BAXTER -- The old four-door car came to a stop Wednesday afternoon, then slowly backed up on Danielson Road just behind a grove of trees next to Heartland Animal Rescue Team.
A car door opened, then closed. Seconds later, the driver and passenger sped off, leaving in their trail a year-old male black lab chasing after the car's tires, probably wondering why its owners were dumping him alongside the unfamiliar road.
I was furious as I called the abandoned dog out of the busy street and led him toward the animal shelter. The dog owner either didn't want to or couldn't afford to pay the fee to release the dog to the shelter, and instead left the dog to fend for itself on the busy street, just a block from Highway 371 North.
The scene illustrated a point that HART board president Pam Landers had made minutes earlier during an interview.
The time has come for HART to no longer solely operate in a crisis management mode. Big changes are in store for the animal shelter, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary this fall.
For the first time in its 15-year history, the HART board of directors hired an executive director, Gary Heinke, who started June 1, a position funded primarily through charitable gambling revenue the shelter receives. As of June 1, a fourth area business signed on to allow the charitable gambling funds to benefit HART, bringing increased revenue to the shelter.
For many years the position had been an unpaid one, tossed around each year between HART volunteer board members. Donna Wambeke, who for many years served in that role and held many other responsibilities at the animal shelter, decided last year that it was her last year as executive director. No one else wanted the position because of the increased responsibility and time commitment, said Landers.
HART has an annual budget of $175,000, with income generated by charitable gambling, impound contracts with area governmental agencies, donations, grants, membership fees and from animal adoptions. HART has three full-time employees, seven part-time employees, 30-40 volunteers and a membership of 1,200 people.
"We hadn't looked at ourselves as an organization for a long time," Landers said. "We had staff and we had a board, but it (HART) had grown so much that it had gotten beyond the scope of a volunteer board.
"What we realized is that we couldn't find anyone to take Donna's place. The job was too large and nobody wanted to take it on. We realized that we couldn't replace her."
The board created a strategic plan, a process that started last fall. They looked at all aspects of the shelter and its operation.
"We seemed stuck in a rut," explained Landers. "We wanted to do more with prevention and not so much crisis management."
Landers said the board's goals include making HART a more efficient operation with an increased focus on education and prevention. Their strategic plans include expanding the building, building more kennels, offering dog obedience training classes and other educational classes. A goal is increased education about spaying and neutering. Within the next few years, they hope to hire an animal behaviorist who will work with pet owners to try to solve pet problems in the home, before the pet owners become too frustrated with their animal and give it up for adoption or have it put down.
"This is a whole new era of change," said Heinke. "We want people to know who we are, where we are and how they can participate."
"Too many times we handle the crises and are able to only take care of the animals first," said Landers. Last summer, for example, HART took in 38 rabbits, 12 dogs and one pony from one homeowner in one night that had all been confiscated by law enforcement. "Now that's what I mean by crisis management."
Heinke is originally from Minneapolis and spent 15 years as a chaplain in the Navy and Marine Corps. For the last five years he and his wife Nancy have lived in Pennsylvania where he worked as a regional manager for a non-profit employee assistance program. They have two adult children.
Heinke said he and his wife wanted to move back to Minnesota and chose the Brainerd lakes area because he enjoys hunting and fishing. They recently bought a house in the Sylvan Lake area and will move into it at the end of the month. He said he and his wife plan to adopt two dogs from the shelter as soon as they move.
HART will host its annual meeting 7 to 9 p.m. June 25 at the Ramada Inn. Members and non-members are invited to meet Heinke and the new board members. A celebration for HART's 15th anniversary is in the works for this fall.
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