With partner Cheryl Craig, planned transition
CALEDONIA, Mississippi––Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary founder Kay McElroy, 74, died at the sanctuary after a multi-year illness on January 3, 2019.
“In the final weeks of her life, as McElroy’s illness progressed, she was confined to her bedroom. From there, she could look out and watch the animals she had nurtured for the better part of three decades,” wrote Slim Smith of the Caledonia Dispatch.
McElroy had turned the day-to-day Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary operations over to successor Nancy Gschwendtner, 57, three years earlier. Gschwendtner heads a listed staff of 10.
“Wanted to stay close to the animals”
“She was very, very sick,” Gschwendtner told Smith. “Most people would have gone to a nursing facility by then, but Kay wanted to stay close to the animals she loved and cared for. So that’s what she did, right up to the end.”
“Kay and I talked about what would happen when we were gone and made plans for that day,” Cheryl Craig, her companion of 42 years, assured Smith. “Everything has been put in the name of the sanctuary and the board of directors will continue to run it after we’re both gone.”
“She lived across the street from my grandparents’ house back in Oklahoma,” continued Craig, 73. “She went to my birthday party when I was two.”
Taught in Watts
McElroy “grew up on a small farm in Adair, Oklahoma,” wrote Seth Putnam of the Caledonia Dispatch in a 2010 profile. “Her graduating class had 17 students in it. After high school, she earned her degree in education and shipped off to California to work with students in Watts, California, the site of brutal riots in 1965 and 1992.”
McElroy taught for a decade, then joined Craig in a medical data management business. Relocating to Mississippi, in 1987 they traded a 1947 Farmall D tractor for a neglected puma cub, intending to relay the cub to a quality zoo or sanctuary.
Failing to find such a situation, McElroy started the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary instead, incorporated nonprofit in 1990.
Recalled Craig, “I remember standing out on the hill here and listening to Kay talk about what it would be. It was mostly trees then. But she looked out and would say, ‘Okay. We’re going to build this there. We’ll do this there. Over there, we’ll do this.’ She had a vision for what it would be. Then we made it happen.”
No breeding, no display
From the beginning, McElroy told ANIMALS 24-7 in 1992, she intended to work small and demonstrate how she believed a sanctuary should operate, emphasizing as fundamental criteria that there should be no breeding whatever, no sales or transfers of animals who arrived to receive care-for-life, and no display of animals to the public, including no donor visits, though she did welcome media visits as an opportunity to educate against the exotic pet traffic.
“Sanctuaries are for animals,” McElroy often said. “Zoos are for people. I’m not interested in running a zoo.”
Also, McElroy resisted pressure to take in more animals than her facilities and budget could accommodate. When the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary ran into financial trouble from time to time, as most sanctuaries do, McElroy escalated fundraising––which she did almost entirely by herself––but did not open to paying visitors, and did not accept animals offered with stipends unless she had space already available.
Formed first sanctuary association
In recent years Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary revenue and expenditures appear to have stabilized at just over half a million dollars per year each, according to IRS Form 990 filings.
McElroy and several other allied sanctuarians by 1992 had established a shared waiting list for big cats in need of accommodation.
By then McElroy had also begun advocating for the formation of an accrediting body for animal sanctuaries, modeled after the American Zoo Association and the accrediting organizations that regulate health care professionals.
McElroy hosted the organizing meeting of the first such accrediting organization, The Association of Sanctuaries (TAOS), in 1992. It was later absorbed into the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
And second, and third
The Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary meanwhile became the first TAOS-accredited sanctuary, but within four years McElroy and several other TAOS founding members split with the rest to form the American Sanctuary Association, which still exists.
Another American Sanctuary Association cofounder, Carol Asvestas, drafted an updated set of proposed accreditation standards, but resigned in mid-2002 amid intense disagreement over various points to found a third accreditation body, Animal Centers of Excellence.
Conflict over breeding & viewing
Among the points of conflict were that Asvestas opposed cooperation with captive breeding programs for endangered species, which were and are a part of the work of many nature centers that provide lifetime care of injured animals who cannot be returned to the wild.
Asvestas also opposed most approaches to allowing visitors to see sanctuary animals, though not guided tours arranged by appointment.
While the idea that sanctuary animals should not be exhibited to the public is among the basic distinctions between legitimate sanctuaries and roadside zoos, most sanctuaries find that allowing some visitation is essential to fundraising.
