Q&A: New Shelter Director’s Focus Is Always On The Animals

Joe Sprague with one of his charges at the Southampton Animal Shelter. DANA SHAW

Joe Sprague is currently living out of suitcases in a hotel, landing on the South Fork at an inopportune time to be looking for housing.

But Mr. Sprague, 59, became the new executive director of the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation on October 26. He has more than three decades of experience with temporary housing — for companion animals — and a lot of stories with happy endings.

Prior to joining SASF Mr. Sprague was the executive director at Sumter County Humane Society & SPCA in Lake Panasuffkee, Florida. His work has also taken him to Arkansas and Illinois, as well as his home area of upstate New York. He has a history of rescuing animals from abusive and dangerous conditions.

Mr. Sprague spoke recently via Zoom from his new office about his career, and his vision for the local shelter.

Q: You’ve been in the job for a couple of weeks now?
Yeah, two weeks now.

Q: Tell me a little bit about what you’ve discovered upon arriving. You’ve been in this business for 30 years. What are you finding at the Southampton Animal Shelter upon your arrival?
Well, I’m really enjoying what I’m finding out. We have an incredible training program here that a lot of shelters don’t have.
In the past, when I have needed trainers or I’ve had a training program, I’ve always used outside trainers as independent contractors and brought them in for two weeks or three weeks, or a couple of months, or whatever. Here, I have four trainers on staff. That’s incredible. That’s very unusual. … I’ve got two full-time and two part-time. That really helps me so that we have three trainers on pretty much every day of the week.

Q: Why is that important?
It’s extremely important with shelter dogs, because when they come in, you never know what their temperaments are and what type of training they’ve had, or if they had anything at all. It allows you to be able to train the dogs, house-break them and do kinds of training, like leash train them and things like that, so they become more adoptable. People are more apt to adopt a dog that, when they meet them, they’re not bouncing all over the place and going crazy. Really training a shelter dog, is a real asset for the agency, because a lot of dogs, that’s why they keep coming back to the shelter is because the people can’t handle the training aspect of it.
… Here, because the trainer spent so much time with the dogs, they can tell the people a lot about the animal. They can tell them any issues the dog has, or any ups and downs that you might be headed for with this dog, and things like that. So it really smooths out the transition.

Q: At one of your previous shelters, you moved it from a high-kill shelter to a no-kill shelter, and Southampton’s obviously a no-kill shelter.
Yeah. Exactly.

Q: It sounds like it’s important to you as a director who’s been at various shelters — that’s been something you’ve had a big hand in making happen in other places.
Right. I’ve been working in the no-kill movement since the beginning. I was heavily involved with a lot of the no-kill alliances and national programs that were created over the years.
When I first started, there were very few, if any, no-kill shelters, because back then most all shelters were run by the towns and villages. And they were bringing them in. And if we can’t find their owners, we don’t even really care if they get adopted — we’re just going to kill them.
When I first started, it was considered the dark years of the movement, because it really was not a pretty picture. I was lucky that I started in a small town, and we were very on top of things, and we were really good with their animals, and we didn’t euthanize, and we didn’t think that was unusual.
But as I moved from that small town into Albany, New York, I realized there were kill shelters. And how could they be doing this?
And that really concerned me. When I started volunteering in college, and one day I would see this great dog, and, five days later, it wasn’t there anymore. And I was, like, “Oh, what home did it go into?” And they said, “Oh, no, that dog’s time was up, so he got euthanized.”
And I just couldn’t imagine how that could be happening. That’s why I have such a strong desire to make sure that we do everything we can to make sure as many animals are saved as possible.

Q: The principle is so important, and it’s a little gross to even bring it up, but at a no-kill shelter, the bottom line, it’s a lot more challenging, correct?
Yes, it is. And it’s a lot more costly, because you’re housing animals until they find a home or until you can find a place that you can take them so they can get a home.
And you have to be marketing all of your animals all the time. You have to be coming up with new ways to market the animals, to get the animals seen and get them out there. And you have to have the staff that can help take care of the animals. You have the medical bills, you have all of these expenses, because you’re feeding and taking care of these animals until they get adopted. And in some situations, they can be with you for quite a while.

