Episode 10 – Stacy LeBaron

Stacy has over 20 years of experience in animal rescue and in working with Community Cats. An expert in her field, Stacy is a current member of the Shelter Medicine Committee at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, Advisor to the Massachusetts Animal Coalition, Vice President of the Board for PAWSitive Pantry in Vermont, and committee member for HubCats Chelsea. She is also a current member of the development committee for World Animal Protection and so much more! In this episode she tells us how she got her start in animal rescue, how her podcast came about and what her vision is. To learn more about Stacey you can visit her website, http://www.communitycatspodcast.com/ or on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/communitycatspodcast/.

Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This podcast is proudly sponsored by doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now on with our show.

In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Stacy LeBaron. Stacy has over 20 years of experience in animal rescue, and in working with community cats. An expert in her field, Stacy’s a current member of the Shelter Medicine Committee at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. She’s the adviser to the Massachusetts Animal Coalition, the vice president of the Board for PAWsitive Pantry in Vermont, and a committee member for HubCats Chelsea. She’s also a current member of the Development Committee for World Animal Protection. Stacy previously served as the president of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society (MRFRS) for 14 years, and since 2011 she has run the MRFRS mentoring program assisting over 80 organizations with setting up TNR programs in getting funding to support these programs. Stacy also hosts a podcast called the Community Cats Podcast, where she interviews nationally and internationally renowned experts helping with the problem of cat overpopulation and welfare. The Community Cats Podcast recently crossed the 200-episode mark and continues to spark conversation and highlight innovations in animal rescue. Stacy graduated from Vassar College with a focus on urban studies and also attended Boston University, where she studied city planning and urban affairs. Stacy lives in Vermont with her husband, son, daughter, and two cats.

Hi, Stacy. Welcome to the program.

Chris, thanks so much for having me.

So you are involved in so many different aspects of animal rescue, and you’ve been involved for so long. Tell us a little bit about you. I mean, you’ve been involved for over 20 years.

Yes. So I first got started in animal rescue way back. I hate to say that way back in 1994. Yes, it’s been about 23 years, and I just got involved in the local rescue. I showed up with my 20-pound bag of cat litter and 20-pound bag of dry cat food. I showed up at this new rescue that had started in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I was all proud of myself. Then I went upstairs to their shelter, and they had just taken in 80 cats from a hoarding situation. I realized very quickly that my 20 pounds of cat food and the cat litter was not going to last very long. Somehow, that was the hook that pulled me right in and got me involved.

Wow. Now, 23 years later, you look at where you came from. Where did you start? That was like your aha moment. Did you start your own organization? Did you get more involved with them? Where did you go from there?

Yes, that was one of the many aha moments. I would have to say that if you are in this industry and if you’re out there helping animals, you’re going to learn every day so, so, very much. I’ve had many aha moments over the years. This was a new organization called the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society. They had just started in 1992 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, because there were over 300 cats, feral cats, living on the Newburyport waterfront. They had no one feeding them. They had no one taking care of them. There were a few residents that would scatter feed what I call every now and again. There are a lot of restaurants. It is a very touristy area and lots of boats. In the wintertime, the cats would get in the boats. They trashed the boats just looking for shelter.

In 1994, this group got together with the support of the Chamber of Commerce. Many letters were written into the Chamber of Commerce complaining about the cats but also, there were some people who said, “We love these cats. We’ve been feeding them. We want to do something for them, but we don’t want these many cats on the waterfront. What can we do?” That’s in in actually 1992. They started a trap-neuter-return program. I actually joined the group in 1994. While they were in the middle of trapping these 300 cats, they pulled lots of kittens off the waterfront. Some frenzy adult cats were pulled off the waterfront and adopted out. Then they ended up with a group of about a hundred or so cats that lived out of 14 different feeding stations and shelters that we had all around the city, supporting those cats with volunteer feeders who feed them twice a day. So I can fast forward to 2008, where over time those cats died off. After they were spayed and neutered, lived long lives on the waterfront. Some of them were retired. When they got to be 16, 17, 18 years of age, they went to our foster homes and then eventually did pass away. In 2008 our last cat, Zorro, passed away. Now we have no cats living on the waterfront.

