Some executive offices are graced with breathtaking views and pricey artwork. Not Mary Nee’s. Child gates line the doorways leading to Nee’s corner office, and it’s not unusual to see a little nose poking out from one or two of them.
The children here, however, are four-legged, furry, and quite fetching.
Nee, president of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, suggested adding the gates after she took office in 2012 so that staff members could bring their pets to work at the nonprofit’s South End headquarters on Chandler Street. That includes Nee and her beloved 13-year-old Wheaten Terrier, Ruby, who is blind and deaf, with arthritis and a heart murmur. Ruby occupies prominent floor space in Nee’s office with a plush dog bed, fleece blanket, and stuffed toys.
Nee, only the second woman to lead the 120-year-old organization — the first being its founder, Anna Harris Smith — was an unlikely choice, by her own admission. A former director of community development and capital planning for the City of Boston, Nee later spent years directing and financial planning at several nonprofit agencies, including the United Way.
Then came a call from a recruiter pitching the president’s job at the Rescue League.
“I said I love my dog, but that’s about it,” Nee says, recalling how she tried to convince the recruiter she had zero training in animal welfare issues. The recruiter was not swayed.
“I pushed them off. They said, ‘Just come for one visit,’ ” Nee says.
And that was it. She was hooked.
Under her leadership, the league has updated its focus, a sort of return to its roots, with a mission to bring care out to the neighborhoods, as its founder did, providing a respite for over-worked city horses a century ago. The modern version aims to keep more animals safe in their own homes — so they don’t end up in shelters — by sending out vans that provide affordable care remotely, especially to low-income neighborhoods. The cost is as low as $10 a visit.
In 2017 alone, the league and its 500-plus volunteers reported serving more than 18,000 animals, including a community cat initiative that trapped, treated, and adopted out hundreds of felines.
“Of all the sectors I have jumped into, this is the most complex,” Nee says. “At the other end of the leash is a person, and all the issues people deal with — poverty, mental illness, family disruptions. Stuff that happens to people happens to their animals.”
When someone is arrested on animal cruelty charges, and the trial is a year or two later, the animal is considered evidence and must be held in the shelter until the case is resolved.
So those child gates come in handy, as staffers regularly bring animals upstairs from the shelter to their offices to shower them with individual attention. Screen doors were added to some offices to accommodate cats. And a “feline suite” at the end of the corridor — an office with toys and some space to roam — provides a break for stressed-out shelter cats.
“I walk down here sometimes for my own stress relief,” Nee confides.
Her bright office at the other end of the hallway — which is lined with giant, heart-melting photos of animals rescued by the league — reflects lessons she’s learned from the animal kingdom. Some highlights:
Arnold’s close-up. A photo of a pig the league rescued graces the cover of the organization’s last annual report. The league rescues a fair number of pigs, whose owners thought they were cute when small, but surrender them when they grow to 300-plus pounds. “Arnold made me aware of the intelligence of these animals. I have fallen in love with pigs since I came here,” Nee says. “If you spend a lot of time with pigs, there is not a lot of difference than with dogs. They will bond with you, and they love belly rubs.”
Picasso’s birds. A print of birds framing a window near the sea from Pablo Picasso’s “blue period” hangs behind Nee’s desk. Nee bought it decades ago in Barcelona and it has hung in every office of hers since. But it wasn’t until she came to the Rescue League that Nee learned some birds in captivity can live up to 80 years, easily outlasting two or three owners, and making it traumatic each time a new home needs to be found for them.
Post office tribute. A framed montage of 2010 postal stamps featuring dogs and cats that were issued by the Postal Service to promote adoption of shelter animals. The montage includes a historical photo of the Rescue League’s founder, Anna Harris Smith. Nee notes striking similarities between her and Smith. Nee was 56 when she took the job, the same age Smith was when she founded the organization. Also, Smith was raised on Pleasant Street in Dorchester, not far from where Nee grew up. But on one point, Nee is certain their common path will diverge: their tenure with the league. Smith worked until she was 87.
“She never quit,” Nee says. “She just literally passed away while running the organization.”