Humane history |

Humane history

Connie Steiert

It was compassion that moved the hearts of Inga Prime and Joanne Swift 30 years ago. After meeting one day in a Safeway parking lot in 1974, while Swift was walking her German shepherd, the two discovered that they not only lived three doors down from each other, but that they shared a propensity to rescue animals. Their friendship quickly grew and they pooled their efforts, filling their homes in West Vail’s Ptarmigan townhouses with stray animals. Prime says opening a shelter for stray animals became a necessity as the valley began to grow. “You know how people are with animals; when they get them they are cute and cuddly and they adopt them and then, when they get bigger, they discard them like trash,” she says. They opened a tiny, informal animal shelter in Eagle-Vail, near where the Paint Bucket used to be and rescued “all kinds of things,” including a wingless hawk and “anything that was hurt or that needed a home,” says Swift. They enlisted the valley’s first veterinarian Dr. John Park, to give medical treatment for rescued animals and raised money to fund the neutering of shelter animals. “I can’t tell you the cruelty cases we saw,” Swift says, “and the successful adoptions.” One such case that is burned in her mind was the five little puppies found literally frozen to the ground. All but two died, and Swift bottle-fed the survivors for days, naming them “Nip” and “Tuck.” Nine years later, the Kansas couple who adopted them came back to tell Swift Nip and Tuck were doing just fine.The pair of women became well respected as advocates for animal rights. A perhaps little known fact is that this duo won the first horse cruelty case in a Colorado court. When several horses, owned by a former Lake Creek rancher were found stranded in belly-deep snow, without food or water, the enraged friends took him to court and won. Eager eyesThe pair worked tirelessly for years, but left the valley in the early 80s. When they did, they handed the reins to Phyllis Baldwin and Blondie Vucich. Baldwin soon moved to Denver, so Vucich, who had not been allowed to own a pet as a child in Vermont in deference to her asthmatic brother, went it alone. Vucich became involved with the Society when she adopted a little terrier mix from the shelter named Paloma. The dog had been abused, his ribs broken, his fur a tangle of mats and burs, and his ears deeply stuffed with chewing gum. Paloma took a while to learn to trust again, but became a “wonderful, loving” family pet. Vucich served as director of the Society from roughly 1982 to 1996, an entirely volunteer position, as were all the positions at the Eagle Valley Humane Society at the time. It was not an easy time to take the position over. The state had just given Eagle County an ultimatum to either improve the now derelict animal shelter, or close it. Vucich worked with the Eagle County commissioners to open a new, much improved shelter in Minturn. Eagle County contracted veterinarian Dr. Steven Warren to house the stray or surrendered animals at his clinic, while the Eagle Valley Humane Society, as it became known, worked on a volunteer basis to promote the adoption of the animals.Vucich developed a board for the nonprofit Humane Society, as well as a mission statement, budget and long range plan. The Society’s fund-raisers – the Hound Dog Hoedown, the Celebrity Pet Review and Pet Photos With Santa – went to support programs such as the Family Pet Assistance Program, which provided free spay and neuter services to low-income residents and the community education program. Board member Dr. Suzanne Morris spearheaded the effort to start a volunteer program and the extremely successful, seven-day-a-week dog-walking program was begun. Vucich and her board also went after what they believed were inhumane practices with wildlife and became instrumental in sponsoring legislation that led the town of Vail to ban the use of leghold traps. Several years ago, Colorado voters approved a similar statewide law. Vucich’s work was tireless, but her rewards many – seen in the eyes of now content, former pound dogs and the happy faces of the people who adopted them. “The most rewarding experience was participating in something that truly made a difference in the lives of animals, whether it be wildlife or domesticated pets,” says Vucich.Pen palsOne of the rewards, too, was seeing other caring individuals, such as board member Susan Markowitz, who, after Vucich’s departure, carried on where she left off. Markowitz and Bill Loper, along with Michelle and Greg Hall, were all serving on the board when negotiations began with Eagle County to build a new animal shelter in Eagle. Loper says he is delighted with the state-of-the-art Eagle Valley Animal Shelter facility in Eagle, and appreciative of the county’s offer to house the Humane Society in an office at the shelter. That office enabled the Society to hire Char Quinn, its first, full-time, paid employee. The two entities work in partnership: While Eagle County actually runs the Eagle Valley Animal Shelter, under director Deb Brown, the Eagle County Humane Society gets the word out that the animals are there for adoptions.”I think the county should really pat itself on the back for a wonderful track record,” Markowitz says. Today, Quinn, president Bill Loper and the nonprofit Society’s board continue to expand its most successful programs, such as its Foster Care Program, and introduce new ones. Just this past year it started the innovative Inmate Program, fondly called “Pen Pals,” where local prison inmates are given a work release to be trained to handle and walk dogs and catsThe inmates are trained by Wags and Whiskers owner Mark Ruark, who also holds the Society’s training classes for people adopting pets. “The end result is we don’t get the dogs back,” Quinn says. The Society’s new Barn Adoptions program, placing abandoned and wild cats in ranchers’ and farmers’ barns, with an assurance of food and shelter, has already placed 50 cats. And, its Family Pet Assistance program spays and neuters roughly 300 animals a year, now. “The importance of this is that fewer animals come into the shelter,” Quinn says. Because of all its humane efforts and outreach programs, Eagle County nominated the Eagle Valley Humane Society for the Colorado Association of Animal Control Officers’ “Friends of the Animals Award,” which it won on April 11, 2002.Of course, the Humane Society is the result of the work of countless volunteers and donations. Sometimes people say to volunteer Humane Society J.P. Kacy, “I don’t know how you can volunteer. It would break my heart.” But, she quickly responds, “then you are going to be the best person to work with them.”Adopt-a-thonThe Eagle Valley Humane Society will celebrate its 30th anniversary with an Open House Adopt-a-thon:When: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., SaturdayWhere: Eagle Valley Animal Shelter, adjacent to the Eagle County Fairgrounds, EagleWhere are they now? Former director Blondie Vucich still keeps in touch with the Eagle Valley Humane Society, and occasionally lends her expertise if a duck needs rescuing or there is an abuse case. But today she is more involved with Pet Assisted Therapy, and she and her “teammate,” Murph, a border collie and animal shelter adoptee owned by Norma Broten, just became certified by the Delta Society Pet Partners training program. “It is my hope to introduce animal assisted therapy to our local hospital and other care facilities in the area,” Vucich says. She is also busy with her “two-legged and four-legged family” and the “great” community around her. “I love Vail,” she says.Today, Susan Markowitz, another horse lover, stays busy with her two horses, and will soon be hitting the road with her husband, who is retiring this year. – Connie Steiert

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