Animal Shelter of the Week: Episode 51 – Upper Valley Humane Society

The Upper Valley Humane Society (UVHS) is the primary animal shelter for the Upper Valley, an area deemed the largest micro-region in the U.S. with a population of more than 200,000. They have municipal contracts with 20 plus towns in New Hampshire and Vermont. The first meeting to organize the humane society was held in 1959 and the temporary shelter was at the home of the President. For quite a number of years, animals were sheltered at the homes of various people. They are now located right off the highway in Enfield, New Hampshire. In 2019, they found homes for almost 500 pets.

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The Upper Valley Humane Society (UVHS) is the primary animal shelter for the Upper Valley, an area deemed the largest micro region in the U.S. With a population of more than 200,000. They have municipal contracts with 20 plus towns in New Hampshire and Vermont. The first meeting to organize the Humane Society was held in 1959, and temporary shelter was at the home of their president. For quite a number of years, animals were sheltered at the homes of various people. They’re now located right off the highway in Enfield, New Hampshire. And in 2019 they found homes for almost 500 pets.

Hi, Nikki. How are you today? I’m doing great. How are you doing? I’m doing very well, thank you. And thank you for joining me today. I’m excited to talk to you and learn more about your organization. Oh, thank you for having me. I love to talk about UVHS. You are the Executive Director at the Upper Valley Humane Society in New Hampshire, right? Yeah, that’s right. Perfect. So can you kind of to share with me a little bit about your role there and, you know, just overall a little bit about your organization, as a whole? Sure, I’ve been here is the Executive Director for about three years, and prior to that, I was the Development Manager, and I just love this organization. I’ve lived in the Upper Valley a long time, and I’ve just always wanted to be here and see the organization super successful. So we just celebrated our 60th anniversary. It’s really interesting doing some research for our 60th anniversary party. I found that the first meeting, was held in 1959 and the first shelter was actually at the home of the President–. Oh, wow. –Of board. Yeah, Yeah, and then, for quite a number of years after that, animals were sheltered at the homes of various people, so we didn’t actually have a brick and mortar shelter until the 1970s. But now we’re located right off the highway at Enfield, New Hampshire, and we are, kind of, we’re probably 5 to 10 minutes from the center of the Upper Valley.

Nikki, what is a day like in your shoes over there? No two days is alike. Every day brings us something different, something unexpected. I think the only thing that’s really consistent is that we have to be available to move on our feet quickly and think on our feet. ‘Cause we’re dealing with living beings, so nothing is ever the same. I think a lot of people in this industry can, kind of, relate to that a little bit. It’s always different. You never know what you’re going to get, you know? Because I often come in thinking I’m going to answer my email and I’d  get to that about eight hours later. Yes. Isn’t that how it always works? I’m gonna get my email done, and it just never happens. Yes, exactly.

What are, kind of, your guys is mission and your goals over there? I mean, we kind of discussed, I mean you guys have been around for quite a while, but what is your overall goal at the Upper Valley Humane Society? From our earliest days, our work is always about the animals. It’s all about the animals. Even today, we’re working more closely with owners to help them keep pets in their in their homes during their, you know, difficult times in their lives. But even that work is all about helping the animals to stay with the people they love. So we like to say at UVHS, it’s all about the animals. We also include the well-being and the development of our employees as part of our mission. Our employees that are absolutely the heart of the organization and their happiness and well-being are key to the happiness and well-being of the animals. I think that’s great that you guys target that as a focus.

So what is your community like surrounding your organization? The Upper Valley is a really fascinating area. It’s centered around Hartford, Vermont and Lebanon, New Hampshire, and it’s at the intersection of two major highways, and a railroad junction. And so here you at the valley we have great wealth existing right alongside deep poverty. The Upper Valley is comprised of small cities, close knit villages and extremely rural areas. We have an Ivy League College, several small community colleges and an amazing trade school, and so much else, given the landscape here, lots of mountains and lots and lots of dirt roads. One of the biggest challenges for the animals is access to our services. There are parts of the Upper Valley that are a full 45 minutes away or more, from these core towns. So to address that issue of access that’s been one of our focus is in the last few years.

One of our innovations is our free mobile pet food pantry. We set up our minivan right alongside the human food pantries, and we provide pet food, free pet food to families accessing the food shelves. One of my favorite sites for this program is actually the local veteran’s hospital, where once a month we’re able to deliver pet food to veterans who are receiving medical care. It’s just, it’s so nice to be able to offer a service and give back to veterans and to the rest are community. I think that’s kind of awesome, because usually when you hear about organizations putting on a pet pantry, they usually kind of, you know, do it on their own terms, and it’s usually just them offering food. So I love that you guys actually go out there to the local food pantry area and offer your services as well. That’s really unique. I kinda like that.

