by Terry Scott Reed*
Following former Executive Director Lindy Scholar’s tragic and untimely death in 2004, the HSBC Board of Directors conducted a national candidate search and hired Karel Minor, the HSBC’s current Executive Director. Building on the solid foundation left by Lindy Scholar, Minor has helped to bring about significant organizational growth and expansion.
Animal welfare programs have expanded and increased, the HSBC’s donor and support base has grown, and the agency has become a nationally recognized leader in animal welfare in Berks County through its innovative programs, community outreach and inter-agency partnerships. The revitalization of the board of directors, expansion and upgrade of the staff and volunteer base, and the creation and implementation of the organization’s first long-range strategic plan have resulted a period of exciting growth and development for the HSBC.
After an initial focus on strengthening programs and services, and creating a long term strategic plan for success, the HSBC began addressing some long overdue facilities needs. In the Spring of 2007, the Cat Adoption Center was opened. The new center completely changed how adopters interacted with cats and how cats were displayed for adoption. With “get-to-know-you” adoption rooms, groups cat habitats and roomy, well lit display habitats for individual cats, the Cat Adoption Center marked a new era for what is considered possible at a local animal shelter.
2007 also marked the beginning of the HSBC push to provide desperately needed veterinary health care to the animals it housed and to those in the public who were under served and to move away from dog catching and euthanasia contracts with municipalities. The HSBC began hiring staff veterinarians and offering veterinary services to the general public, as well as creating programs designed to help people and animal in need. Two of the flagship programs were the 30 Day Adoption Health Guarantee, which extends free health care for many illnesses to newly adopted pets, and the Sliding Scale Fee for pet owners in financial distress. By April 1, 2008, the HSBC had ended all animal control contract relationships with State and local government.
In October, 2008, the HSBC realized an important goal by opening its second adoption and veterinary facility, the Holly Miller Center in Douglassville. This location increased access to adoptable animals by the public, as well as extending its service reach toward under served areas of Western Montgomery and Northern Chester Counties.
The improvements to the HSBC’s Reading facility continued in December, 2008, with the opening of the LaVigna Dog Adoption Center, dedicated in memory of Joni LaVigna, a long time Humane Society Police Officer who had recently passed away. It also marked the rededication of the HSBC’s Reading facility as the Lindy Scholar Center, in honor of the profound and lasting impact of the former Executive Director.
The incredible strides continued in 2010, despite an extremely unforgiving economy. The HSBC rolled out, literally, the new HSBC VetMobile & Mobile Adoption Center. This new mobile center is a fully equipped medical facility along with adoption facilities. The one-of-a-kind mobile facility went into service immediately, providing off-site adoption services, emergency and cruelty response and rescue, and community veterinary services.
In October 2010 the HSBC opened its most unexpected new facility, the Danielle Ruiz-Murphy Center in Exeter. The amazing facility marks the single largest donation in HSBC history, with J. P. Mascaro & Sons making a donation valued at about one million dollars. The ten acre former horse farm was converted into Berks’ first free, public dog park and an equine rescue and adoption center. The entire project was completed at no cost to the HSBC and a ten year lease agreement was given at $1 a year!
The administration and board of the HSBC are now working on its next long-range strategic plan which will help guide the HSBC through the next several years.
From the beginning…
Organized animal welfare in Berks had a beginning in the fall of 1889, when forty-one men and women applied to the Pennsylvania Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at Philadelphia for a branch society at Reading. Although the application was granted, no organization emerged. In November of the following year, however, another effort began. A few preliminary meetings were held, and a formal, public meeting was convened at the Board of Trade, located at Penn above Fourth on Jan 6th, 1891. Twenty-eight people are noted as having attended. Frank S. Livingood, Esq. suggested forming an independent organization first, and then seeking a charter, and his suggestion was adopted. A charter was granted by the Court of Common Pleas on February 21,1891.
Among the attendees at that meeting was John D. Mishler, the noted entrepreneur, civic leader, and personality. He would become the group’s first President, elected at their organizational meeting held on April 2nd, 1891. Vice Presidents were William D. Smith and Rachel D. Griscom. Joseph A. Allgaier would serve as Secretary-Treasurer. The Board of Trustees would consist of Morton C. McIlvain, Thomas A. Wilson and Simon Seyfert. J. Howard Jacobs and C.H. Ruhl, Esqs., would be the group’s solicitors. Mishler remained President for five years, and was succeeded by George J. Gross. The organization would occupy quarters at 511 Penn St from 1891 until 1900.
