For the last nearly 30 years, Donna Wambeke has devoted a significant amount of her time and effort to helping animals across the Lakes Area. She was on the ground floor of the creation and development of the Heartland Animal Rescue Team (HART), and continues to lead HART as the organization’s executive director.
She recalls that when HART was started in April, 1987, the organization had no building and relied on volunteers to foster homeless animals. Donna had seen an article in the paper about the organization’s founding, and was a member by day two.
“We started with no building, no money- just some caring people,” Donna said. “We got donations for dog food, and would go to construction sites and get old lumber for dog houses.”
In 1990 HART was donated money to operate out of a storefront in Brainerd. In 1992, HART purchased the building where it’s currently located- but it needed a source of income to sustain itself.
Donna spearheaded a project to have a consistent source of income by providing impounding services for area cities. She started getting contracts, and today HART has agreements with 18 municipalities. Municipalities pay a fee so that if there’s a stray dog in the city, it can be brought to HART for care. That side of HART’s work has allowed the shelter to grow and thrive.
“We started out with about a $200 a year budget. Today when I did the budget for the fiscal year it’s $390,000,” Donna said.
The growth of HART allowed the organization to perform a major remodel. Donna is particularly proud of the dog kennel. It’s open air, with good-sized enclosures for each dog. Every dog has a bed, blanket, toy, and plenty of fresh air thanks to a high-quality ventilation system.
Donna said that while an animal shelter is often perceived to be a sad place for dogs, that’s not really the case at HART.
“So many people have the icky, dark, dreary impounds in their head,” Donna said. “I don’t feel bad for these (dogs and cats at HART), I feel sorry for the ones that should be here and aren’t. The ones tied up, starving, or having babies in wood piles.”
All the animals at HART are well cared for, given regular walks and plenty of attention. They have plastic swimming pools to play in during the summer, and get a frozen kong every morning. But it’s still just a temporary home for the dogs and cats that come to HART- and 1,200 to 1,500 come through the doors every year.
Donna said that the spay and neuter message has really gotten out across the Lakes Area, and stray dogs here have become less of a problem. So, whenever HART has space in its shelter, it takes dogs from other, overcrowded areas and has them transported to HART, where they’re adopted out. They receive 20 dogs a month from one organization, and 10-15 a month from another organization. Often the dogs come from areas of North Dakota or southern states like Tennessee or Kentucky.
“The majority of our animals are transfers, which makes us feel really good because they’re coming out of high-kill shelters or impound facilities,” Donna said.
HART is a low-kill shelter, which means that there are very few instances in which animals at the shelter are euthanized. Usually it’s when they’ve attacked humans or are ill and can’t be saved.
“We are going to go the extra mile for the stray, for any animal you bring in here,” Donna said. “We work really hard to get these animals adopted. Going to HART is never a death sentence for any animal.”
High-kill shelters often have a limit on how long a dog or cat can be at the shelter before, if they’re not adopted, they’re euthanized. Sometimes that time period is just five to seven days. That does not happen at HART.
“We have no time limit,” Donna said. “People come in here and say, ‘You’re not going to kill it, are you?’ and I say, ‘Why would I?’”
At HART all the animals are kept for seven days before they go on the adoption floor. They’re spayed or neutered, microchipped, vaccinated, receive flea and tick treatment, and are de-wormed. All of this is included in a $150 adoption fee. The dogs are also temperament tested so they can be matched with the best home for their personality.
HART has an open-door policy for all stray animals. For surrenders, though, the shelter has a list of guidelines that must be met. The dog or cat being surrendered has to be under a certain age, and must not have bit or attacked a human. If HART staff can’t handle the dog or cat, it can’t be accepted because staff needs to be able to care for the animal. Donna said that often old cats do not do well in a shelter, as they hide and seclude themselves. Some even shut down completely and don’t make it. That’s why it’s important for those animals to find a home through different means.
At HART, a staff of 13 who Donna describes as “very caring individuals” does its very best to find a good home and positive outcome for every animal that comes through the door. Many staff members have been at HART for 10-15 years. The shelter is a non-profit and is governed by a board of directors who care about HART’s cause.
After nearly 30 years, Donna said that her continued involvement in HART, as well as that of her colleagues, comes down to passion.
“It’s not a job, it’s a passion,” she said.
To learn more about HART, support its cause or see some of the adoptable animals, visit www.hartpets.org.