It’s difficult to imagine our city and county once having been more like the Wild West than the cosmopolitan community as we like to think of it today. But a century ago, the town had literally gone to the dogs (and cats, along with other free-roaming critters), at least according to a 1997 book, Crusader for the Least of These, subtitled “The Story of the SPCA of Anne Arundel County, Maryland.” (AACSPCA) In it, we learn how the region embraced the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which had been founded in 1866 with an emphasis on eradicating cruel practices in dealing with animals that were running wild across the country.
AACSPCA, early history
The slim paperback, ornately written by Florence Mulhern, a former county SPCA Board of Directors member, historian, and newsletter editor, is a product of the author’s curiosity and research into the organization’s early history. Until Ms. Mulhern unearthed “the albums,” a series of collected and page-mounted newspaper clippings in embossed binders, the story of the county SPCA and its founding a century ago would have been incomplete at best, if not lost entirely.
What Ms. Mulhern did find was startling. The “worst of the wretchedness,” she wrote, were homeless dogs and cats that had been wreaking havoc on the streets and roads of the region, running free and feeding on poultry and livestock and destroying property across the countryside. In 1920, the state of Maryland, which had been trying to enforce a law requiring all dogs to be licensed, called on the newly formed county SPCA to enforce its licensing mandate. But the “wretchedness,” didn’t end there. The SPCA was never meant to be exclusively a law-enforcement agency, at least in the eyes of two men who led the organization in its formative years.
AACSPCA, early leadership
The first president, Samuel Garner, is also credited with being the local SPCA’s founder, having created an endowment fund with a personal donation of $8,000. While this was a substantial sum a century ago, it did little to compensate for the mandate imposed on the organization, which included not only licensing enforcement and fee collection, but also to “dispose of homeless dogs in return for which they were paid a small fee.” It proved to be a burden that Garner could not bear.
The real hero to emerge from the county SPCA’s infancy was community activist, prominent businessman, and WNAV radio station President Albert H. MacCarthy, who took the reins as president in 1934. Among the several contributions he and his wife Elizabeth made over just a few years, was the establishment of a shelter for strays, at approximately the same location where today’s SPCA shelter operates off Bay Ridge Road.
The original eight-acre tract, which today includes the little-known Back Preserve and Nature Trail, where staff and volunteers regularly walk the facility’s dog population, replaced a “pound” in Eastport that had become notorious as a “deplorable place.” It was the scene of mass killings of strays by gunshot and worse, often involving a process that involved corralling the animals into weighted nets that were dropped into the river, with “the drowned bodies hauled out and taken to an incinerator in Baltimore.” According to the Mulhern account, “This, MacCarthy was determined to bring to an end.” And so he did.
AACSPCA, Fast-Forward 100 Years
As with nearly all anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and other social events throughout the 2020 pandemic year, the Anne Arundel County SPCA has had to improvise its schedule throughout its centennial commemoration. One constant, however, has been the backbone of the organization since its inception—its 400 committed, trustworthy, tireless volunteers.
Setting out to operate as normally as possible, the totally self-supporting SPCA, funded solely by donations and bequests, commemorated 100 consecutive days during its anniversary year to showcase new initiatives and to bring the organization to the community’s attention in novel ways. During such a trying year, it never really skipped a beat, with perhaps its most ambitious project having been to open a “Paws on the Mall” adoption center in the Westfield Annapolis Mall complex between Bestgate and Jennifer roads. On Day 99 (the second of the 100-day countdown), staff and volunteers were even promoting adoption of guinea pigs as pets.
For families finding it financially difficult to take care of pets in their home, especially during the unprecedented Covid-19 shut-downs and protocols, the SPCA sponsors a Pet Food Bank. The food bank provides dog and cat food as well as provisions “for domestic birds, bunnies, and small animals.” According to SPCA staff, some customers come “from as far away as northern Virginia.” Staff and volunteers have been collecting food donations and are especially in need of wet dog food (as opposed to dry), hay for rabbits and guinea pigs, and parakeet food. They hope to start a delivery service, too. To apply, SPCA staff members recommend visiting the website.
