The year was 1907. The visionary was San Anselmo resident Ethel Tompkins and a group of concerned citizens who wanted to do something about lost and abused animals. Their revolutionary ideas laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most progressive and influential humane societies in the United States – The Marin Humane Society.
Born in San Anselmo in 1887, Ms. Tompkins was passionate about the welfare of animals. Initially responding to the poor treatment of the horses used as transportation in the early 20th century, she set upon a crusade to improve their care and educate the community. With a meager budget of $511.69, she built cages and kennels in her San Anselmo home and laid the groundwork for the future humane society.
Ms. Tompkins understood the value of education. What began in 1913 as a Humane Essay Contest and periodic classroom visits by Ms. Tompkins herself has developed into an impressive outreach program. Following her lead, the Society’s classroom lectures, shelter tours and community outreach programs have decreased the number of stray animals in the county and have led the way to groundbreaking legislation designed to improve animals’ plight.
The shelter’s face and address have also changed through the years. In 1927, the Society left behind its first office in the Nevada Stables on Third Street in San Rafael and moved to a blacksmith shop at 812 Third St. in San Rafael. Ms. Tompkins wrote, “When we finally could afford to pay $15 a month for the abandoned and dilapidated shop ... we took a lease but had no money to put it in repair.” Dr. Rydberg, a veterinarian, was appointed the first Humane Officer with an annual salary of $150. Two years after friends of the Society had donated supplies to help build kennels, cages and offices, the shelter outgrew its facilities and headed for an even larger home on Third and Grand in San Rafael.
During World War II, the fledging Society struggled with shortages of goods and labor. It was impossible to purchase tires or a new animal ambulance. Ms. Tompkins remained undaunted. She and her friends worked tirelessly during the years the men were called to fight the war. They created emergency plans for animals in case of air raids or evacuations. In 1949, with only 362 members, the beleaguered society agreed to manage the animal population for the entire county. Ms. Tompkins raised funds to renovate and expand the shelter, complete with an animal hospital and covered kennels. In 1951, the new Humane Society facility was completed and heralded as the most innovative animal care facility in the nation.
When she resigned in 1957, Ms. Tompkins had built a legacy.
It wasn’t until 1963 that the Marin Humane Society found its current seven-acre home in Novato. By then, Marin Humane Society humane officers had been handling the county’s animal services for almost 15 years and Ethel Tompkins had been retired for five years. The new site included a state-of-the-art shelter, adoption center, and enough space for large animal care. The new complex was dedicated on November 16, 1968. Sculptor Beniamino Bufano donated a black granite sculpture of a mother bear and her cubs, and it still graces the shelter entry.
In response to a skyrocketing animal population which brought in almost 20,000 animals a year, the Society began looking for viable alternatives in the early 1970s. The solution came in 1973 in the form of a low-cost spay/neuter clinic. The Women’s Auxiliary, which was founded in 1940, has been operating a Thrift Store in San Anselmo since 1961. With this program, they raised $42,000 to fund the clinic, and their continued support enables the Society to keep the cost of pet sterilization affordable.
In 1972, the shelter was handling more than 15,000 lost, abandoned or injured dogs and cats. Just five years later, with mandatory sterilization of adoption animals, community education and outside veterinary cooperation, the shelter animal population fell to 11,000. In the 1990s, the Humane Society’s waning animal population stabilized at 7,000. Today, via our Pet Partnership Program, MHS is able to rescue another 1,000-plus animals every year from other communities to make available for adoption in Marin.
In 1977, the Society received part of the estate of George C. Whittell and started its new humane education center. A training pavilion, barn, a pet supply store and a Behavior and Training wing followed the education center.
We are pleased to announce that we are still growing. In 2009, after nearly two decades of fundraising through the Society’s Cat Fund, a new and improved cat adoption center opened, allowing potential adopters to see and greet adoption cats more easily in community cat rooms. In October 2011 the new dog adoption center was complete, providing more comfortable housing for homeless dogs and a more welcoming environment for potential adopters.
In the last century, the Society has grown beyond any original expectations. It has flourished with a combination of an educated and concerned community and dedicated staff and volunteers. As we move forward into our next 100 years, the species may have changed, but Ethel Tompkins would recognize and approve of the mission.