Animal welfare group gets fur-real with social enterprise idea

A local animal group hopes to turn a Queen Charlotte bed and breakfast into a social enterprise that supports animal welfare islands-wide.

Rachel Hageman speaks to a crowd of cat lovers at the Just for Cats video festival in the Kay Centre on June 2. A volunteer with the local SPCA Kids Club

Watching him enjoy a back rub and a scritch behind the ears, it’s hard to picture Fawn the Feral.

But in May, that’s what Fawn was—a kitten too wild to pick up with bare hands.

“He came in spitting and scared,” says Dorothy Garrett, a long-time BC SPCA volunteer and co-owner of Dorothy & Mike’s Guest House in Queen Charlotte.

After a check-up from the islands’ vet and a month of socializing with Dorothy and others at the guest house, Fawn is ready for a permanent home.

Even his mother—a full-grown feral cat that just might be the last breeding female from a nearby colony—is now greeting visitors with the slow blink cats use to say, “I’m not a threat.”

For over 30 years, Dorothy & Mike’s has been a welcome home for stray animals as well as wandering people.

Now, as they prepare to retire, a new non-profit society hopes to buy the guest house and run it as a social enterprise that supports animal welfare projects on Haida Gwaii.

Anna Maria Husband is a founding member of the group—the Haida Gwaii Pro-Animal Welfare Society, or HG PAWS—which started in December.

“We’re pretty spanking new,” she said.

Husband said the idea to take on Dorothy & Mike’s was partly inspired by Best Friends, a large Utah sanctuary that since 1984 has provided a place for homeless pets that would otherwise be killed.

“At the time in shelters, that was standard—an animal was only there for so many weeks, and if it wasn’t adopted, it was killed,” she explained.

Today, Best Friends has grown, and added cabins for tourists who come to care for the animals. Its example helped persuade many shelters to adopt a “no-kill” policy.

“It’s a huge success story,” said Husband.

On a much smaller scale, Husband said HG PAWS hopes to remodel part of Dorothy & Mike’s into a dedicated pet adoption and animal education centre.

While its mandate fits nicely with the islands’ existing chapter of the BC SPCA, a new group was needed because the BC SPCA is a charity and can only raise money from things directly related to animal welfare, such as microchipping.

HG PAWS has until next February to raise the $100,000 it needs to buy the guest house.

Already the group is applying for a national social-enterprise competition run by Telus and the Globe and Mail, and there may be grants available.

“We’re trying to focus on off-island funding first, because we don’t want to compete with the BC SPCA on-island or any of the other animal welfare groups,” said Husband.

Generally speaking, Husband said the challenge is that grants may be available for start-ups, but few sustain day-to-day operations. That’s where the business side of the guest house comes in.

Dorothy Garrett agrees.

“It’s always been a struggle to fundraise, for any group here,” she said.

“So the hope is that some of the energy that’s spent on fundraising can go into creating other programs—more proactive programs that give to the community.”

Garrett, Husband and other volunteers already run one such program—the SPCA Kids Club.

It gives islands kids a chance to help the cats and occasional dog staying at Dorothy & Mike’s, a job that includes litter-scooping and cage-sweeping as well as play time.

Garrett said it’s rewarding to see the kids’ enthusiasm—most are eight to 12, but there are a few older youth, such as Rachel Hageman, who now plans to study veterinary medicine.

Children learn many lessons caring for animals, said Garrett, especially from the ones that come in timid, shy, or sad.

“Then it’s not all about you and what you want,” she said. “It’s about what they need.”

Dorothy said much has changed since she and Mike adopted their first dozen stray cats at the guest house—the islands have a veterinarian;  trap, neuter, and release programs are reducing the feral-cat colonies; abandoned animals tend to get re-homed more quickly, here and in the Lower Mainland; and there are several on-island animal welfare groups that together make a big difference.

“Things have changed for the better,” she said.