Growing up in Saratoga Springs, Dan Butler always had a menagerie of animals: dogs, cats, guinea pigs, chickens — even roosters.
“They crowed every morning. It would probably get you locked up now, or at least fined,” he said.
But caring for all those critters at his parents’ North Broadway home was great training for his later job as director of the Saratoga County Animal Shelter.
Over the last 36 years, Butler has helped thousands of stray and abandoned dogs and cats, along with hamsters, pot-bellied pigs, lizards, and once even a screaming cockatiel someone left in its cage at the side of the road.
“I’ve seen a lot of abuse and a lot of rotten things done to animals, but a lot of nice things, too,” he recalled in an interview at the shelter.
Butler, 55, is retiring this week, soon to head off to Tennessee. Thursday will be his last day on the job.
Butler became director of the county’s first shelter on the old county farm property in 1978, and stayed. When he started, many of the animals that wound up at the shelter were euthanized; now most are adopted. He also pushed for quality in the new shelter the county opened in 2010.
“We’re all sensitive to our pets, and Dan has done an outstanding job,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Alan R. Grattidge, R-Charlton.
Even when he was young, there was little doubt Butler would do something with animals. Starting in sixth grade, he hung out at the Saratoga Lake veterinary office of Dr. Elmer Robinson.
“They called me ‘Radar,’ ” he recalled, referring to the “M.A.S.H.” character who knew his commanding officer’s next need before he could be told.
After graduating from St. Peter’s Academy, Butler studied to become a veterinarian at a small school in North Carolina for two years but dropped out. Returning to Saratoga, he was able to land a job as the No. 2 in the county mosquito control program.
At the time, a group called the Saratoga County Animal Welfare League was pushing for the county to improve on what had been a series of ad-hoc arrangements, and county officials agreed to establish a shelter. When his boss took a state job before the shelter opened, Butler was left in charge at age 21. The shelter opened April 10, 1978.
“I remember the first dog brought in was a three-legged dog from Saratoga Springs,” Butler recalled.
At first, there were only 14 dog kennels and 20 cat cages. An addition was completed the following year, and a second addition followed in 1988.
Then, in 1992, the shelter director’s job changed radically: A new rabies strain was spreading among raccoons and skunks, threatening domestic animals and their owners.
“It was Clifton Park, Tanner Road, I remember the first rabid raccoon,” Butler said. “And then 1993 was the epidemic year, so-called. Every day, it was raccoon after raccoon, skunk after skunk.”
The shelter was the central collection point for carcasses being sent to a state lab for testing. Often, it was Butler who went on rabid animal calls if a local animal control officer wasn’t available.
By 1999, he’d had enough of that, and he transferred to a job with the county highway crew, where he built roads by summer and plowed roads in the town of Charlton by winter.
In 2006, the county hired the first of three architects who developed designs for a new shelter, and Butler was asked to return. He pushed for building a state-of-the-art facility, even as supervisors sought to whittle down a budget that was originally more than $10 million.
“I’m glad that Dan was very persistent, and now it’s a model across the state for a state-of-the-art animal shelter,” Grattidge said.
Butler didn’t get everything he wanted, but the $5.3 million shelter has cats housed out of earshot of barking dogs for the first time, as well as mechanical air-exchange equipment, separate surrender and isolation areas, and rooms where people can hang out with animals they might adopt.
“This is the best thing that ever happened for the animals of Saratoga County,” Butler said.
There is also a surgical suite. There, veterinarians using equipment purchased with private donations make sure every dog or cat is spayed or neutered before leaving.
“It was Dan who really brought forward that concept, that all animals that go out be spayed or neutered so they’re not adding to the overpopulation of animals out there,” Grattidge said.
There are five full-time employees, seven part-time employees, and 200 people who volunteer at the shelter, at a cat adoption annex in Clifton Park Center, or on a mobile adoption trailer.
Over the course of his career, Butler says he’s seen progress in reducing the number of unwanted animals.
The shelter was receiving 4,500 animals a year in the late 1970s, a number that has dropped to about 3,000 a year.
“It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. “Very few any more from animal control. Most are surrenders by people who can’t keep them any longer for one reason or another.”
In retirement, Butler, who has two grown children, plans to move to the Nashville area, where his brother has a veterinary practice. He will help out there, and also at his brother’s horse farm.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been here 35 years. It’s been great,” he said.
Grattidge said a new director will be announced today, to start later this month.
“It’s a position we know can’t go vacant for long,” he said.