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  • Tara Crutchfield

Who’s a Good Boy?

In 1972, two women interested in helping stray animals were introduced to each other by a veterinarian. This kismet meeting would mean better lives for thousands of animals in Polk County for decades to come. Francis Gerrard and Peggy Harwick joined forces to establish what is now the Humane Society of Polk County. 

The nonprofit is dedicated to the prevention of cruelty to animals, the relief of suffering among animals, and the extension of humane education. Typically, with 30 dogs and 75 cats in residence at any given time, the Humane Society of Polk County took in more than 1700 animals in their last fiscal year. According to the shelter, “All accepted animals are spayed or neutered, provided with shots, tested for heartworms or feline leukemia/aids, de-wormed, micro-chipped, provided a physical exam by a local veterinarian and given comfortable shelter, food, and water.”

In 1980, they built the original shelter on Sage Road. “It was just a little concrete building with cats in the front and kennels in the back,” said Humane Society Executive Director Lisa Baker. Originally from Cincinnati, Baker moved to Florida in 1987 to be closer to family. Her mother was a former water skier for Cypress Gardens. It wasn’t just family that beckoned Baker to the Sunshine State. “It’s a lot better weather,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade one foot of Florida for the whole state of Ohio.” 

She started bookkeeping for the Humane Society and eventually came on part-time – though there was nothing ‘part-time’ about it. She often pulled 40-hour weeks. “You just get so involved. It’s a passion,” she said. Many tail wags and puppy kisses later, in 1991, Lisa Baker became the executive director. 

“In 2004, Hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne all swept through and plowed right over that shelter. We had to evacuate, and we worked out of a little 8x10 room out of a vet’s office on Avenue F,” she said. They worked there for six months while renovating the storm-battered shelter.  

In the same year, the Humane Society of Polk County decided to become the county’s first no-kill shelter, meaning they do not euthanize animals to make space. “If a veterinarian determines it is in the best interest of the animal, we do follow their advice to euthanize,” according to their website. “The other circumstance when we would euthanize an animal is if it is deemed by our veterinarian and our animal behavioral specialist that the animal would be a danger to the public to adopt.”  

In June 2015, their staff of thirteen employees moved to the current shelter on Dundee Road, the former Winter Haven Furniture Warehouse. The building is 12,000 square feet on five acres of land. 

“The board was very forward-thinking at that time, and they allowed me to go and look at other shelters,” said the executive director. Baker visited 40 kennels in locations as far away as Georgia to investigate what equipment and methods others were using. She brought back a trove of good information that they incorporated into the design of their new space. 

(During our interview, two senior cats got into a small tiff. She stopped and smiled. “We’re having a bit of cattitude today.” We laughed, and the interview resumed.)

When entering the shelter, one will notice separate cat rooms – one for seniors, adults, adolescents, and kittens. They have a plethora of playthings and plenty of pals to pad around with. The senior and adult rooms have cat doors accessing an outdoor screened-in room called the “catio.”  

“That’s why we designed these like this,” Baker said. “It’s a home environment, so you can see how they might react in your home. You can sit and spend some time with them.” On the other side of the lobby are individual cat rooms for felines who think they single-handedly rule the world. 

“We try to do as much green technology as we can,” Baker said, pointing out their LED lighting throughout the building and solar panels on the parking lot side of the roof. Water for cleaning the kennels and floors comes from a well, while their kitchen is on City water. 

The well-thought-out shelter features sound absorption and a high-tech wet/dry vacuum cleaning system in place of trenches. Everything is cleaned using accelerated hydrogen peroxide for sterilization. Each area has its own air system to avoid cross-contamination. The Humane Society didn’t sound or smell like a typical space housing that many animals. 

Along with adoption services, the Humane Society of Polk County provides low-cost spaying and neutering in their on-site surgery suite through SNIP, their Spay Neuter Inoculation Program. The program started for cats only, as they are the most euthanized animals in the county. Slowly, they incorporated smaller dogs and will now take dogs up to 100 pounds. “We weren’t designed to be a big spay/neuter clinic.[...] We decided we would try to build our system up to give people on the east side of Polk County a way to get their animals spayed and neutered at an affordable price without having to go all the way over to Lakeland,” said Baker. 

Through their adoption services, spay/neuter program, and by providing 35,000 pounds of pet food to low-income pet owners annually, the Humane Society of Polk County prevents more than 4,000 animals from being surrendered to Polk County Animal Control each year. This saves taxpayers an estimated $650,000 yearly through their public and private partnership with the Polk County Government. 

Another initiative of the Humane Society is their WAG University, led by Animal Behaviorist Diann Andress CPDT-KA, DN-DTC, CTDI, DN-WTWI. The pup school has classes ranging from basic manners and tricks to a Canine Good Citizen certification. 

The shelter also works with the dogs currently in their care. The first thing they learn is a game called Ready, Ready. Staff use 100% chicken hotdog pieces to train the dogs. “That gets them conditioned to people coming into the kennel because then they’re not as afraid of new people,” Baker said. They also work with them on staying at doors. Any dog owner knows the struggle of an escape artist every time the door opens. They teach them to wait at the door before exiting to mitigate that. “All this is instrumental to helping you when you get your pet adopted so that it’s going to be a better pet for you. That is our goal.”  

If you’d like to help out the four-legged friends at the Humane Society, consider a cash donation. This helps keep the shelter running and affords them resources, including new equipment like anesthesia machines and renovations. Animal food, kitty litter, old towels or bedclothes, paper towels, and cleaning supplies are also a big help. “We can always use volunteers,” Baker said. “That’s another way to give, is to give of yourself.” 

Show your support on December 5 at Jensen’s Corner Bar for the Humane Society of Polk County’s 9th annual Santa Paws event. The event runs from 6-9:30 pm and will feature live music by KeySoundSoul, appetizers by Arabellas, a hot chocolate station, and a specialty holiday cocktail featuring Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Each guest also receives one entry to their premium prize package raffles as a thank you. Enjoy a silent auction, and a cash bar while supporting a wag-worthy cause. 

Photographs by Amy Sexson

The Humane Society of Polk County

3195 Dundee Rd, Winter Haven
(863) 324-5227
FB: The Humane Society of Polk County, Inc.


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