April 28, 2017
It’s been nearly a year since the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals lost George Bengal, the face of its humane law-enforcement mission, to a rare form of cancer.
That year has seen changes in the organization, from a new CEO to Bengal’s right-hand woman – Nicole Wilson – taking over where the SPCA’s public face left off before losing his battle with peritoneal mesothelioma.
When I spoke with Bengal less than a month before his passing, he told me that his faith left him prepared for whatever comes after death. He knew his time was limited, but he shared one last wish.
“We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make the program what it is. This is not about one single person. It’s about carrying the program forward,” he said. “I’ll be gone. I want to see the public support this program. If we were to go away and not do this anymore, there’s nobody to fill the void.”
He would be happy to know that the humane law-enforcement mission has not gone away.
Sure, it’s cut back on the number of part-time officers, but there are still 10 full-time investigators working to protect and defend the rights of animals across the society’s 23-county jurisdiction.
Julie Klim took over as the PSCPA’s CEO in October 2016 after serving on its board of directors. She said the cutbacks – which include one full-time officer in Philadelphia – are “entirely a funding issue.”
“Humane law-enforcement is what makes us unique, so I hope that the cutbacks are temporary,” she said, noting that the officers “set the highest standard.”
“You can’t lose someone like George and not feel his absence every day. He was an icon,” she continued, noting the officers have had a 95 percent conviction rate in the past year. “Like he said, there was no one better suited to take over than Nicole. Hopefully, he’s looking down proud of her. With more funding, we can go back to expanding.”
Klim explained that Pennsylvania lagged behind many states in the nation when it came to animal-abuse penalties but this bill would bump summary offenses to misdemeanors and misdemeanors to felonies in some cases.
“We were really behind. Hopefully, this will get us on par with other states,” she told PhillyVoice on Friday.
The PSPCA continues to live up to its mission since Bengal’s passing.
Just this week, its adorably popular Uber Puppies program raised some $5,000 for the organization while finding new homes for 16 of those cute creatures, according to Gillian Kocher, the PSPCA's director of public relations.
It will also host the second annual “A Night for George” fundraiser to help keep his animal-abuse prevention mission alive through the George Bengal Fund to End Animal Cruelty.
This year’s event is expected to be bigger than the 2016 version, with the hope that some 200 people will attend the May 19 fundraiser at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.
Among the expected guests is Cranberry, the emaciated dog found in a Wissahickon Valley Park trash can in March. Cranberry is now living a happy healthy life in the suburbs while former owner Michael Long – an 11-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department – faces criminal misdemeanors. (Long was suspended with the intent to dismiss.)
Tickets are $40 for people who work in the animal-welfare world and $100 for other supporters. (More information about the event can be found via this link.)
The PSPCA also has a June 17 “Rescue Reunion” planned to celebrate its anniversary, a Phillies-related event on Morgan Pier on July 27 and its annual Bark and Wine fundraiser on November 4.
“We’re the second-oldest (animal) welfare organization in the country. We have a long, rich history here. In my office, I even have a book with the original minutes from that first meeting in 1867,” Klim said. “The anniversary gives us an opportunity to talk about our rich history, and talk about who we are today.”
The May event, however, gives them a chance to talk about who George Bengal was, and how his mission continues today.
His widow, Carole, said her late husband probably wouldn’t have been all about an event named in his honor, but he would have appreciated the need to sustain funding for his mission.
“George was blessed with the opportunity with a legacy of being the voice for the voiceless. That’s really what it was all about,” she said. “If not for funding from the public, they could not do what they do. It has continued, and I think they’re doing a great job.
"The Bengal Fund and the Night for George are great to keep it out there in the public, but their work is 365 days a year, seven days a week. Cruelty doesn’t stop.”
She said people like George and the humane officers make tremendous sacrifices and, as a family member, “you’re brought into it whether you want to or not.”
“It’s awesome that his work continues, and I was so excited about the bill. Hopefully the state senate sees what the house saw,” Carole said, noting that donations are needed to keep that effort going. “George would be so happy about that because he fought so long for it.”
She also shared one vignette to hammer home the point.
“His job was not a pleasant task. They’d have their lives threatened by the dog fighters. He’d come home flea-infested, changing at the back door and throwing the clothes away,” she said. “I’d ask him if he had to do it all over again, would he? Without skipping a beat, he said, ‘Absolutely, Carole'.”