When it comes to adopting a pet, you never know where your heart will land. While my husband, Frank, and I were searching for a dog, the last thing I wanted was a black lab. Missoula is full of black labs and I wanted a pet I could at least find in a whirl of fur during doggy social hour on the trail. Then, we met Huxley. He was sleek, shiny, and completely neurotic. I had my doubts. That first evening we sat on the couch with our new buddy in the middle. Huxley wouldn’t stop licking my pants or nipping at the buttons on Frank’s shirt. After some frustration and a few reprimands, Frank decided to take a different approach. He held Huxley’s head close to his chest and he fell right to sleep in Frank’s lap. That deep connection began six years ago and it’s only gotten richer.
For Marta Pierpoint, Executive Director of the Humane Society of Western Montana, nurturing those meaningful, long-lasting bonds is at the heart of sheltering.
“The thing that’s really shifting nationally—and we’ve been in this place for a long time—is the recognition that providing the tools and support owners need to have a really positive relationship with their pet is essential. Our work reaches beyond giving animals a place to live. Our objective is to keep animals in peoples’ homes,” said Marta.
With a 99% adoption rate, Missoula’s shelter has a solid lead in that direction. The variety of services they provide contributes to that high rate. From lost and found to microchipping to re-homing a pet to low-cost veterinary services to a free behavioral hotline and more, the shelter has evolved into a full-fledged service organization.
With a strong foster program, animals get a head start by skipping the shelter altogether and living in a home up to the day of adoption.
“Our foster volunteers provide helpful information that we can then share with a potential adopter,” Marta said. “We find out things, like: how the car ride went, how they are in a new home, if they bark or chew, or if they’re happy to sit on the couch with you.”
These days, you don’t have to be a volunteer to get your puppy fix. One foster mom, Emily Moorhead, hosts a Facebook page and streams a webcam from her home.
“She and her husband, Dudley, have built this incredibly special puppy area and, at any given time, their friends can see what the puppies are up to,” Marta chuckled.
Beyond rescue, rehab, or even redemption, the Missoula shelter aims to strengthen human and animal connections in our community. Those bonds can be just as strong and just as vulnerable as any relationship. To that end, the shelter has expanded their mission to include those with even greater need.
“People don’t think of us as a social justice organization. I really hope to shift that thinking,” said Marta. “We’re concerned for the people at the other end of the leash or the person who cleans that cat box. Taking care of their pets means supporting those owners. For example, Missoula has a large homeless population, and pets are often a barrier for owners seeking shelter. We are happy to help with vaccines and supplies and all those things but the people need a place where they can live. So, we joined Missoula’s At-Risk Housing Coalition. We have a welcome seat at the table.”
In the last year, Marta has watched homeowners struggle, too. Many faced hard choices between taking care of their pets and sustaining their households.
“We had an affordability gap already,” said Marta. “That has become an affordability crater during the pandemic. Access to low-cost veterinary care is critical across our country. In Montana, we networked with food banks to deliver 50,000 pounds of pet food. Two weeks later, we were getting phone calls that they needed more.”
Ironically, animal shelters have benefited from the pandemic.
“There’s some definite silver linings for pets,” said Marta. “We’re seeing record numbers of adoptions.” Now, instead of walking through the shelter to visit with animals, people can peruse bios on a website, submit an interest form, then meet at the shelter in person. “Having fewer people in the building at one time lowers stress levels of pets and makes adoptions so much easier,” she added.
This strategy was on the Missoula shelter’s radar but the pandemic bumped up their timeline.
“We’re doing a lot online right now. We’ve developed virtual dog training. We have other programs in the works, too. Right now, we’re in the process of developing methods to help pet owners return to work. What we need to remember about that is that pets were at home before, and they’ll be okay. There’s not going to be a massive number of pets coming back to the shelter, and we are here to help,” said Marta.
Expanded services, virtual programming, and social justice efforts are the kind of 360 degree connections that are transforming Missoula’s Humane Society.
“I’m so proud of this organization and grateful for the people who came before me,” said Marta. “We’ve always believed that the best place for a pet is in a loving home. It’ll be a happy day in our world when there are no pets in our building and all we are doing is supporting owners.”