From its beginnings in 1975 as a small group of people concerned about animal welfare in Hays, the Humane Society of the High Plains and its shelter has grown into an organization that stands out across the state.

It’s success was not always assured, however.

“This shelter has probably been at a point where we were about to close. And then some angel came and saved us,” said Betty Hansen, manager of the Virginia Miller Animal Shelter.

Among those angels was Donna Limes, a longtime Hays resident who worked for many years as an administrative assistant at Southwestern Bell. She was reclusive and lived modestly, Hansen said, and occasionally would visit the shelter and give small donations.

When she passed away in 2004, she surprised many when she left an estate worth more than $2 million to the society. She and her dog, Ten, are memorialized with a portrait in the shelter.

Paul and Virginia Miller, the namesake of the shelter located 7 miles east of Hays, also are among those benefactors. Virginia died in 1993, and Paul wanted to honor her by building a new shelter.

By that time, the society’s original shelter had been expanded twice. Contracting with the city to perform animal control and an increase in surrendered animals from outside the county created a need for even more space.

The shelter opened in 1995 at its present site and can house 50 to 60 animals at a time, although they try to keep the numbers under that capacity.

That’s just about the right size to maintain the quality of care Hansen expects from staff and volunteers, she said.

“This works for this area,” she said.

“People come in here and one of the things we hear is, ‘You guys are so clean and it doesn’t stink,’ ” she said.

“I think that’s just because I’ve always been a firm believer that no animal is going to sit in its own crap. That’s one of the things I push with the kids in the back,” she said of the kennels and cat condos where adoptable and stray animals are sheltered.

“We do have enough staff that we’re constantly back there all day. The minute something happens, it’s cleaned up,” she said.

The shelter has two full-time employees — Hansen and assistant manager Jessica Frieb — and about a half dozen part-time employees.

Mornings at the shelter are spent cleaning, feeding and checking on animals as well as running any to one of the veterinary clinics in town when needed. The shelter is open to the public 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Volunteers also work with the animals, exercising dogs in the outside enclosure or playing with cats in one of the cat rooms.

It’s not just the big-dollar supporters who make that level of care possible, though, Hansen said. The society’s biggest fundraiser each year is January’s Souper Bowl, in which volunteer chefs vie for the Golden Ladle Award for their soup — enticing votes from ticket-buyers.

All the proceeds go to the shelter’s veterinary costs, which Hansen said is approximately $30,000. The shelter’s annual budget is approximately $110,000 a year.

Veterinary costs include spaying and neutering.

“We try to do as much of that as possible,” Hansen said.

While the state requires animals adopted from a shelter to be spayed or neutered, that can be done after the adoption. A deposit is added to the adoption fee and is refundable once the animal has been spayed or neutered.

Treating animals also is an expense, as the society runs a no-kill shelter. That's one thing some people still do not understand about HSHP, Hansen said.

“People to this day believe that we put them to sleep after three days,” she said.

The only euthanizations come when a veterinarian determines an animal is too sick or injured to be treated, she said.

“We euthanize very few,” Hansen said.

When the shelter has reached capacity, people wanting to surrender an animal will be put on a waiting list.

“We’ll call them when space is available instead of euthanize for space. We don't do that. A lot of places have to, but we don't do that here.

“Stray animals, we’ll find a place for them because they have no place to go.”

While there are few euthanizations, making those decisions can be difficult on the staff.

“You come to an understanding of what needs to be done and what you can fix and what you can't fix,” Hansen said,

“That's probably one of the hardest things to learn when you work here.”

But still, it's a difficult place to leave.

“It sucks you in,” Frieb said.

She started as a part-time employee while studying communications at Fort Hays State University.

“I got about halfway through school and realized I'd rather work with animals,” she said.

She finished her degree, though, and even moved away for a job. Six months later, she came back to work at the shelter.

“I tried to leave, and it sucked me right back in,” she said.

Hansen also started as a part-time employee more than 20 years ago. She's been the manager for approximately 10 years.

“I started as a kennel cleaner just like everyone else,” she said.

“I can't imagine at this point in my life doing anything else. I'm going to finish here.

“Over the years I've been here, we've had some rough times. But at this point, I think we're blessed to be where we're at, and it's because of the people in this community.”