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Northeast Arkansas Humane Society: Celebrating 50 Years of Animal Rescue
by Emily Merrell, Photography by Melissa Donner

As the Northeast Arkansas Humane Society celebrates and reflects on 50 years of helping the area’s most vulnerable creatures, its staff and supporters are also looking forward to the nonprofit’s annual fundraising campaign, with hopes of improving and expanding the shelter to better fit the needs of rescued pets.

Much has changed about Jonesboro in the last five decades – the city has grown tremendously, countless businesses have come and gone, and technology has advanced in a way that has transformed daily life for everyone. During those 50 years, however, one thing that has remained constant is the Northeast Arkansas Humane Society’s (NEAHS) dedication to helping animals in NEA.

The shelter was originally established in 1971 by Judy Furr, a longtime Jonesboro resident who now resides in Las Cruces, N.M. After she and her two young children witnessed a local pound euthanizing animals in a cruel manner. Furr did not feel she could stand by and watch this inhumane treatment of animals, so she jumped into action.

“As we passed the animal shelter (and I use that term in the loosest of all terms), my oldest pointed and said ‘Mom, look,’” said Furr. “When I looked at what he had seen, I was stunned. There was a man depositing small puppies, kittens, grown cats and dogs into a 55-gallon drum. I saw a hose running from the exhaust of a truck into the drum and the man was fighting with the animals to secure a lid on the drum. I jumped out of the car – mind you, I was 27 then and jumping came easy. I ran up to him and demanded to know what he was doing. He told me to get away and that he was putting animals to sleep. Instinctively, I kicked the drum over and animals scattered in four directions.”

Furr then got the media involved, enlisting KAIT to film the inhumane treatment in order to spread awareness to the community. Within days, Furr had organized a small “army” of 20 women and two men who were determined “to spread” a charter with the state of Arkansas to establish the humane society. While Furr did not wish to name any names, she credited a local attorney for giving her useful advice, and one of the few men from her army for stepping up to assume a leadership position.

“One of the local attorneys – someone that I will forever be thankful for – was giving me advice quietly,” said Furr. “In those days, Arkansas required a charter to be spread. This charter required a certain number of signatures. When those signatures were all in place, the charter was filed with the Secretary of State along with a mission statement and a request for naming. This wonderful attorney delicately explained to me that the state would most likely consider us a bunch of radical women and possibly would be reluctant to give us our charter. So, it was decided that one of the men in the group – ironically, a man not from the area - an old, retired military man – would spread the charter.

“He became the first president of what was decided would be the Northeast Arkansas Humane Society. We had originally decided on Jonesboro Humane Society, but some of us felt there were problems in the smaller areas surrounding Jonesboro. Having big aspirations, we went full speed ahead. NEAHS was born.”

Furr housed rescued animals in her backyard during the early days of NEAHS, and in 1973, she moved to Kansas City, where she lived for 16 years before returning to Jonesboro. In 1975, local veterinarian Dr. Bill Cato Sr. volunteered to house some animals at his vet clinic. In 1980, land was donated to NEAHS to build a shelter on Strawfloor Drive. This location housed NEAHS until 2004, when NEAHS opened its doors at the current location at 6111 E. Highland Dr. While NEAHS has always served as a shelter for animals in need, it officially became a 501c3 nonprofit shelter in 1989. 

NEAHS Executive Director Hillary Starnes has seen tremendous growth at the shelter over the years, in both the number of employees and animals rescued. 

“In the beginning, they kept around 25 cats and dogs in total,” said Starnes, who started with the shelter in 2020. “Now we have an average of 50 dogs and 35 cats. The shelter was a volunteer-based operation for many years; it wasn’t until the Strawfloor location opened that they started paying an executive director and few part-time people, but still relied heavily on volunteers.

“Today, we have three medical team members, an executive director, an administrative assistant, two part-time and four full-time kennel staff,” said Starnes. “This gives us the assurance that the animals are cleaned and socialized daily. We added the medical team in 2010 to do spay and neuters on our shelter animals for low-income families. As part of the adoption requirements, animals have to be vaccinated, microchipped and altered before leaving the facility. Having a vet on staff has allowed for quicker adoptions and lower medical bills rather than outsourcing.” 

On average, Starnes said that NEAHS adopts out around 850 animals each year and takes in more than 1,300. While the shelter was mainly concerned with rescuing and housing animals at its inception, NEAHS now offers many more services. 

