Episode 147 – Courtney Wennerstrom

Courtney Wennerstrom Courtney Wennerstrom Courtney is a former English Professor, with a background in 18th-century literature, which includes some of the strangest and most perplexing fiction ever written. She loved her life as a scholar–especially working with students and still writes and geeks out over authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Dacre, Ann Radcliffe, and the Marquis de Sade. Courtney is also a lifelong animal advocate and made helping animals her “naughty side project” during her dissertation. While teaching at Indiana University, Bloomington, she co-founded the first successful animal welfare organization on the campus. Since leaving academia, she has volunteered and worked in local and national animal welfare organizations, served as a Community Organizer for Pets for Life, and now the Regional Manager for the Central United States at Michelson Found Animals–a non-profit with a free microchip Registry dedicated to getting pets home, where they belong. Her goal is to channel her imaginative and analytical thinking skills into making the world a kinder, more beautiful place for animals.
Website: https://www.foundanimals.org/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/foundanimals/  “Welcome to the Animal Professionals podcasts, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved. This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free platform designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters, and the only place that automates local rides and transports. Now, on with our show! Courtney is a former English professor with a background in 18th-century literature, which includes some of the strangest and most perplexing fiction ever written. She lived her life as a scholar, especially working with students, and still writes and geeks out over authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Doc Rae, Ann Radcliffe and the Marquis de Sade. Courtney is also a lifelong animal advocate and made helping animals her “naughty side project” during her dissertation. While teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington, she co-founded the first successful animal welfare organization on the campus. Since leaving academia, she has volunteered and worked in local and national animal welfare organizations, served as a Community Organizer for Pets for Life, and now the Regional Manager for the Central United States at Michelson Found Animals, a nonprofit with free microchip Registry dedicated to getting pets home where they belong. Her goal is to channel her imaginative and analytical thinking skills into making the world a kinder, more beautiful place for animals.  Hey, Courtney. Thanks for coming on. Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here. Well, I’m really excited. I mean, you’re a former English professor. Not just any English professor, I might add, right? Somebody that has a background in 18th-century literature, something of which I know nothing about. So I really am anxious to hear your story and kind of how this journey took you here. Well, thank you again for having me. Yeah. It doesn’t seem like a seamless transition, does it? No, not really. What was happening, I was working on my Ph.D. at Indiana University and teaching there. It was fantastic. I taught a ton of upper and lower division composition and literature courses, and I loved teaching. I loved it. It’s really one of the most dynamic and thrilling things you could do. You know, the classroom is a space where ideas still matter. And you know, college students are at that place in their lives, usually where they are really open to challenging some of the assumptions they’ve had about everything that you ever thought about, really. They’re kind of in that place. So it was really only one of the greatest joys of my life.  It came to a point where academia is just kind of falling apart underneath of our feet. What’s going on right now in that, is that universities don’t really want to pay for a 10-year track professor. So I would have been going on to the job market knowing that there’s about 600 applicants for every job opening that comes available. And the other options are to teach as an adjunct, where you’re just basically hired by the semester or you can try to cobble together an income like that, and it just sort of was no longer feasible. That was a really difficult decision for me, obviously, because I loved what I did so much. One spends that much time and dedicates that much space in their lives to something they love so much and, you know, say okay, it’s really easy for me to walk away from this. However, I was extremely lucky because a lot of my colleagues were in the same position, realizing, not sure if it’s gonna be, you know, feasible to go on the job market. Not sure if it’s gonna be feasible to get a job anywhere, and they didn’t know what to do, and they didn’t have anything else. They were equally passionate about, but I did.  