Eagle County Humane Society marks 40th year of helping local animals

Melanie Wong
Mocha, a Humane Society rescue, takes a break from playing with local children in Nottingham Park in Avon on Dec. 12.
Townsend Bessent | |

EAGLE COUNTY — It wasn’t long after Vail became a town that Joanne Swift and Inga Prime started noticing that there was already a problem with stray dogs and cats.

In the late ’60s, the two unofficially began the town’s animal shelter, picking up stray, sick and hurt animals. Usually, they were housed at the local vet clinic until they could be adopted. In 1974, the Eagle Vail Humane Society officially became a nonprofit. In 1994, the organization adopted its current name to the Eagle Valley Humane Society, and it wasn’t until the following year that the county began to build its own animal shelter.

Previously, homeless animals had been housed at Steve’s Cat and Dog Repair in Minturn, where staff and volunteers worked to rehabilitate and train the animals for adoption.

Today, in its 40th anniversary year, the Eagle Valley Humane Society has three staff, almost 100 volunteers and its reach has extended considerably — while most of the work the organization does is still within the county, its services are often called upon in neighboring counties, and in event of disasters, around the state.

“There are still overpopulation issues. We’re still taking in many animals each year that need new homes,” said Executive Director Char Gonsenica. “Through all our services, we help around 1,000 animals a year within the county.”

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While the name and organization of the Humane Society has changed over the years, some of its services have not. One of its biggest goals is still to re-home homeless dogs and cats, something it does with the help of a dedicated network of volunteers who foster and train dogs for their new homes, and who care for homeless or once-feral cats at the cat adoption center in Eagle. In fact, during the past six years, the organization has taken in and helped find permanent homes for approximately 780 cats and 420 dogs.

Avon resident Amy Hunter is a new foster volunteer who is currently working with Mocha, a mixed-breed, 9-month-old puppy. Hunter said dogsitting is a big part of her personal concierge business, so she figured she would be a good candidate for fostering.

What she didn’t expect is how much she would enjoy it.

“Mocha came from a reservation where she lived with a family of five, and they couldn’t take care of her,” Hunter said. “I’ve only had her for a couple weeks, but it’s been very rewarding. It might be hard to let her go when she gets adopted. I love helping and paying it forward to good animals and good people.”

Gonsenica said that the Humane Society is always looking for new foster parents.

“The animals get adopted so much quicker in a foster home than in the shelter because you’re able to see their true colors,” Gonsenica said.

On the feline side, a number of cats are usually available for adoption at the Cat Adoption Center. Donnie Hoffmann has been helping out at the adoption center once a week, as well as pitching in at fundraising events. He said the volunteering has been a great way for him to give back while getting to be around his favorite animals.

He said he remembers that he started before flooding in the Front Range created a slew of homeless animals.

“The Longmont animal shelter sent up a lot of their cats to us. All of a sudden I was taking care of 30 cats for about a month until they started to get adopted up,” he said.

More than adoption

While animal adoptions may be what the Humane Society is best known for, the organization also provides a number of other services.

The nonprofit responds to a number of animal cruelty investigations in partnership with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. In a recent case, two horses were confiscated on grounds of neglect and abuse. Gonsenica said the animals were relinquished by their owner, taken in by the Mountain Valley Horse Rescue and rehabilitated.

“So far every case we’ve been involved with that has resulted in a criminal charge has resulted in a conviction,” she said. “And the animals are placed in new homes.”

Besides sending disaster response teams and medical teams around the state, the Humane Society also helps pet owners locally, helping provide discounted spay and neutering, and helping the new owners of shelter animals train their dogs through free dog obedience classes.

Gonsenica said she doesn’t know what the future may bring for the Eagle Valley Humane Society, but she says they are ready to respond to the needs of the community.

“One question is: As we grow, are we going to see a growth in unwanted animals?” she said. “We’re not sure, but we’re always wanting to pay attention and serve the needs of our community.”

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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