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Answering an ad in the local paper. Visiting a shelter with a friend who wanted to adopt a dog. Fostering a kitten. Or taking to heart a co-worker’s observation that you’d be great working with animals.
For some in this field, that’s all it took to provide a launching pad for a lifelong career in sheltering. Along with accumulating wisdom as the years pile up, veterans have witnessed the evolution of the field: Many cinderblock and chain-link “pounds” have been replaced by cutting-edge, inviting adoption centers; the “dogcatcher” is a fading caricature, pushed aside by increasingly professional animal control departments; and in many communities, municipal agencies, private humane societies, rescue groups, and trap-neuter-return advocates are working together to save and placeas many animals as possible.
According to a survey we conducted in 2012, Animal Sheltering’s readership is now about 89 percent female. You go, girls!
Animal Sheltering—formerly Shelter Sense—marks its 35th year of publication in 2013, and to celebrate, we’ve reached out to longtime shelter veterans to find how out they started, what changes they’ve witnessed, what advice they’d offer newcomers, and what keeps them inspired and working in an ever-changing, but always challenging, field.
What’s it like to spend a lifetime in animal welfare? In these edited interviews with Animal Sheltering’s Jim Baker, here are 11 who know—starting with a woman who was interviewed for the very first edition of Shelter Sense in April 1978, and who’s still doing good things for animals.
Betty Denny Smith, retired director of Los Angeles County Animal Control Department
When Smith first appeared in this publication, she was director of the Los Angeles County Animal Control Department—a fact that the interviewer found worth delving into, given Smith’s gender in a then male-dominated field. While some of the questions sound a little funny today—“Do you feel that woman animal control officers have special problems in the field?” and “How are women at enforcement?”—Smith’s position was unusual. When she took the job in 1976, there were very few women serving as directors of major animal control departments, or even working as animal control officers. “Oh, absolutely. I was the first, and it made news everywhere,” Smith recalls. Though she retired from the American Humane Association in 1997, she still serves as an adviser and board member to several animal protection groups. “Do you ever retire?” she says, laughing, “I just go and on and on … I just changed hands. I was just involved in a lot of things with animals. I always stayed active somehow.”
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen over the years? It’s that the public is now interested in things that the majority was not interested in before. You look at television: Every station, at least here, shows animals up for adoption, and they show animal stories. There are stories on almost every newscast here about rescuing animals. That would never have been, when I first started.
Do you think we’ve made a lot of progress? Oh, yes, I can’t believe we’ve come all this way. Unfortunately, there is still euthanasia, but the numbers are way down. … Everybody would like to see no animals having to be euthanized, except for humane reasons. That’s the goal, but it’s gone down so far, it’s unbelievable.
Rocky Mountain High
Robert Rohde, president and CEO, Dumb Friends League (DFL), Denver
Rohde grew up in a small town in Iowa, then his family moved to what he considered a big town—10,000 people. “I was with the street maintenance department, and one of the gentlemen I was working with said, ‘As much as you love animals, you should work for my brother-in-law,’ and I said, ‘What’s your brother-in-law do?’ And he says, ‘He runs the humane society,’ and I said, ‘What’s a humane society?’” Soon after that exchange, in 1973, Rohde moved to Denver and took a job as an animal care technician at DFL. He was 23—and he’s been there ever since. He became president/CEO in 1977.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen? There’s much more public awareness about the issue [of homeless pets], and I think we as a field have come light years as far as educating ourselves how to do a better job. When I started, there were no publications, there wasn’t anywhere to help me to do my job better.
What do you wish would change? I wish the pace would be faster, that the numbers we were handling were like, you know, none.
What I tell my team is, 'When I don't cry anymore, that's when I get out of this.'"
What would you tell newcomers to offer them perspective and inspiration? One of my things is, working together works. The more we work together, the more we get accomplished. … Another one is that everybody cares, and drop the “I care more than you do” attitude.
Have there been times when you’ve been burned out, and thought about leaving? Not really. … What I tell my team is, “When I don’t cry anymore, that’s when I get out of this.”
