SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare President and CEO Gary Willoughby will bid farewell to Aiken in March.

After more than five years of serving the local nonprofit, Willoughby has accepted a position as the executive director of the Toledo Area Humane Society in Toledo, Ohio, which is about 45 minutes from to his hometown of Ypsilanti, Mich. This is also the third oldest humane society in the country, which was established in 1884.

The Toledo humane society is looking to build a new facility, which is the type of project Willoughby is quite familiar with as the Aiken nonprofit recently moved into a newly-constructed 20,000-square-foot building in September on Willow Run Road.

Willoughby said it’s something he’s carefully pondered and researched, stating that he had decided if he ever left Aiken, it had to be for a position that was just right for him.

“I did a lot of homework,” Willoughby said Wednesday. “It felt like the right fit for me.”

He added that, really, there’s never an easy time to leave an organization that he’s enjoyed working for but he wanted to stay long enough to see the new facility built and other programs implemented.

Willoughby plans to stay closely connected to the Aiken nonprofit with the goal of making it a sister organization of the Toledo Area Humane Society.

Staff and board members are supportive and excited for his new opportunity.

“I’m really happy for Gary,” said SPCA Development Director Chrissey Morton Miller.

“He has done a tremendous job in the short time he has been at the SPCA and has a lot to offer any organization. I am looking forward to building bridges between Toledo and Aiken,” Miller said. “Gary has already introduced them to our Phideaux University program, and I know he will share wonderful ideas with us, too, as all of our horizons expand.”

Since Willoughby has been leading the Aiken SPCA, bonds between them and the County have tightened with the help of Aiken County Animal Control Chief Enforcement Officer Bobby Arthurs. Relationships with animal welfare groups in surrounding municipalities and counties have also grown in the past five years.

Through fundraising efforts and careful planning, the new SPCA facility became a reality in 2012 and, most recently, the center’s spay/neuter clinic opened.

The former Aiken SPCA shelter on Wire Road has been converted into a dog boarding and day care facility named the Wag-Inn on Wire.

Last year, the nonprofit was named as one of the Humane Society of the United States’ top 10 emergency placement partners for taking in animals from a puppy mill in Edgefield, and received the Pedigree Foundation’s Innovation Award for its Phideaux University Program. This award was only given to a few of several hundred applicants.

During Willoughby’s tenure, more than 3,500 animals have found homes through the dedication of his staff and volunteers, and hundreds have been returned to their owners through microchipping and a lost and found program.

Approximately 10,000 spay and neuter surgeries have taken place in an effort to decrease the number of homeless animals.

Before coming to Aiken, Willoughby was a volunteer or board member for many other animal welfare groups including the Animal Refuge Center, Friends of Strays, Saint Bernard Rescue of Florida, and Central Florida and Northeast Florida Great Dane Rescue, according to a press release from the Toledo Area Humane Society. Willoughby also established a program for home-delivered meals for pets, which is said to be the largest in Florida, as well as created an online college pet therapy course for Florida Gulf Coast University, the release read.

Board Chair Barbara Nelson said the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare has a strong staff, and she knows they will get through this transition smoothly.

“We’re sorry to see him (Willoughby) go but we certainly understand, “ Nelson said. “He’s young and wants to take on more challenges. This will be a new challenge. He loves challenges.”

When asked what he’ll miss the most about the local nonprofit and Aiken, Willoughby was quick to answer.

“The people,” Willoughby said. “I couldn’t ask for friendlier, warm people. I really, really want to concentrate on keeping those partnerships. I have a very strong board of directors and the 250 volunteers are very passionate. The building is nice but the people who do all the work is what makes it important.”

Willoughby said the board will meet in the coming days to discuss the future, and he will continue to offer any assistance he can from Ohio while the Aiken SPCA undergoes this transition.