Wow, that is an awesome story. Now, this was like your first foray into this. Then you went on to become the president of the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society.

I did. I did. I became the president in 1996. It became very evident after our project in Newburyport, and it was very successful. Folks around the region found out about it, and a lot of folks in other areas wanted help and assistance. Obviously there was a great need for other programs to help. In 2000 we started free spay-neuter clinics for feral cats, which was run by volunteers, volunteer veterinarians, and volunteer technicians. Every Sunday we would do these 100 cat clinics, and anybody, anywhere could bring a cat in a humane trap. We would get it spayed and neutered and vaccinated against Rabies. We give it an ear tip on its left ear and then it could be returned back to its colony.

One of the greatest obstacles that the smaller groups had starting up was the veterinary costs. I would get phone calls all of the time asking for assistance. They’d say, “We’ve got a feral cat colony. We’ve got 10 cats and the vets quoting us $120 per cat”. That’s a huge amount of money for a small rescue organization. I figured if we could find out ways to offer affordable spay-neuter for these groups, it would help facilitate them getting started up, and obviously help facilitate getting these cats spayed and neutered.

Yes, that’s amazing. I hear all of these programs today, but obviously, back in the day, these things were cutting edge. They were brand new.

Yes, it was pretty brand new. Little did we know, we were in our own little world at that time. We weren’t networking too much. I had a great little handbook on my desk, though, which was called the “No-Kill Directory”, written by Lynda Foro. She was really one of the early no-kill pioneers for various organizations across the country. It’s a great way to network with some of those organizations. San Francisco SPCA was doing some interesting stuff at that time and Best Friends was doing some interesting stuff too, so it was excellent to connect with them. Alley Cat Allies was just getting formed in the nineties also. We were able to form relationships and learn from each other. It was a pretty small crowd until, after the 2000s.  We did start in 2008. We started our mobile spay-neuter clinic, which is the Catmobile which is assisting over 5,000 cats every year with affordable spay-neuter.

Have cats always been a part of your life? You’ve focused in it and it seems like you’ve dedicated your career now to cats. Give us some background on how that became the central issue for you.

It’s really by chance. I’ve always had cats. I grew up with a cat named Duncan, and she was a very grumpy cat. She taught me how to respect cat. I realized that she was head of the household and I was just a piece in the puzzle, but not very important piece. It was nice to learn how to respect a cat and respect their personalities. She actually did teach me to really love and respect the older cats. That was always my soft spot. When the older cats were surrendered to our shelter, meaning 10 years of age and up, I would want to bring them home and foster them. Try and adopt them out of my house. That was one of my little soft points. I wasn’t really into bottle feeding kittens at two o’clock in the morning. I like the older cats. Kind of just I had to give him a nice pillow, and that would be about what they would need. I did that but yes, I’ve always had cats. I’ve fed outdoor cats if I’m living in a place or traveling around. I’ll see cats and I’ll want to put some food out for them, realizing that that’s not the end-all, be-all. They certainly need to be spayed or neutered. I didn’t realize this, but on my podcast, Community Cats, I recently interviewed Nathan Winograd. Our cat, growing up, she was spayed in 1960. It was a given in my household that when you had a cat, you obviously got to spay-neuter her. That was my blind ignorance that that’s just what everybody did. I didn’t realize that people didn’t do that with their cats.

Going into the rescue world, it was one of those bedrock pieces of information that an early age spay-neuter… We’d been doing early-age spay-neuter since 1992 also. We’re doing kittens at two pounds and eight weeks of age in 1992. I didn’t realize that that was a strange and unique practice, and now it’s standard practice. Even in private practice, it’s still a bit questionable. I was raised in this progressive environment. I just went on the ride, kept going, and saw needs. The path just comes and creates for you. I just kept plugging along. I felt like I was doing more and more, and I just didn’t want to stop the ride.

