The HUMANE DIRECTOR
BY MARYANN KETCHAM
For Melissa McInturff, accepting the position of executive director for the Humane Society of St. Lucie County was a no-brainer. After all, for this animal-lover, it was an early realization of a lifelong dream.
“This was genuinely my retirement goal,” the 41-year-old said. “I was going to invest my money in a 401(k), retire at 50, and find a high-kill shelter out in the middle of nowhere and make it no-kill.”
Hailing from Maryland, the McInturff family moved to the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area when Melissa was just 2 years old. There, thanks to a sizable backyard, they had the wherewithal to rescue and nurture a wide variety of animals.
“By the time I was 5, we had three cats, five horses, and eight or nine parakeets,” she said. “Saving animals is inherent in me.”
The early 1990s brought a move from South Florida to Port St. Lucie. For McInturff, the transition was very challenging and ultimately altered the course of her future.
A mere three days into her studies at Port St. Lucie High School, she made the tough decision to drop out.
At just 15, she passed the General Educational Development exam, joined the workforce and has zero regrets.
“I schooled myself with life, hard knocks and some college courses along the way,” she said.
She began as a telemarketer for a vacuum cleaner company. Gradually, she worked her way through a series of positions in the mental health field at the Department of Children and Families, New Horizons and Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network.
Although she discovered that she had a deep-rooted love of working, her devotion to animals always remained close to her heart. She continued to rescue dogs, including two Great Danes.
When she was diagnosed with a mental health disorder about 11 years ago, she began volunteering her spare time at Rescue Adoption, a no-kill shelter in Fort Pierce. She had previously adopted a puppy from them.
“I didn’t want to be at home in my head, so I would go there and take photos of the dogs, fold the laundry and clean the kennels,” she explained. “The animals didn’t judge me; they needed me just as much as I needed them.”
Throughout the years and under the tutelage of Dagmara Monsalve, founder of Rescue Adoption, McInturff learned everything she needed to know about animal sheltering and rescue. For many years, she was the face of its fundraising.
“Dagmara gave me my wings,” she exclaimed.
In 2019, McInturff found herself on the frontlines, rescuing animals from the beleaguered Humane Society of St. Lucie County on Glades Cut Off Road in Port St. Lucie. As things slowly began to spiral out of control and funding was pulled from the nonprofit organization, she seized on the opportunity to help and put her skills to work. A transition slowly began to occur.
“In September of 2019, I hosted a Stuff the Bus event and secured a donation of a new washer and dryer from Jetson Appliances, which they delivered during the event,” McInturff said. “Board members were excited and encouraged me to join the board. I did, knowing that I could do more from the inside out than the outside in.”
The board elected McInturff as its chairman within a month. Operating with only a skeleton crew, she and animal behaviorist Cindy Riesgo worked diligently to keep the organization’s doors open.
“At that point, we relied on donations from the public and whatever money was coming in from the thrift store,” she explained. “With other rescue agencies and adoption specials, we spent the next month emptying our Fort Pierce location and turned it over to the City of Fort Pierce.”
In December of that year, a Save the Shelter fundraising event yielded about $15,000, but, sadly, it wasn’t enough.
“Facing foreclosure and unable to meet payroll, we approached the City of Port St. Lucie,” McInturff said. “Thank God, they stepped up to the plate.”
In April 2020, McInturff also stepped up to the plate when a new board of directors named her executive director.
Comprising the board are City Councilwoman Shannon Martin, veterinarian Leonard Fox, longtime volunteer Jen Capano, Cindy Riesgo, former board member Sandee Allen of A&G Concrete Pools, Adrian O’ Campo, Mark Barnes, Azlina Siegel, Bryan Lloyd, Port St. Lucie Animal Control administrator, Marti Newport, Jamie Hannon and Dan Wire, the new board chairman.
“I’m so grateful that they took a chance on me and in the middle of a pandemic no less.”
McInturff is fortunate in that she is never lonely at the top.
“This amazing board has the passion and drive to work the frontlines right beside me, and that is impactful.”
She also has a large bevy of people she refers to as “villagers,” a term of endearment she coined for the supporters of the humane society.
“When I started all this, it was just with me doing Facebook live videos and posts,” she said. “That’s evolved into popular Dine to Donate events with Tailgators, the St. Lucie Draft House and Texas Roadhouse. Other villager-supported events include a Halloween drive-through with A&G Pools, an automobile raffle with Dyer Automotive, online Pampered Chef parties and a joint venture with American Muscle United car club.”
The executive director’s most conspicuous supporters are the ones lucky enough to spend their days or nights with her. They come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of hairiness. Some are boisterous, while others are skittish or timid.
Most live at the shelter, but five dogs ages 11-18, including a 3.5-pound hospice pet named Peanut who is living out his final days with dignity and love, greet McInturff each evening when she returns home. Several shelter pets keep her company and freely roam her office and its adjacent hallways, away from the hub-bub of the noisy kennels.
“The energy is different up here,” she explained. “Some animals need more interaction.
“The mere click of a pen may terrorize them, so, together with my staff and volunteers, we work to alleviate that fear.”
It is these same staff members and volunteers that inspire this dynamic executive director each day.
“You don’t earn millions of dollars working in an animal shelter,” she said. “But yet, my people do backbreaking work — cleaning up the poop, scrubbing the kennels.”
Leading by example, McInturff maintains an assemblage of shelter clothing and shoes in her office and swings into action in all capacities wherever and whenever necessary.
She is committed to restoring the landmark status and clout of the Humane Society of St. Lucie County and feels blessed with the opportunity.
“Not every person gets to take what they are utmost passionate about and turn it into a job, and be lucky enough to do so right in their own backyard.”
Lives in: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Executive director, Humane Society of St. Lucie County
Family: Recently engaged to a local business owner, dog mom and hospice foster
Education: High school, some college, life
Hobbies: Photography, gardening, karaoke
Who inspires me: Fellow rescuers, the people at the shelter
Something most people don’t know about me: “I’m actually a natural blonde.”