Kristen Hassen-Auerbach is the current Director at Pima Animal Care Center in Arizona. Kristen presents and writes regularly on a variety of subjects including breed labeling, reducing shelter intake, innovative foster care and social media for animal welfare leadership. Her efforts have been featured in numerous national publications and on networks including CNN, Fox, ABC, Animal Sheltering Magazine, the Huffington Post, BarkPost, the Dodo and Buzzfeed.
Welcome to the Professionals and Animal Rescue podcast, where goal is to introduce you two amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This’ll Podcast is probably sponsored by do bert dot com. Do Bert 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. Kristen Hassan is currently the director of Pema Animal Care Center and is recognized as a prominent pioneering figure in the animal shelter world. She was recently awarded the executive level department leader of a larger nonprofit company at the Executive Excellence Awards. She previously worked at the Austin Animal Care Center, which became the nation’s largest no kill shelter. Prior to that, she helped bring Fairfax County, Virginia, to know kill but helping overturn pitbull adoption restrictions, doubling the adoption rate and cutting euthanasia in half. Hey, Christine, thanks for coming on. I think so much for having me. So start us off and give us a little bit of your background and how you got into all of this. So I, um, started out in 1999 working at my hometown shelter in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, the euthanasia rate was way weren’t really recording data, but around 80 to 90%. And so my first job was called. I think it was called a cruelty investigator, Humane investigator and I went around the community helping to get animals out of cruelty, neglects also picking up sick and injured animals. And in the time that I did that job, which was for about six months, I I think that every animal I brought back to the shelter was killed. And so it was really just a death factory, and it caused me to kind of have near the end of my tenure. I loved animals and got into the work because I loved animals and I had 20 just sort of hot, like a nervous breakdown. They I walked into the euthanasia room and they were killing my favorite dog, which I had begged them to let me adopt. And I had this moment where I could have stopped the euthanasia like it hadn’t happened yet, and I just stood there. I was like, just in shock while I watched this dark die in front of me and it was it really? I ran out of the shelter that Dan, by run, I mean run I Rianna I ever turned around and never went back and never called them. Um and I swore off animal shelters forever, as he’s like horrible places that were just too sad for me to even cope with the idea of. So I went on Thio go Thio college and graduate school light studied and taught at the Ohio State University studying social change social movements. Um and then, gosh, years, you’re fast forward to 2012 and I’m I found myself teaching dinosaur camp in Northern Virginia with four girls, many graduate students and interdisciplinary fields. D’oh! And, uh, was that a really low point in my career and my boss at the time, she should call me in her office and she said, I’m going to run the animal shelter and I was like, Well, good luck with that. We’re probably gonna want to kill yourself. And she said, No, I want you to come with me. I want you to come and be the assistant director. And this is a long story, Sure, but I after much coaxing, I had told her my story and she said to me, If you come work, very promise, you’ll just get to work to save lives, you don’t have to end them. And that, really I took a leap of faith and went back in a sheltering in 2012 and have been in it in it ever since. Wow, that is quite the story is toe really your first interaction? And like you said, you swore it off forever. I did. And now look at you. Because, I mean, since you’ve done that, I mean, I was just reading your bio. I mean, it’s pretty amazing the things that you’ve done since ended it. All it took was for her to say, You can change your change, your focus. You can lead us to saving lives instead of killing them. Yep. And she she meant it. We walked into a shelter that had about a 70% save rate of in a community that should have had a 90 plus, and they had a basically a full almost a full ban on pimple adoptions. Um and so we worked to overturn that they were still euthanizing any sort of non social indoor cat we put an end to that, and by the time we were there for about three years, and by the time we left, we got the shelter to a 90% save rate. And I think what I’m more proud of is that when we left pit, bull dogs were more no more likely to die than any dog, which, which would felt like a big accomplishment. That’s a huge accomplishments. And how did you guys do that? Was it just you passed policies with the shelter? I mean, between you and her, you had the the power to do that. Yeah, we did. We were working for a police department and a fairly owes perfects county. So it’s a pretty conservative, uh, a T least in terms of risk and progressive programs and public safety, a pretty conservative environment. But we just made a commitment to treat. Every animal is an individual, and we made a promise to never value any pets life more than another, and that’s a hard thing to do in it. It isn’t simple because the institutions air built so that we call out the less desirable animals. Call is and see you alot on their lives. And so it isn’t really an easy thing