Executive Spotlight: John Perreault, executive director of the Berkshire Humane Society
PITTSFIELD — John Perreault received an internship at an animal shelter while he was growing up in Methuen. The experience changed his life.
"I had an internship through school," he said. "The first day I did my internship, I walked in and said, 'This is what I want to do.'"
Perreault's internship was with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1984, he came to the Berkshires to serve as the ambulance driver for the MSPCA's shelter in Pittsfield. Three years later, he became the shelter's director.
Six years after that, Perreault became the first executive director of the Berkshire Humane Society, a local entity that was founded to run the shelter after the MSPCA left the Berkshires in 1993. He has served in that position ever since.
We met with Perreault recently to talk about his chosen profession, how the Berkshire Humane Society came to be, the changes in caring for animals over the years, his passion for basketball, and how late actor Jerry Orbach once helped raise money for the shelter on national television.
Q: The MSPCA began operating an animal shelter in Pittsfield in 1936. Why did they decide to leave Pittsfield almost 30 years later?
A: I think they realized it was very difficult for them to run a shelter so far away from Boston. The mistake they made is that they never asked the community for support. On the way out, they held a bunch of community meetings trying to get people that were interested to take [the shelter] over, and they were successful.
But, during that time, the community was like, you know what, most of us thought the MSPCA was a state organization, not a nonprofit, and you never really asked us for your support. We were the first of many [shelters] that the MSPCA spun off, the first to transform into a local community shelter. In the end, we were definitely more successful going local and being a local organization rather than one being run from the headquarters in Boston.
Q: How did this community group come together to form the Berkshire Humane Society?
A: What really happened was, I got my budget figures that I needed to work with for the year of 1992 in the fall of 1991. I was like, "Wow, what's going on here? These aren't the numbers that I usually get." That's when I asked for a meeting in Boston and found out they were shutting their Pittsfield branch on Jan. 1, 1993, and that this would be the last year.
They wanted the community to take it over. They thought it would be much more successful if it was run by the local community, and it was key to them for me to stay on. ... I didn't want to move. I love it here, so, for me, it was pretty much of a no-brainer. So, I worked with a local group that formed the Berkshire Humane Society.
Q: What do you like about working with animals?
A: You know what, as much as I love animals, I love people just as much. And it's a job where you're able to help both because it is about people, and if you can't communicate and work with a person, you're never going to solve animal problems, because the animal problems are caused by people. And every day is different.
Q: The Berkshire Humane Society has added a satellite cat shelter in Great Barrington, and two used clothing boutiques in Great Barrington and Lenox, over the last few years. Why did you decide to expand?
A: We're trying to grow and improve as an organization, and along with that comes expense. I see a changing landscape in the philanthropic community. ... We receive no state or federal aid, so our donations come from the general public or bequests or services that the shelter provides.
So, we've been on the lookout for some other type of business that could subsidize some of our programming. That's really where Catwalk [the clothing boutique] came into existence. Basically, it's a resale shop. All the proceeds go back to the shelter.
Q: In 2018, the Berkshire Humane Society and the city of Pittsfield drafted a three-year contract with the Friends of Eleanor Sonsini to take over their animal shelter in Pittsfield. What's the status of that project now?
A: The city had broken off their contract with the Friends of Eleanor Sonsini and we decided at that time that we could take on that contract and that that contract could be operated out of our main facility on Barker Road. So, we're just about a year into that housing contract and it's going very smoothly.
We've handled more than 100 dogs for the city of Pittsfield that they brought to us. ... We do have possession of the [former Sonsini] facility, but we haven't done anything with it at this time.
Q: What's changed in the treatment of animals since you became involved in this field 35 years ago?
A: When I first started in 1984, and I tell this story all the time, if you brought me in a 2-year-old purebred black Lab that was neutered and housebroken and good with kids, he may not have found a home, because he was too old. ... Recently, over a two-week period, we had 10 dogs come in to us over the age of 8, many with medical issues, one even with cancer. ... In less than two weeks we found homes for 10 senior animals. ... In my 35 years there, I had never seen so many animals of that age come in at any one time. ... I think it's an acknowledgment to my staff, and to the people in the Berkshires, that people care enough in this community to provide those types of homes for our senior companions.
Q: Why has that attitude changed?
A: I always relate it to the Berkshire Humane Society's programming through the years, because we've been doing humane education in classrooms for 20 years. Those grade school kids are now adults.
Q: When did animal shelters introduce their own educational programming?
A: In the 1800s, when shelters were first formed, they were safe havens where people brought animals to shelters where they were nursed and brought back to health and people found them a home. (The MSPCA was founded in 1868). People thought these people were saviors, that they were fabulous.
Then, post-World War II, when everybody started to move out to the suburbs and companion animals became popular, no one was spaying or neutering. We had this explosion of animals. At one point, every time one human baby was born in this country, there were 15 puppies and 30 kittens being born at the exact same time.
What happened was, this excess population began filtering into shelters and the shelters began to euthanize. This is when, and you can play Monday morning quarterback, that shelters, instead of educating the public and telling them what was going on, sort of hid the fact or didn't talk about it. So, shelters had this bad rap. It was through the '80s and into the early '90s that things began to change.
Q: Besides education, what other programs does the Berkshire Humane Society provide?
A: We have a safe pet program with the Elizabeth Freeman Center for women who were afraid to leave an abusive relationship because the person was using the pet as a tool to keep them there. We're able to remove the pet with the person who is being abused. We take the pet, we care for the pet, they get the help that they need and then we reunite them. ... It's one of the first programs of its kind in the country.
Q: What would you being doing if you weren't working with animals?
A: I am also a junkie when it comes to basketball. I volunteered for the Golden Knights youth basketball program (in Great Barrington) 20 years ago. My daughter, who turns 31 in December, was in the fifth grade when I started volunteering.
I coach a travel team and also coach girls basketball at Monument Mountain (as the junior varsity and assistant varsity coach). ... If I have a free night, you'll probably find me in a high school gym watching basketball somewhere.
Q: I've heard Jerry Orbach was a big supporter of the Berkshire Humane Society. How did that come about?
A: Jerry Orbach played "Jeopardy!" (once), and we were the beneficiaries. I think it was in the late '90s when he did that. His (second) wife, Elaine Cancilla, she's from (Pittsfield). So, I think they were both supporters of animal causes.
I only talked to him once on the phone, never met him in person. He was a pretty down-to-earth guy.
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