There isn’t much to brag about at the Animal Welfare Society of Howard County in Columbia. Debris and the stench of urine fill two dilapidated buildings and hint at a horrid past, when a 2019 Animal Control raid found more than 100 abused animals living there in unacceptable conditions.
Robert Hicks, of Columbia, however, sees only possibilities when he stands on the 5-acre property.
In the former home of Marie Werking, the society’s founder, Hicks sees a reception area, kennels and a veterinary clinic. In the second building, with its small dog runs and a cat room, his vision is less clear, though he hopes to one day see a successful dog rescue operation in place.
As the new executive director of Animal Welfare Society of Howard County, Hicks, 68, is spearheading the project to get the society up and running by cutting through the red tape to get the proper documents in place and with old-fashioned elbow grease to bring it up to standards.
“For the longest time, it was a real gem of an operation,” Hicks said. “In 2015, things started going south. There are a lot of legal issues to combat.”
A retired contractor for a U.S. Intelligence Community company, Hicks has spent the past five years of his retirement as the associate director for Canine Humane Network in Highland, a nonprofit founded by his wife, Mona, who is also the executive director. About a year ago, Canine Humane Network was approached by a group of concerned citizens who were attempting to take control away from the Animal Welfare Society of Howard County’s board of directors.
While the group was unsuccessful, the Canine Humane Network was able to work out an agreement with the Animal Welfare Society’s board that gave them control. The state of Maryland requires nonprofits with similar missions to have separate boards, so Hicks became executive director of Animal Welfare Society of Howard County and recruited new board members.
Now, Hicks is working full-time on tackling the many issues facing the nonprofit.
“There is some skepticism and concern because of things that happened here in past years,” Hicks said. “It is a huge project.”
Problems for the society, which was founded in 1944, began in 2018 when Robin Deltuva, the former president and treasurer of the board of directors, was convicted of stealing nearly $40,000 from the shelter and sentenced to jail time. As part of her sentencing, she was also ordered to repay what she took, according to electronic court records.
“The debt is still owed,” Hicks said. “We are trying to get that back.”
Deltuva could not be reached for comment for this story.
Just over a year later, Scott Pascucci and Julie Mazurkiewicz, former board members in charge of the shelter after Deltuva was arrested, were arrested and each charged with 50 counts of animal cruelty after a Howard County police and Animal Control raid in May 2019 found 165 animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and turtles, in poor condition.
Pascucci was sentenced in January 2020 to 90 days in jail for the charges, with the entire sentence suspended by a Howard County District Court judge. The charges against Mazurkiewicz were dismissed last year after Pasucci pleaded guilty and was sentenced, according to Yolanda Vazquez, spokesperson for the Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Another issue, Hicks said, was who owned the property.
“It belongs to a trust, but all the trustees are deceased,” Hicks said. “Howard County is the contingent beneficiary. We are working with the county Office of Law to interview candidates for five vacancies for trustees.”
Until this past May, the nonprofit was not allowed to do any fundraising because the property had received a cease and decease order after the raid, Hicks said. After signing an assurance of voluntary compliance with the state of Maryland, Hicks was given a consent order and was allowed to start fundraising.
“As [the welfare society] is a beneficiary, we have no rent or property tax as we are a commercially exempt property,” Hicks said. “That saves us a ton of money. We still have our work cut out for us.”
Throughout both vacant buildings at the site, posted signs like “$15,000 for HVAC” and “$7,700 floors” inform visitors of the work that needs to be done and the cost.
The welfare society is allowed to partner with the Canine Humane Network to host events, such as an open house this past June.
“The reason for the open house was for people to come in and have a look,” Hicks said. “It was pretty eye-opening to see what we have to contend with.”
On July 10, a work party took place. Christopher Weir, chief junk hauler and founder of Spartan Junk Removal in Laurel, donated his crews and trucks for the event to help Hicks haul things away.
“Animals are a real important part of our community, and they are often underserved,” Weird said. “Hopefully, we’ll stir up other people into wanting to help.”
Animal Welfare Society of Howard County board member Lisa Pellegrino is encouraged by everyone who has come out to help so far.
“Part of the betrayal was all the volunteers who donated their time and resources before,” Pellegrino said. “We have to [re]establish trust with the community. That is critical. Volunteers make this type of organization run.”
The goal is to have the welfare society open this fall and conduct outdoor training classes, Hicks said. The timeline is looser after that, with the opening of a veterinary clinic in the basement planned for the next phase, followed by the opening of a training center and a possible dog park.
“Dogs are what we know, but we are getting a lot of requests from the community for cats,” Hicks said. “We’ll have some kennels, but we’ll [mainly] use foster care.”
Volunteers are needed not only on the work days but also to help at the shelter, host foster dogs and for a variety of other jobs. Donations, whether monetary or supplies, are always welcome, Hicks said, and there is a page on the society’s website listing its needs. While a date has not yet been set, Hicks is planning to host another work day soon.
“Some folks are concerned and doubtful because it had such an unpleasant past,” Hicks said. “I truly think this will come back and become a part of the community. People have been volunteering here for years. There is a lot of love left in the community for this organization if it gets its act together.”