One of our goals is to establish relationships with people and, you know, for so long people thought of shelters as the last resort. And we don’t want to be the last resort. We want to be the first resource. You know, if there’s something going on with an animal or a family struggling to care for that animal, we want them to know that we’re a safe and loving place. And the best way to do that is to reach out and build those relationships long before somebody is in crisis. Absolutely. I mean, we want to, you know, avoid the problem before the problem actually takes hold, right? Yes, exactly. Honestly, Nikki, it kind of sounds like that’s a, you know, because you kind of brought that one up first. That one kind of sounds like you’re your favorite program that you guys have there. Is that right? Oh my gosh we have so many programs and I love all of them.

One is, of course, the one that everybody thinks of first, which is the adoption program. And through our adoption program, we help about approximately 500 to 600 animals a year find new homes. And then we have an animal health focus and our–oh my gosh–our animal health team is amazing. They’re responsible for the medical needs off all of our shelter animals, including examinations, medication, and surgery. We have a part time vet, and typically we have one surgery day per week, and this team is amazing. They’ve done as many as 21 surgeries, in a single day. Oh, my goodness, that’s with one vet and two incredibly devoted vet x. That is awesome. Is that something that you guys do there in your physical location? Or is that something that’s done at a local vet? So these are services for our shelter pets. And so we have a surgery suite here. Okay. And it’s evolved over the years to make it more efficient so that we have, for example, two surgery tables at a time which allows a little bit quicker flow. But just a number of things we’ve done to make it uneven, stronger program.

So those are two, adoption, and animal health and then we have two other program areas. One is animals in the Upper Valley, and that includes the pet food pantries. It also includes you know, you’re two traditional animal welfare programs like community spay and neuter, or stray animal holding for more than, in this case, two dozen municipalities. Let’s see, what else do we do? Oh, we have an amazing emergency boarding program that’s already helped hundreds of families who are facing homelessness or domestic violence, often hospitalization. Somebody will go in the hospital and find that what they thought was two or three day stay turns into two or three weeks and their house sitter or dog sitter, or cat sitter can’t stay any longer. So those animals are able to come here and be cared for, for a period of time. We’ve just expanded that to a 28-day stay for people who are going into a drug or alcohol treatment program which is typically an initial 28-day stay.

The fourth area of program is what we call animal suffering, and what we’re really doing here is trying to shine a light on the fact that cruelty exists. Everything here is beautiful, and we have mountains and snow, and gorgeous green in the summer, and incredible architecture. Because it’s so beautiful, people often think that cruelty doesn’t happen here. You know it happens someplace else, but it actually does. It happens every day. So one of the things we’re doing is working to build awareness that it does happen and then work proactively with pet owners to address that suffering long before the play, where the police have to become involved. I think it’s awesome that you guys actually offer a program that’s kind of dedicated around, you know, the suffering of animals from cruelty.

Can you kind of elaborate on that? How do you guys go about making the community aware of the animal cruelty? This is a new program for us. We actually, just at our 60th anniversary, raised funds to do this. Okay. So a bunch of laws in New Hampshire have changed, so one of the other things that’s unique about us is that we serve communities in two different states. And some of the laws in Vermont, New Hampshire, are very different. New Hampshire law has just changed in a number of ways. Part of a response to some fairly large cases of, you know, 56 German shepherds, there was a large case with Labradors. There was just a big case with a golden retrievers and in part and responses of the expenses around those cases that the shelters bore the burden of, some laws have changed. Part of what we want to be doing is to work with the police before they go into some of these situations, because if we can help address the situation, it’s gonna save everybody a lot of money and a lot of hassle. That’s really our goal is to is to make as much difference for those animals as quickly as possible and not have them languish in a shelter. I like that program. You know I do, too. I love all of our programs. This was really important to me because I think so often. By the time that police become involved, the animals have suffered so much. And if we can reach, if we can extend a hand of kindness to the people before it gets to that point, we can slow or stop that suffering much, much earlier. Absolutely. I agree with you there.

