The Twin Cities-based Animal Humane Society says a $6 million estate bequest — the largest gift in the organization's history — will kick-start a transformation of animal care in the metro area.
Steven Nordberg and Betsy McDonald were dedicated volunteers who cared for what are known as bottle babies — orphaned kittens that have to be raised and fed by hand, around the clock to start.
"They'd email me and they’d say ‘We got a bottle baby. We feel like we won the lottery,’” recalled Sally Thornton, a fundraiser at the Humane Society who got to know the Bloomington couple.
Now with their donation — coming after Nordberg died in 2020 and McDonald died last year — it’s like the cats won the lottery this time. And dogs. And rabbits and parakeets, and the whole menagerie of critters the Humane Society takes in.
Nordberg was a founder of VUE, a computer-based testing company, later sold to Pearson. And that left a sizeable estate — from which the significant donation is going to the Animal Humane Society.
“We knew that they had made a plan for animals in their estate,” Humane Society CEO Janelle Dixon said. “We had no idea of the dollar amount, so that $6 million gift was quite a surprise.”
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Dixon said its the biggest single gift ever to the Golden Valley-based organization.
And, it turns out, a very timely one.
For a whole host of reasons, from Facebook to the COVID pandemic, Dixon said people’s relationships with animals are changing radically. In a few generations, dogs have moved from backyards all the way into people's bedrooms. Cats have their own video genre. Animals are members of families more than ever before. More than two thirds of U.S. families have a pet.
And that has the Humane Society rethinking the way it does business.
"A lot of work by humane societies — not just ours, but organizations across the country — has been very historically focused on adoption. And adoption will always be something that humane societies do, but it isn't the mission of an animal welfare organization. It's a program that really historically was necessary to save the lives of animals,” Dixon said.
Historically. Now, not as much.
Education and philanthropy have made substantial progress easing animal overpopulation, particularly in the Twin Cities, which now imports many shelter dogs from out of state.
Which has Dixon and the Animal Humane Society thinking about what's next on their list — animal care, not just animal shelter.
"But we don't have, really, the space that's needed to do that," she said.
So the Humane Society is going big. Really big. It bought the Brock White construction materials warehouse beside Highway 280 in St. Paul. It's about the size of a Walmart Supercenter.
"If you were to drive up to the building five, 10 years from now, you would experience the joy of animals in people's lives," Dixon said.
There will still be shelter and adoption space. But plans also call for a dog park, an agility training area — even an amphitheater for people and pets together. Think dog movie night.
A new cat shelter will have outdoor access and green grass. There'll be communal housing for dogs. The Humane Society is also expanding its subsidized veterinary care and behavioral programs, and there'll be a food shelf for pet food and supplies. The goal is to keep pets in the homes they have.
The space will also help accommodate large humane investigation cases — like the call to take in 47 cats found in an SUV at an interstate rest stop near Harris, Minn., earlier this month.
The shift has already started: Humane Society shelters in Buffalo and St. Paul have closed. The master plan will relocate shelter and adoption away from Humane Society locations in Woodbury and Coon Rapids, and instead offer more programming and care at those sites.
Dixon says she thinks the project will be groundbreaking.
"This is very different. It's not something that's been done in animal welfare across the country, so we think and believe that it's also a potential model for people to think about what we do for our community," she said.
The project is expected to cost more than $40 million overall — starting construction in 2024 and opening its doors as soon as late 2025. The most recent gift comes ahead of a major capital campaign launching in a few months.