Montgomery’s “History of Berks (Vol. 1, 1909) reports that, prior to the formation of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “cruelty to animals was a common occurrence in Reading, but after a number of inhumane persons had been prosecuted and fined for their cruelty to horses and cattle (about one hundred, mostly persons from the country districts), a much improved public sentiment followed. As a consequence, cruelty to animals is seldom seen upon the streets and complaints on that account are rare.”
In his memoirs, Mishler reproduces the text of a speech he delivered at the first annual meeting of the group. He dates it as Jan 25th, 1902, but it most likely was actually January of 1892. In his opening remarks he comments about the large attendance “at our first annual meeting.” He notes that the large turnout “shows there are persons who, in their goodness of heart, are willing to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Mishler uses the occasion to point out that “the usefulness of a society depends largely upon the assistance of its members. To pay only dues is nothing compared to the importance of co-operative work. Especially persons who accept offices should act or decline them. There is too much merely honorary membership on committees in charitable societies. It is workers that are wanted.” Those words ring just as true today for any volunteer organization.
During the fall and winter of 1900, the Civic Division of the Women’s Club began discussing the organization of a Humane Society. As reported in the Nov. 3rd Reading Eagle, its purpose would be the prevention of cruelty to “children, the very aged or enfeebled, and animals.” The newspaper reported that it was hoped that “the gentlemen hitherto interested in the Society For The Prevention of Cruelty To Animals will join their interest and efforts to the new organization.” The records are vague regarding the actual date, but indicate that the SPCA did indeed fold into the Humane Society.
The charter was granted for the Humane Society on December 26th, 1900. The original petitioners are a Berks who’s who, and include: Hon. H. Willis Bland, Mrs. Elizabeth Spang, Mrs. Harriette DeB. Keim, George Rick, Gen. D. Mc M. Gregg, J.H. Sternberg, George J. Gross, Jr., (at the time, he was the President of the SPCA.), Mishler, P.R. Stetson, and Frank S. Livingood.
Judge Bland became the first President, with Mrs. Elizabeth Spang serving a First Vice President. Mrs. DeB. Keim was Second Vice President, with Miss Mary Haviland Sheek becoming Treasurer. George A. Rick served as Recording Secretary. Bland would serve until 1903, and be succeeded by George J. Gross Jr., of the former S.P.C.A.
Gross was a Philadelphia-born, Notre Dame-educated attorney who began his practice in Reading on Nov. 14th 1881, at the age of twenty-one. His office was at 38 N. 6th, and he lived at 530 Franklin.
The Humane Society was first located in the Reading Public Library at Fifth and Franklin Sts. The December eighteenth, 1900, issue of the Reading Eagle headlines “Trouble About Humane Society’s Headquarters,” and the article describes a controversy over which of two available rooms the Society should occupy. There was also some consternation about who authorized the breaking-through of a door from the rear into one of the rooms. It was felt that, if the Humane Society was to occupy the wrong room, and if children should be housed there, it might “disturb the quietude of the library.” The Eagle reports on Dec 31st that it had been “practically agreed” to allow them to use the preferred room, (102, complete with the new door), instead of 104.
In this era, animal abuse was primarily inflicted on draft horses, mules, and farm animals. The Humane Society’s first case, however, was a case of non-support. Remember the charter of the group: children, the aged, and animals. On Jan 1st, 1901, not even a week after it became a legal entity, Police Matron Emma Ziegler went before Alderman Van Reed and swore out a warrant against William Hatt, on the charge of neglecting and failing to support his two boys, aged 6 and 8. (One hundred years later, the enforcement arm of the Humane Society still becomes peripherally involved in instances of domestic dispute, as it has been established that there is a proven link between animal abuse and child/spouse abuse. Further, where a beloved pet prevents someone from leaving an abusive relationship, the Humane Society provides foster care for the animal until circumstances improve and its owner can reclaim it.)