Among other initiatives and services offered by the county SPCA are vaccine clinics held the first and third Saturdays of each month; the bi-weekly “Bedtime Book Buddies” begun in 2017, allowing children ages 8 and older to read stories to shelter animals; “Kittens in Cups,” an initiative celebrated on Day 80 of the centennial countdown that promotes adoption of kittens, which to date have numbered 250; the Runner Assisted Canine Exercise (RACE) team, which in 2013 began teaming community members with “high-energy” shelter dogs on runs through Quiet Waters Park; the Working Cat Program, promoting adoption of independent and not-necessarily-social cats for “outside areas that need pest control”; and “Petiquette” classes begun in 2018 to teach proper pet etiquette to children, ages 5 to 8.
Fundraising for the AACSPCA
The AACSPCA is known across the region for its principal fundraisers, including the wildly popular “Walk for the Animals” a pledge-per-mile event in which walkers take their pet animals around Quiet Waters Park and stop at various checkpoints along the way to compile their mileage. It’s always a sight to behold, but most memorable to many walkers over the years was watching a cow being walked across the route, with a shovel- and bucket-equipped assistant bringing up the rear.
For years, the Anne Arundel Medical Center sponsored the “Lights of the Bay” drive-through at Sandy Point State Park near the western terminus of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge every winter, including “Lights & Leashes,” a dog-walk-through held prior to opening the route to motor vehicles. Now, since 2017, the animals are the principal beneficiaries of the fundraiser. The medical center has handed over the entire event exclusively to the SPCA.
These are just a few of the initiatives being addressed by the county SPCA staff and volunteers. In addition, the organization continues to operate a low-cost spay and neuter clinic, strives for “no-kill” status, maintains an SPCA mobile unit, and conducts other community-outreach initiatives.
All these programs and services provided by the AACSPCA make pet ownership a bit more accessible and financially tolerable, but the responsibility for successful pet stewardship falls mainly on the adopters. While nothing is wrong with pure-bred pets, one bumper-sticker says it all when it comes to temporary residents of the SPCA: “Rescued Is My Favorite Breed.” And there’s no such thing as a bad dog, just ill-suited owners.
Kelly Brown, President of the AACSPCA Board of Directors
What made you want to be president of the Board of Directors?
Animals have provided such joy and comfort in my life, so I saw serving on the Board of Directors as a chance to give back. Becoming president was an unexpected honor, and I have found it to be one the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am proud to have played a role in adding to the legacy of an organization with a 100-year history.
What’s the biggest challenge you face today?
There are two big ones that will never go away. The first is the constant challenge to raise funds for a nonprofit. There are so many worthy causes and when times are tough there just is not enough to go around. Coming up with creative ways to raise money is one of my most difficult tasks. Second, we are a no-kill shelter and a place of last resort for so many animals. Finding homes and caring for those that need medical attention can be difficult and an emotional drain for all. We have our amazing saves but there is always another one coming through the door. Keeping the emotional tank full is a challenge for all of us.
What impact has the pandemic had on the organization, particularly on adoptions?
The pandemic has led to the cancellation of two of our most important fund-raising events, Walk for the Animals and Puppy Plunge, and this has increased the pressure on finding other sources of funds. The interest in adoptions has remained steady, but the process is more challenging. It’s more difficult to show off the animals we have to prospective adopters and make sure we find a workable match. But we have found ways to keep everyone safe and find great homes. Animals have played a critical role in supporting the mental health of so many struggling through this pandemic, and we have been unwavering in helping create those bonds.
What’s the outlook and goals for the future?
Setting the stage for the next 100 years is the primary goal for the shelter. Securing funding, replacing an aging infrastructure, encouraging the professional development of our staff, and building on the success of our best events are tops on our list to ensure long-term success. We also look to develop the next generation of board members who will bring the new ideas that keep our organization evolving. Nearly 70% of American families have pets, and this number is on the increase. The importance of our organization to this community cannot be overstated, and we accept the responsibility of ensuring the future of the AACSPCA with relentless dedication and passion.