Expanding needs keep Waukesha humane society growing

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Since 1965, the Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha has been reuniting lost pets with their owners. It’s still doing that today, but also much, much more.

At the time HAWS was founded, there was no central resource in the area to help people looking for missing pets. In fact, 35 separate jurisdictions in the county handled that task — all of them with varying hours, policies and procedures.

That haphazard scenario was so frustrating that it prompted “a group of very passionate dog lovers to get together and create a centralized location,” says HAWS development coordinator Jennifer Smieja.

In the beginning, the organization was simply a phone number staffed by a network of volunteers. In 1969, the group opened its first building and, ever since then, it’s been growing — both in physical size and in the range of programs and services it offers.

Next spring, the organization plans to break ground on its sixth expansion. This one will support several much-needed functions.

For one, it will create more space for HAWS’ spay/neuter program. HAWS already performs 3,200-plus such operations annually — most of them on cats — and the expansion will help the organization achieve its goal of ending Waukesha County’s cat overpopulation in the next decade. 

The expansion also will enlarge HAWS’s training and rehabilitation program, which works with shelter dogs to make them better adoption candidates and to ameliorate behavioral problems that cause owners to get rid of their pets.

“We want people to work with their pet if it’s only a small problem that can be worked out,” Smieja says. 

In addition, the new construction will help fulfill the growing need for flexible space that can be altered to create habitats that can comfortably accommodate a diverse range of critters.

Smieja says HAWS’ staff never knows what might crawl through the door. Over the years, HAWS has dealt with alligators, sheep, snakes, a miniature donkey and a wallaby — to name but a few.

The most unusual collection of animals arrived in March. That’s when public officials conducting a wellness check on a Sunday morning discovered more than 300 chinchillas in an area home. Officials contacted HAWS, whose staff sprang into action, with many giving up their Sunday to convert an area of the shelter into a suitable space that could accommodate all the lush-haired critters, which are about the size of a hedgehog.

Ultimately, HAWS was able to find suitable homes for 270 chinchillas. The owners of the animals are suing the shelter to retrieve 50 of the little animals, but HAWS is fighting the suit. Shelter officials maintain the owners are hoarders with a history of failing to provide adequate care to the animals. Smieja says that her group hopes to adopt out the remaining chinchillas to responsible homes once the suit is over.

“They are adorable — cute and fuzzy — but they’re not cuddly until they’ve been bonded with people,” Smieja says.

They’re very active chewers. So active, in fact, that HAWS asks people to donate their empty toilet paper rolls to the shelter for the chinchillas to gnaw on.

Chinchillas aside, HAWS’ staff, which fluctuates between 40 and 50 employees, assists about 8,000 animals a year. Some animals are surrendered by owners who can no long care for them, some are lost, and many, especially cats, are strays.

The organization is especially proud that 95 percent of lost dogs in the area are reunited with their owners through HAWS, according to Smieja.

But cats are a different story.

Residents of rural areas — and much of Waukesha County is rural — are accustomed to seeing cats roam, so they’re far less likely to report them to animal control agencies than they are to report stray dogs. People in suburban and urban areas often assume the cats they see wandering outdoors belong to someone.

But outdoor cats are mostly feral, and those that survive into adulthood have short and tragic lives. Even cats with homes die young and horrifically if they’re allowed unrestricted outdoor access. They’re struck by cars, eaten by coyotes, foxes and raptors, killed by dogs, infected with an array of diseases and mauled by other cats when they unwittingly slink into their territories. 

At the same time, outdoor cats damage local wildlife. Even when they’re not hungry, cats have irrepressible hunting instincts. Felines kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds in the continental U.S. each year, according to a 2013 study. 

Smieja, who’s both a cat and dog owner, says HAWS has aggressively promoted programs to protect cats and the environment. The organization’s Project Guardian provides free spay/neuter surgery to outdoor cats, including “working” cats on local farms, where the cat populations can grow quickly out of control. Feral cats are trapped by volunteers and then brought into HAWS, where they are spayed or neutered and then released back in the area where they were found.

Although the spay/neuter program for cats is free, Smieja says most people give a donation when they pick up their cats after surgery. Private donors also help to support the program.

The organization’s latest expansion will allow for the creation of an area just for cats. In conjunction with the opening of that space, HAWS will undertake what is perhaps its most ambitious program yet — to resolve the area’s cat overpopulation in the next decade.

“Considering that we’ve lowered the rate of cats coming in over 40 percent already, I think we can achieve that goal,” Smieja says. “Slowly, through education, there’s a growing level of awareness that cats shouldn’t be wandering or fending for themselves.”

By bringing the area’s cat population under control, training dogs to be better companions and creating a stress-free environment where potential adopters and adoptees can get to know each other without pressure, HAWs hopes to become a “no-kill” shelter in the near future.

You can help

Leave your paw print on the project.

About $750,000 of the estimated $1.2 million needed for HAWS’ expansion project has been raised, and the organization is looking for donations of all amounts — small and large. Make a one-time donation by going to HAWS’ homepage at hawspets.org and clicking on the News & Event Highlights tab, which contains a link to the expansion page. There, you can make a one-time donation, recurring donation or pledge. Send snail mail donations to HAWS Facility Expansion, P.O. Box 834, Waukesha, WI 53187-0834. For more about the project or to schedule a tour, contact Jessica Pinkos at  or phone her at 262-542-8851, ext. 112.