Changes Down On The Farm; Longtime SPCA Farm Manager Sheila Foss Retires

June 20, 2024
By: Chief Communications Officer Gina Lattuca

Bills fans Sheila and Newman

Retirement is often thought of as the end of something, but the beginning of something else.

What happens, however, when it’s time to retire from an organization that has shaped the person one becomes…that has been a major part of one’s life from the age of 10 and continued for another 50 years?

We’re going to find out…because we won’t leave her alone.

Today, SPCA Educational Farm Manager Sheila Foss announced her retirement in an emotional, eloquent speech delivered to many of us whose lives she’s impacted for decades.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with Sheila more than two years, and in that short time she and her work have left an incredible impression on me,” our President/CEO Cait Daly said. “Her passion for her work is evident, surpassed only by her love for the animals. Thousands of lives were made better…thousands of children learned more about farm animals and the respect they deserve…because of Sheila’s knowledge, dedication, and caring. The impact she has made is immeasurable.”

As a child, Sheila volunteered at the SPCA and spent time working with us in the mid-70s through mid-80s, right up until she was hired in October of 1985. It’s impossible to number the animals’ lives she’s impacted since then, lives of resident animals along with lives of animals cared for as part of cruelty cases.

Days became nights, weekends became non-existent, when there was an animal in need of extra care…an animal ready to deliver…a restless animal that just needed an overnight buddy to calm anxieties after being rescued from a dark, dreary reality, transferred to the SPCA’s impossibly-immaculate farm, which must have felt like something pretty close to Heaven. Even a televised, important game being played by her beloved Buffalo Sabres couldn’t coax Sheila away from an animal in need.

Longtime SPCA fans will remember Olivia the pig, a Tonawanda farm resident who, at one point, received more visitors and had more fans than any other animal, or person, for that matter, at the SPCA in the early 90s. Sheila started the Olivia Fan Club, a card-carrying members’ club for children that helped teach the children more about farm animals and their care. It didn’t take long for Sheila to realize the responsibility of the SPCA to teach more about all animals, not just domestic; under her guidance, the SPCA’s petting farm became the SPCA Educational Farm, with teaching stations at and around animal stalls, games children could play that educated them about the farm animals in their midst and the magic these animals brought to the world.

Throughout her career, Sheila continued to be amazed at the faces of not only children but also adults petting a goat or llama for the first time…holding a chicken…feeding Olivia a peppermint. If school classes couldn’t get to the SPCA, Sheila brought the animals to them. Why? Because she knew the value of teaching children at an early age that farm animals, too, deserve compassion, care, respect, and love. These weren’t just words or personal beliefs for Sheila. She lived them. Not even cruelty cases concerning several large animals…not even 10,000 chickens running along the I-190 (true story from August, 2008, and no, the number is not an exaggeration)…not even escaped horses running down Ensminger Rd., turning Tonawanda into a scene from Bonanza, could stop her.

When in court for farm animal cruelty cases, Sheila wouldn’t say much; just her silence and expressions made her feelings known. Sheila spent these days lodged somewhere between sadness and anger and every emotion in between as she imagined the suffering endured by case animals. In fact, these and other animal rescue situations only increased Sheila’s fervent desire to better the lives of such special animals, teaching others along the way why they, too, should share this desire.

Despite her stellar achievements, Sheila never loved, or even remotely liked, being the center of attention. In the 34 years I have known her and been blessed to call her my friend, she never easily gave a television interview, never relished being on the radio, never wanted the camera on her for a social media video…she wanted the focus and the attention fixed on the animals and the people with whom she worked. Her humbleness, like her dedication and devotion, is immense.

Sheila saw many changes at the SPCA. Her pristine barn converted to a fundraising “Haunted Barn” for several years. The growth of a staff numbered at around 25 when she was hired to 110 today. A major move from Tonawanda, NY to West Seneca, NY.  In Sheila’s own words this morning, “The SPCA is a haven, where animals are cared for, and where people learn the importance of kindness and respect for all living creatures.”  Sheila witnessed so much change around her, yet her impression of what the organization stands for never wavered.

I know she won’t mind my sharing that her closing comment today was a quote by Charlotte Bronte: “There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.”

Thank you, Sheila, for consistently and lovingly providing comfort to our SPCA creatures, animal AND human, your entire life.

The SPCA’s Patricia Burg worked with Sheila for three decades, and adds these touching words:

One of my very best friends has just retired.

The sheep manicures at the SPCA included a pedicure at no extra charge!

I have known Sheila for more than the almost 30 years that we worked together.  When I was first tasked with caring for an assortment of farm animals at another job, she gave me great advice and helped me learn the ins and outs of taking care of them well.  After I started working at the SPCA’s Educational Farm with Sheila, it was clear that she had a great store of knowledge and skill when we had to help animals in serious need.  She always ran the farm with the goal of being an example of how well things could be done.

No matter what animals came in, she always found ways to do best by them.  No matter how old the farm got, she always made it look the best it could.  For all of the tough cases that came to the farm, and there were plenty, she always focused on the animals that needed our help.  For all of the tough times to deal with and decisions to make, there were always lovely letters and emails of how some farm critter adopted from us made such a difference in someone’s life.

In that long of a time together, we share a host of memories – everything from being there for a variety of babies being born on the farm and catching a stray emu to watching animals blossom with good care and having to say goodbye to farm friends when it was the right time to do so.

There have been a lot of fine people that came our way to help out or adopt animals and some of them became good friends because Sheila always treated them well and appreciated them.

Sheila didn’t confine her interests just to the farm, either, but was instrumental in producing our earlier newsletters, the foundation of our Wildlife Department and even our first website – I have to admit that it was truly funny watching Sheila type html code in as one of her friends read it over the phone to her!

While I will miss Sheila’s presence at the shelter more than I can express, we already have plans to do some fun things together this summer!