Sarah Baeckler Davis started in her position as executive director at Humane Society Naples just days after Hurricane Irma had run its course, leaving fallen trees, storm-tossed signs and strewn debris throughout the region. In some areas of Collier County and beyond, families hit hard by the storm couldn’t afford to keep taking care of their pets.
Baeckler Davis, a longtime animal advocate, led the charge to get these animals off the streets and into shelters and permanent homes, taking in strays from as far as Puerto Rico. “It really brought to mind how much of almost an afterthought the animal piece of that puzzle has to be for many people,” she says. “It made me want to not just be ready for when another one hits, but also to be able to help in other situations.”
The organization launched 60 years ago when a group of residents noticed a lack of care for abandoned pets around Naples and took on the responsibility, fostering at-risk animals in their own homes for the first three years.
Over the decades, the nonprofit has grown into a multilocation, full-fledged organization. The group has found homes for more than 100,000 pets that have been abandoned or abused in Collier County. “My predecessor, and those who came before, did an incredible job of building support here for our mission—and the community loves that mission,” Baeckler Davis says.
Having led the organization for three years now, she has expanded the organization’s reach, restructuring the business side of the nonprofit, partnering with other agencies, advocating for at-risk animals. She’s also made staggering improvements to the veterinary program. “She exceeded every reasonable expectation that I had for her,” says Robert Bulloch, former president of HSN’s board of directors.
The 43-year-old Baeckler Davis came to HSN with basically no prior experience in domestic animal work, aside from a volunteer position in her teens at a veterinary clinic in New Jersey that evolved into a summer job in her early 20s.
Instead, she had spent the previous two decades working to put an end to research on chimpanzees and saving hundreds of primates from universities, labs and even private ownership around the country when the government declared captive chimps to be endangered in 2015. Growing up, she planned to work as a domestic veterinarian, but working with research chimps in college and an early idolization of primatologist Jane Goodall steered her in another direction.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in primate behavior from Central Washington University and a degree in animal law from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. In her late teens, she had the opportunity to visit Tanzania, where Goodall did most of her work, and she shared a stage with the revered primatologist at one point a few years later.
Baeckler Davis went on run two successful primate sanctuaries—the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest in Washington and Project Chimps in Georgia, which she founded in 2014. “Getting those last 300 chimps out (of research) was sort of the pinnacle for me in terms of what I felt like we collectively needed to accomplish for chimps in the U.S.,” she says. “Having accomplished those things, I decided to shift gears back to cats and dogs.”
In 2017, when longtime HSN leader Michael Simonik decided to retire, the leadership team started the search for a new executive director. As sitting president of the board at the time, Bulloch asked Simonik what he should be looking for in a replacement. Simonik, who helped shepherd HSN into its no-kill status, thought that they needed a business person to help expand the group.
In three years, Baeckler Davis has made an undeniable impact. “She’s so open-minded and she keeps us on a progressive path,” shelter manager Kristin Sampson says. “And what the public does not see is that she takes ownership of almost every animal that comes in.” Sampson says her boss is equally hands-on, whether it be administrative work or occaisionally cleaning dog kennels with her colleagues.
Some of Baeckler Davis’ most prominent accomplishments include opening the new von Arx Adoption Center in North Naples; remodeling the centers to be more comfortable for the rescues with no cages, ample spaces and screened-in patios for cats; reducing cost of the on-site veterinary services and transforming the Oakes Campus intake facility to include a rehabilitation program for animals with behavioral issues.
The visionary leader has also spearheaded the formation of several initiatives that work to get at-risk animals into permanent homes. Pat Murphy—who started volunteering with HSN 20 years ago and is the longest serving foster at the shelter (she still owns one of her first foster cats, Pokey)—is especially keen on the program Baeckler Davis created to help advocate for, and adopt out, cats with feline leukemia virus. Many potential pet owners are anxious that these cats will be difficult to care for, or have a short lifespan. But the team at HSN works to educate them on how they can best help the animals enjoy long, healthy lives.
Another effort to soon hit the streets is a mobile vet clinic, which was made possible by a $400,000 donation from local philanthropist Jennifer Conery in memory of her late boxer, Paige. The truck, which is equipped to carry out spay and neuter services along with routine wellness checks, was almost ready to roll out when the pandemic hit, putting a pause on the staffing process. But plans are still underway, and philanthropists Patty and Jay Baker have already pitched in to sponsor the creation of a second truck.
“This is going to be an exciting two, five and 10 years in the future for the Humane Society Naples,” Bulloch says. “We’ve always been one to watch and I think we are blessed to have so many people support us in this town. But I think you’re going to see more and more people be drawn to us because of the innovative ways that we’re delivering on what we say under Sarah’s leadership.”
Photography: Brian Tietz/Courtesy of Humane Society Mobile Clinic