Q: This shelter has not had a lot of consistency in leadership in the last couple of years. As you arrived, what are your challenges as the new director? Where do you see areas that need to be improved?
Well, I think the big thing here is the staff is really looking for leadership. They’re looking for someone who is going to say, “Okay, these are our policies. These are our procedures. These are the rules. This is how the game is played. This is what’s done.”
The other thing I see from the staff is that they’re looking for someone who has been there, done this, done that, and can understand what they go through every day. For me, that’s the norm, because when I was growing up, I was a young kid who went into the shelter and I helped clean cages, I helped give dogs baths, I walked dogs, I groomed cats, I did everything. I’ve held animals while they’re getting vaccinated and things like that. Pretty much every job that there is in a shelter, I’ve held it at one point in time in my career.
When they’re talking to me about that, I understand where they’re coming from. I understand what they do on a day-to-day basis. … When I’m talking to my shelter manager or I’m talking to the adoption manager, or the kennel techs, or anything like that, I understand what they’re talking about when they say, we have this problem or we have that problem, because I’ve been there, done that. And I think that is helping the employees feel, “Well, he knows what he’s doing. He understands what we’re going through. He is going to be not only looking out for the animals, he’s going to be looking out for us, too, knowing that we have to go through all these things.”

Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in upstate New York — Eagle Bridge, that’s in Rensselaer County, 45 minutes from Albany. … I’m from real heavy duty farm country.

Q: Do you have any other connection to this area to bring you here, or was it just …
No, I was just, my career has kept me away from my hometown, my home area. And I’m the youngest of seven kids. And pretty much all my family is in either New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine. And so I missed a lot of the family gatherings and everything. I figured it was time for me to start heading closer to home.

Q: Starting a new job like this in the time of COVID-19 has to bring all kinds of new challenges. And I’m curious about two things. Number one, how much more difficult it makes it for you to get new systems in place, because obviously everything is sort of temporary during a pandemic. But I’m also wondering, I’ve read some articles that say that the outbreak has led to more adoptions nationally, and more interest in adoptions. How does the epidemic play into all of this?
Well, the epidemic overall nationwide has increased the number of adoptions, because people have been home so much, they needed some kind of outlet. They’ve been adopting cats and dogs and hamsters, rabbits, and everything, so that they have something at home, especially for their kids and things like that. But it’s also brought a lot of people out just because they don’t want to be in an apartment by themselves, or they don’t want to be in a house by themselves, so they’ve gotten a dog or they’ve got one or two cats. It’s really helped the adoption and the evolution of the animals moving into households.
The overall concern of mine, as well as other colleagues, is: What’s going to happen when everybody goes back to work? Are we going to see a huge influx of animals coming back to the shelter? Because, the people aren’t home to spend all the time with these animals?
… When it comes to everything happening here at the shelter, we’re still doing everything by appointment only. People have to contact us, arrange a time to come see us — we’re not open to the general public, so they can’t just stop in and come in and see the animals. We’ve just started letting the volunteers start coming back. And we have opened up some of our classes again, but we’ve cut down the sizes of our classes so that we can social distance and everything.
That’s a little bit of a change, but the big thing is budgeting where our money’s going to come from in fundraising aspects, because for us, it’s our big gala, it’s our big dog walk, it’s things like that, that we have to look at for next year and say, this year we had to cancel all that. Are we going to have to cancel it again next year? Or are we going to have to do it, but do it on a much smaller basis? And if we do, does that mean we’re going to have to try to come up with other avenues of fundraising to fill in for the additional money that we’re going to need to be able to keep running the operation?
That makes it a new ball game for all of us.

Q: How are your numbers as far as activities and adoptions right now?
Our adoptions and everything are right on course. We’re a little bit above where they figured they would be down, because when COVID hit they cut a lot of their numbers and did a lot of changing. But our adoptions are staying pretty much right on target of what they originally had budgeted for. Our adoptions are doing fine. It’s just other income levels that are off for us because we had to postpone two of our biggest events.

