—— If you could share something with the public about animal welfare centers, what would it be?
Only a very small percentage of the American public have ever visited an animal shelter, maybe because they’ve seen something on TV that was very depressing... images of the dogcatcher, but the reality of our situation is so different. We view ourselves as part of the community and we’d like everyone to know that. Here animals are treated with respect and love, because we are really working for them.
—— So many of us are animal lovers, but not everyone has been lucky enough to grow up around them. What kind of an impact can our four-legged friends have on our lives?
Mankind will never be able emulate the love and loyalty that an animal will give us. They will not abuse us, they will not mistreat us, they will not leave us, and all they want is to be by your side. We can’t get that from human compassion... maybe for a short time, but not for a lifetime. Animals are willing to give you that for a lifetime. Not so long ago, a family adopted a dog from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). It was a dog that some other family didn’t want anymore... they got tired of it and relinquished it to the ASPCA and so this family adopted him. Well, one day, their 9-year old boy and the dog were taking a walk through a field and they came upon a rattlesnake. As the snake curled to strike the boy, his dog body-checked him knocking him aside and taking the bite for him, right square in the chest, and saved that boys life. I can’t honestly tell you that if I were walking with my best friend that I would take that bite for him. I can tell you that dog sensed the danger. He knew what was happening and still he was willing to give his life protecting this child. He was a hero, a hero that somebody else had just discarded. We have so many other heroes here at the shelter that people can adopt right now. Not everyone is going to save your life, but they’ll all make your life richer, fuller... better, in a way only they can do.
—— Mike, can you share a little about your mission here at the Helen Woodward Animal Center?
Our focus here is on adoption and education. We have to educate our community, our society, that our animals are not disposable items. We need to teach everyone that we share this earth with these animals and that we can enhance the quality of life for animals and people by working together. We must treat them with the respect and the dignity they deserve, because how can we really say that we are human and humane if we are not willing to protect those who protect us.
I feel very strongly that if you had the misfortune to lose your sight, there would be a dog that would give his life and devote it to you, to be your eyes as a Seeing Eye dog. If you were unfortunate and had to be confined to a wheelchair all your life, there would be a companion dog who would give his life to be there, to open doors, turn on lights, pick up what you drop and devote his life to you. If there were a disaster, there would be animals to work in search and rescue, to do what people can’t and dedicate their lives to helping us ̶ like they did at “ground zero” working 20-hour days till exhaustion. When do we honor them and protect them?
—— Have you always been an animal person?
It was very funny, after serving in the Marines, I went to the employment office and they saw that I was from Kentucky and so they automatically figured I must like animals. Actually, I had never really spent much time with animals, but that’s how I got started with the ASPCA. Soon, I was loosing weight, I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep thinking about all the pain and suffering that the animals were going through. That’s when I started realizing that I really did care and that something needed to be done. Although, I didn’t realize it at that time, if I had just put my mind to it, and used all the energy and the intelligence that God had given me... I could have fixed a lot of this. It got to the point were I just didn’t think there was anything I could do to help, so I tendered my resignation. I was really taking the coward’s way out by running away from it all.
—— What happened to show you just how much these animals mean to you?
Well, a little puppy showed me what courage and compassion were really all about. One night, during my last week with the ASPCA, a call came in... a dog had been struck by a car in the Bronx. Everyone had already left for the evening and there was no one left to go, so I put on a technician’s coat and went out to retrieve him. When I got there it was clear the little fellow’s back was broken and just as I was going to pick him up, three young hoods appeared asking, “What do you think you’re doing?” When I told them I was taking him back they replied, “No you’re not!” Well, just as I was bending down̶they jumped me from behind! Those sick punks actually had a bet on how long that little puppy was going to live and by taking him away I was ruining it for them! So they beat me, stabbed me and left me there to die in the street, along with the puppy. As I was lying there, slipping into unconsciousness, the pup, broken back and all, somehow pulled himself over to me and began licking my face, bringing me back to life. There was no way that little guy should have been able to move, but he did... giving me, unconditionally, what only an animal can give us.