After two years in the Library building, the organization moved to 6 S. Sixth St. This was prior to Dives, Pomeroy and Stewart’s occupancy of this location at the Southeast corner of Sixth and Penn, and it appears that at that time, a number of rooming houses were located there. Two years later, the group would again relocate, farther south on Sixth to number 128. It is believed that this building sat at an east-west alley, (Kerber Alley, now gone), and was possibly a storefront. One year later the Society again relocated to 114A S. 6th.
The Society remained at that site until 1954, when it relocated to property at 1801 N. Eleventh, where it is located today. The property was comprised of two triangular plots, purchased from the Reading Railroad in 1953. The original building is a two-story brick structure, incorporating an apartment on the second floor. The apartment is no longer a residence, but is instead used for meetings and record storage.
The manager at that time was Ernest J. Squillace, who served in that capacity until he retired in 1966. Mr. Squillace and his family, including a newborn daughter, lived in the apartment during his employment. That daughter, Mary Ann (Squillace) Sarge recalls that Ernest was very dedicated where animals were concerned, responding to calls day or night if an animal was in need. Mrs. Sarge recollects that, in addition to the usual dogs and cats, he also rescued bats, squirrels, snakes, possums, and even alligators, crawling through sewers, swimming across lakes, and cavorting along rooftops to bring animals to safety. During that time he was assisted by Fern Koenig, who was dedicated to keeping the office and paperwork aspects of the shelter in order.
An addition to the eleventh street building was constructed in 1991. The addition added more kennel space for dogs, a new cat adoption room, lobby area, and some offices. In November of 1999, a surgery was added to the rear of the building to perform spay/neuter procedures.
The original building now houses dogs, cats and critters that have just arrived, are quarantined, or on hold as bite cases. It is additionally used as the administrative office. Enforcement matters are also handled from this office. The facilities in the later addition are used to house the animals available for adoption, and for pet supplies. Most public interaction is conducted from this section.
Much of the modern history of the Society has been destroyed. In May of 1987 there was an explosion at the gas bottling plant located across 11th St. A contractor who was repairing the damage to the Society building disposed of historical records, along with many other items, during the cleanup phase. Records and old photographs that were in private hands have recently been destroyed, by the next-of-kin on the death of former members.
Two well-documented events are worth discussion, because they illustrate the depth of passion when it comes to animal care.
In July of 1952 a “breakaway group” formed the Animal Rescue League Of Berks County. Mary Archer led this group, which was at odds with the existing board about shelter operations. Miss Archer became ARL’s President in 1953 and remained in that office until her death on May 28th, 1963. The ARL is located on land that she provided along Rt. 724, and she was the principal financial support of the agency until her death.
Another major event in modern Humane Society history has become known as “The Takeover.” This too involved a dissident group of members who felt the shelter should be run differently but, unlike Mary Archer and her supporters, this group chose to stay and fight for change from within. The resulting battle wound up in the county courts.
At the January 1988 annual meeting, a group of about sixty members attempted to gain control of the organization. They took control of the meeting and elected their own slate of directors, ousting the eighteen existing directors. Their attorney, John S. Hibschman told the Allentown Morning Call: “The old board was not being responsive to the membership. They’ve run a closed operation for years.” The resulting trial ended with two “co-presidents” being appointed, Dr. Serbyn Ostrich and Lindy Scholar. Scholar became the Executive Director a year later, a post she held until her death in 2004. Ostrich remained President until 1996.
2000 marked the 100th anniversary of the Humane Society of Berks County.
Lindy Scholar led the transformation of the HSBC into a modern animal welfare organization until her tragic death in 2004. Her legacy lives on through the commitment of the current staff and board to ensure the stregnth, effectiveness and progress of the Humane Society of Berks County.
*Terry Scott Reed is a freelance writer, and a former Board President of the Humane Society. He is interested in hearing from anyone with information on the shelter, especially during the period of 1920 through the 1980’s. He is currently attempting to compile a complete record of Executive Directors and Board Officers. If you can contribute information, anecdotes, or old photographs, contact him at the shelter, or via email at email@example.com. The information will also become part of the Historical Society’s library.
This article has been edited for space and updated to reflect organizational changes since its writing.