The Animal Welfare Society has for more than 20 years played an important role in the Greater New Milford community.

For all of that time, Renee Gardner has been the face of the Animal Welfare Society.

During the nearly 21 years the society's shelter has been open on Dodd Road, Mrs. Gardner has been the supervisor.

Before that, she hosted Animal Welfare open houses at New Milford Animal Hospital, where veterinarian Dr. Robert Lee kenneled dogs and cats for the volunteer organization.

"Animals' welfare is a compassion for her," said Margaret Giovannone, who was the co-chairwoman of New Milford's Animal Welfare Society when Mrs. Gardner first volunteered.

"I had moved up to New Milford from Brookfield and my children were young," Mrs. Gardner explained. "I wanted something to do in my community with my little children in tow."

"Volunteering for Animal Welfare was a perfect fit," she said. "I worked at Dr. Lee's at the time and he boarded dogs for the organization."

"We were a fledgling, volunteer organization then, working out of our homes," Mrs. Giovannone said. "Renee got first-hand experience in our philosophy of quality placement of pets hosting the open houses when she worked for Dr. Lee."

"We were all on a learning curve when we opened the shelter," she added. "We knew there would be ups and downs but were determined to make it a success."

"Renee was the natural choice to run the shelter," Mrs. Giavannone said. "People know she cares by the quality care the animals are given and her knowledge."

"It's very difficult to have some stay as long as Renee has, working with the public and placing animals," Mrs. Giovannone said. "There are many happy endings, but many unhappy situations as well."

Mrs. Gardner recalled the early years as she sat in her office at the shelter last week, kept company by her three, personally adopted dogs, who join her each day at the shelter -- Quincy, a 12-year-old Shitzu; Zoey, an 11-year-old Dachshund mix; and Teegen, a 6-year-old Border Collie.

"I served on the shelter's building committee and became very excited," she recalled. "I felt this was something I wanted to do for a career. I tell people I came with the building."

"I had nine kittens and one dog when we opened the shelter," Mrs. Gardner said. "As word got out, we started to fill up. Right now, we have 49 cats and 11 dogs. It's the lowest number we've had in quite some time. The economy has been very hard on animals as well."

Audrey McKay, a regional canine control officer, has worked hand in hand with Mrs. Gardner for 26 years. The two women bonded through their love of animals, Ms. McKay said.

"Renee began knowing a lot about dogs and cats," Ms. McKay said. "I added to her knowledge, teaching her about teaching classes and animal management. She's gone above and beyond me over the years."

Ms. McKay highly praisees Mrs. Gardner's ability to handle the job.

"Renee's really level headed," she added. "She lets her brain as well as her heart make decisions regarding animal care and placement. She's really great, very caring and super knowledgeable,"

Mrs. Gardner manages to balance her passion for animals and the shelter with a family life with husband Brian Gardner, daughter Amy Gardner Kotach and granddaughter: Morgan Kotach, soon to be age 2.

"Brian is an animal lover by default," Mrs. Gardner laughed.

Ms. McKay ranks among the many who admire Mrs. Gardner for her versatility.

"She could do anything she set her mind to. But would the Animal Welfare shelter be the same place without her?" Ms. McKay asked. "Definitely not. She's formed that shelter into the place and service that it is."

"Animals are my first love," Mrs. Gardner said. "Seeing the animals go to their families, seeing the photos and emails -- how happy everybody is with the adoptions -- you focus on the happiness."

The Animal Welfare Society Shelter, 8 Dodd Road in New Milford, is open Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Adoption fees are $220 for dog and $100 for cat.; 860-355-7322