The home of Rick and Florence Aiken appears quiet on the outside, but the inside can only be deemed a true “animal house.”
Three dogs roam the living room. A kitten meows in the background while two cats lounge on the couch, begging for belly rubs. And the two, who recently celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary, sit in the middle of it all, laughing about the benefits of hardwood floors over carpeting with so many animals around.
It’s always been about the animals, especially over the past 24 years, the time in which Rick served as the executive director for the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia.
And, as the humane society celebrates 100 years of being in existence, the man who spent nearly a quarter of that time leading the organization reflects on his career there, though he mostly chalks up any success to his inherent love for animals and the support of the staff, board members and community.
“It was an old shelter,” he remembered about beginning the job. “It was your traditional animal shelter back in those days. Not a lot was put into them.”
Since that time, Aiken has led the humane society to where it is today, in a $1.2 million facility with its own spay/neuter program, low-cost wellness clinic and pet training education and resources, among other attributes.
All because he loves animals, an appreciation that was encouraged in his youth.
“I grew up that way,” he said. “My mother, God bless her, she recognized that animals are great therapy. My mother and daddy divorced when I was young, and she even moved out of the fancy apartments in town and moved into a garage apartment so I could have a dog.
“Where can you find something that gives you so much, and asks for so little, so unconditionally?” he continued. “They were my best friends growing up, my dogs and cats.”
That appreciation for animals continued into his adult years. He was working in a factory, which he did not enjoy, when he and wife Florence decided to go back to school. Aiken attended the University of Georgia for a degree in wildlife biology. From there, the young family moved around while he attained positions at various zoos in the Southeast.
He was working as the general curator of the Baton Rouge Zoo in Louisiana when he and Florence decided to move closer to home.
“The Boy Scouts had an opening here, and I had volunteered with them in Louisiana, so I came here and was the district executive for six years,” he said. “I loved what I was doing, but they kept wanting me to move. ... I turned down too many promotions, and they told me that I was going to have to take one.”
But Aiken and his family enjoyed the area, so moving wasn’t really an option. This was when Florence found the job at the humane society and brought it to her husband’s attention. With his background in animal care, fundraising and volunteering, it was a natural fit.
It wasn’t necessarily an easy 24 years, but Aiken is proud of the work the team behind HSNEGA has done.
“It’s probably the best staff you will find anywhere out there,” he said. “Those are the people that really made this, not me. One person doesn’t do it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
The biggest problem he faced is the overpopulation of dogs and cats in the area, a problem he says still exists, but is getting better.
“In 2005, we became one of the few humane societies in the state to do our own spaying and neutering, and also offer it to the public,” he said, “which is probably one of the things I think I’m most excited about. Spaying and neutering is one of the easiest ways (to curb overpopulation).”
Since the low-cost program started in 2005, Aiken said that more than 45,000 animals have been spayed or neutered.
After impacting the lives of thousands of animals in the area, Aiken felt it was time for him to step back.
“To be quite honest, I think it’s time to get somebody with some new ideas, and it’s ready to move to another level,” he said. “In the state of Georgia, Northeast Georgia is one of the leaders.”
The new executive director, David Arias, has been in place since April.
“That’s what I’m excited about seeing, what David can do,” Aiken said. “I think he’s got some great ideas and is going to make some really significant changes.”
Aiken, who had assisted Arias during the transition, left the humane society around three weeks ago, and though he is currently serving as an interim director for the Atlanta Humane Society until it finds a replacement, he is more than ready to take some time for retirement and relaxation.
He has missed only one University of Georgia football game since 1986, and has no plans to break that trend. He also loves to travel, and has plans to travel to Alaska next year. In fact, the Aikens own a large camper so that they can take the dogs with them on their various trips.
“We’re going to stay home more than he wants to, and travel more than I want to,” Florence said, laughing.
The Aikens will be at Saturday’s homecoming event, being held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville. The fundraising event is celebrating the humane society’s 100 years of serving the community.
While the Aikens remain in Gainesville, and will surely still be seen from time to time at the humane society, Saturday’s event is a way for community members to say goodbye to the man who spent nearly a quarter of a century saving the lives of animals who have been tossed aside for various reasons.
And to Aiken, that’s what it’s always been about.
“Just go ahead, and take them, and try to find them a better home,” he said. “That’s the goal. Putting them into better homes.
“It’s a dream job, if you love animals and want to give back to them.”