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Saving lives in Douglas County for 70 years

Let’s transport back into time to 1881. The United States encounters three different presidents in one calendar year, the American Red Cross is established, Kansas becomes the first state to prohibit all alcoholic beverages, and stray animals are a nuisance to Marshal Pretince here in Lawrence, Kansas. Under an advertisement for fruit cake, macaroons, and a few cookies being sold on Mass street is a blurb that gives us insight into the state of animal welfare 140 years ago.

For several decades, the issue of homeless animals prevailed in Douglas County with no great solution. This “Letter to the Editor” written in 1933 shows us one concerned citizen who asks the question, “Can’t we be just a little more thoughtful and generous and give aid to our unfortunate four footed friends who wander into our backyards in search of food and shelter?”

In the 1950s, we find the beginning of what is now the Lawrence Humane Society start to form when a group of animal lovers banded together and began meeting regularly. An east Lawrence couple, Raymond and Irene Armstrong, were key players in the organizing and forming of this group. Irene became very interested in dogs after a co-worker of Irene’s passed away and their pet dog needed a new family. Irene brought home the springer spaniel named Toby Lou. He was the first in a long line of dogs who were cared for in the Armstrong’s home on 424 Indiana Street. 

In February 1951, Mrs. Armstrong began making acquaintances with several other animal lovers in the community. She contacted the National Humane Society and obtained information on how to organize a local chapter. With the city’s help, the group was finally able to complete the incorporation procedure and thus began the “Douglas County Humane Society” on April 3, 1951. Officers were elected and plans were made to campaign for funds. The officers of the organization were H.C. Downs, John Ise, Irene Armstrong, George Dunkley, and Mrs. Harold Meyer. Several of these members took lost and stray animals into their home and cared for them while they secured enough money to build a facility to house them.

 “We will be unable to begin our work unless we have sufficient funds to build a shelter for the animals,” said Irene Armstrong.

The organization’s original purpose (or mission statement) was to alleviate suffering and eliminate cruelty to animals in addition to finding homes for stray and lost animals. “We will put animals out for adoption by contract,” Irene stated. “We will see that the animals are in good health and require that the new owners sign a contract guaranteeing their care including spaying of female dogs.” 

The next few months were busy for the Douglas County Humane Society. They launched a campaign in May of 1951 called “Be Kind to Animals Week” where they hosted contests in the Lawrence Journal-World, asked for donations, and educated the public on how to be a responsible pet owner. They utilized the city dog pound on 8th street to care for stray dogs but the group felt strongly that this option was inadequate. It was clear from the messaging in the papers that obtaining enough funds for a building to call their own was priority number one. 

Here’s what Mrs. Irene Armstrong had to say about the situation – “what we need is a retired couple with some income who lives on the edge of town. We could build a temporary animal shelter for summer and pay the couple for caring for the animals. Our problem is to find someone who has the time and a little extra income to supplement the society’s fund. We would have to make sure that they truly like animals.” 

The Douglas County Humane Society continued to see a ton of growth and momentum in the following years. From its inception in 1951 to the summer of 1952, the newly formed group was able to take care of 334 stray dogs in Lawrence. They also managed to secure about 300 memberships and performed a myriad of services to animals in the county. The group was diligent in searching for a dog’s owners and returning them back to their homes. In the article below (Lawrence Daily-Journal World, May 8, 1952) written by Rich Clarkson, he explains their process of taking in animals and hopefully adopting them out. If the city dog catcher found a lost dog, it was held at the municipal pound for three days. When the stray hold was up, the society then took over. They would house and care for the animals at one of the local veterinarian clinics while they placed classified advertisements in the paper and attempt to find the owner. Once the owner was located, the animal’s owners would need to pay the city a fee and ensure the dog received a rabies vaccination. The concept of adoption and rehoming animals continued to evolve over the next few years. 

