Leigh Wixson is barking up the right trees at Smithtown Animal Shelter

Leigh Wixson is barking up the right trees at Smithtown Animal Shelter

Leigh Wixson (right) with her colleagues, Monica Passarelle and Christina Almeida, from the Smithtown Animal Shelter. Photo from Town of Smithtown

With the popularity that pets and other animals already feature on social media, one wouldn’t be blamed to think it’s a cinch to get folks into local municipal animal shelters and find those longing dogs and cats a forever home. 

Yet, any shelter worker will tell you it remains an intense challenge to help animals, whether to find new owners or to live safely in Long Island’s dense suburban landscape. To many who work with or in the Smithtown Animal Shelter and Adoption Center, director Leigh Wixson has proved to be a steadfast and extremely compassionate head of the shelter, one who is open to any suggestion and recourse to help those furry companions within the Town of Smithtown.

Nicole Garguilo, public information officer for the town, has worked intimately with Wixson since the director came into the job in 2019. Together, they have set up multiple blasts on social media to promote the animals currently inhabiting the shelter. Beyond the usual social blasts profiling those animals waiting for adoption, Wixson and her crew have started to get especially creative.

“I always laugh because I feel like I torture Wixson and the others at the shelter with my ideas,” Garguilo said, mentioning their recent video where they used shelter dogs to recreate famous movie scenes from “Lady and the Tramp” and Rin Tin Tin-featured adventures. The shelter recently posted a video of their hotdog challenge on TikTok, where shelter dogs had to catch in their mouths small pieces of hot dogs thrown to them. Another video featured a buck trapped in a fence during rutting season, and as town animal control officers pried it loose, Jim Carrey’s appropriate line from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” played in the background: “All right, you’re a reindeer. Here’s your motivation: Your name is Rudolph.”

Beyond that, those who constantly work with the shelter said with Wixson’s kind, open and funny demeanor, she has a knack for using social media in a way that both informs and promotes the shelter.

“She is very, very good at using video, which can be cute, so it grabs the attention of people on social media, but they also learn something,” Garguilo said. “When they learn something, and when they see that video, they realize, ‘Oh, if I have that situation, I can call the shelter, they’ll help me.’ And she’s been very successful in getting our social media pages to go viral.”

The animal shelter has had leadership problems over the years. Former director George Beatty resigned in 2015 after some 30 years at the helm, and a shelter advisory council of volunteer residents designed to offer recommendations to the town on shelter operations quit shortly after it was created that same year. Susan Hansen, Beatty’s replacement, was suspended from the shelter director’s position in 2017, and the town’s Department of Public Safety temporarily took over the shelter’s reins. 

But Wixson’s tenure has catapulted the shelter ahead of its contemporaries, according to those people who have worked intimately with her. Different folks have pointed to her deep knowledge base as well as her constant attentive attitude to those animals inhabiting the shelter, often going above and beyond what’s usually expected of a director.

Charmaine DeRosa, a longtime animal advocate from St. James, said that of all the multitudes of shelters across the Island she works with, the shelter headed by Wixson is the best in terms of their openness and care for the animals.

“A lot of people in the community are more willing and more open to donating to the shelter, and they think about the shelter a lot more,” DeRosa said. Wixson and her staff “are very open, and the animal adoptions are handled so quickly and nicely.”

The shelter also performs many other services beyond adoption. In 2018, the town netted a $168,000 grant from New York State to create a new trap, neuter and release program to try and handle the stray dog and cat populations — otherwise known by animal activists as community dogs or cats — while treating them for diseases or parasites. Garguilo said Wixson’s experience in the private sector was incredibly helpful for getting the program off the ground. Instead of building a separate building, as the town originally planned, Wixson suggested using multiple pod trailers, each with their own heating and ventilation. The trailers help keep the stray animals away from the general population to help them acclimate if they’re to join the shelter.

The shelter’s animal control arm has also taken off on social media. Denise Vibal, an animal control officer at the shelter, can be seen in multiple videos attending to deer during rutting season or explaining what to do when people find injured animals on their property. She said Wixson has been a “fantastic boss” and attentive leader, adding that she’s been in the animal world for a long time and understands the struggles and remedies in this line of work.

“Most supervisors, they wouldn’t know every cat’s name, every dog’s name, every quirk, every this or that,” Vibal said. “So, she actually takes the time to get to know them, to have them in her office, take them for a walk, or have a relationship with a really tough animal who’s had a rough life.”

“In the past, we were told not to post anything, but the community likes to see wildlife and rescues, and things like that,” Vibal added. “And I think it’s great for the community morale. So Wixson has been very positive about posting different things, not only for the animals but what we do for the community.”

The shelter has faced other ongoing issues due to the pandemic. Vibal said that as more people go back to work, the shelter has seen a rash of pet abandonment, especially those animals folks acquired during 2020 that they claim they don’t have the time to take care of anymore. Though it is a felony to abandon a pet, those in the know said the shelter has worked hard to help any animal in need.

“The fact that she’s been able to keep the morale up, especially right now, and really take care of her employees, as well as love these animals unconditionally, is really very special,” Garguilo said.