Don’t ever think that Betsie Puffer doesn’t care about animals.
“People say — and this boggles my mind — people say, ‘I couldn’t do your job because I love animals too much,'” said Puffer, the cruelty investigator and euthanasia technician for the Central New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “I don’t understand that logic. You have to love animals to do this job.”
Puffer has been with the SPCA nearly a quarter of a century, having started there in the summer of 1984 as a caretaker in the kennels. She moved into the position of cruelty investigator that November when her predecessor left the organization. In that time, Puffer has seen the best and the worst in people, and, out of necessity, she’s developed ways to deal with it.
“You have to be realistic in this job,” Puffer said. “Not everybody takes care of their pets like I do or maybe you do. Everybody’s different. You have to be compassionate, not just for the animals, but also for the people you’re investigating. Sometimes you have to step outside the box and let your personal feelings go by the wayside.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. At the end of the day, when cases are too much, Puffer said she does have outlets for the emotions she experiences.
“I have stuff at home,” she said. “I have two cats and a dog of my own. I do crafts. I write poems and stories. That’s kind of a release for me. If I’m particularly upset about a case, I’ll write about it and put it in our newsletter.”
Still, Puffer said, it’s a tough job.
“A lot of people don’t understand,” she said. “You have to abide by the laws and enforce them as they’re written. It can be extremely frustrating.”
An emotional roller coaster
Frustration is just one of the obstacles faced by employees of the CNY SPCA when attempting to carry out the shelter’s mission, which, according to Puffer, is “to provide the best care possible to the thousands of animals per year that are homeless, abandoned, unwanted or abused.” The shelter has been in existence since 1891 and at its current location on East Molloy Road in Mattydale since 1952. It shelters about 70 dogs of all sizes and 150 cats — a full house.
“We’re pretty much always at capacity,” Puffer said. “If we have an ongoing cruelty investigation, sometimes we’re over capacity.”
The shelter keeps the subjects of cruelty investigations while police and Puffer are conducting the inquiry. Once the case is resolved, depending on the disposition of the court, the animals are usually freed up and adopted out.
While adoption is the ultimate goal for all shelter employees, it’s a bittersweet occasion.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster here every day,” Puffer said. “The caretakers in the kennels — they care for these animals each day as if they were their own. When animals are adopted, they have to say goodbye. It’s hard.”
That’s one of the reasons the CNY SPCA’s adoption policies are so stringent.
“People say our adoption policies are too strict,” Puffer said. “I don’t think so. We want them to go to the right home the first time. We don’t want to see them keep coming back.”
But the hardest part of her job, Puffer said, isn’t the cruelty investigation, nor is it taking back animals whose adoptive owners have returned them. It’s putting down animals who are sick or dying.
“It’s the hardest decision any pet owner can make,” said Puffer, who is also the shelter’s euthanasia tech. “It’s also the most unselfish. You have to get past your personal reasons why you can’t give up and let them go when they’re suffering. You have to let them die with dignity. That’s the hardest part of the job. I hate it, but it has to be done.”
Not everyone sees things as Puffer does. She said she’s been accosted in the grocery store and called an animal killer for fulfilling that obligation.
“I can’t stand to see them suffer,” she said. “It’s got to be done. I love animals too much. That’s why I do it, but a lot of people don’t understand that.”
Instead of offering criticism, Puffer said she wished more people would try to help the shelter.
“We need so much,” she said. “We always need blankets, good food, puppy and kitten formulas, office supplies, non-clumping cat litter, cat condos and scratching posts — everything a well-dressed critter needs.”
With spring approaching, shelter volunteers are also looking to put in a garden that potential adoptive families and animals can enjoy. Therefore, the CNY SPCA is also seeking donations of gardening equipment and landscaping supplies.
The shelter is dependent on financial donations and recently entered the Zoo Too Makeover contest, which puts it in the running for a $1 million makeover. Voting for the contest continues through March 31; for rules and more information, visit zootoo.com/makeover.
The makeover would give Puffer something she’s love to see: a totally new facility.
“That would be the nuts,” she said. “I dream of a new, state-of-the-art facility. I’d love to see a maternity area and a surgery center. That’s what I really want.”
Her ultimate goal, however, is one shared with other staffers: they’d like the CNY SPCA to go out of business.
“Everybody here has a dream that someday there will be no need for us anymore, or any other shelter for that matter,” Puffer said.
In their efforts to accomplish that goal, shelter employees and volunteers keep plugging away, providing care for animals and education for people. But, as Puffer said, it’s slow going.
“Sometimes I feel like a broken record,” she said. “I keep telling people the same thing — spay and neuter your pets. But that is the biggest way to control the overpopulation problem.”
Puffer said she’s not giving up yet.
“I think we do make a difference,” she said. “We must be doing something right. I’m still here after 20-something years. I think that’s pretty good.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.