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Man leaves $3M to start animal shelter in Champaign County

An Urbana resident who passed away in December left his $3 million estate to establish an Animal Welfare League in Champaign County.

David Robert Wetzell, known as “Bob,” left specific guidelines in his will for establishing the shelter, which will be modeled after the Animal Welfare League of Clark County in Springfield, said Ronald Tompkins, executor of Wetzell’s estate.

Wetzell left instructions in his will for Tompkins to sell his assets and use the money to establish the shelter and purchase a secluded farm in Champaign County. It is to be used as an animal preserve, pet cemetery, dog training facility and rehabilitation home for unwanted pets. Tompkins said he will soon file inventory on Wetzell’s assets, which he estimated to be valued at $3 million.

Wetzell left no family behind when he passed away Dec. 6, 2014, at the age of 80, except for a few cousins who life far away, Tompkins said. He described Wetzell was a devoted pet owner and animal lover.

“He thought about it and that was something that was greatly on his mind,” he said.

This project will be a big undertaking, said Libby Adams, who runs Clark County’s Animal Welfare League with her husband, Ray.

The shelter, based in Springfield, was started in 1959 and is run by a board of 12 members. The shelter currently houses around 45 dogs and 90 cats.

“I know it will take a while to build up to what we have,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. Ours took a few years to get to what we have now.”

Tompkins said he is seeking candidates to establish an initial board of five members and will help it through the legal process of getting established as a non-profit organization. Once the board is set up according to Wetzell’s instructions and is legally constituted, Tompkins said it will become self-operating.

The board will comprise of five members who are Champaign County residents and members of the Springfield Animal Welfare League, according to Wetzell’s instructions. Tompkins said he will recommend that the board follow the Springfield model and go up to 12 board members once the initial five members have things running smoothly.

Tompkins also said he spoke to Barely Used Pets Inc., a dog rescue in Urbana, about the possibility of cooperating or merging, if it’s deemed appropriate. But he added that ultimately it will be up to the board, once it is constituted, as to how it wants to continue.

Cecelia Walter, who started PAWS Animal Shelter in Urbana and had known Wetzell since high school, said she thinks he wasted his money.

“I liked Bob tremendously, but I don’t think this is the best decision,” Walter said.

She said the money would have been put to better use if Wetzell had donated it to the Animal Welfare League in Springfield rather than setting up a new shelter. A lot of the money will go toward expenses for organizing the program, things that aren’t helping the animals, Walter said.

“I’m sorry he did it the way he did,” she said. “What he wanted to do, and how he set it up, I don’t think it clicks.”

Adams spoke fondly of Wetzell and his love for animals.

“Bob was very fond and proud of our organization,” Adams said. “He would come down on occasion. He was a member of our league for as long as I can remember and supported us.”

Wetzell left behind a dog, six cats, seven chickens and a 20-year-old parakeet. Tompkins said he kept the dog, Blondie, and found homes for the other animals.

Adams said Wetzell often told her his dream was to start a kennel like the one in Springfield. And she wanted him to get it started while he was still living.

“He didn’t quite know how to go about it, so I hope this guy will get that done,” she said. “Good luck to Mr. Tompkins.”

Tompkins said he is still looking for people to get involved in the new shelter. He said anyone who was a member of the Springfield Animal Welfare League as of Dec. 1,2014, and is a current Champaign County resident, will receive a priority seat on the board.

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