Animal programs

Kearney Area Animal Shelter’s New Manager Settles In Happily

MARY JANE SKALA Hub Editor

Rescuing a pet is an honorable thing to do, but it’s not an easy task and you need to make sure you ask the right questions before bringing a pet home. Buzz60’s Maria Mercedes Galuppo has the story.



KEARNEY — Braden Wilkes knelt on the floor inside the Kearney Area Animal Shelter to persuade Pee Wee, his 2-week-old dwarf goat, to follow her into his office.

“Come on,” she said softly. Soon, Pee Wee rushed into Wilkes’ office, fumbled around a bit, and settled on a soft cushion that Wilkes keeps for Pee Wee on the floor.

Bringing Pee Wee to work is one of the perks of Wilkes’ new job as executive director of the Kearney Area Animal Shelter. Assisted by Chloe Lovitt, the shelter’s community activities coordinator and volunteer coordinator, Wilkes manages 10 employees and oversees a host of volunteers who help feed and care for the animals seven days a week.

She also welcomed more than 110 animals, cats and dogs, for the shelter.

“I love this job. I’ve known all my life that I wanted to work with animals,” she said. She started the job on August 5.

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“I had no intention of applying for the position of director, but I discovered that there was a need, so I did. I’ve always loved this place and always wanted to work there,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes, a native of Fleming Island, Florida, grew up showing and riding horses. She also had dogs, cats, chickens, cows, guinea pigs, “whatever. As a child, I begged for every pet I could have. I had everything I could convince my parents to let me have,” she said.

The summer before her senior year in high school, she worked on a ranch in Medicine Bow, Wyo. It was so different from what I was used to. I never wanted to go home,” she said.

After graduating from high school, she earned an online veterinary training certificate from San Juan University in Farmington, NM, and moved to Ogallala in 2013 to work in a practice with large and small animals with Dr. David Baltzell at Baltzell Veterinary Hospital. She also worked with Baltzell at the Ogallala Sale Barn.

In 2016, Wilkes moved to Kearney, where in the spring of 2017 she enrolled in the pre-vet/biology program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

In 2020, while still at UNK, she began working at the Kearney Area Animal Shelter whenever she could. In May, she graduated with a degree in biology from UNK with a specialization in pre-veterinary studies.

In addition to cats and dogs, KAAS has had chinchillas, hamsters and a bearded dragon. Since opening in 2005, it has returned nearly 11,284 pets to their owners and found new homes for 7,300 animals.

Currently, Wilkes is gearing up for Midnight Masquerade, the shelter’s biggest fundraiser of the year. He hopes to raise between $20,000 and $30,000 to supplement his main support of grants and donations.

Funds also come from the town of Kearney and Buffalo County Animal Control, which contract with the shelter to bring back stray animals, but that contract is a “very small part” of KAAS’ operating budget, said said Wilkes.

“This year we have had quite a few strays from Kearney and surrounding areas so KAAS needs the support of our sponsors and donors,” she said.

After arrival, animals are placed on hold for 72 hours so that shelter staff can attempt to locate the owner. They’re looking for a microchip with the owner’s contact information. They check the lost dog lists. If the owner cannot be found, the animals are placed for adoption.

The no-kill shelter doesn’t just house animals; it helps calm and socialize them and provides basic obedience training. Currently, the shelter can house up to 150 stray cats and dogs, and “we hope to find a way to keep up with the demand,” she said.

Wilkes hopes to start a neuter trap release program for feral cats. The shelter would catch feral cats, neuter or neuter them, vaccinate them and then release them back into the wild. “It helps control the feral cat population and ensures they are healthy and not spreading disease,” Wilkes said.

The shelter is also launching a foster class for neonatal kittens for kittens under 2 weeks old. “They are much more difficult to treat. They need bottle-feeding every two hours and specific care to thrive,” Wilkes said.

Wilkes and his family live between Miller and Ansley. They had Pee Wee in early October when they stopped at a local pumpkin patch and saw the 3-day-old dwarf goat. He wasn’t well, so Wilkes offered to take him.

Now 2 weeks old, he is in great shape. “It’s a bottle, and he has to eat every two hours, so he comes to work with me. He is doing very well. He is in very good health. He’s my little pet and the kids love him,” she said.