So I definitely agree with you also that you guys have a lot of great programs. I mean, the emergency boarding, I actually also saw on there that you guys offer the Barn Cat Programs as well. Can you share that with me a little bit? We have fantastic crew. I can’t say that enough. It’s our people who run these programs. And right now, we have a TNR programs that we’re trapped, neuter, and return and we have been working with probably for most of the world their–most the country– their small colonies. But for us, we’re dealing with some colonies of 50 to 100 cats at a time. Some of those cats, these are community cats, some of them can be adopted. Some of them are friendly. Often we find that they’re not cats that are great candidates for a home. So we have a Barn Cat Program? Note: one time shelters likely would have euthanized a cat that was feral. Well, what we’ve found is that we have a great space here. We have an outdoor porch where the cats can be away from humans, which reduces their stress. And because we have that space, we’ve been able to, find barn homes for them. So we put them, they’re able to go in that space, reduced their stress and await the perfect barn home. It’s been just an incredible program. The whole aspect is a lot of people don’t realize you know what all goes into TNR. Yes, absolutely. I think people also don’t realize how quickly those cats will multiply. And somebody who has the best of intentions, you know, “I’m gonna feed that–these few here,” you know, just a few at a time. They have the best of intentions, but don’t realize how quickly that can become out of hand. And so we want to be able to help those folks.

We had a case this summer where a home was actually condemned, and the cats that had been being fed at that property migrated to the farm next door. And I don’t know how much you all know about farming in Vermont, but it is not for the faint of heart. Our farms are struggling all the time, and these cats were getting into their grain, had damaged the ceiling, and this is just a few weeks. Had damaged the ceilings in the barn. It was just, it was kind of a disaster for them. So it was great for us to be able to go in and help and trap some of those cats, bring them into our program. And some of them actually went back to the farm a few at a time for their barn cats, too, for rodents or whatever. It was just a great partnership.

So, Nikki, you kind of covered quite a bit of programs, and you’ve shared with us a little bit about your community. What are some of the particular challenges that animal’s face in your community like, Is there a lot of dumping? You had mentioned that there’s quite a few cruelty cases. I’m just kind of getting a picture, for what you know, some of the challenges are for the animals. I think the biggest challenge that we’re seeing is that housing here is extremely expensive. And so we’re finding more and more that people just simply can’t keep their homes. Or they can’t find a home that will accept an animal. And that is really one of the biggest challenges facing the animals in the Upper Valley. Of course, we have strays and we do, every once in a while, see an animal whose who appears to have been dumped. We see all of that. But the biggest thing really is the housing issue, housing and security and, of course, food insecurity. What we found with our pet food pantry was that people were coming in to think. I used to go to the, you know, such and such a food pantry for humans, and I would get the beef, and I would take it home and cook it for my dog. Because the other thing that we’re finding is that people will take better care of their animals than themselves. They will. They will give that beef. They will give that that food source to their pet rather than eating it for themselves. So when you say expensive housing, is that something to where, are you talking like, are security deposits for animals really high? Or is it more just because housing overall is expensive, that people have a hard time affording everyday essentials and pets? Is that kind of so I’m kind of understanding that correctly. So I would say what we have is a real lack of affordable housing for an average middle class family. It’s just very difficult to afford a home here to afford an apartment here. We just see an awful lot of people losing their housing because they can’t afford to keep it. I mean, that’s a tough one. And you know the other way that the housing and the housing issues and the challenges of the animals align, is that somebody loses their housing, that the local shelter of the local homeless shelter is not gonna take their dog. So what did they do with that animal? And what if they’re only going to be without a home for a couple of weeks? What can they do? And so we really want to be a resource for those people so that they can call us and their animal can come here for a couple of weeks. Or we’ve had, you know, some families where there’s more than one animal, of course, and those animals can come here while they’re waiting their new home. Okay. And that’s where you guys provide your emergency boarding programs. Okay. So that’s one of the biggest challenges is really, what do they do when they’ve lost housing? or they’re struggling in some other way? And, you know, we’re not providing security deposits, but we can certainly help in the short term. Help these animals stay with that family. Yeah, that’s really in the best interest of the of the animal. The thing that intrigues me the most about it is that kind of shows how in tune you are with the people of your community and being, you know, just aware.

