Natural-Born Protector

From volunteer to president and beyond, Kelly Austin has dedicated 20 tireless years to the ethical treatment of animals at the Worcester County Humane Society

Written by Brian Shane  /  Photography by Grant L. Gursky

Anne O’Connell remembers well the day she adopted her kitten, Frances, from the Worcester County Humane Society. What made it special was learning that a shelter volunteer named Kelly Austin had rescued Frances from an abandoned and starving litter and nursed her back to health.

“That is the essence of Kelly,” said O’Connell, now a volunteer at the shelter who also serves its treasurer. “She is a dedicated advocate of the shelter and, more broadly, animal welfare in general. She has an incredible energy when it comes to making sure all the animals at the shelter are properly cared for, loved, and, hopefully, adopted. It’s clear that our shelter is her mission.”

Austin has passionately devoted the last 20 years to helping the Worcester County Humane Society, as a volunteer, its former president and now the vice-presidential board member in charge of shelter operations.

Their no-kill shelter, located on the outskirts of West Ocean City, keeps animals on the premises until they are adopted. Last year, the shelter took in 342 cats and 87 dogs, and eventually placed 241 cats and 119 dogs with new owners, according to Austin.

“Kitten season this year was really long,” she recalled, as countless felines scampered underfoot in one of the shelter’s many enclosed cat areas. “While we did do lots of adoptions, we don’t have as many kittens left, because, typically, the first thing people want are babies.”

Austin works as a Maryland State Police Trooper stationed at the Princess Anne barracks. There, Det. Sgt. Austin oversees reports and the property room — a job already demanding enough without also taking on the responsibilities of feeding, housing and caring for 200 cats and 24 dogs in her spare time.

Remarkably, she also shepherded the Humane Society (which is unaffiliated with the national group of the same name) out from under a financial crisis in 2013, after a former board president departed under accusations of mismanaging funds and shelter operations. Under Austin’s subsequent leadership, a tight-knit team of supporters and volunteers made possible the organization’s turnaround.

“Everything was completely restructured — board of directors, written policies, research, better record-keeping,” Austin said. “Everything that a new organization needs is what we have done, starting from scratch and rebuilding.”

The shelter has also grown its services in recent years, offering free pet food to all takers, a low-cost spay-and-neuter clinic, as well as running a West Ocean City thrift store, where all proceeds benefit the shelter.

It takes about $500,000 annually to care for the hundreds of animals under Austin’s watch. For the most recent fiscal year, which ended July 31, 2018, the shelter’s expenses totaled $516,363 — accounting for payroll, veterinary bills, diagnostic testing and medicines, food, litter, insurance and so on. For its FY17, the total was $468,393. O’Connell said the FY18 increase was related to higher payroll and insurance costs.

Many other costs are offset under a working partnership with the town Ocean City, which owns the building and rents to the Humane Society for $1 a year. But that building is now 30 years old, and so the Humane Society is now embarking upon the earliest stages of an estimated $8 million capital campaign, to replace their existing headquarters with a new center that will better suit the community’s needs.

Austin particularly hopes the new facility will have the luxury of different air handlers to prevent upper-respiratory infections that sometimes are a problem for their shelter cats. It’s one of the reasons they have so many spaces for felines to pop outside for fresh air.

She’s also proud to say that the shelter now has more volunteers on hand than at any time in its history — a core group of animal lovers whose unsung efforts are crucial to the daily grind of running a shelter.

“It’s not just a one-person organization — it belongs to the public,” Austin said. “We consider ourselves a family. And we’re all passionate about what we do here. We’re all working for a common goal. Animals are what everybody has in their heart. That’s why we’re all here.”