Do you know why Bill Smith has spent the past 20 years picking up strays, battling puppy mills, making friends with Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg, and generally serving as a dog’s—or cat’s or guinea pig’s—best friend? Walt Disney.
As a kid, Smith watched all of the Disney movies and just couldn’t handle it when Bambi’s mom died, when Travis had to shoot a rabid Old Yeller, when they stuck Dumbo’s mom in a cage, or when that evil Cruella de Vil tried to make a coat out of the 101 Dalmatians. “Why can’t they stop this man?” Smith thought.
With each passing Disney crime against animals, Smith’s resolve grew. He would rescue any animal that needed his help—be it a dog, a cat or a penned-in elephant. “I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing if not for that horrible Walt Disney,” Smith says.
Up until late June, what Smith was doing was leading the Chester Springs-based Main Line Animal Rescue, which he and his mother began 20 years ago. He dedicated practically every moment of his life to it, working sometimes 20 hours a day, without vacations. If someone had an animal in need, all they had to do was call Smith, and he would arrive, ready to heal, rescue, feed or comfort.
It’s all he cared about, and in a series of events he still doesn’t understand and no one at MLAR cares to explain, he was out as executive director or anything at all. The board had ruled, the locks were changed, and Smith was left to wonder what exactly had happened.
He has since turned inward. He vows to continue his mission, but he can’t imagine life without the place he created at its center. “After something like this happens, it’s tragic, because I’m going through it,” Smith says. “I’ve become self-reflective. Maybe I did something wrong. But if I did something wrong, why didn’t they tell me? Why am I at this point in my life?”
His tenure as head of Main Line Animal Rescue
Smith has certainly not been alone since the board stunned him and many of MLAR’s supporters with its decision. His ouster resulted in the firing of office manager Nancy Shilcock and the forced resignation of employee Jodi Goldberg, whose “eight days a week” commitment rivaled Smith’s. At least five board members have resigned in protest, and longtime contributors have promised to stop writing checks to MLAR, clearly conflicted by what that might mean for the animals. Vanguard founder John Bogle sent a letter to the board, praising Smith and vowing to direct his financial support toward whatever organization Smith founds or joins in the future—and away from MLAR.
Smith has all the support he could possibly want. But he doesn’t have the one thing he needs: a reason. “I have very little respect for people left on the board for what they did to something I worked on for 20 years,” he says. “It breaks my heart.”
Walt Disney may have played a leading role in Smith’s decision to become an animal advocate and rescuer, but the Philadelphia Zoo had a big part in the process, too. Smith grew up in southeastern Delaware County, and his family always had pets—dogs, cats, birds, rabbits—but it was never enough to satisfy the family’s love or curiosity for animals. So every weekend, Smith’s parents took the kids to the zoo.
Smith’s father knew one of the zookeepers, so the family could go behind the scenes. Smith and his siblings watched the meat be prepared for the big cats and saw how the employees cared for the animals. “I remember eating jelly sandwiches in the lion house,” Smith says. “We were able to reach through the bars and scratch the backs of the jaguars. They would never let kids do that now.”
After graduating from Widener University in 1983, Smith had a variety of jobs and spent three years in London in the mid-1990s. When he returned to the area, he didn’t quite know what to do. He lived off of his savings for a while and, with his mother, began to help others adopt pets. A few years later, people started offering Smith donations for his cause, but since his loosely defined “organization” didn’t have 501(c) status, he couldn’t accept them.
Judge William H. Lamb of Chester County, a friend of the family, helped them establish a more formal concern and even provided the name, Main Line Animal Rescue. It remained a relatively small operation. “We were working out of the house and had a number of animals there,” Smith says.
But it was gaining attention and support. All sorts of people, even the police, were bringing animals to the Smiths. From there, Smith’s avocation became full-fledged advocacy. He took on the puppy mills and made sure as many people as possible knew what was happening. Those billboards you see on the turnpike in central Pennsylvania—“Welcome to Scenic Lancaster County, Home to Hundreds of Puppy Mills”—are Smith’s work. He’s not a CEO or a top administrator. He’s a man for whom rescuing animals became his raison d’être.
Douglass Newbold has known Smith for more than 20 years, since his rescue operation was a Subaru filled with six animal crates. Newbold has been active in the animal protection community for almost as much time as with the Large Animal Protection Society. Like others who were close to MLAR and Smith, Newbold was stunned by his sudden removal. And like many who care about animals, she worries for the creatures that remain at MLAR during this time of transition. “I’ve never—and I know a lot of rescue people—seen anybody like Bill Smith,” Newbold says. “There is no limit to what Bill Smith will do for a single animal or a group of animals. He just won’t stop. He never said no.”
There are reports that Smith and his primary partner in MLAR, Betsy Legnini, on whose farm the facility sits and who financed a great deal of its efforts, had a tempestuous relationship and she was planning to resign. But Smith admits he would’ve moved out of the executive director’s spot, had he been able to continue his rescue and advocacy work.
There’s no doubt MLAR needed some serious updating. No succession plan was in place if anything happened to Smith. Its donor base wasn’t consolidated, and fundraising was generally limited to specific events and Smith’s vast network of benefactors, on whom he could call in times of need. “I, along with many supporters, have never received a full or objective explanation of the changes that have taken place and the plans for the future and how they will affect the ongoing effort for animal rescue and placement for adoption,” says Leslie Anne Miller, a longtime donor who was once general counsel to former Gov. Ed Rendell.
That squares with MLAR’s response to Main Line Today for an interview. Through a New York PR firm hired by MLAR in early July, board chairwoman Leslie Briley consented to an early-August meeting and tour. However, two days before the date, she backed out and forwarded a statement about Smith’s removal that read, in part: “This was not a decision we made hastily, but we did so with a clear and compelling consensus among the board that a new direction is necessary and in MLAR’s best interests moving forward.”
That’s unlikely to assuage people like Miller, Newbold and Bogle, all of whom say they will no longer provide financial support to MLAR. As for Smith, Newbold is right—the man isn’t going to stop doing what he loves. Not long after his removal, he spent a weekend taking a rescued dog to a new home on Martha’s Vineyard. “I worked really hard,” he says. “Every single night for the last 20 years, I asked myself if I did something to make an animal’s life better that day. And every day, the answer was yes. Every day.”