Great Time to Get Involved
Jennifer Orme, director of operations, Larimer Humane Society, Colorado
Orme has spent 27 years in animal welfare, during which time she has worked with American Humane, served as a shelter director in Peoria and Champagne, Ill., and run her own consulting business as an adviser to animal welfare staff and executives. Orme started as a volunteer at the Morgan County Humane Society in Monrovia, Ill., where she fostered her first kitten—a little orange tabby with severe URI, who she nursed back to health—in 1971.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen? I think the biggest change that we’ve seen is euthanasia—that has been something that still takes me to my knees, how many animals we had to euthanize back in the ’70s. … If you were adopting out 10 percent of your animals or more, that was still considered good practice.
What is your biggest priority for animals in your community? It’s to really get more attention about the whole issue around cats and overpopulation, and unwanted and free-roaming and loosely owned cats. We may have people that adore cats; however, they still let them free roam, and then wonder why they don’t come home.
Plunging Right In
Joan Phillips, co-founder and president, Animal Lovers League, Glen Cove, N.Y.
Phillips answered an ad in her local newspaper in 1994 seeking volunteers for the city, and was among a small group who volunteered to help at the municipal shelter.
“We were rather appalled that there was no adoption program, the place was surrounded by barbed wire, the public hours were pathetic, and it was about a 99 percent euthanasia rate. So we bought crates, and we started going to PetSmart on the weekends, to start the adoption program,” Phillips recalls. “I started beating a path to the mayor’s office just nonstop about the conditions. The dogs were left out from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, no matter what the weather, and all they had was chain link and a concrete floor, not even a mat under them. Water would freeze; the flies would eat them in the summer. So we started campaigning to change their living conditions.”
After two years without the shelter making changes, Glen Cove’s mayor suggested that the city would be better off privatizing it, and turning it over to the volunteers. That’s how the shelter became the Animal Lovers League.
So this is a career you stumbled into? Yes, actually I went head first into the deep end of the pool, without knowing how to swim. Not a clue.
What would you say is the biggest change you’ve seen? The quality of care animals are receiving in the shelters, and the degree of knowledge that the people who are being employed and work with them have now. I would say the amount of education and training that’s available … I always gave so much credit to HSUS, because truly Expo has influenced our shelter more than any other factor. That’s where I went to learn.
The 99 Percent
Barbara Carr, executive director, SPCA Serving Erie County, Tonawanda, N.Y.
Carr got started in animal welfare in New Hampshire about 27 years ago, when her children were teenagers. “I’d found a little litter of kittens, and I went to the local humane society, and they said that they were too little, they would have to euthanize them. And I said, ‘What if I raised them?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, OK.’” Carr took the kittens home for care, but when she brought them back later, she saw the shelter was really struggling. “I said, ‘I think you guys need help.’ So I started volunteering, and I cleaned the cat room every Friday … and the place was filled with employees that hated people. I just really thought they’re never going to get off the ground if they don’t sort of change what they’re doing.” When the shelter’s executive director left, Carr went to the board of directors and suggested that they hire herfor the job. “So I left on Friday as the cat room cleaner, and I came back Monday as the boss,” she says.
Carr has headed the SPCA Serving Erie County for the past 19 years.
So this was a career that you kind of stumbled into? I always loved animals; you couldn’t find a picture of me as a child without some stray animals. But as an adult … I got away from animals a long, long time, and I really knew nothingabout the problems of animals. I mean, zero.
When I first started volunteering there, I can remember saying to the executive director at the time—they were going to be euthanizing some puppies—and I said, ‘Well, why would you euthanize those puppies, when they could be used for medical research?’ I don’t know what I was thinking! It never occurred to me that somebody would actually hurt an animal. … And so, pretty quickly, within weeks, I would say, I had read everything I could get my hands on … I knew I had found where I wanted to be. I was in my late 30s, with sort of no knowledge one minute, and then … I can remember getting all the back issues of Shelter Sense, reading all the articles.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen? The biggest change for me is that we’ve been, at least in many regions of the country, fairly successful at ending overpopulation. I really didn’t think I would see that in my lifetime, and in my shelter, we never euthanize for space—never, and we haven’t in four or five years. Dogs, not for a decade or more; and cats, I can tell you the last healthy cat we euthanized: It was July 28, 2008.