Our greatest opportunity to impact the most animals here in the Upper Valley is to really use some of the data we’ve collected to inform our future programs. For example, we just–we had a pet food pantry that we had a–we open a temporary pop up pantry at one of our bigger towns. And as those clients came in, we knew that this was going–we expected this to be temporary, while they were coming in. We conducted a survey of those clients. So during the seven months that we were open, we asked clients to complete that survey and this just give us an amazingly to start to understand the needs of the people and pets here. What we learned was really so much of it was even astonishing to those of us working in this, in this world every day. We learned that 90% of the clients of our pet food pantries, of 90% have combined household income below $30,000 a year. And if that wasn’t enough, the figure for families with income under $10,000 of a year is even more astonishing, it’s 41%. So it’s 41% of our pet food pantry Clients have combined household income under $10,000 a year. And yet across the board, they love those pets so much, they will feed the animals before they feed themselves. So we’re really learning about our community in the hopes of delivering programs that meet their needs.

Some of the other things that they identified that we’re hoping to do, it’s education on preventative care, and that will help to reduce veterinary costs. ‘Cause veterinary costs, that is a really big issue. Now, they want training on things such as, “How do I groom my dog at home?” You know, if you don’t have much money, grooming your your pet at home is a wonderful way to save money. They want to know  like, simpler things, like “How do I cut my dog’s toenails? It costs $20 if I go to the vet, but if I could do it at home, it’ll save some money.” It really seems like people are really big on being animal advocates and wanting to keep their pet and wanting to learn more about what they can do and the fact that you guys are doing everything you can to provide that. I mean, that’s truly amazing.

Can you share with me anything that you guys have in the works for this year? So we did close that pop up pantry. Our attention was to be open for three months, and it ended up being open for seven. Oh wow. The physical space actually changed quite a bit, so it didn’t work for us anymore. But what we’ve done is to partner with a local library, in that same town and we’re able to use their community room at no cost. So we’re not paying rent and we can go in that space once a month and hand out food from that location. And what we’re doing is really concentrating on that, that aspect of this, it’s about access. So this library happens to be where most of the public transit. We don’t have a lot of public transit, but what we do have almost all transfers at that library. If that makes any sense, the bus it’s like, literally transfer riders from the–right of the front, the library. So now all of those people will be able to use the bus route and the central location to come and take advantage of the pet food pantry. We’re also doing some really interesting things with partnerships with some of the businesses. Locally, we have a wonderful, wonderful feed store. And we’ve partnered with them to be able to purchase food from a local Vermont factory. From this–from the feed store, it’s a little small local business and we’ve been able to do it for less than we were paying our food from a large food chain.

So that’s the other thing, is again really connected back into our community. And we see ourselves so much more than just an adoption center or a stray holding facility. There’s so much more that we can do, and we just want to keep pushing in that direction. Our goal is just to focus on continuous improvement. I mean, and it seems like you guys improve, you know, exponentially just in a short period of time. And I love that. I love to hear, you know, of organizations, you know, going over and beyond for the animals and for the people of the community. And just especially recognizing the people of the community, you know, as in important, because they’re the ones caring for the pets especially, you know, if they’re going to be a potential adopter. Absolutely.

Nikki, you said that you’ve been a part of this organization for three years. What I’m curious about you is because I love asking. You know, if you have any memorable stories to share with us because it kind of helps us get a feel for who you are and how you ended up in the role that you are in. Like, did you always know that you wanted to be in the animal welfare industry? Oh, so that’s interesting. No, I always loved animals. And when I was a kid, we had a group in Vermont and we have–we did not have a farm, but we had an old farmhouse and we had about down into two acres of land and a budding our property all the way around, on three sides were other homes. That was a back in the seventies. So if there was, if there were a leash laws, nobody was paying attention. So the dogs would come and hang out in our field. And I would spend most of my days during the summer watching out the windows to see when the dogs would come. We didn’t have a dog. So I would go hang out in the field with all of my neighbors’ dogs. Oh my goodness. So and I did. I had a wonderful cat, but, you know, the dogs were, that’s where my heart was, and we didn’t have one, so it was a great way for me to get a little bit of that, I don’t know, that that dog time? Yeah.

So and then I actually went to school. I went a little college in Maine and the focus–the program was in human ecology. And for me, that was a lot of that was really looking at the relationships between humans and animals because that was where my passion always was–was with animals. And even if I was looking at on environmental issues, one of my passions back then was looking at some of the hydro dams and the impact on indigenous communities and the fish. That was something that was a passion of mine. I’ve always just always been a tangential relationship. Um, I ended up in animal welfare just because I kept following–following my heart and loving, loving animals led me here.

