By Jack Short, Reporter
Published in the Boca Beacon on February 13, 2015
Sometimes the challenge of writing a profile lies in accurately capturing the breadth of a person's interests or his or her hobbies. It's rare, in fact, to meet someone so wholly absorbed by their calling that they leave room for little else, as well as someone who has no regrets about doing so.
Of course, my impression of Phil Snyder may not have been exactly right. It's possible he leads a wild double life - at the helm of the Suncoast Humane Society by day and by night, playing underground bridge games at midnight, carousing with secret societies or surfing big waves in Puerto Rico.
But I think my impression is accurate. Phil is so consumed by his dedication to the humane society and animal welfare in general that there's simply no time for chasing giants in the Caribbean.
By his own admission, he doesn't do much else.
Of course, it's not always a tough life, Phil jokes. He just returned from a fundraising cruise in the Bahamas, for example, but it can't have been easy very often. As Phil saw firsthand in Memphis, when cities go bankrupt or even tighten their belts, programs to help animals often find themselves on the chopping block.
Helping animals is what Phil has been doing his whole life. He's worked with both local humane societies and the Humane Society of the United States. He has assisted law enforcement departments, acting as a resource with their fight to bring down dog-fighting operations. He's worked with local governments to bring animal welfare into their evacuation strategies. He's worked with local humane society chapters and governments, not only carrying out day to day operations or as a board member, but in raising money for facilities and programs. Phil was in Memphis before their program went by the wayside due to budgetary shortfalls.
Sometimes, the economic downtown can work in your favor, though. By the end of 2013, the Suncoast Humane Society, of which Phil is the executive director, scraped together every dime it could to purchase a parcel of land for a new facility - something they could never have hoped to afford during the height of the real estate bubble.
Suncoast Humane Society was faced with an imminent need for restoration and saw its salvation in an 11.5 acre parcel four blocks away from where the Suncoast Humane Society now stands (as it has since the 1970s). The new property, which they secured for $327,000, had sold for $2.5 million in 2006.
Of course, that was just the first step, and they have been working to raise capital for a 26,000 square-foot facility that may cost between $6 and $8 million.
"It won't be the Taj Mahal," Phil said, "but it will be state of the art."
Phil got his start with animals, while "working a few odd jobs" as a trainer.
He was raised in Elkhart, Indiana, the mobile home capital of the world, he said. After high school, he enlisted in the Navy and received his discharge during a period when jobs were not easy to find. He took what he could get at a filling station, or at a garage, until he started training dogs.
Phil had a couple of dogs - his introduction to animal training was through them - but he eventually started training other people's pets.
He built his seven-acre farm into a training facility and worked with local 4H clubs to teach members how to train dogs as well. He became licensed by the American Kennel Club to train dogs and show his and others' dogs as well. He met a mentor who was a member of the local humane society board in Elkhart.
"I developed quite an interest in the humane society and the movement in general, " he recalled.
In March 1970, he became executive director of the humane society in Elkhart. After six years, he was president. Then, after assisting with an undercover investigation of the humane society in a neighboring county, St. Joe, he was asked to join there, where he spent six years. He went from there to a humane society in Houston where he was executive director for three years while they rebuilt, and another six at a humane society in Hillsborough County.
After extensive work at local humane societies, he moved to the national stage, becoming regional director for the Humane Society of the United States.
In his work, Phil has seen things that might harden the most generous hearts, but he remains surprisingly even-keeled. He's been a resource in breaking up dog-fighting operations, he's rescued animals from hoarders, and he's seen heart-wrenching cruelty.
His first hoarding experience, he said, was as part of an investigation of someone neglecting approximately 1,200 animals.
But he has measured prescriptions for them. They are better off rehabilitated, he said, even being allowed to own animals again under monitored restrictions, than not.
"It's a unique kind of cruelty, " he said. "It's not abusive - they get overwhelmed. It's a compulsive disorder and sometimes the individual is in total denial."
Dog fights are another kind of cruelty altogether, he admitted. When two dogs meet under normal circumstances and a confrontation occurs, one will back down or flee. Fighting dogs are trained to fight until death.
Still, Phil is proud he understands the sort of people who train fighting dogs enough that he can communicate with them, which was part of his work in conjunction with agencies like the DEA and others due to the concurrent felonies often associated with dog fights.
Part of his work was also disaster and flood relief. He said he was part of relief teams that worked most of the hurricanes during the 1990s.
But, as much as he loved his time with the Humane Society of the United States, Phil thinks they have moved away from the grass roots from which they sprouted, and after 15 years he decided to move on again.
In 2007 he came to the area, not unfamiliar, because his father had lived for 40 years in Punta Gorda. He had the misfortune of starting at a time when the economy was truly lagging, but they suffered through the hard years and are looking forward to changes ahead.
Nancy, his wife, who he met in the early nineties while they were both teaching at conferences, became executive pastry chef at the Gasparilla Inn.
Phil said that Boca Grande is a unique community, not only because they are friendly to animals, but because they understand the responsibilities of pet ownership, everything that goes along with owning an animal.
Nancy is now executive pastry chef at Coral Creek, he said, and they have a couple of dogs as well. He swears he's training them but thinks she might not agree.
Aside from an almost obligatory participation in golf, Phil admits that the work he does has a way of becoming everything to a person. It has led to some remarkable experiences. Aside from working with federal and local law enforcement agencies, being part of disaster relief teams and rescuing animals from various kinds of cruelty, he's testified on Capitol Hill in proceedings leading up to the Dogfighting Act. He's met Betty White and President Kennedy's sister, Eunice Shriver, too. He served on boards of elephant rescue operations and hooved animal rescues, too.
All those experiences were valuable, he said.
"I've capitalized on everything I've been involved with," he said.
So what about hobbies?
Golf, sort of. I didn't get the impression he cared all that much about it.
"That's what everybody does," he said.
Animals have been his life's work, and that's work enough.
"I've always looked at this, since March 1970, as a way of life," he explained. "This is what I do and this is what I want to do as long as I'm physically and mentally able to do it."