What would you tell newcomers to give them perspective and inspiration? I call it the “can’t a” virus [Ed’s note: playing off “Hanta virus”]. I believe it lives in the feces of confined animals, and then it sneaks out, and attacks shelter workers after they’ve been involved in shelter work for about six months, and it causes muscle spasms, so their arms get clasped across their chest, and their forehead furrows into frowns, and it makes you so you can only see black and white, and all shades of gray have disappeared. I think everybody in animal welfare catches it.
At some point, I had to recognize that I had the “can’t a” virus and really take a hard look at what’s the real situation. Is it us against them? It is not. There are 1 percent of the people out there that cause all the problems, and 99 percent of the people want to change that. So changing my view of humanity to the 99 percent who are wonderful and care about animals and may not know how to help. You know, that gives me strength every day.
Keeping Active Helps
Robert A. Downey, executive director, Capital Humane Society, Lincoln, Neb.
Downey was the office manager for a construction company near Omaha when he decided he needed to move to Lincoln to help his parents deal with health issues, so he answered a blind ad seeking an executive for a nonprofit organization. “I was seeking a position in the city I needed to get back to, in order to help my parents, and simply stumbled into this,” he says, laughing. Downey started at the top—in his current position—in 1984.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen? I remember when I first got involved in this work, it just seemed like nobody paid attention to animal shelters. People were just continually scratching their heads, “How do we get people to pay attention to animal shelters?” And that has changed drastically. And I think, for the most part, in a good way, because you need that attention in order to save animals.
What would you tell newcomers to offer them perspective and inspiration? I think it’s very important to take care of yourself physically, and I think it’s very important to be physically active, because it helps relieve stress. It’s an unpaid psychiatrist.
Fulfilled by Ferals
Becky Robinson, president
and co-founder, Alley Cat Allies
Robinson, a lifelong animal lover, was earning a master’s in public administration at the University of Missouri-Kansas City when she met a small group of like-minded young people, and they formed People for Animal Rights, which brought in speakers from across the country, and would send members to national conferences to learn about what other groups were working on. But Robinson’s group started with a local issue: the use of carriage horses to give rides to tourists in Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza shopping district. “We were appalled by the way they were treated,” she says. Robinson later moved to Washington, D.C., to get more involved in animal protection, and that’s where she began the work that led to the founding of Alley Cat Allies in 1990.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen for feral cats? The best thing that could have happened at that time, two or three decades ago, is that they were ignored. Because when they did get on somebody’s radar, they just removed them, and put them down. They are now recognized for the animals that they are, and trap-neuter-return is accepted as the way to help them.
The other change we’ve seen is the debunking of the myths, the fallacies, and the misperceptions about feral cats. When people used to call animal control, they thought they were doing the right thing by saying, ‘Help find these cats a home.’ … The cats don’t belong in a shelter to begin with, and that’s what we’ve helped to change. You let them be. You live and let live. It’s rather simple, but it’s rather deep at the same time. People want to do the right thing. We’re a nation of animal lovers.
What has kept you working in animal advocacy? You can actually measure the impact. It’s been visible, especially when you look at the cats themselves. When I have seen what we’ve done with tens of thousands of cats, it’s very rewarding to see those animals, what good we can do for them, just having them spayed and vaccinated and reunited with their family members is very satisfactory.
Partnering with the Public
Shelly Moore, president
and CEO, Charlotte
Moore accompanied a friend who was seeking to adopt a dog from the Prince George’s County Animal Shelter in Maryland. “I started talking to one of the people that were working there, and I thought, ‘What an awesome job—I would love to do this.’ I had no idea what I was talking about, of course,” Moore says. She started out as an animal care technician at the shelter in 1985. She later served as executive director at the Humane Society of Washington County in Maryland, the Asheville Humane Society in North Carolina, and now at the Charlotte Humane Society.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen? I think the biggest change is the increase in advocacy, just awareness from the general public about the plight of homeless animals. The focus used to be on just managing homeless animals in the population, where now I see the focus is on saving animals’ lives. I think we were always trying to do that, but not as actively and aggressively as we are now.