There, in the gutter, I prayed and promised God that if he would allow me to live, I would never turn my back on another orphaned pet... and I haven’t. That day changed my life forever. I consider it a blessing that gave purpose to my life. Now, I wake up everyday knowing what I’m supposed to do, and the only the fear I have is that I’m going to run out of time before I get it all accomplished.
—— When did you join the Helen Woodward Animal Center?
I’ve been here since 1999. I’d been working as a consultant to the animal welfare industry and I was never on the ground... I was always flying somewhere. Actually, I’d never even heard of the HWAC before, but during one of my very last consulting jobs I was in San Diego and a friend mentioned that they were looking for a director. I told him it was too late, because I had already committed to working someplace else. Then I realized that it had been impossible for me to be everywhere I was needed... so why don’t I build a place where everyone can come! So that’s what I’ve been doing here. We have people from all over the state, country and world... Florida, Texas, even Japan... come here to be trained. We teach them everything about the nonprofit animal welfare world. How to fundraise, how to market, how to merchandise, and how to stop the killing! Soon we’re going to be breaking ground on what will be the “Animal University” - the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It’s going to be the most state of the art, up to date, animal facility in the world.
—— Can you tell us about some of the programs and services that you offer here that makes this facility so special?
We are so much more than just a place to take-in animals or adopt-out animals... we are part of the community. On our grounds we have stables and offer therapeutic riding programs for the physically and mentally challenged. People from 4 to 80 participate. They could be stroke victims or autistic children and riding on the horses gives them the same type of exercise that they would go to a physical therapist for. It also gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment. For most of these people, confined to wheelchairs, sitting on top of a horse is the only time in their lives that they’ll ever be looked up to. We’ve also got our “animobile”, our mobile teaching center, we use to visit hospitals, hospices, youth centers and so on. Most of these loving animals have been rescued from some kind of abuse or neglect and so when we deal with children that have also been abused or mistreated they automatically connect. Sometimes you’ll see a boy or a girl that has been abused and has no trust for mankind at all, sit down on the floor and put his arms around one of the dogs, then lift up their ear and tell him everything! All that happens because they feel the trust and love from that animal, and they can reach the kids that people sometimes can’t. We’ve also got hospital facilities for dogs, cats, horses, and boarding facilities too. They’ve become so popular for the holidays that people will actually sleep in their cars to be first in line to make a reservation before we’re completely booked up. People know and trust us because we’ve got the animals best interests in mind.
—— What is the biggest change you’d like to see enacted for the animals?
We could stop the killing of animals in this country in 3 years if people and our politicians weren’t so afraid of taking a stand. The biggest problem facing us is animal over population. That’s why any animals leaving our premises, and most shelters, must be spayed or neutered, so that they cannot add to the overpopulation. Shelters only account for 14-20% of the animals purchased, so what about the other 80-85%? They are from pet shops, puppy-mills, and backyard breeders. If the government required them to spay and neuter their animals our overpopulation problems could be solved so easily and there wouldn’t be a need to euthanize millions of animals in this country. We need to step up to the plate and take care of them. I want the day to come that my grandchild comes to me and says, “Grandpa, is it true they used to kill animals in this country?” Then I’ll know we’re where we need to be.
—— What’s one of the biggest problems facing animal welfare organizations?
We have to change the way society views the people working in animal shelters. For far too long they have been made to feel like second-class citizens. This industry has the distinction of having the number one suicide rate. At most facilities they’re dealing with life and death everyday. How could you hold an animal in your arms, while they’re looking into your eyes and trusting you, because they believe in you, and the next thing your watching a needle going into him and you’re watching the life draw out of those loving eyes? How do you do that without feeling? Without hurting? You can’t! Some people say we’re only good enough to clean up animal feces and urine. Well, I’m glad I’m good enough to clean up after them, I am so proud. Here at the HWAC nobody has to fear watching the life drain out of one of their friends̶here we find homes for our animals, we don’t need to euthanize them, we send them to loving homes. That’s what it’s all about.