So as I kind of mentioned to you before, I was always doing animal advocacy on the side, kind of like my “naughty side project” while I was supposed to be working on my dissertation. And so one of the things that struck me was I was working on the Ph.D., teaching as an instructor, and I realized that Indiana University didn’t have a single animal welfare organization on the campus. And I knew my students really well. And I thought, This seems crazy to me because we’re all lovers, you know? And sometimes I would sneak my dogs into class and I was like, their favorite thing in the world. And so, you know, I just started to think maybe it’s because the outdated models of animal advocacy are no longer working. So I got together with some fellow grad students and a ton of undergrads, and we co-founded the first successful animal advocacy group on the ITV campus, which was really fun, and I learned a lot. But that was primarily thinking about animal advocacy in terms of larger, more national issues, rather than local ones. Certainly, I did not have any experience in the sheltering world, but I thought that I was going to have to leave academia. What I did was I thought, you know, I used to do animal advocacy as my naughty side project. Now, what if I switched it around and did animal welfare full time and just worked on my intellectual pursuits as my side project. Worked out really well for me. And my first job in animal welfare was actually for Denver Animal Protection. I worked for Pets for Life, and that was a really interesting job. Are you familiar with Pets for Life? You know what that is? Yeah. I’ve heard of that program from the Humane Society. They are a National Outreach Program. They try to rating, you know, basic veterinary care, spay/neuter surgeries, vaccines and supplies to underserved communities. And so I was working in Montebello in Denver, which is primarily Spanish speaking. Luckily, I speak Spanish, so that helped a little bit, basically knocking under, asking people if they needed free services and kind of organizing that. That was very, very cool. So that was my first paid position. Although, as I have mentioned, I have done quite a bit of volunteering and things like that. Wow. Interesting how that took a turn, right? So in your whole, undergrad and grad. And your literature was your thing. And then you kind of said, but we really need to have this animal organization. And then from there, you said, well wait a minute, maybe if I flip-flopped these and this could become my primary. Right. Exactly. Interesting.  Ok, so then you started that. Now, how did you end up with Michelson? You know, this was really a great story. I had known about Michelson Found Animals when I was working for Demery Animal Production for Pets for Life because they used their microchips. But I had no idea of the work they did, because I just didn’t have enough experience. But actually someone found me, it was a recruiter, and she started talking to me. I think I had about seven or eight interviews before I was actually hired. But they found me, which was really cool, because that transition from academia, I don’t want to say it was easy. It was actually quite difficult. Took about four years, in total. It was still teaching, kind of holding on to that, trying to find a good fit for me, in animal welfare. But it’s a weird thing when you are so under and overqualified for something, right? They say, Oh, you have all these skills but I didn’t have any hands-on experience, in a shelter, for instance. So it was actually one of the greatest, it has been just a tremendous opportunity for me. No, that’s great in the fact that you could reinvent yourself. I mean, like you said, I’m sure it is a little bit intimidating, it may be scary, but you also knew, No, I can do this. I’ll figure this out. And I feel really grateful. That again, it was that passion. I was lucky to have that. I cared so much about that. I thought you know what? I can bring my skills from teaching into this. I can bring you to know, my ability to teach and to communicate and write and I can direct all of that energy somewhere else, and have the chance to do that now.  So tell me now what your job is now? Like, what do you do on a regular weekly basis? Okay, so my job is really fun. It’s really dynamic. I’m a Regional Manager for the Central United States, which means that I work with rescues and shelters to get them onto our program. So a little bit about Michelson Found Animals. We’re a nonprofit. We’re based in Los Angeles, even though I live in Denver, and what we do is we offer a completely free microchip registry. It’s a National Registry. So anyone or any animal with any microchip, any brand of chip, for the life of the pet, and we never charge, whether you’re updating information or transferring ownership or anything, it’s always free. And that is really important because most microchip companies, at some point in the process, will charge you to update your information. So these fees that come along with that can be really prohibitive for people, especially. Imagine if you’re about to move and you either come up with a down payment for a house or maybe you have to have a first and last month’s rent. And let’s say you have four animals like I do and you suddenly have to come up with another $80. Well, you might not have it, and then your registration will just slip through the cracks. So what we’ve done is we’ve really eliminated all financial barriers to pet recovery resources because we believe that getting home should be free.  