January 30, 2018
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When I was about 8 years old, I was outside exploring the area around the church gym where my older brother was playing basketball. There were a lot of old trees and multiple window wells near the base of the building, and I was looking at some rocks when I heard a rustle in the leaves and some soft peeping noises. I walked over to the next window well and looked down to see a baby blue jay hopping around. He had some feathers, but only tiny little wings, with no way to get out of the three-foot-deep well. He must have been blown out of his nest during the previous night’s storm. I immediately began to look around for a box or something I could put him into. I found a small one in the back of our car and very carefully scooped him out.
I begged my mother to let me take him home, promising to keep him outside for just a couple of days. I used an old bird cage and set him up in a small tree outside our back door. I researched what to feed him and every morning before school I fed him worms, small bugs and other grub-like things I was able to find. Within two weeks he was almost fully grown and ready to head out on his own. I was so proud of “Jay” and watched as he flew off towards the woods near our house. For years after, every once in a while we would seem him fly nearby and land on our deck. I liked to think he was just checking in to say “hi” and let me know he was ok.
I bet most of you reading this have a very similar story. It might have been a baby robin, a bunny, a squirrel or maybe a chipmunk. I was drawn to animals from a very young age and was fortunate to grow up in an area surrounded by them.
Upon entering high school, I got my first job at the mall pet store. I learned a lot about pet retail—the good and the bad—for the next 4 years. I loved being around the animals and caring for them, but I didn’t like how they were kept while waiting to be sold—the puppies in particular, who were basically living individually in cages, isolated from each other. Years later, I graduated from college and got what I considered a “real” job in telecommunications. I stayed in that field for a little over 6 years, but had my heart set on doing something with animals. I didn’t want to sell them, but I really wanted to be around them, preferably in a fun, social environment.
Around that same time, the San Francisco SPCA had launched dog playgroups and I was fascinated by the idea that we could have 20+ dogs playing together in one room. This was around the year 2000 and we were just starting to see a boom in dog parks on the East Coast. I immersed myself in research and attended dog training seminars on the weekend. In 2001, I left my first career to start Happy Tails Dog Spa. Later renamed Dogtopia, the first location—9,000 square feet—opened in Tysons Corner, Virginia in June 2002. We had three playrooms and the capacity for nearly 100 dogs. Many people, including most of the local veterinarians, thought I was crazy and wouldn’t last a year.
I will save the fun business stories and anecdotes for some other time, but at one year in, we were on track to bring in more than $700,000 in revenue in the first year and more than $1 million the next year. I knew I had a hit on my hands, and that my little doggy daycare was about to become something much larger. I decided to franchise the business and ultimately grew it to 40 locations in the United States and Canada before I sold it to a private equity firm in 2015. For the next two years I dabbled in technology start-ups, but greatly missed working with and for animals. I still had my 501(c)(3), K9 Support Inc.—which I had started in 2005 to send care packages to military canines stationed overseas—and I was interested in the non-profit animal welfare world. When I saw the opening for a vice president of Companion Animals, I saw the opportunity to apply my pet care and entrepreneurial experience to managing a team of dedicated animal welfare professionals at The HSUS.
It has been a very busy first three months, and I am excited about Animal Care Expo and some of the new features and sessions we have added. The Companion Animals team is a joy to work with and together we are making big plans for future programs to support animal sheltering, pet ownership and progressive state and federal policies for dogs, cats and small animals. I look forward to hearing more from you, about the challenges you are facing and how best my team and The HSUS can help move the field of animal welfare forward. Please feel free to introduce yourself and say hello in the comments below. And I look forward to meeting you in person this May at Animal Care Expo!