Yes, you’ve done amazing work. I’m curious then, you mentioned the podcast. Was that another aha moment one day that you just said, “I’m going to start to share and interview”? Tell us about how that came about.

Yes. It’s a combination of factors that helped me create this podcast. I used to run a mentoring program with the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society. I mentored about 80 groups on helping them establish their trap-neuter-return programs in their communities. I had a grant from PetSmart Charities at the time, and it was a very, very successful program. When I decided to leave the Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society, I moved out of the area. I needed to figure out what my next generation of life in animal rescue is going to be, or 2.0, I guess I would say. I decided to do something virtual that would be able to reach out to a greater group because I had 400 groups on my wait list for my mentor program. I realized that there was a huge demand for education, compassion, outreach, and assistance, that kind of thing. At that time, I was driving back and forth between Vermont and Massachusetts a lot. While I was in the car, I was listening to a lot of podcasts, and was trying to find podcasts about animal rescue and about cats. I really had a hard time finding anything that I could listen to while I was on my long drives. My 12 year old son – he’s now 13, he was 12 at the time, had also just started playing the electric guitar. He was telling me how easy it would be to start a podcast based on what he was learning, playing the electric guitar. So he convinced me that this would be an easy project to do. I thought it would be a great way to be able to reach those 400 groups that were on my waiting list. I really didn’t think above and beyond that. I certainly felt the door was open to anyone who wanted to listen to what I had to say or what I was able to learn from others. I just I felt there’s just a huge demand out there for people to learn. It’s also a very isolating industry so I was envisioning somebody out there at two o’clock in the morning with their Dunkin Donuts coffee, waiting for that cat to get in the trap. They’ve got nothing to do. They might as well listen to a podcast and I’ll be there with them while they’re trapping that last cat.

That’s really cool. So now you’ve done over 200 episodes. Does it feel like that? Just think back through. Were there any that really stuck out to you?

Yes. We’re over 200 episodes and we’re just past our one year anniversary. Folks can find the Community Cats podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play. We’re pretty much on all the platforms out there.  We’re even on YouTube. I’ve had some incredible interviews. It’s so hard to pick out the favorites, but I do have to say interviewing Hanna Shaw, the kitten lady has been a high point. She’s got some fantastic video and visuals on her Instagram account. She’s on Facebook. She follows these tremendous stories about kittens. I also interviewed Emma Clifford from Animal Balance, and she does some fantastic clinics, spay-neuter clinics on the Galapagos Islands. She goes out into strange and unique areas and does some phenomenal work. I’ve interviewed folks from Austin Pets Alive. I’ve interviewed folks from Maddie’s Fund, HSUS, Bryan Kortis from Neighborhood Cats, and Alley Cat Allies.

I’ve had some fantastic interviews. It’s just amazing, and I learn something new every day. After being in the business for 20 years, I felt like I knew everything, but I know nothing. I’m learning something new, and I feel that I love these conversations. I love the fact that I’m able to share them.

Yes. Now you’re starting to take a different direction with the podcasts. I know you’re doing them three times a week, and you’re kind of backing off from that. Tell us a little bit of what this is going to mean.

Yes. In addition to the podcast, I also run what’s called the Community Cats Grants. That’s a program for organizations that have revenues of about $100,000 or less, a year. We’re looking at small grassroots organizations, and we ask them to develop a unique fundraising program that they have never done before. Try something new that they’ve never done and that the funds raised will go to assist funding, spaying, and neutering of community cats. If they are successful, they have a three-month period to raise this $1,000. They’d have mentoring. We’d have check-in calls once a month, and we’d support them. If something’s not working, we’re happy to adjust and change. At the end of the three-month period, if they’ve raised $1,000 or more, there is foundation money that will match that $1,000. It’ll double their dollar basically, so that’ll be $2,000 to help support spay-neuter costs for community cats in their area. So far, we have 30 graduates and we have another group of about a dozen groups going on. I’ve got about 60 other groups. It’s a very easy application that’s on the website, which is communitycatspodcast.com. You can just click on the grants page, fill-out a super easy application, and get in the queue. We also have webinars – two periodic webinars. In January of 2018, we are planning an online cat conference.

