Sunday October 14, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- It's been 20 years since the Berkshire Humane Society was born in a flood-prone basement of a barn.

In that time this small but feisty animal shelter community has saved the lives of thousands of animals and improved the lives of thousands more. Along the way, they built a new shelter and organized a support system of volunteers, veterinarians, local businesses and donors that share a fierce commitment to the local canine and feline populations.

Next Sunday, the shelter is celebrating their 20-year milestone at Cranwell Resort with a fundraising anniversary party.

In celebrating that longevity, the man many see as the father of the shelter, Robert M. Fuster Sr., will be honored.

According to John Perrault, executive director of the Berkshire Humane Society, there are a number of achievements they can point out, including having taken in more than 42,500 animals.

It has adopted out 10,246 cats, 6,083 dogs, 523 rabbits, 75 guinea pigs and 37 hamsters. Others have been placed with rescue groups or in other accommodations. It has spayed or neutered more than 1,500 cats and 3,000 dogs. More than 700 families every year receive help from the Pet Food Bank. More than 18,000 children have attended the local society's summer camp, and 23,000 school kids have received animal education from its staff and volunteers.

Perrault was there 21 years ago, in 1992, when the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said they would be closing their little Pittsfield shelter in a year, but wanted the community to step in and take over the operation.

Several community meetings were held to gauge interest, seek volunteers and gain community support. And they were looking for one other important element -- someone to organize the effort.

At one of those meetings, a local woman, Irene Fuster, volunteered her husband to take the reigns.

Robert Fuster, a Pittsfield attorney, wasn't there. He didn't know that his wife had volunteered him. He had never een been to an animal shelter.

But the Fusters are animal lovers. And Robert Fuster was certain of one thing.

"It was something that had to happen," he said. "Berk shire County had to have a shelter."

So, after a few meetings with the MSPCA people, he agreed to lead the charge. He even had a name in mind. He insisted that the MSPCA shelter's three staff members stay on after the changeover. All three of those staff members are still there.

He supported Perrault's belief that every animal leaving the shelter had to be spayed or neutered.

Fuster even gathered local veterinarians together in a meeting and asked them if they could provide free health evaluations and discounted spaying and neutering.

They agreed.

He asked the MSPCA to give the shelter property to the new group for free. They did.

The shelter entity was established in March 1992. By September they had a cadre of volunteers lined up and the equivalent of one year's operational costs in the bank.

They took ownership and established the new shelter operation in January of 1993.

During the ensuing years they worked to improve the facility and when flooding made it clear the building's long-range prospects were dim, they started a capital campaign to build a new one at a cost of $5.2 million.

They moved in on July 8, 2003, more than quadrupling their capacity to house animals.

"We have been able to save thousands of more lives every year because we have this building," Perrault said.

Not that everything is easy. Every day is another financial challenge to keep the shelter running.

But with 21 employees and 220 active volunteers, there is plenty of support.

"We struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis," Perrault said. "But as much as we may struggle, great things happen here every day. It's worth every cent for what we do."

At the beginning, Fuster said, he had no idea it would be such a long-term commitment for him. He ended up serving as president of the board of directors for 15 years.

"It turned into a labor of love," he said. "We couldn't have done it without the staff, the board and the volunteers. And we have a uniquely caring, compassionate community. We've been very fortunate that the community at large is so accepting and supportive."

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6241.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford