Headed animal shelters for 31 years
Mary Pat Boatfield, 64, called 911 on June 18, 2014, due to a medical emergency believed to have been a heart attack, but died at her home in Columbia, Missouri, before the emergency medical technicians arrived.
Boatfield had served as executive director of the Central Missouri Humane Society since May 2012, following 13 years as executive director of the Nashville Humane Association in Tennessee and 15 years as executive director of the Toledo Area Humane Society in Ohio.
A member of the Humane Society of the U.S. Companion Animals Advisory Council, Boatfield was for more than 20 years a frequent instructor at national humane conferences and regional animal care and control training events. Friends and longtime professional colleagues who contacted ANIMALS 24-7 upon hearing of her death almost invariably mentioned first something they had learned from her, whether in a classroom or working alongside her on a cruelty case, a criminal investigation, or in a disaster relief situation.
Contacted in May 2010 about catastrophic flooding that hit Nashville, obliging postponement of the annual HSUS Expo, Boatfield responded, “I tell people that Opryland went into the scuba diving business. What a learning experience!”
“Wonderfully wise, tough woman”
“A wonderfully wise, tough woman,” summarized HSUS Alabama representative Mindy Gilbert. Similar tributes came within minutes from HSUS companion animals director Betsy McFarland and HSUS eastern regional office director Laura Anne Bevan.
Boatfield extended her concern for animals to all species, but her favorites may have been chickens. She kept her own backyard flock, keenly observing them and sharing information about chicken-keeping with colleagues around the U.S. who often encountered chickens for the first time when people trying to raise them in urban environments ran into trouble.
Among the first people to send messages of encouragement when ANIMALS 24-7 debuted online in April 2014, Boatfield lobbied for coverage of traditional Asian, Hispanic, and European poultry slaughter practices, and of efforts to save heritage breeds of poultry and hooved livestock who are no longer raised commercially.
“If you have ever attended a heritage or urban chicken meeting, the manner in which husbandry and care is presented is entirely different from similar meetings I have attended where the subject was commercial agricultural production,” Boatfield wrote. “I sat on a bale of straw in Murray County, Tennessee once with a variety of rural and city folks and listened to an older man, a farmer who had acquired some heritage chicks, who discussed tending to them after they came down with an illness. He shared his sadness about the loss of one, and was proud of those who survived as he cared for them around the clock. He wanted the group to know that ill chicks can be saved. I was taken with the tenderness and caring that he and others expressed for their chickens. Some did raise birds for meat, but not all. The evolution of interspecies empathy begins in steps,” Boatfield added. “We arrive at the destination at different speeds and in different times.”
Boatfield did not always credit herself with the qualities for which she was known as a shelter director and humane educator.
“At times it just seems insurmountable to make significant gains on the numbers coming into our area shelters,” she wrote frustratedly in April 2006, after seven years in Nashville. “I know we will see change because I got to see the evolution over decades in Toledo. But patience is not my strong point.”
By September 2010, however, Boatfield felt she was beginning to get somewhere. “We follow many of Solutions To Overpopulation of Pets founder Peter Marsh’s principles for reducing shelter euthanasia, and this year we saw a drop in euthanasia for the first time. We have also seen the last two years a significant decline in Metro Animal Control intakes.”
But Boatfield admitted to continued frustration with both no-kill militants and sheltering traditionalists who refuse to pay attention to statistics.
“Trying to talk with passionate non-data folks is like spitting in a rainstorm,” Boatfield said. “Frankly, my patience is wearing thin with stupidity.”
Denounced misleading claims
Boatfield was particularly annoyed by shelter directors who would publish only the numbers of animals whom they considered “adoptable, treatable” who were killed due to lack of adoptive homes, instead of disclosing their complete statistics. The Humane Educational Society in Chattanooga, for instance, boasted of a 4% “euthanasia rate” among “adoptable, treatable” animals in 2008, when the organization’s actual “euthanasia rate” was 43%.
Neither number really meant much, since either “euthanasia rate” or “save rate” can go either up or down independent of whether a shelter is actually reducing animal homelessness in the community.
Using misleading numbers, Boatfield said, was further confusing the public when the public was already confused.
A consequence of using misleading numbers, Boatfield added, is “the good Samaritan placing a found dog or cat with a rescue because of perceived high euthanasia rates at the animal control or other shelters,” who might get the dog back home. “There are rescue groups that do not do as much as they can to attempt to locate owners, or believe that since the person who picked up the dog or cat has had it for a few days, that person has checked” to see if an animal matching the description has been reported lost. “We have seen this time & time again,” Boatfield said. “This is not a criticism [of rescuers’ intentions] but a concern.”
Boatfield often collaborated with shelterless rescues, not only to promote adoptions but to win public policy goals, for example persuading the city of Nashville to establish several off-leash dog parks.
But “The current environment fostering character assassinations of those in animal welfare leadership is not in the best interest of the animals,” Boatfield observed in December 2009. “Nor do these attacks help to increase the community resources needed to improve the plight of the animals,” she continued.