We have an incredible backstory if you’d like to hear a little bit more about that. We were founded by Dr. Gary Michelson in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was watching in horror, as we all were, around the nation. As you know, we just watched image after image of animals being lost or displaced, during that storm, and knowing that they were never going to get home. And he’s a philanthropist and an animal advocate and he absolutely wanted to do something about it. So first he just started throwing microchips at everyone, you know, like Oprah, like you get a microchip. And then at some point, you realize, Oh gosh, you know what? It’s actually not the microchip that’s the problem. It’s the lack of registration. And what’s kind of funny to me is how simple and complicated a microchip is. I mean, on the one hand is just a radio transponder, and it just has a number on it. That’s all you do is you read the number, but the number is meaningless until it’s got information attached to it. And, you know, the average pet guardian, including me before I started this, doesn’t really understand, where are they registered? What brand do I have? Where’s my chip number? Any of that.  So what I get to do is I get to work with shelters and rescues to try to help solve that problem, which, really on a small scale, as I mentioned, helps individual pet owners. But on a massive scale, what we’re able to do is help communities who are using our chips or using our program. We can really help reduce the length of stay of animals in shelters, so they get in and out faster if they even get in at all. Because we try to empower animal control officers and people like that to get the animals back in the field before they even bring them in. And if you know if you can avoid in taking an animal, that’s even better because they don’t have enough space. They also increase their return to owner rates, obviously, which leaves more cage space and staff time for animals who are truly seeking their forever families. And it reunites people and pets, you know, they obviously belong together. So my job is very dynamic. I travel all the time. I travel all over the Central United States. And then I have a colleague who does the same work in the Western US and another one in the Eastern US. Nice.  So between the three of you, your job is to really go to shelters and to communities and really to educate people about the importance of microchipping, about the registry. Yes. So education is a huge piece. And then we sell the microchips because that’s how we want to be self-sustaining. So that’s how we support our completely free Registry is we sell the microchips. So one of the things we can do is go into shelters and say, All right, how much are you paying for your microchips? Okay, they are paying x amount, but have they thought about all of the money that they would save if they could get animals out of the shelter faster. If they could not even bring them in, right? Kind of help them see the hidden fees. But ultimately, yes, our whole purpose is to save more lives.  Yeah. Is it a standard practice, do you think, for shelters and rescues to microchip every animal? Almost all of them do. Most of them do. There are still definitely shelters and rescues who have not figured out how to bring in a microchip program. You know, I think you know, it’s the standard best practice, so most shelters do if they are able. The really fun part is being able to go into a shelter, where they don’t have a program and show them how easy it is to get one. Because everybody wants to protect animals and get them home right? Like nobody wants animals and people to be separated. That’s just kind of the core fundamental belief of you: Get an animal adopted and you want that to be their forever home. So I love my work. It’s incredibly dynamic. I need all of these amazing people, like you and all of these incredible colleagues who are doing just tremendous work. I’ve never seen such an innovative field. I will joke a little bit about my former academics. I think they sometimes thought they had a monopoly on being a space of ideas. But, you know, get a bunch of brilliant people, who have lives on the line and you watch them think and, you know, play with ideas and they come up with such innovative things. And it’s been a really great way to learn about how sheltering and rescues work. Because I get to travel to hundreds of shelters and meet with different kinds of people, go to animal welfare conferences and things like that. So it’s really, really fun.  Yeah, and people don’t often realize the way that sheltering works today is just as the system is broken, right? I mean, even if you compare it, there’s been comparisons to the child adoptive system, and we still bring all the animals into a central place. And why do we do that? And when you look back and the research and the history was all due to Rabies outbreaks and rabid dogs roaming the streets and things like that, which obviously isn’t the case, at least in the US today. One thing that I find really amazing is there’s just like this incredible disjuncture when I travel between animal shelters who are still stuck in the fifties model, or even earlier, where they were holding cells for euthanasia, basically. And a lot of rescues and shelters are still stuck there, not because they want to be, but because they have not had the community support, the fundraising and all about to get out of that. Then you look at the new model, which is fantastic. It’s still not where we want to be ideally, which I’ll get to in a second. But these new models are these big, beautiful shelters that are built as community centers and resource centers, places where pet owners can come and they can get all kinds of help with whatever they need. Whether that’s training or food, they pet pantries. If they need medical advice, you know they can go there. But even some of them are able to have big parties. They’re so pretty and are an ideological shift of like Hey, this is now a resource center for animals and ideally, I guess in the next step we would not even have shelters at all right? If we do our jobs well, we’re gonna get ourselves out of this particular job. There’s a lot of disparities, right? There’s still a lot of shelters. You just don’t have any resources and then others that are just these big, beautiful campuses.  