What would you tell newcomers to give them perspective or inspiration? I love what I do. I get to make a difference for animals, every single day. There are bad days, of course. But I think that you’re healthier and you’re happier if you’re open and flexible, and really embrace the fact that the public generally wants to help; they just don’t always know how to do it. And if you focus on engaging them to be part of the mission to help animals and save lives, that you will be more successful, as opposed to seeing them as adversaries.
A Way of Life
Phil Snyder, executive director,
Suncoast Humane Society,
Snyder was a professional dog show handler when his mentor, a board member at the Elkhart County (Ind.) Humane Society, asked him if he’d ever considered getting involved in shelters. Snyder started there as shelter manager, and within a year was promoted to executive director. That was the start of a career now in its 42nd year, which has included stints leading shelters in Houston, Tampa, and Jacksonville, and 15 years as a regional director at The HSUS. He’s been at Suncoast Humane Society for five years.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen? Animal control, back in those days, was the “dog pound,” and they went from [calling it] the dog pound to the animal shelter. Now they’ve gone from animal shelter to animal services, and animal control in there somewhere in the middle. Humane societies have remained humane societies, with that name kind of being the “good guy,” and then the animal control’s taken the brunt of the bad things. And I think that most animal controls do a tremendous job out there, and should be applauded more.
How do you feel about your career? It’s been a tremendous experience. I do not remember getting up one day thinking, “Damn, I gotta go to work.” This has been my way of life, and it will continue to be, as long as I am healthy, and as long as I know that what I am doing is effective and is helping animals and people.
I do not remember getting up one day thinking,
Excited by Change
Rick Johnson, chief executive officer, Sacramento SPCA
Johnson hadn’t intended to get into sheltering. In fact, after graduating from college with an anthropology degree, he was waiting to start work on a site survey of a river for a museum in Grand Junction, Colo. But funding fell through, and Johnson needed a job. He answered an ad for a dog warden position, and took the job in 1974. He has headed the Sacramento SPCA for 10 years; before that, he served as associate director of the Marin Humane Society for 25 years.
What changes have you seen? More recent changes are the huge collaborations that are going on around the country with the businesses like Hill’s Science Diet, VCA Animal Hospitals, PetCo and PetSmart, so there’s a huge change to corporations being more involved and supportive of our animal work in the field. And those are just incredibly positive changes. … You see these huge collaborations around the country, with organizations working with hundreds of rescue groups in the community, and setting a new platform of rescue organizations having a very important role. … I would certainly like to add that the utilization and education that you get from publications like Shelter Sense, as it evolved to Animal Sheltering, have played an important role in those changes. It is one of those magazines that I believe has been on every CEO or executive director’s desk. It’s the only magazine that does provide answers and material covering the operation of shelters, in particular, so certainly congratulations to you guys at HSUS.
Nancy McKenney, CEO, Marin Humane Society
McKenney responded to an ad in her local newspaper for a public relations coordinator at the Humane Society for Seattle/King County (now the Seattle Humane Society) in Bellevue, Wash. It was 1983, and she was 23. She became the shelter’s CEO in 1986, and held that position for 19 years. McKenney took over as CEO at Marin Humane Society two years ago.
How would you say community perceptions of shelters have changed? They have improved, because most humane societies that are successful and thriving are realizing that the community needs to be partnering with them to make the progress. We’re designing our shelters to be more community and learning centers for animal welfare. I also see the demand by the public for us to be on our game, professional, responsive, and solving problems. The demand that our customer service be great, our response time be better, that comes with it.
What do you wish would change? I would like to see … lessening the divisiveness of groups in our field that are attacking each other. The attacks on some of the individuals and organizations have gotten more personal and more serious. … The attacks could be viral on social media … some of my colleagues, unfortunately, have received death threats or really nasty attacks. It’s more serious and more personal and scarier for some of my colleagues, and I’m knocking on wood that I haven’t really been part of that.