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July 18, 2018

New building is a step into future for 146-year-old horse protection organization

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Meris Bickford, CEO of the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals, shows off plans for the new horse arena at the Windham site.
Photo / Maureen Milliken
One of the residents of the MSSPA in Windham. The private 501(c)(3) takes in horses that have been seized by the state's law enforcement agencies because of abuse or neglect. It rehabilitates them and finds them new homes.

WINDHAM -- Meris Bickford knew right away that JM Brown of Hermon was the right general contractor for the 15,540-square-foot horse arena being built at the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals.

He's a horse guy.

"He said to his crew, 'This is a horse farm, so when we're doing something that's going to upset the horses, we have to let them know," Bickford, chief executive officer of the MSSPA, said Tuesday.

At the 124-acre MSSPA farm, it's all about the horses, including the new building that Bickford says will help strengthen the organization's mission to rehabilitate horses and find them new homes.

The new arena not only has the goal of consolidating the 146-year-old organization's offices and other functions under one modern and efficient roof, but making life better for the dozens of horses — some aging, most ill or suffering other effects of neglect — living and being rehabilitated at the farm.

The $2 million project is the first capital project for the organization in more than 40 years, and includes infrastructure, including new septic and water systems, parking and more.

When it's completed this fall, it will combine all the MSSPA's functions under one roof for the first time in its history.

A tight ship

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The 15,540-square-foot horse arena at the MSSPA will also house the organization's people functions.

The MSSPA was founded in Portland in 1872 to protect the horses that pulled the city's fire trucks and street cars. As gas engines took over, the organization, which had headquarters on Exchange Street, became largely inactive.

But in the 1970s, Portland-area businessman Lawrence Keddy took over, moving it to the farm in Windham, on land he leased from the state across River Road from what is now the Maine Correctional Center.

In 1990, when Keddy wanted to build a bigger barn on the site, he bought the 124 acres.

The farm used to care for other animals — the 19th century farmhouse on the property due for demolition next month still bears a distinct aura of dog and cat. Several years ago, the MSSPA honed the focus to horses.

The horses are brought to the organization by law enforcement agents, most seized because of abuse or neglect.

When Bickford, an attorney and one-time president of the Maine State Bar Association, became CEO in 2007, there were 90 horses at the farm. That's about 50 too many, she said Tuesday.

"They were doing a great job of taking care of the horses, but not of adopting them out," she said.

Currently there are 34 horses at the shelter and another 10 in foster care. Last year, the farm took in 23 and adopted out 19. There's no typical pattern, though, Bickford said. It all has to do with how vigilant law enforcement is, how many animals are brought in and how many suitable adopters can be found.

The vetting process for adoption is stringent, and the organization follows up through the horse's life. If the new home doesn't work out, the horse comes back to the farm.

The farm was upgraded in recent years to meet the standards of the Global Federation of Animal Shelters, which helps with grant applications.

Bickford runs a tight ship on the organization's $1 million budget, funding by donations, grants and fundraising. It doesn't charge for any of it services. Anything that can be reused or recycled, is.

"If someone gives us towels, we find a use for the towels," she said, picking up a pile that had been left at the farmhouse.

The manure is taken away every six or seven weeks by Benson Farm Earth Products in Gorham, which composts it. Bickford said horse waste is a great base material for compost.

"It works out well," she said. "We don't charge him and he doesn't charge us."

The MSSPA relies on more than 200 volunteers to help with everything from the daily stall cleaning and paddock picking to helping vet prospective adopters.

There are also several paddocks and acres of meadow, where about half of the 20,000 bales of hay needed in a year for the horses is grown.

"This is a business," she said. "If we don't have business sense, if we don't run it as a business, it's not going to work."

New space for humans, horses

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Meris Bickford, CEO of the MSSPA, visits with one of the residents in the organization's "big barn" in Windham.

The new arena is being built largely with a donor gift to the organization, as well as savings.

The organization may have "state" in its name, but it's a private 501(c)(3) organization and gets no funding from the state, local or national government.

The arena will be the Lawrence J. Keddy and Marilyn Goodreau Equine Rehabilitation Facility, after Keddy, who died in 2000 and his longtime partner, Goodreau, who lives nearby and has always been actively involved with the shelter.