Q: When you’re in a business for 30 years and you’re in fairly high-profile positions, we live in the world of the internet now, and so things follow you around. When I went and looked you up, I found a couple of articles, and one talked about your position in Arizona, in White Mountains. Back in 2010, people at your shelter said good things about you, but they said they had mixed feelings after you left. They said that you had “alienated many people who were longtime friends of the shelter.” And then there was an article from 2018 that said your “personality and mismanagement,” according to unnamed sources, were reasons that you were no longer in that post.
What’s your management style, and can you give us some context for those situations?
The White Mountain one was, I was hired for a one-year deal to go into that shelter because it was a high-kill shelter, but it was in really bad shape. And so it was my job to go in and clean the place up. And I went in and let a number of individuals go. … They brought me in from Chicago, so I was not known, and I did exactly what the board hired me to do — I cleaned things up.
And then right afterward … the locals just went nuts. And everything was put on that: “Oh, he was the horrible outsider who came into our small town and did all these horrible things.” And the people that they’re talking about were all the people who were screwing over the shelter that I got rid of, but because they were locals, they didn’t want to hear that.

Q: And what about the position in Arizona? I’m sorry, Arkansas, more recently at Fort Smith.
The Arkansas one … a board member was brought on who was well established within the community. And he did not like me from day one. And I really didn’t agree with his politics. And the board had approved an assistant for me. I hired within the agency. He wanted me to hire his girlfriend, which I said, “Absolutely not. She has no education for the position. She has no background for the position. The person that I want has the background. He been here in the shelter for 15 years. He knows the shelter inside and out. He’s the perfect one for this position.”
The day that I did that, I pretty much signed my deal with this guy. And in Arkansas, you can buy and sell the media, and the newspaper people and all that stuff. And this guy knew how to play that game. And when they started going bad with the board, and especially everything was pointing to him, he wanted everything to be put back and pointed toward me.

Q: If anybody reads those articles, should they take anything away from them about your management style? What would you describe your management style to be?
Well, my management style is I work as a team. I assign people what their jobs are, what they’re responsible for, and what they report to me with and what they’re responsible for doing. If they don’t do their job, I’m not going to say, “Oh, that’s fine,” I’m going to call them and expect them to do what it is that we’re hiring and paying them to do.
For me, I’m here for the animals. I’m not here to be everyone’s best friend. If I have to make hard decisions that are going to help the animals, I’m going to make those calls and make those decisions.
And that doesn’t always make a lot of people happy. But, unfortunately, if I’m not making you happy, but I’m making the animals happy and I’m getting the animals adapted — I’m getting the animals into good homes.
… When you do that over the years, you don’t always make a lot of friends. You make a lot of friends, but then you also make some enemies, but that happens across the board, no matter what industry you’re in.

Q: You’re a pet owner as well, correct?
Yes, I am.

Q: Tell me about that.
We have six cats and two dogs. They’re all rescue. All my cats are special needs. … I have a blind cat. I have a cat that has cerebellar [hypoplasia], and he’s missing a back leg. He’s also blind in one eye, and he’s deaf. I also have another cat that only has three legs.
I have another cat that has eye problems, nasal issues, and has a bad back leg because, as a kitten, he was thrown from a car and then hit by the following car behind him and had his leg halfway ripped off. And then I have another cat that was injured by a car, and both his back legs are all pinned together.
And then my one dog who’s here at the office with me every day, he was a starvation cruelty case. When I got him three and a half years ago, he only weighed 20 pounds.
And then I have another dog, Abby, who’s turning 15, the beginning of next year. And she was a puppy that was thrown on the highway in Arizona when people, that’s at probably around 10 or 12 weeks, they didn’t want her anymore, and they just throw her out on the highway, when she was picked up by animal control and brought in.
I do what I tell everybody else: “Don’t go to a breeder, go to your animal shelter, take an animal from there.” I go one step further by taking the animals that have issues and problems, because they may have a harder time getting adopted.