FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) It’s Friday morning and Belinda Lewis has spent most of her day so far responding to people talking about her retirement announcement.
The veteran director of Animal Care & Control said she never expected this much attention.
There are a number of achievements to praise Lewis for making happen in her 28 years as the head of Animal Care & Control, including building a new facility, submitting two animal protection bills in 2014 to the state Senate, busting a man for cockfighting in 2010 and reducing the number of euthanized animals in the county.
But she would never take the credit, not even for one of those.
Lewis might be leaving her position as director come Dec. 31, but she will remain the number one cheerleader for her team at the shelter.
“There isn’t anything they are not capable of,” Lewis said with a big smile on her face. “I’m proud that we never settled for what we’ve achieved. We have always continually improved, continually learned, continued to raise our bar. And they will never settle after I leave.”
Lewis said most of the staff is prepared for her to leave. It wasn’t a shocking announcement to them. However, that doesn’t make it any easier to see her leave.
Deputy Director Amy Jo Sites has worked at the shelter for 12 years. With tears in her eyes, Sites said she was thankful that Lewis had believed in her, and said she was “blessed” to work with her.
“It’s been an absolute joy and I’ve been given a lot of knowledge given to me that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else,” she said as she held back tears.
Lewis has a gift for understanding not only people, but animals, a trait that is evident in a program she said she was most proud of.
“We accidentally became one of the leading handlers of hoarders in our country,” she said.
“Years ago, when I first came here, it was hands-off for hoarders and collectors of animals. Partly because the animal control agencies who were handling it in those days became the bad guy,” Lewis explained. “We backed away and put together basically an internal governmental task force that included the nonprofits that could assist with the metal health side of what was going on with the hoarders themselves because we need to recognize they were victims as well.”
“A hoarder who is self-victimizing is as much in need of services as all those animals that they have victimized themselves,” Lewis said.
Throughout her career, Lewis has not tolerated cruelty to animals. According to the prosecutor’s office, they have handled about 30 inhumane and animal cruelty cases in the last two years, and it’s Lewis who sends those cases to the prosecutor.
“There are times it needs to be prosecuted so that we can put limits on those hoarders but not meant to be punitive because they need help too,” she said, adding that hoarders have a 100 percent recurrence rate if they don’t get treatment. “If we don’t intervene at a level that stops the hoarding and helps the hoarder as well as the animal we know it’s going to happen again and more animals will become victims.”
Lewis’ understanding of people doesn’t stop there. She’s been a part of putting a 90-day adoption probation period for volunteers at Animal Care & Control. She knows it’s easy to come in and want to help and adopt every animal.
“We are going to help you get passed that emotional roller coaster that working around all these animals provides,” Lewis explained. Although, seeing animals get a forever home is something that brings tears to her eyes.
“To be able to see those families go home with those pets that we thought might not have made it, that’s pretty, pretty exciting,” she said as her eyes started to tear up.
Lewis started working as director for a shelter in Michigan at a young age. She was 23 when she graduated and was contacted by a shelter board member who had seen her resume.
During college Lewis worked as a veterinarian technician.
“Once I got into the veterinarian clinic environment, I enjoyed the science behind it,” she said. “So basically I took a poverty job for $9,000… It was a trade-off to do something that I thought ‘oh my gosh, I think I could really do this, I think this would be my love.’”
It’s that love she brought with her to Animal Care & Control, which as Lewis explained, is now nationally recognized for being one of the most advanced and professional animal control agencies in the country for cruelty and neglect, neighborhood livability, bite cases handled and public health and safety.
That pattern of success leaves Lewis at peace.
“This is not sad for me,” she said. “I really have no regrets. I’ve done so many amazing things over the last 28 years that I’ve been here.”