By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Lee Harper’s love of animals and over two decades of work experience at Northwest nonprofits, plus a master’s in nonprofit leadership, all contributed to her being selected to be the new executive director of the Kitsap Humane Society.
Harper enjoys spending time with her tail-wagging buddies – Columbo, a 7-year-old yellow lab, and Sticks, a 13-year-old terrier/blue heeler mix. Both canines have personalities that make them ideal therapy dogs for visits to nursing facilities and hosting children’s reading time at libraries.
Harper was executive director of the Phinney Neighborhood Association in northwest Seattle for the last 10 and half years, where she connected residents to local community services such as childcare and the hot meals program.
“Lee came out way on top,” said Kitsap Humane Society board president Tina Chenevert, a member of the selection committee that selected Harper. Harper topped 60 candidates in a national search.
“Probably the most important thing we were looking for was someone who got our mission — not just got it but embraced the culture of our shelter, which is really special,” Chenevert said.
“She was hands-down our pick.”
The new director’s priorities include getting the shelter back on track as COVID restrictions ease, expanding the facility’s animal foster home program and overseeing the construction of KHS’s new veterinary lifesaving center.
“Our No. 1 priority is to navigate our way to being fully reopened again. The organization had to pivot really quickly last March. Now we need to pivot back,” Harper said.
When the pandemic hit, like many operations, the shelter had to drastically reduce staff and services. The facility was not able to have the public come in at any time to see animals available for adoption. The COVID shutdowns forced the facility to let go of 300 volunteers and half of the staff, the director noted.
“What we are doing now is figuring out how to safely open our doors to the public,” she said.
During the pandemic, many animals were not placed at the shelter due to reduced staffing but instead were hosted at foster homes.
“It’s much better for an animal to be in a home than to be in a shelter. That’s a trend we are seeing all around the country – to divert the animals before they spend any time in the shelter,” she said.
“Our foster program really blossomed [during the pandemic] and we want to keep that up,” Harper noted. In 2020, the KHS placed 1,075 pets in foster homes. Thirty percent of all animals coming to the shelter spent time in foster homes, a significant increase over the previous year, she said.
Under the foster program, an animal stays in a private home. The foster parents get to know the pet and put a description of the animal on the shelter’s website, such as, “This dog enjoys playing with balls and is really good with cats.”
When a family is interested in an animal, a “meet-and-greet” session is arranged at the shelter.
Another primary issue for Harper will be overseeing shelter improvements, including the construction of a veterinary lifesaving center on the facility’s seven-acre campus. The $6.4 million project includes a 6,000-square-foot building that will house multiple surgery suites. It is projected to open in early 2023.
Once completed, the center will enable low-income animal owners to get needed, but costly, procedures or surgery for their pets. Medical services will be provided on a sliding scale cost schedule based on the owner’s ability to pay.
Harper started in her new position in early April. She currently commutes from Seattle and remains in Kitsap County during the workweek. On May 1, she will move to Vinland, near Poulsbo.
Harper succeeds Eric Stevens, who will continue to serve the organization part-time as its capital campaign project director.
Kitsap Humane Society is a private, nonprofit organization that has cared for animals in need since 1908. For more information about the facility, visit www.kitsaphumane.org.