That is something that’s going to be super exciting. So I want to learn more about that. What are you going to cover in the conference? How can people find out more about it?

Yes, so at this point in time, it’s a work in progress. We will have a page set up very shortly, but it will be a two-and-a-half-day conference. It’ll start on Friday night. It’s going to be a webinar format, so you’ll just basically come up to your own computer, log in, and enjoy four or five presentations on Saturday and Sunday. You’ll be able to see presentations that you would normally see if you had to travel to a professional conference, but you’re saving on airfare and hotels. You’re going to get that same level of quality. It’s just going to be in the comfort of your own home, it’ll be at a lower cost, and it’ll be great. If folks are interested in finding out more about it, I’d highly recommend you go to the communitycatspodcast.com website. You can sign up for our newsletter there. We are going to be announcing details by August 1st.

Yes, that’s going to be really super exciting, and we’ll be sure to highlight it and promote it for you in here as well. I think it’s so needed and what’s really cool about this is that it’s something that is virtual. People around the world can actually join and participate.

Yes, anybody can join and participate. We want to encourage that because there are community cat programs in China, Australia, Ireland and Portugal. That’s happening all around the world. I just think it’s fantastic that we can connect and support one another, even from different countries.

Yes. So your podcast is obviously up and running. You’re going to continue doing that right?

Yes. We’ll be doing that once a week. We have a new show that will come out every Saturday. I highly recommend that folks subscribed to the show either by iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher, Google play, and you could subscribe via YouTube. You can also find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Well, you are everywhere. That’s great. So you’ve got the podcast you’ve got now the webinars are up. What’s your vision, Stacy? What’s next?

Well, at this point in time, I’m focused pretty heavily on that conference that will be coming up in January. I think that’s going to be a really fun project to work on. In terms of what’s next for community cats in general is I’m really trying to focus on working on creating a model of success for community cat programs. Having a community cat center model that we can then benchmark and use all around the country… like we have set models for our high-volume, high-quality spay-neuter clinics, I really think we need a model of how we can maintain great programs for community cats creating a humane cat community, in an urban area, a rural area – make it fit for all of those different types of environments. It would include a pet food pantry, an area to hold cats for recovery, after surgery, before surgery, before they’re released, but really be embedded within the community. Make it part of our social services. Make trap-neuter-return part of our language.

Yes, that’s a really good point. We need to educate people and get them to understand there’s lots of different ways that they can get involved.

Yes, I just participated in a free vaccination and microchipping clinic that was in a community that didn’t ever have access to any programs for their cats or dogs. Out of the 92 cats that came for that clinic that day, about 75% of the 75 people there were aware of community cats. About half of them were feeding community cats, and they wanted assistance to help those cats. People want to do what’s right for the cats. It’s just they don’t know how to access the resources.

Yes, well, it’s great that you’re bringing them these resource, training, and podcast that really spark the thinking and give people time to contemplate ways that they can get involved.

I hope so. I hope that it gives people food for thought.

Well, Stacey, thank you so much for coming on the program today. Is there anything else that you want to share with our listeners before we go?

I just would love to encourage folks to keep at it. I know that sometimes, animal rescue whether you’re dealing with dogs or cats, whatever role you’re playing in this field, can be frustrating and challenging. Just keep plowing through those periods and be willing to explore, learn, try new things, and suggest new ideas. Just keep at it. Keep persevering because you’re going to be successful. I’m thought to be ever the optimist and I think being an optimistic person really bodes as well in this industry. Whatever you can do just stay optimistic. I recommend that you do it. Chris, I want to thank you for all of the efforts that you’ve put in with Doobert, with this association. You’re doing some phenomenal work, and I’m just glad we were able to connect.

Well, thank you, Stacy. I enjoyed connecting with you as well and certainly appreciate you coming on the show.

Thank you.

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