How did your experience, working with Pets for Life, how does that help you in your job today? I think it has taught me quite a bit about the importance of outreach. There are a lot of resource desserts like Montmelo is Denver. There may not even be grocery stores, and there certainly aren’t vet services. It’s really helped me understand communities like, for instance, I work a lot in Louisiana and there’s a lot of parts of rural Louisiana where there are vet desserts for 70 miles, you know, are just places where if you don’t go out and help the community, they have no way to get to you. And Pets for Life, that’s an incredible model, and it was really, really clear to me when I did it that oh, I see the need for this. And now when I work with shelters and rescues, who have those services, it’s very clear. Like one of the best examples is Spay/Neuter Kansas City, which, unfortunately during COVID, they are closed, like almost all spay/neuters, because they have been deemed, nonessential services. But they have a kind of Pets for Life model, but their outreach is so powerful that they’ve been able to turn that entire city around in terms of how many animals they’ve done for spay/neuter. I think it’s like 70,000 surge or maybe 90 close to 90 something like that in a really small amount of time. But they also provide medical care and food and training, and it’s such a comprehensive model. I love it.  Now you talked about the future of where you see things going in sheltering. What have you seen change, since you’ve kind of come into this industry? That’s a good question. Still, some new I’m I’ve been it, Michelson, for like a year and 1/2 so I’m not sure if I have seen any huge sweeping changes since I started. But I do know I have met a lot of visionaries, and I know what they’re kind of interested in doing, and those are usually involving projects that are kind of based around the human-animal bond, meaning that they are going to try to solve social issues specifically by helping people and animals simultaneously. And there’s a lot of really good initiatives like that out there right now. So you know, those are always super impressive. I’m thinking, particularly about like, Rene Lowry, for instance, and her work with Pets of the Homeless. You know, you had her on your show. Her work is innovative and similarly, Michelson Found Animals has our Pets and Housing and Pets and Homelessness initiatives in Los Angeles. And I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to meet or hear anything about Dr. Michael Blackwell. But he is at the University of Tennessee, and he’s building out this incredible program called Line Care, which is essentially, it is under the one health model. But it is a program for Pet Health Equality, and it aims to treat entire families, including pets.  So imagine for instance, if you could go to get your kids and your dogs vaccinations all at once, right? Like treating, and only those are the kinds of things that I think when I see them and they really are considering the human-animal bond at the center and how important that is. They’re gonna get some real work done. And I have the utmost respect for people doing that kind of work. Yeah, I definitely agree with you. I think it’s really interesting to see the shift in the human-animal bond and how we’re starting to recognize how important that is. And for those of us animal lovers, right, our pets are our family. And you know, we grieve when we lose them, and we grieve with what’s going on in the pet control. The way it works in the US, right, in terms of just not spaying and neutering means we’ve got animals that are reproducing uncontrollably, and there are things that are in our control. But these are human-caused things, and what I definitely like, as you indicated, is the people that are focused on not just helping the animals specifically, but the animal and the people together. And there’s so many shelters that are now trying to do that, that understand why you need to turn the pet in and what can we do instead to help you because they recognize the importance of keeping pets in homes.  