In addition, though the mere existence of substandard roadside zoos demonstrates that frequent public visitation does not ensure good animal care, visitor traffic tends to keep the conditions at animal care facilities under a closer watch than just annual or semi-annual inspections.
Animal Centers of Excellence
Joining Asvestas in the new organization, but without leaving the American Sanctuary Association, were McElroy, Austin Zoo director Cindy Carrochio, and Sumner Matthes of Sarasota In Defense of Animals.
Animal Centers of Excellence boasted membership standards stricter in many ways than those of TAOS and the Association of Sanctuaries. Few sanctuaries could meet them, and fewer tried.
Animal Centers of Excellence vanished even before Wild Animal Orphanage failed, following a rocky attempted leadership transition in 2010.
Sarasota In Defense of Animals cofounder Sumner Matthes died at age 80 in April 2011. His widow Elise later closed their sanctuary.
Carrochio left the Austin Zoo in 2006, relocating to Costa Rica amid multiple controversies over her management. Headed since 2007 by Patti Clark, the Austin Zoo is again embroiled in controversy as result of a long-running conflict between Clark and six former zookeepers, aligned with several former board members.
McElroy carried on at the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary with few visible issues, other than the perennial struggle to raise funds.
There was also a catastrophic dawn fire two days after Christmas 2008 that razed a doublewide trailer McElroy had converted from staff housing to accommodate 50 domestic cats, all of the age 10 or older. Only two of the resident cats survived.
Vowing to never again use trailer housing, McElroy replaced all of the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary domestic cat facilities with a 48-foot-square building on a concrete slab, with enclosed semi-outdoor cat runs on three sides.
The Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary by then was home to 12 tigers, five lions, four pumas, two bobcats, a wolf, about 200 domestic cats, 30 dogs and six horses.
“Transition has been smooth”
“I knew Kay for about 25 years,” American Sanctuary Association director Vernon Weir told ANIMALS 24-7. “Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary has been an accredited member of the American Sanctuary Association (ASA) since our founding 21 years ago.
“She was very ill the last few years of her life, but she had very wisely turned over a lot of the daily animal care and management of the sanctuary to key staff members,” Weir affirmed. “That helped assure that when Kay’s final day came the sanctuary transition would be smooth. And it has been. The sanctuary goes on as before. To secure the financial future of Cedarhill, at least 11 years ago Kay began working on expanding the number of their donors and members and created an endowment fund. The animals and sanctuary she loved so much still stands as a tribute to her success.
“All cats, big & small”
“Kay rescued a variety of animal species but her specialty was cats,” Weir continued. “All cats, big and small, exotic and native, domestic and wild. ASA is very much involved in finding sanctuary space for animals who need help, and Kay was always willing to do all she could to assist us.
“If she didn’t have an open space sometimes she would make new space. She hated to tell me ‘Sorry, I just can’t help right now.’ But then she would assist me in making more phone calls to other cat sanctuaries. In the end, we always found somewhere for them to go, but only to good sanctuaries that we knew.”
Weir further recalled that, “In the 1990s and early 2000s, Kay was also involved in passing Mississippi state legislation that improved the lives of all animals — especially a 1997 law that restricted private ownership of exotic cats and other dangerous animals. Prior to that, Mississippi was a haven for owners, breeders and sellers of these animals.”
In recent years, as McElroy’s health failed, published animal inventories indicate that the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary downsized somewhat, from more than 300 animals to about 250, still including 12 resident tigers, as of January 2019, but only two lions; three bobcats, but no longer any pumas; still about 200 domestic cats; a variety of equines; seven pigs; and ten dogs, apparently not counting fosters, down from 30.
Mississippi State University professor of veterinary medicine and neurosurgery Andy Shores and Bonnie Blake , DVM, of Boswell’s Animal Clinic in Columbus, Mississippi, vouched to Smith of the Caledonia Dispatch for the ongoing quality of care at the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary.
Will the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary decline post-McElroy?
“Not on my watch,” vowed Gschwendtner, to Smith. “I’m not going to let Kay down.”
But the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary has already changed in several respects.
Since Gschwendtner became executive director, the sanctuary has annually raffled off overnight visits.
And the Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary now fosters dogs––many of them pit bulls and other high-risk breeds––for Sweet Paws Rescue, a Massachusetts-based organization that since 2011 has brought dogs north from Alabama and Mississippi for adoption.
Please donate to support our work: