The History of Portsmouth Humane Society

Portsmouth Humane Society traces its roots back to the waning years of the 19th century. The original state charter was issued August 22, 1889 to the “Women’s Humane Society of Virginia.” The objective was, “The prevention of cruelty to dumb animals and children and the cultivation of kindness and mercy to every living creature, and to aid by all proper manners the enforcement of the law in respect to such matters.” Mrs. Alexa P. Grice was elected as the Society’s first President. The applicable laws were enforced vigorously. The Society placed books of complaint in various stores throughout the city. Any person who noted cruelty to animals or children could cite the circumstances in these books and the matter would be taken before the court. The records indicate the system seemed to work. Accused were brought to court and reprimanded or fined

In the early 1900s, the fortunes of the Society waxed and waned; however, the Ann Hope family was very helpful in Society efforts to carry out the stated objectives. By 1947, the Society had become somewhat inactive and Mrs. Bessie Aldrich asked the State Corporation Commission if it was still in existence. It was, but barely so, with little visibility. Mrs. Aldrich and Mrs. Mary Hope Broderick, daughter of Mrs. Anne Hope took on the task of resurrecting the floundering organization. They signed on as President and Secretary to get the Society moving again. Soon it was legally incorporated as The Portsmouth-Norfolk County Humane Society Inc.—a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) corporation. Money was scarce and the group sought means to raise funds to help care for the animals. In 1947, an anonymous donor gave $500 to be used for construction of a shelter. But costs were too high and the money had to be held in escrow until a later time when finances permitted the building of a shelter.

The original shelter was in a garage next to a veterinary clinic. Dr. Leon Lecht, owner of the clinic, donated the site, which opened in April 1948. This was the first facility, housing and treating animals instead of sending them to the city pound. After World War II, Mrs. Aldrich and Mrs. Maximine Eckstein and others worked tirelessly to revive the Society. They were assisted by Mrs. Mary Hope Broderick. In later years, Mrs. Broderick’s daughter, Mrs. Mary Hope “Kitty” Magann was an active and generous member of the Board. According to early records, in the 1950s, through tremendous efforts, they obtained a loan from the National Humane Society and were able to build the “Ann Hope Memorial Hospital” at 1000 Airline Blvd at the intersection of Airline Blvd. and Bart Street. Records indicate 1953 brought some significant changes. Mrs. Bessie Aldrich was elected President and the City of Portsmouth began to make an annual payment of $500 towards aiding the Society’s community-wide efforts. This was of great benefit since the Society’s finances were not entirely stable.

For years, the Society members had petitioned the City Council to improve treatment and care of animals in the City Pound. Conditions there were quite bad. In 1959, the City of Portsmouth did away with their Pound and began a contract with the Society to care for animals brought in by the Animal Control Officers. This harmonious relationship continues to the present day.

Mrs. Aldrich was persuaded to take on a full-time position as Executive Secretary of the Society in 1961. She agreed to try it for a year and she remained a driving force behind the Society’s expansion and improvements during her tenure. Mrs. Helen Chapman and Colonel Max C. Chapman became involved with Portsmouth Humane Society in 1969. Dr. Murrell Kise, a Vice President of Virginia Chemical Company took the torch as President, passing it to Colonel Chapman in the 1970s.

When the shelter moved to the site on Frederick Boulevard in 1981, they were able to expand the cinderblock building to include an education room. Aside from funding received from the City contract, the Society solicited help from the community and received needed funding through grants, contributions, and bequests. At that time, 65% of the shelter animals were brought in by Animal Control Officers and 15% were brought in as strays from concerned citizens. Keith Jeter, the Executive Director, began record keeping with a database in 1997. By 2002, the first Capital Campaign was underway. Mrs. Chapman noted, “When the shelter was built, the average dog was much smaller and the size preference for dogs in 2002 has increased markedly. The cages no longer accommodate many of the animals brought into the shelter.” It required a sizable amount of money to replace the cages at that time. Mr. Jeter pointed out that, “Space alone would not solve the problem of unwanted animals. We need to work to reduce the number of backyard breeders and to encourage people to have their animals spayed or neutered.” The Society has always sought to find homes for as many animals as possible and their goal in 2002 was to get the euthanasia rate below 50%. Another important facet of the Society operations was the educational outreach done by Mrs. Elizabeth Coburn, Humane Educator on staff. She began educational visits to schools, scouts, and other children’s groups and also made many pet therapy visits to nursing and retirement homes. She adopted and trained two fine dogs from PHS for this mission. One grateful resident at a retirement home, Mr. W. Mount, left a generous bequest to the Society in Mrs. Coburn’s honor.

As the Shelter aged, it was evident; another facility would be needed to serve the growing population of pets in Portsmouth. The Society’s second Capital Building Campaign was launched in December 2010. By December 2011, the new and current home of Portsmouth Humane Society was ready: 4022 Seaboard Court in the Industrial Park off of Greenwood Drive. This facility has a capacity for 110 cats and 90 dogs—a total of 200 animals.

At present (January 2019), Julie Poellnitz, Board President, leads a Board of seventeen Directors.  The friendly relationship with the City of Portsmouth is still in place. PHS serves as the public shelter for the City of Portsmouth.

Increasing both funding streams and volunteer assistance are two important goals to continue to successfully serve the animals in our care. The annual “Cause for Paws” signature event is held the last Saturday in April at North Landing Park in Portsmouth. A 5k race and pet friendly festival help the shelter raise necessary funding to provide a safe, temporary home for the animals which come through our doors.

** Some material for this history was taken from a Virginian-Pilot article dated 2002, with quotes from Mrs. Helen Chapman and Mr. Keith Jeter; a presentation given by Captain Richard Fox to the Rotary Club in 2002; and Shirley Fox, Board Secretary 2006-2010.