I have another story. If you have time, I have another story I’d love to share. Yeah. So last summer somebody that I know from our community had to surrender their dog to us. And this is just great dog, beautiful eyes, great color, and she’s young. But the family circumstances had changed really dramatically in a very short period of time, and this dog just wasn’t the right match for them after those changes were made in the family. So these are people who you have to understand. These people love their pets. So it was truly heart wrenching to arrive at the decision that they needed to let her go on to another home. But in the end, you know, they knew that surrendering her was in her best interest. I talked to them a little bit before they came in, and they were, and they knew, they were gonna be emotional. Yeah. And I think that they, you know, they would reach out to me when they were done. So after they had the conversation, after they surrendered the dog, and she came into our care, I got an email that just–it just touched me so much. And it said, I get it now. UVHS is all about non judgment. Your team was amazing, and treated us with so much kindness, compassion and absolutely no judgment. And I’ll tell you, getting that email meant so much to me because that’s who we want to be as an organization. Yeah, we want to be professional. We want to be polished, but we really want people to know that they’re not gonna be judged here. They’re gonna be met with love and kindness, and for themselves as well as their animal.

So I just took that as the greatest compliment in the world. And it speaks volumes about our team here. I also believe that really letting my team to do their jobs without my interference. But I recently sat in on a meeting of our coordinators. And so we had somebody a Volunteer Coordinator, Animal Care Coordinator, Medical Coordinator, all together in a room. And they were talking about the animals who had come into the shelter the prior week. And I was so moved almost to tears, not quite almost because of the maybe five animals who come in, three had come in because their owner was fighting cancer. So we want those people to understand that those animals are gonna come here and be loved. They are in the, you know, a horrible fight for their life and or have lost their life. And we want them to know that those animals could come here and they’re going to be loved. And that surrendering an animal for those reasons is, there’s nothing shameful about that. It is the loving, a passionate kind choice.

There are so many shelters doing this kind of work, were just–and we’re all really trying to find our way in this new era where our culture has changed and we value animals in a way that we never have. That also puts a lot of pressure on people to “How do I keep this animal during this really difficult time?” Right? So there’s a lot of organizations out there, a number in this area, even–not the Upper Valley, but you know, other parts of New Hampshire in Vermont, who are really asking these same questions, which is “how do we how do we operate when people are keeping their animals for 20 years?”, and “how do we help them do that?” So I love to take credit for it, but there’s so many other shelters who are doing the same kinds of work, and we’re all pushing those boundaries and trying to figure out how to do it well. The best part of the shelters in the Upper Valley in the New Hampshire Vermont region is that we’re all talking to each other. And we’re all trying to figure out the best way to do these things so that we can impact our communities as much as possible.

Nicky, I know we’re kind of getting ready to wrap up here, but–. Sure. How can people go about getting involved with your organization? So one of the very best ways to connect with us, is on our Facebook page. We’re posting, you know, two or three times a day we post our available animals there. We post great stories. It’s just a way to get a real feeling for who we are as an organization. And to do that, you just go to Facebook and search for Upper Valley Humane Society. People can also go to our website. It’s a great place to learn more about available animals, upcoming mobile pantries, vaccination clinics, spay and neuter clinics, or other events. Of course, there’s lots of information about our programs there, and that’s And then our–if people want to email us, it’s And we have this great phone number, whoever came up with this, was brilliant. It’s 603-448-MUTT. M-U-T-T. Oh, awesome! Yeah, isn’t it great? That’s perfect! I love that. There was a period of time that people didn’t realize that that’s what it was. Yeah, I love it. So they’ve done back to just the numbers and MUTT is great. So the number is 603-448-6888. Well, perfect. I like the MUTT better. But it’s so easy to remember. Yes!

Well, Nikki, I want to kind of give you, you know, the last kind of opportunity to share with us anything else that’s on your mind or, you know, what is something that you ultimately wish people knew about your organization? The Upper Valley Humane Society, we’re funded almost entirely by donations from individuals. Only 20% of our income is from things like adoption fees, and spay and neuter clinic fees. And just like most other shelters out there, we’re a small independent organization, we’re not affiliated with national organizations and we don’t receive government funding. So donations keep our doors open. And if I could, if I could say anything to people out there, I would ask them to contribute to UVHS or their own local animal shelter because we all need you. We’re all grateful, and your support is what makes it possible to do all this work for the animals and the people that they love.

So, Nikki, thank you so much for joining me today. Oh, thank you, Kimberly. It was such, a such a pleasure to talk with you and to talk about what we’re doing. I hope that it helps other organization, or other people think about how to be more compassionate, and do even more for the animals.

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