“We provide cat spay and neuter services to low-income families to decrease the overpopulation of animals,” she said. “We also provide microchips, and we have minimal medical services available that are geared to low-income families. We transport several dogs to sister shelters in the north through ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) transport. We also have two volunteer certified welfare investigators that investigate extreme calls and conditions. We hear of several cruelty cases weekly, and we appreciate those concerned for the animals. Some of those cruelty cases involve equine, and we have a separate, undisclosed location where we house equine. This program is completely volunteer-based and funded by donations. The program is under our NEAHS umbrella but not a part of the shelter’s daily operations.

“We also have a community food pantry that is open to the public for anyone who may need that little extra help to feed their cat or dog until the next paycheck,” said Starnes. “Recipients can come every 30 days. We help over 100 families monthly, and we really think it helps the families to be able to keep their animals and not have to think about surrendering them or even dumping them.” 

Because of the vast increase in the number of animals rescued and in services offered, NEAHS currently has many needs to renovate and expand the shelter to care for all of the rescued animals.

“We currently need new stainless steel dog kennels, and we need to expand the cat kennels by 20 or more because of the extreme need in the area,” said Starnes. “Cats are populating faster than ever due to people not getting them altered. We also need a concrete walkway to the grass kennels, a roof extension over the isolation kennels outside so we can use them year-round and an expansion to the outdoor kennels that are under the roof. We also want to create an intimate meet-and-greet area for potential adopters trying to find their new dog and an isolation room for nursing mothers and puppies that can’t be in the general dog public. So many times, we cannot take in nursing moms or puppies in fear they will get sick. We also need to expand our medical room so we can provide more services to the low-income population.”

With so many new needs in addition to the cost of simply running the shelter, NEAHS relies on donations in order to stay afloat. Although the nonprofit typically hosts its fundraiser, Party (for the) Animals, annually, organizers are rethinking fundraising methods this year due to COVID-19. Gearhead Outfitters will be doing a benefit day on May 25 to raise funds for NEAHS, and Panera Bread Co. will donate a percentage of sales to NEAHS on June 5. Running Threads has designed a 1970s themed T-shirt to celebrate NEAHS’ 50th anniversary, which is available to purchase on the Running Threads website until May 16.

NEAHS will be holding monthly raffles, as well as a membership drive in July, with the hopes of increasing membership and raising awareness of how important yearly donations are to the shelter. The humane society also has a room and kennel sponsor program, in which individuals or businesses can sponsor kennels or rooms at different donation levels. For those who wish to donate time or resources, Starnes says there are plenty of opportunities to help.

“Some people are unable to provide funds, but would rather donate time or resources, and that is amazing,” said Starnes “We can always use blue Dawn liquid detergent, bleach, Odoban, 13-gallon trash bags, paper towels, rope toy and dog and cat food for our community pantry. We are also starting up our working volunteer program again after a year and half. We will allow two volunteers a day to help clean during the morning time.” 

Although NEAHS has grown exponentially in the past 50 years in its ongoing effort to care for rescued animals, Starnes has high hopes for the next half century as the shelter strives to keep up with the demand. 

“We hope to see a decrease in stray population, as well as an increase in lost animals being reunited with family,” said Starnes. “These items can be a simple fix by getting your animals altered and microchipped. We want to team up with our local animal controls and really spread the awareness of how important it is to do these two things. If we don’t get the population under control in the next 50 years, it will be too overwhelming to all shelters, rescues and the community.” 

As for Judy Furr, she has no regrets for the action she took to save those animals 50 years ago.

“There have been ups and down with NEAHS. … Some I was aware of, some not, but the one thing I’ve always known is that on that spring day in 1971, I did the right thing,” said Furr. “I take absolutely no credit for the success of this organization. It is all the people who have given their time, their money and their love to the animals of Northeast Arkansas who are the heroes.

“I’ve never been as proud of any group of people in my entire life as I am this group that makes up the Northeast Arkansas Humane Society. They are the heroes. I was just blessed to be a very small part of the good that was to come. I’m pretty sure I won’t be around for the 100th anniversary, but I’ll be there in spirit. God bless the animals. God bless NEAHS.”

For more information about pet adoption, donations, volunteering and fundraising opportunities, call NEAHS at (870) 932-5185, visit the facility at 6111 E. Highland Drive from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; or visit their website at neahs.org.