in the shelter is tight, Halligan said, but the relocation of administrative offices to Katherine Legge Memorial Park last summer allowed the shelter to have double the number of counseling rooms for visiting families to meet prospective adoptees.
Halligan said the greatest sense of gratification comes from seeing pets begin new lives with families and then hearing back from those enriched families.
“There are some that send us a letter every year on the anniversary of when they adopted their pets,” she said. “It’s nice to look back on the 61 years of the organization and my six years here and just see how many animals have been helped.”
A star is discovered
In 1968, an orange tabby at the Hinsdale Humane Society shelter named Lucky came to attention of local resident Bob Martwick, an animal trainer with the Leo Burnett advertising agency. The charismatic feline went to a casting call for a 9Lives cat food commercial, and Morris the Cat was born.
Lori Halligan, executive director of the humane society, said the legacy continues to be a source of pride for the agency, and a plaque outside the building informs visitors of the origin of “the world’s most famous cat.”
“Even the younger generation still kind of knows who Morris is,” Halligan said. “Morris still says that the Hinsdale Humane Society is his favorite charity.”
For more information on the history behind Morris the Cat, visit hinsdalehumanesociety.org.