“I am very disturbed by how former Toledo dog warden Tom Skeldon was treated,” Boatfield wrote soon after his dismissal. “I worked with Tom when I headed the Toledo Area Humane Society. We did not see eye to eye on every issue. However, Tom worked to reduce the numbers of animals coming into the Toledo animal control shelter. He worked with the primary local spay/neuter organization to ensure that dogs who returned to owners for various ordinance violations were sterilized. He worked hard to eradicate dogfighting. His training for meter readers and postal personnel prevented many a bite. This in turn prevented many a dog from being deemed dangerous and possibly being destroyed. Tom was hard-headed but a liar never. On several occasions he took the heat for staff mistakes, which he would not have made. After 22 years he deserved better.
“I was vehemently opposed,” Boatfield added, “to the manner in which the public was led to believe that the fighting dogs confiscated from Michael Vick could easily be evaluated, rehabilitated, and rehomed into loving homes. In truth, about two dozen remained in high security impoundment, never to be adopted. I believe that rehoming fighting dogs and other vicious or aggressive dogs was made to look much too easy, and that the public now has highly unrealistic expectations about what shelters can be expected to do in such cases.”
Resigned in Toledo & Nashville
Boatfield had resigned from the Toledo Area Humane Society in October 1999, reportedly for refusing to move from operating an open-admission shelter to pursuing a no-kill policy. Her resignation came about a month after three local “no-kill shelter” operators charged at a press conference that Boatfield had persecuted them from alleged fear of competition. One of them had repeatedly surrendered animals to avoid prosecution for neglect. Another had been convicted of neglect three times in eight years,
“Those were tough cases,” Boatfield recalled shortly before her death. “The problem is that the public can easily be misled that the care, although inadequate, is better then death. They cannot imagine what [a so-called shelter where animals die from neglect] really looks or smells like, and the emotional damage done to the animals,” even if they survive the bad conditions.
Boatfield resigned from the Nashville Humane Association, she told ANIMALS 24-7, due to what she believed was inappropriate management of a $10.8 million endowment fund, more than five times larger than the annual operating budget of about $2 million. She walked away from a job paying her $77,000 a year to take the Central Missouri Humane Society position, which paid less than half as much.
Rachael Baldwin says
Merritt – thank you for the lovely article. My aunt was an amazing woman: passionate in her efforts, realistic in her goals, and committed to seeing things through. She found great joy in her animals, her friends and her family. If you had the good fortune to wander into her wide circle you knew the light of her Irish smile and cackle of her laugh. And she was FUN. But she was best when the chips were down, by your side as only an honest soul can be. For this she will always be missed.
She sounds like a wonderful woman that knows first hand the extreme difficulty of running an animal shelter–I do also. What I know most is that more often than not, people who love and care for animals are the ones who have to have the jobs that are the most hurtful and difficult as one thing never changes and that is the endless, endless stream of beautiful loving animals given up by their families for reasons that are absolutely ridiculous. That is the one constant thing that never changes. I personally think that at least 75% of pets in this country never have a permanent home. From under the best of circumstances, they are given up. It seems that the shelters are filled with strays and cruelty cases and the offspring from un spayed and neutered dogs and cats but in truth, they are a small portion of the dogs and cats that end up in shelters. After 40 years of animal rescue work, I see that is the one constant–it is such a pity. Humans are terminally fickle and their pets suffer the most from that. I live in a very affluent area and yet our shelters are always full–this is the most difficult situation to overcome.
Merritt Clifton says
Only about 5% of the dogs and cats in homes enter U.S. shelters each year, but projected over an average 10-year lifespan, that comes to 50%. However, there are indications that about two-thirds of all pets occupy one home for life, while those who have been through an animal shelter once are inordinately likely to return to a shelter, either as a failed adoption, a stray, a runaway, or for dangerous behavior. The circumstances that brought such animals to shelters once, in short, are likely to return them to shelters if not effectively remediated.
Belinda Lewis says
I have had enormous respect for Mary Pat over the years as her courage to say and do the right thing in the face of adversity never wained. She represented a personna that is often lacking and difficult to find. She was an amazing asset to our profession. Belinda
Jamaka Petzak says
Sounds like a great lady and a champion for animals. RIP Ms. Boatfield; may others walk in your footsteps and carry on your legacy.
Warren Cox says
Mary Patt is a loss to the animal welfare field and she will be missed. It seems we have lost a lot of talent over the past few months. I hope they can be replaced with new leaders.
Mary Pat was a great friend, colleague and mentor. Not to mention someone willing to do some adventures every now and then. Her vast experience, intelligence, compassion and faith were a role model for others. She was successful in being one of the first in our field to create training programs with social workers to identify animal abuse in the home, she was one of the few executives with vet tech training and she helped Nashville Humane stop using a circus as one of their fundraisers when she first arrived. I could go on. I’m at a loss to think she is not going to complete her current projects and goals. We are all lucky for her leadership and service. She will be missed.
Jamie McAloon Lampman says
A huge loss for animal welfare. I was fortunate on one occasion to hear Ms. Boatfield speak on the subject of open-admission and no-kill shelters. A controversial subject few would take on in an open forum where as based on her audience it was clear the deck was stacked against her. She was bold, pragmatic and always on point. It was an exciting session…no one dozed off that afternoon.
I am grateful that I was able to learn from Mary Pat when I first got into dog rescue in Nashville. Her dedication to the animals was inspiring, her work with the community was inspiring and the changes she helped make has saved the lives of countless dogs and cats. Thank you Mary Pat for your contributions to this world – although I didn’t know you personally I feel the loss of you deeply but your spirit and your legacy live on. Job well done.