Right. And so that’s one of the things that I find so remarkable about Michelson Found Animals as well is that we have this entire program that is devoted to thinking about that. You’ll see why I do what I do. And, you know, I kind of talked about my transition from academia. But, you know, I didn’t really talk about why I do what I do. And we all, I think, have a story of an animal who has changed us for the better. And for me, I had a dog named Kodiak, and I was probably 23 and I bought him. I did not know about Puppy Mills. I didn’t understand what I was doing, and he was this absolutely beautiful woolly Husky. And he was kind of like an A-lister dog, in the sense that people would kind of trip over themselves to cross the street, to pet him and he was my heart dog. You know, those kinds of relations with an animal that I don’t think when you have that connection and you love an animal like that, you can ever truly come out of that experience unchanged. So Kodiak really taught me how to be fully human and alive. He taught me how to love deeply, and taught me how to love myself and animals. And I don’t know if you have read this book, but it is truly incredible. It’s called Mutual Rescue by Carol Novello. Have you ever heard of it? I really like that. You know, in that book she talks about our emotional and spiritual connection to our animals. And she relates story after story after story about the ways animals saved us over and over and over again. They save us from despair and depression. They help us recover from illness and emotional trauma and PTSD. They give us the courage to face the world. You know, they keep us healthy and sane, and they even facilitate our connection and communication with one another.  So I feel like in this contentious political climate if anything can unite us as Americans, as global citizens, it just might be our love for animals. And I think you know, if I think about some of the biggest challenges that we are facing, currently from, you know, poverty declined, changed lawlessness to domestic or partnership violence Do veteran suffering with PTSD discrepancies in health care, you know, mental health and immigration, all of those things. I think if we have comprehensive, I guess approaches to those problems I think should be to consider the human and animal bond at the center. And I think we would get a lot further that way. I love that. I absolutely agree. I think it’s a really pivotal moment right now in what’s going on in the world. And as I told you before, I’m very positive that there’s gonna be a lot of positive change that is gonna come out of this and people are going to leave the old ways of doing things behind and think innovative and think, How can we do more to help our fellow humans and fellow animals? Right. And we’re all living on the big blue planet together. And why do we have to be so divided in the way that we do think? So, I’m like you, hopeful that once we get past this crisis, that there’ll be a lot of positivity that comes along with it.  I think it will. I think this is a moment to really reflect on where we’ve been and then where we’re going and I do find it tremendous that and again, I’m speaking as Courtney here, not necessarily as a representative of Michelson Found Animals. Not that they wouldn’t agree with this, but, you know, I just feel like it’s strange as an animal advocate, there’s always this kind of sense where people will say, Well, you’re helping animals. Why aren’t you helping kids with leukemia or you’re helping these animals or why aren’t you helping this group of the population? And I find it very bizarre. This is something 18th-century literature taught me for sure, but I’m not sure why we think that sympathy is a finite resource that we’re gonna run out of. You know, if we have any that’s not going to run low. And I think you know, when we harm animals, we harm ourselves. I really do believe that. So it’s exciting if we reframe it and think not. Why am I helping this segment, population? But we all deserve to live a rich, meaningful life. How can we make that happen? We deprive ourselves of joy and add joy to our lives, depending on our treatment of animals. I really do believe that. Yeah, I absolutely agree with you on that.  So what does the future look like for you, Courtney? What’s next? I’m just so thrilled to have this position at Michelson. And I’m looking forward to using it to help more people and more animals. For anyone who’s listening to this podcast, please do go register your pets at found.org. All you need to know is the micro trip. I mean, I have some big ideas about, you know, projects in the future, like maybe some writing projects and things that might talk more about the human-animal bond. But for now, I’m just really burning mode, and I’m just really enjoying meeting all of these new people and seeing how they’re approaching advocacy, seeing how they’re shaping it. And there’s just a lot of really amazing work being done. So shout out to all the people in our field, who are in the trenches every day, doing the difficult, excruciating, rewarding work of saving lives. You know, you’re in the trenches, and we’re all just here to support you, so thank you. I know this is a really challenging time, but guess how we’re gonna come out on the other side and do even more beautiful things. Very well stated Courtney. So thank you.  I’m really glad you came on today to talk with us. Is there anything else you would like to mention before we wrap things up? No, I just really appreciate the opportunity and good luck with all of your projects as well. Thank you, Courtney. And we’ll remind everybody to go to found.org, right? To register those microchips and thank you for coming on and sharing. It was really great to talk to you. Yeah, it was really wonderful. Have a wonderful day.  Thanks for tuning into today’s podcast. Be sure to subscribe to your favorite podcast platform and feel free to leave us a review so we can help even more animals. Also, don’t forget to sign up with Doobert.com to join the tens of thousands of Dooberteers across the country and around the world helping animals and the organizations working to save them.”
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