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Changing perceptions in the tar heel state

Shelter director battles idea that pets are disposable

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2012

Leigh Casaus, director of the Randolph County Animal Shelter in North Carolina, says her proudest accomplishment is having opened her shelter to working more with rescue groups so that more animals’ lives can be saved.

In central North Carolina, the insurance business’ loss has been the animals’ gain.

Leigh Casaus says she grew up “out in the country” among cats, dogs, horses, and pigs (“You name it, I had it”) and developed a fondness for animals.

About a decade ago, when Casaus’s four children were all in middle or high school, she decided she was ready for a career. She got hired as an attendant at the Randolph County Animal Shelter, and after about a year was promoted to animal control officer—a seemingly ideal job for someone who says she loves moving around and being outdoors.

But after four years as an ACO, Casaus needed a break. “I was trying to rescue every animal that came down the line,” she says, “and honestly I was really burnt out.”

She took a job selling insurance, but recalls that one day after she tried to close a deal, her district manager pulled her aside and said, “You know, you really need to go back into the animal sheltering business, because that’s all you talked about.”

Casaus returned to work as an ACO, but a back injury from a car accident left her unable to withstand that job’s daily rigors. When a new position opened up— supervisor/director for both the Randolph County shelter and county animal control— she applied and got it, taking the reins at a shelter that can house about 100 dogs and 70 cats, and takes in 7,000 animals a year.

Kim Alboum, North Carolina state director for The HSUS, notes that Casaus and her husband even painted the shelter on their own time to help save money and buy more supplies. “That’s just the kind of person that she is,” Alboum says. “It’s not just about the animals and it’s not just about the community for Leigh. She’s trying to find a way to merge the two together, and educate.”

I n the edited interview below, Casaus, 47, whose own pets include three Chihuahuas, a Manchester terrier, and two cats, talks to Animal Sheltering associate editor James Hettinger about her work.

Animal Sheltering: What’s your favorite part of your job?

Leigh Casaus: Always, working with the animals is the best part, but community outreach is probably my passion. Because when I started this job, there was a stigmatism: “The county shelter? Ewww. Yuck.” My goal has been to change that perception. We have a volunteer program now. We’ve opened the shelter up. We want the county citizens to know that this is your shelter. It’s for you as a county citizen, and if there’s things about it you don’t like, let us know what they are, and let’s work together as a county to change those things. Changing Perceptions in the Tar Heel State Shelter director battles idea that pets are disposable better know an aco Leigh Casaus, director of the Randolph County Animal Shelter in North Carolina, says her proudest accomplishment is having opened her shelter to working more with rescue groups so that more animals’ lives can be saved.

What’s going on in your community right now?

One of the things I’m excited about [is that] people are more aware of animal issues. When I started in this field 10 years ago, for the most part, people were like, “Yeah, it’s a stray animal, pick it up, get it off my property. I don’t care what happens after that.” And now, when we have to pick up a stray animal, people are asking, “What’s gonna happen to this animal? What are the chances for this animal?” I’m excited that the public at large is caring what’s going on.

Do you have any particular goals for the future?

I want to do more education with children in the community, because they’re the generation coming behind us, and things have got to change for our animals. As far as a more immediate goal, just stressing that pets are not disposable property. I get so aggravated when people come walking in our door [and say], “We lost our cat a week ago, so we’re here looking for a new one.” Don’t be looking for a new one. Look for your old one.

Is there any advice you’d give a young person thinking of getting into the field?

Take any vet tech classes or animal care programs that are offered at the community colleges. That’s always a good steppingstone. And just learn all you can about animal husbandry, and also be aware of what an explosive environment you can be in. … This can be an environment where you’re no one’s best friend. You’ve either taken an animal away from them because they weren’t good owners, or, in some cases, like a few minutes ago, I refused to adopt out to a lady. She has two in-heat females on her property, that are her dogs, that she can’t afford to get spayed, and she wants to adopt an unaltered male from me. So she hung up the phone cussin’ me.

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.