Keddy left "a modest amount" for the farm, Bickford said. Since she took over, the endowment has grown from $4 million to $10 million, but it's always a scramble to raise money.

While it's not the primary focus of the new arena, Bickford said the building will make it easier to hold events and welcome the public.

The yearly December open house how is usually held in the 23-stall "big barn," the horses put out the paddocks.

She said the event can draw 4,000 people over four hours. "It's always been a challenge," Bickford said. "Where do we put everybody?"

It will also make it easier for the organization to function.

The offices of the MSSPA are currently a short drive away.

At the farm, there are no public restrooms. The farmhouse has a conference room and space for staff and volunteers to gather, but it's in disrepair and not efficient.

The building will have another nearly 6,000 square feet that will house the MSSPA office, public restrooms, a meeting room that accommodates 49 and looks out over the arena, veterinarian space, a washroom for horses, a tack room, laundry and more.

Among the benefits, the organization will be able to bring more school children to the farm, instead of visiting schools with its education program.

But, aside from the benefits to the organization, the most important function of the new arena is about the horses.

Besides the big barn, where most of the horses are stalled, there is also the "little barn," the original barn on the site, which doesn't meet modern accreditation standards.

Veterinarians now treat the horses in the barn, which isn't a sanitary environment for treating wounds.

The arena area will be 9,593 square feet.

Currently, the horses exercise and are trained outside, and that can be dangerous for horses that are injured, aged or sick in the winter or during bad weather. As stalls are cleaned out, horses are also shifted from stall to stall.

The arena will allow horses space to room when the weather's bad.

"We're giving them a 120-by-84 foot space where they can run around," she said.

Having the all-weather training space is also necessary to help the organization get horses ready to adopt out.

"There are only about 70 days a year in Maine when it's not too hot, too cold, too buggy, too muddy, to train a horse outside," she said.

There will also be a new asphalt parking lot, and the area where the farmhouse is will be an additional grass lot and picnic area.

Bright futures

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
MSSPA's arena, right, joins barns, paddocks, meadows and woods on 124 acres. Maine Correctional Center is at rear.

Work on the new arena began in June. Aside from general contractor JM Brown, Shaw Brothers Construction of Gorham is doing the extensive site work.

Tuesday, as Bickford talked to staff and volunteers, appliances that had been sold on Craigslist were being moved out of the old farmhouse.

Habitat for Humanity was going to stop by later and take the large plexiglass doors from the dog kennels that still line a back area of the farmhouse.

It will take about two weeks of remediation because of asbestos tiles and other issues before the building can be torn down.

A bulletin board in the entry of the farmhouse held name tags for the large crew of volunteers who help keep the farm running, along with its small staff. Nearby, a wall monitor flashed before and after photos of some of the farm's residents.

Bickford is an attorney, but has been around horses all her life.

"My mother says I was born neighing," she said.

While she stresses the focus on the horses, the organization has much more going on.

Beyond the meadows, there are 30 acres of woods along the Colley Wright Brook Watershed.

She's in discussions with the Maine Farmland Trust for a conservation easement for the land, and her vision is access for hikers, birders, making a riding trail.

"We're right between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, we have this great farm that people don't access," she said.

The public is always welcome to visit — it's open every day after 1 p.m.

The farm also has a program with its neighbor, the Maine Correctional Center, which is the state women's prison, and the Southern Maine Re-entry Center.

She said the program is beneficial both for the horses and the women.

"The women intuitively see the parallels" between the horses' arc and their own.

At the farm they function like all the other volunteers, making their own lunch, wearing what they want.

"They're treated like people," she said. "And they realize if the horses can do well, so can they."

Many of the horses that are brought to the farm are in dire condition, often near death.

It costs about $3,000 a year simply to feed a horse. Healthy ones weigh between 1,000 and 1,800 pounds. They are sensitive animals and require a lot of care.

"They are not cheap," Bickford said. She said some of the horses that come to the shelter are the product of owners who were overwhelmed by the amount of care they needed.

"Those owners are workable," Bickford said.

But Bickford, who once was a child welfare prosecutor, also sees many horses who are the victims of something worse. She sees the link with people who treat animals poorly and domestic violence.

Abused animals can't leave. "They're prisoners and can't do anything about it," she said. "That's why we're here."

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