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Rooting for the underdog

The ASPCA's new leader strives for a more humane world

From Animal Sheltering Magazine November/December 2013

Matthew Bershadker, named in May as the ASPCA’s new president/CEO, believes he’s found the perfect career—one that allows him to work on behalf of animals, while satisfying his need to address injustice in society. Matthew Bershadker, then senior vice president of the ASCPA’s Anti-Cruelty Group, and Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team, remove a dog from a property in late March during a multistate federal dogfighting investigation.

Many people have a sense of the injustices in our world. Matthew Bershadker has devoted his adult life to fighting them—for humans and animals alike.

Bershadker, named in May as the ASPCA’s new president/CEO, taking the reins from Ed Sayres, graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s in communications. Like a lot of idealistic young people, he wanted to change the world. While working on a few state-level political campaigns, “I quickly found that I didn’t think that politics was the most effective or the most efficient way to start systemic change,” says Bershadker, 42.

He gravitated toward the nonprofit sector, where he was one of the first staff members at a then-fledgling Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) in Washington, D.C., and then went to work for an organization that strives to end childhood hunger in the U.S. Later he earned an MBA from Johns Hopkins University and worked for a consulting firm.

It was a visit to a shelter that drew him to animal welfare. “I went with my friend to an East Coast shelter, and it wasn’t a bad shelter, it wasn’t a poorly run shelter, but what was shocking to me was the lack of appropriate resources which were being provided to our homeless animals,” he recalls.

This realization motivated him to improve conditions for pets. It seemed like destiny intervened when, a few weeks later, the ASPCA had a job opening for a corporate partnerships position. Bershadker started 12 years ago as vice president of the ASPCA’s development department. Most recently, he served as senior vice president of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Group, where he helped form the Field Investigations & Response team.

Bershadker is excited about new programs like the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, N.J., and Moving Animals Places (MAP), a free, interactive, and Web-based map application that will help connect animal shelters across the country.

Bershadker, who lives in New York City with his wife Nina, son Elias, and their rescue Lab Thelma, believes he’s found the perfect career, where he gets to pursue his love of working on animals’ behalf. “I have a tough time tolerating injustice, where things aren’t fair. And when you put the shocking lack of resources afforded to animals, and the injustice behind how they’re treated, you put those things together … it’s a very nice fit for me,” he says.

In the edited interview below, Bershadker talks to Animal Sheltering staff writer Jim Baker about his plans for the ASPCA.

Animal Sheltering: You’ve helped grow some great programs at the ASPCA, like the Anti-Cruelty Group and the Field Investigations & Response team. Do any particular cases stand out in your mind?

Matthew Bershadker: For almost a year, we worked with NYPD training two undercovers and working with a confidential informant in a Bronx dogfighting investigation of Raul Sanchez. He had the entire setup in this basement of these two buildings. He had the pit, we pulled six treadmills out of there, we pulled a rape stand out of there (Editor’s note: Female dogs are strapped into “rape stands” to prevent fighting while males impregnate them), he had a freezer for the dead bodies, he had electrocution prongs hanging from the ceiling to execute the animals. He had a baseball bat, which was covered in dog fur and blood, which was also used to execute underperforming animals, and he had been fighting dogs for at least 10 years, probably longer. Collaborating with traditional expert law enforcement, bringing the animal expertise that we have, we were able to stop what had been an ongoing torture chamber for those animals, so that was a very exciting case for us.

How was it resolved?

His ring was shut down; all the dogs were seized and turned over to us. We actually are collecting, in dribs and drabs, about $100,000 in restitution from Raul Sanchez, and he is now a guest of the state. Unfortunately, he won’t be in long enough. I honestly could’ve cried my eyes out 15 times during the day, half for joy, because we were pulling those dogs out of there, knowing that no matter what, they were never going back; and half because you would take these dogs out of that basement, and they were terrified. They had never been out of there.

The ASPCA has been handling animal abuse calls in New York City since the organization’s founding 147 years ago. But in August you announced you will be turning these calls over to the NYPD. Why the change?

A few reasons. We have 17 agents that are covering a city of 8½ million people. At times, it has taken us days, or even weeks, to get to calls; that’s simply not acceptable. You could not put enough resources behind it to match the type of depth, skill, and scope that NYPD brings. NYPD responds to all cruelty complaints within eight hours, and all crimes in progress—depending on the nature of the crime—it could be between three and 13 minutes. So one of the main reasons is to significantly shrink response times, by getting to more animals in jeopardy, and more quickly.

What this does is put animal cruelty in the place where it belongs. Animal cruelty is a serious crime, worthy of being enforced by traditional, expert law enforcement, not being enforced by private agencies and whatever resources [they] may be able to allocate towards it. This is in no way a retreating of the ASPCA from protecting New York City’s animals. It’s an enhanced strategy.

Do you see any programs or initiatives that you’d like to explore further?

We launched in March this past year … the behavioral rehabilitation center [for dogs] in partnership with St. Hubert’s. Plenty of shelters and rescue groups around the country are working to rehabilitate abused animals, but they’re not doing it in a strategic way, they’re not doing it in a way where the results can be proven out through repetition and through peer review, and sharing those results. We know how to fix a broken leg, we know how to refeed a starved animal. Those are relatively straightforward, simple things. What we don’t necessarily know how to do is heal animals who have been emotionally abused and traumatized, and oftentimes, it’s that trauma, it’s that abuse, that’s leading to unnecessary euthanasia. So we believe, based on our experiences, that if given just a little bit more time, many of these animals can recover and can be healthy, loving pets.

Can you tell me about the new MAP program?

We know that there are areas of this country where there are animals who are being euthanized simply because they were born in the wrong place—not because they’re sick, not because they’re hurt, not because they’re old, not because they have behavior issues. The idea is to move animals to those areas of the country where they get scooped up in a second. But the idea behind the MAP is to try to bring a little technology to this, and help shelters do this on their own. So the MAP can allow shelters that have a surplus to identify shelters that are in need … and connect with each other. People around here describe it as for dogs.

What are some of the challenges to our field that you see?

The primary challenge I see is that the legal protections that cover animals do not reflect their true value, and it’s great to see lots of public discussion about this. When we do have laws on the books, we can’t rely on our government to fully enforce them. I think that if the true value of animals, which we know the American public believes, is really reflected in our laws, there would be a greater priority for enforcement. You wouldn’t see municipal shelter systems that were underfunded. … You wouldn’t see dogfighting penalties that were one year [in prison]. You wouldn’t see these large-scale, horrific commercial breeding facilities being defended by legislators all across the country. You wouldn’t see legislators gutting bills that were passed by their constituents, as HSUS and the ASPCA saw in Missouri [Prop B anti-puppy-mill referendum]. I will say that in the short time that I’ve been in animal protection, I think there’s been an incredible shift in how people think about animals, and the willingness of legislators to go to bat for animals. And I should say that HSUS has led the way in that space, and I appreciate and applaud that.

What keeps you motivated to remain in our field?

I had the incredible good fortune in March to go in the field and be part of a removal team, we just worked on a three-state, federal dogfighting case. It was very, very therapeutic or cathartic, for me, to be able to take those big, dogfighting collars off of the dogs, and slip a leash on, and walk or carry them off of that property onto a warm trailer. Now, I knew that some of those dogs would never get out of a temporary facility that we built, but I also knew they wouldn’t freeze to death, they wouldn’t die of exposure to the heat, and they would never fight again, and I knew that if they were euthanized, that they would be euthanized by somebody who loved them and cared for them, and the last touch that they felt was a loving hand, or a cheeseburger, not a gunshot to the head. And that keeps me going.

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.