In 1958, a very involved Dr. and Mrs. John Ise bestowed a $35,000 grant to the humane society in memory of their son, Charles, who had been killed in a plane crash. With this extremely generous donation and the other money they had been raising, construction of their very first building would begin. The Douglas County Humane Society purchased four acres on E. 19th Street, where we are still located today. On June 16, 1958, the first shelter doors officially opened. The shelter included 12 inside pens and 12 outside runs for dogs, and three pens for cats. Richard and Irene McCassland, members of the society, resided in a wing of the building to provide around-the-clock care for the animals. The Humane Society boasted about how they upgraded from their old Jeep to a new converted panel truck outfitted with separate cages. It was all really coming together for this passionate group of animal lovers! 

In 1963, the nonprofit changed their name to the Lawrence Humane Society. A 1966 article noted that at that time, the shelter was “rated the best in the nation as a small shelter by both the American Humane Association and the Humane Society of the United States.” It ranked with both organizations as the best in Kansas and ranked among the top 16 shelters in the nation. 

Fast forward a few decades to the late 70s when the once sparkling new shelter began to feel cramped, crowded, and run down. Again, with the city’s help, the Humane Society raised funds to expand the building with several new runs and kennels. This original building provided shelter and services for animals in our community for 20 years. As the organization continued to grow and flourish, so did the need for adequate space and resources. In 1995, the Lawrence Humane Society once again began raising money for new shelter space. The old building was simply no longer meeting their needs. This mid-1990’s shelter construction is what many of you reading might picture when you think of the Lawrence Humane Society. A building covered in paw prints, it held an average of 125 dogs and 125 cats. The new air conditioning systems could exchange the air inside of the building 16 times an hour, which helped reduce odors and the spread of airborne germs. Below is an article from the Journal-World describing the shelter’s grand opening.

This article written in 1995 informs the public of the brand new shelter

Another 20 years pass – animals are cared for until they find new homes and shelter programs expand in response to advancements in animal welfare. We learned how to better provide for the physical and emotional health of animals. People in the community praised and supported the shelter’s efforts. Others denounced and criticized. Staff and volunteers showed up 365 days a year to care for the animals, no matter what. They diligently cleaned cages and provided the animals with enrichment. Tails wagged, cats meowed, roosters crowed. Folks came to the shelter and found their best friends. The daily grind of animal welfare is uplifting, relentless, and sometimes exhausting. It can wear on the employees and it can wear on a building that houses thousands of animals a year. So once again in the 2000s, we find ourselves in need of a bigger space and better infrastructure.

Our most recent building construction took several years of planning and fundraising. We moved into the newest facility in the summer of 2019 and were only open to the public for a few months before the COVID pandemic hit. We made the decision in March 2020 to restrict public access to the new building in an effort to protect our employees and the public. While we do miss folks coming in to wander around and see the animals, we have also seen a huge benefit to the well-being of those animals. Less stimuli has definitely made for a calmer environment and the animals seem far less stressed than when we invited the public into rooms where animals are housed. Despite the closure to the public, we have only seen growth in terms of lives saved and animals adopted, helping more animals than before the pandemic. We launched our Crisis Pet Retention Program in October 2020 to provide resources to pet owners experiencing hardship. Our new adoption process in which we sit down with the potential adopters and talk about what they want in an animal has proven to create some really amazing matches. Our foster program exponentially grew over the last year and we are able to expand beyond our shelter doors to care for more animals and gather the best information on an animal’s behavior in the home. The latest chapter in the Lawrence Humane Society’s history has certainly been different with COVID but lifesaving, nonetheless. 

Lawrence Humane staff members after Clear the Shelter in 2020

Thousands and thousands of animals have been rescued and cared for by this organization over the past 70 years. We salute our founders and all those who followed, making the Lawrence Humane Society what it is today. A special thank you to Sue Novak, former Vice President of the Board of Directors, for her 2010 article in the Lawrence Journal-World, which provided a fantastic place to start researching. And to the Lawrence Public Library for its many free resources, including access to the Newspaper Archives, where all these Lawrence Journal-World articles were found. To Irene Armstrong and friends, your tireless efforts over the many decades made our community a better place for animals. We remain steadfast in our commitment to advocate and care for animals who come through our doors and beyond. Thank you to all our supporters, donors, volunteers, employees, foster families, and cheerleaders. It takes a village to do this work! 

If you liked this story about Lawrence Humane history, would you consider making a gift to our shelter? Our animals (and humans) would appreciate it!

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