COLUMBIA — Supporters of the Central Missouri Humane Society came out in force Thursday morning to celebrate the shelter's early success in a competition for a million-dollar makeover from a Web site for pet-lovers.
After parading down Broadway in a trolley, Mayor Darwin Hindman, Zootoo.com founder Richard Thompson and Central Missouri Humane Society staff and volunteers gathered with supporters in front of the shelter on Big Bear Boulevard. There, Thompson presented the shelter a $10,000 check for winning first place in the first round of the Zootoo competition.
The shelter will receive another $5,000 check on April 7 in Las Vegas for being in the top 20. Thompson, who is on a nationwide tour of the top 20 shelters in the competition, rallied the crowd with a speech before joining staff and board members on a tour of the shelter.
Amanda Huhman and Libby Burkes, two 13-year-old girls from Columbia Catholic School, discovered the makeover contest online and started spreading the word to family and friends. In just a few short months, the shelter went from No. 859 to first place.
"Out of 20,000 shelters in America, you're No. 1," Thompson said. "This is girl power. It's about the next generation. If we can get the next generation online helping animals, we're going to have a big success on the animal welfare side."
Ann Peters, a member of the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission and a foster parent for shelter animals, stood on Broadway with a thank-you sign while the trolley rolled by.
"It's seriously underfunded. The facilities that are out at the animal shelter are inadequate," Peters said. "When you look at the size of Columbia, the shelter hasn’t grown and kept pace with Columbia. For the amount of money they get, they do an incredible amount with it."
Kerry Goyette took her daughter, Megan, out of school for the event. Megan has been following the contest, and the family adopted a cat from the shelter a few weeks ago.
Columbia Catholic School bused sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to the shelter to let the students be a part of the welcoming ceremony.
Peters recognized the work Amanda and Libby have done. "They are absolutely outstanding," she said. "A lot of people forget them, and you can’t forget the two girls that dared to dream big, and they should be mentioned by name — and often."
Thompson mentioned the possibility of Amanda and Libby being invited to appear on Rachel Ray's show and the "Ellen DeGeneres Show."
"These girls are the spark in Columbia," Thompson said.
Zootoo.com's visit to the Humane Society comes only months after the shelter released a plan to reach financial stability.
In August, the shelter's executive director, Patty Forister, said, "Even though we have increased all income categories over the last two years, we’ve just been squeaking by."
The shelter reduced its hours of operations to cut back on spending. Now, the doors are open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
Decreased spending and increased public support during 2008 allowed the shelter to "end in the black" for the first time in at least three years, Forister said on Thursday.
But with a projected 2009 budget reaching $876,500, Forister said, limited cash flow is keeping the shelter from improving.
"The money that we made was a nice little windfall, but it's not going to build us a new building," she said. "It sounds like we're rich, but we're not. If I had to make a $10,000 repair today, I couldn't."
Forister said the $10,000 Zootoo check will be deposited in the general funds to support the shelter's daily operations.
"We're kind of living like a lot of people now — from paycheck to paycheck," Forister said.
Forister seemed hopeful after Thompson’s visit. “We have a really great chance," she said, "and so we'll need the support more than ever."