—— So is there hope that change is possible?
Absolutely! I get discouraged when I here one of my peers say these words... “Well, we can’t save them all.” Once you believe that it’s time to walk away. Everything in my life involves truth, and facts, and stories about change. One particular story that involves change, is the true story about a deer hunter, which my daughter told to her high school class; how he changed, and how all those macho boys in her class, who would always joke and tease, changed that day. It was buck season and this deer hunter went out to hunt that morning same as usual. He got out in the field early in the morning and waited in his usual spot, just like any other day... watching and waiting. In a short time, a buck and doe appeared, walking across the field and into his field of sight, together, side-by-side. As they made their way about midway, the hunter carefully picked up his rifle, looked through his scope, and took aim. He saw right away the buck sensed danger, cause his ears and nose were twitching, but despite all that... he didn’t run, he stayed at the side of the doe. The hunter found that a bit odd, but didn’t pay it much attention and proceeded to bore down upon the buck. As his shot rang out... the buck fell over dead, the doe, however, didn’t run... didn’t leave, rather she stood her ground. By now even the hunter was confused, because anyone knows a doe will run the instant it hears a sound. Even as the hunter proceeded to approach the fallen buck̶she continued to stand her ground, leaving him even more puzzled. As he drew nearer and nearer still, the doe didn’t budge, but the hunter noticed something, something very odd... the left side of the does’s fur was nearly all rubbed away, as was the corresponding right side of the buck’s. And then he realized why - the doe was completely blind! The buck was her eyes and he would not leave her... and she didn’t know how to walk without him. In that instant it became clear to the hunter that they do have feelings, they do have compassion, they do make sacrifices and that it is wrong to take their lives. He stood silent and in awe, then lay that rifle down, never to pick it up again. When my daughter finished her speech, the boys in her high school class didn’t joke, they didn’t laugh, they all became very quiet, and when class was over, they all quietly waited for her, and each one of them asked for a copy of that story so they’d never forget what they’d just learned that day. Last year, in Philadelphia, I met that hunter and I know that if he can change, and those boys can change, we can change and make a change for the animals that are depending on us.
—— Would tell us a little bit about some of your adoption programs here at HWAC?
We don’t euthanize animals here... we don’t need to. As a matter of fact we take animals from other shelters, that would otherwise be killed to make room, and find homes for them. Since I’ve been here we’ve quadrupled the number of adoptions that we’ve conducted.
In the first weekend in May every year, we started the international pet “adopt-a-thon” that spans 20 countries around the globe, but that still wasn’t enough for me. So when I first came here in 1999, I came up with the idea for an adoption drive called “Home 4 the Holidays.” The first year, I invited 14 shelters to join me and collectively that year we did 2,563 pet adoptions. That still wasn’t enough, so I’ve grown it nationally
and internationally. Now it’s to the point where last year we worked with 1,300 shelters worldwide and placed more than 260,000 pets during the 8-week holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. It has become the largest pet adoption drive in the world! For the 4th year running our spokesperson has been Dianne Keaton, and she’s been just great. With everyone’s help, this year we’re shooting for 300,000!
—— What would you say to people who hear your story and want to get involved?
The big thing here is the volunteers. We have over 700 volunteers and they are our surrogate moms and dads. As for funding we rely on donations. Nearly 70% of our funding comes from donations and if people don’t donate we are not going to be here. It’s as simple as that. We are supported by the San Diego community because people know what we are doing here works and makes sense.
—— I’ve heard it said that through your actions you are responsible for saving more animals than any one person, living or dead, in all of history! How does that make you feel?
It feels good and I feel very blessed that when it is my time to cross over, that I will have left something behind that has made a difference, something that enriches mankind and animals.
—— So are you ready to rest knowing that?
I can’t do it. I’m very flattered, but I can’t do it. There’s still so much more to do.
(12-01-2004 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)