PENINSULA PROFILE: Humane Society director leads it into a new chapter, home

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — One Sunday three years ago, Mary Beth Wegener flipped right past the Sunday Peninsula Daily News classifieds. She wasn’t looking for a new job.

But one advertisement did catch her eye.

The Olympic Peninsula Humane Society was looking for a new executive director.

“I just happened to see this job in the paper,” Wegener recalled, “and I thought that it might be fun.”

Wegener, 50, liked her work as marketing manager at First Federal. Yet she knew she wanted to get back into the nonprofit world.

“I just felt like I could do more if I was in a nonprofit situation,” she said.

Before moving to Port Angeles 10 years ago with her husband, David, and their three children, Wegener worked in her home state of Arizona as communications director for the Samaritan Foundation, a chain of nonprofit hospitals.

And though she had no animal welfare experience short of taking care of the family dogs, Wegener sent in her application. And things progressed quickly.

“I had an interview,” she said, with the Humane Society board, “and they made me an offer.

“I never thought I would be in a job like this.”

Wegener is now at the helm of an organization that she feels has gained a renewed sense of trust from the community. And now the Humane Society is poised to undertake a $1.12 million project to dramatically increase its current animal shelter and office space.

Not bad for three years’ time.

“I didn’t think it would happen this fast,” Wegener said.

“I’d never dreamt that in three years we’d be breaking ground.”

Wegener came into an organization in June 2011 that had not had a permanent executive director for more than a year. At the same time, it had outgrown its cramped 2,900 square feet along U.S. Highway 101 just west of Port Angeles.

The Humane Society plans to break ground this summer on a new facility, featuring a 4,800-square-foot kennel that will have more space for humans and animals alike, Wegener said.

The society has raised about $600,000 through donations so far. But more is still needed to see the project through to completion.

Linda Crow, the chairwoman of the campaign to raise money for the new shelter, said Wegener recruited her to lead the fundraising effort not long after Crow joined the Humane Society’s board about a year and a half ago.

“Mary Beth is totally hands-on with the campaign,” Crow said, “as well as everything she does at the shelter.”

To help achieve its fundraising goal, the Humane Society is holding the second annual “Meowgaritas & Mutts” benefit dinner and auction at the Vern Burton Community Center, 304 E. Fourth St. in Port Angeles, this coming Saturday, April 26.

Tickets are $50, and the event begins with cocktails and a silent auction at 5:30 p.m., and dinner and a live auction at 6:30.

Wegener said one of the first things she noticed after she became the Humane Society’s director were the cramped quarters for both shelter animals and staff.

In talking with board and community members before she was hired, Wegener said she also knew she would have to improve the image of an organization that, for years, had been seen in a not-so-positive light.

“I knew there would be a challenge,” Wegener said.

She quickly set out to get to know the shelter’s eight paid staff members. Up till this point, she learned, the staffers hadn’t felt valued.

“I felt like that was a very important first step, [to] understand what they do,” Wegener said.

“I shadowed them a little bit.”

Suzy Zustiak, the Humane Society’s veterinarian and shelter manager, started at the Humane Society about a year before Wegener became director.

The shelter staff were not part of the hiring process, Zustiak added, so they didn’t know what to expect when Wegener came on board.

“It was kind of a surprise to us, who were going to get a boss,” Zustiak said.

From the beginning, though, Zustiak said Wegener was open to what staff had to say.

“She was more than willing to learn from us,” said Zustiak.

Wegener, for her part, knew she had to rely on the staff. She had no animal welfare experience of her own, after all.

“I definitely started at ground zero, so I asked a lot of questions,” Wegener said.

“They’re really hard jobs,” she added of the staff positions.

“You’re here at 8 a.m. scrubbing cat kennels or dog kennels, and cleaning up who knows what.”

Wegener proved to be just what the Humane Society needed, Zustiak believes.

“She was the missing piece of the puzzle,” she said.

“I think she’s pretty great.”

Crow said Wegener was part of the reason she wanted to get involved with the society.

Always an animal lover, Crow said she had been following the changes Wegener was making as the society’s new director. She liked what she saw.

“I thought that’s something I’d like to be a part of,” Crow said.

Crow added that she met Wegener’s husband, David, before she met Mary Beth, when David helped clear the Crows’ property for a summer.

Crow said she and her husband got to know David well and, by proxy, heard all about Mary Beth.

Crow joined the Humane Society board about six months after she first met Wegener.

From the first meeting Crow attended, Crow said she was impressed with Wegener’s dedication and ability to juggle multiple projects at a time.

“I credit Wegener with turning the feeling about the Humane Society around and having people trust what’s going on there because of it,” Crow said.

Wegener said one of the things she’s most proud of is that shift in the Humane Society’s image.

Wegener said she sees both good and bad sides of humanity at the shelter. She takes solace in the times when animals, however injured or abused, go home with a loving family.

“I don’t really see it as a sad place because we find animals homes,” she said.

“Often they’re in a better environment then they were before.”

A self-professed dog person, Wegener has three cats and four canines at home, including two dogs she and her family adopted from the Humane Society.

One of the shelter dogs, Buddy, a Rottweiler-Shar Pei mix, has become the official “ambassadog” of the Humane Society. He was returned to the shelter four times before Wegener made him her own.

Wegener’s second shelter dog is a 13-year-old pit bull terrier named Lulu, a dog that would stare at Wegener every time she walked past her kennel.

“I just took her home because I couldn’t stand it any more,” Wegener said with a laugh.

When not at work, Wegener said likes to spend time outdoors with her husband and their children Clare, 17, Gabe, 15, and Hope, 16.

Wegener said she and her family came to Port Angeles 10 years ago to escape the Arizona heat and after Wegener’s brother, who lives in town, told them it’s a great place to raise children.

“It was very appealing to be near the water and mountains,” Wegener said.

Over her three years as Humane Society director, Wegener said her favorite part of her job, still, is seeing animals find loving homes.

“That’s what keeps me coming back,” she said.

And, she won’t be job seeking again.

“I love what I’m doing,” Wegener said.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

________

Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 19. 2014 7:07PM
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