to do at practice. But I think because neither of us were really had been in the field, we just did it on. And I think I probably became nationally. I came onto the national stage first by starting a foster program for dogs that we were going to kill for behavior. Uh, and we in two years sent 50 dogs that were youth behavior, youth list of dogs, and all we did was send them to foster nothing really extraordinary. And we tracked their progress, and we thought we would save late. I think when we started, we thought we might save one or two of these dogs. And what we found was amazing and kind of horrifying to that. We actually saved more than 90% of those behaviorally unlisted dogs. Wow. And they went on to live totally normal lives. We followed them for years after their adoption, and I presented that work. I think that Saleh for the first time in 2015 and I think it kind of stopped people in their tracks. They got initially a lot of criticism and but really it was like an opening. It was an opening to say, like maybe these dogs aren’t just maybe their lives just shouldn’t be written off as easily as they have been. Yeah, so that’s what I find so fascinating about your background is when you got a master’s. Actually, you said in social justice, right? Yeah, Well, it’s a degree program called comparative Studies. Hell, it’s mostly like sort of taking modern philosophy and applying it to social problems. Andi, I studied in particular gentrification and during my time in graduate school saw how much animals were playing out when it came thio gentrification in poor neighborhoods. So people were being having the police called on them because of their animals, and anyone that had a pit bull was stigmatized and breathe bands. It was clear to me working in that work, that there was a lot going on with animals that we weren’t even really thinking about when it comes to social problems. So it’s always been since that an approach in my work that I’ve emphasized is that, um, animal problems, they’re not animal problems. They’re human social justice issues. Yeah, that’s really fascinating how you’re back on in that is now affected what you’re doing in your leadership role now at Pema Animal Care Center, because between Fairfax and then you went to Austin and now you’re out in Arizona. I mean, give us a little bit of the story is to how you’ve evolved to the position you’re in right now. Well, we dinner thing in Fairfax. And then Austin needed a director. And I had heard about Austin but didn’t believe anybody was actually saving 95% of the animals, and especially in a high intake community with an intake of about 17,000 I really went there to learn. Dr. Jefferson, who runs Austin Pets alive, and Ryan Clinton were heroes of mine, and I had followed their work, and I went there is sort of like figuring out a Were they lying because I just imagined everybody was lying about their numbers and be Was it really possible? And so that was two years of just learning how to do it. And then we were. We left Austin at about 97% save rate, and they were just rocking, and I was not looking for a job that the former director of FEMA called and told, He said, Just come out for a day and see it and I can’t. So I come for a visit reluctantly and get here and they’ve got this giant damn circus tent. And I mean like, a three ring circus tent set up and it’s full of dogs. It was housing at the time, about 100 and 50 dogs, and this is its high temperatures. You know, we go from 120 degrees to you, about 30 in the winter. But it’s not a very easy environment, and the shelter itself was super old. It had been built in the sixties, and they had converted like they had taken the dead body cooler and converted it into a park award. They had a ringworm word in a closet. It was insane. I mean, it was like I was. It was one of the saddest but also most inspiring environments for animals because they were trying so hard to save lives, and it was the leadership of the county that put that circus tent up. They Spanish, whatever a couple $100,000 to make this happen because at a certain point they just said no more. This indiscriminate killing because we don’t have the space, is not acceptable. So the advocates in the county leadership had worked together to save more lives, and now that is not something we see very often. Usually it’s a bloody fight to get Tau lifesaving, and I just kind of fell in love with the place they were doing all their medical out of this trailer and I walked into the trailer and there was like a dark seizure ring on the floor, a dog being put to sleep, a dog having its leg amputated, a cat having its eye, a nuclear did. And I as I’m looking around, I slip and fall in a pile of medications that someone had stolen. I mean, it was total chaos, but because they had made this initial investment, they also had gotten that bond passed to build a $22 million new facility for the animals here. And so I came to oversee that change and help get them to the next level in a resource challenge community with a super high intake for the population we have. Wow, So I mean, you come out there for you, said I’ll just come out for the day and you you come out and you saw what was happening. But yet it inspired you to say, Listen, I want to be a part of where they want to go because you could see the potential. Yeah, I mean, they were already saving, like, 85% in this environment, and that’s a raw 85% meaning no animals back down. And so they were already doing really great work. And they were. The team was already here in the will, was already here. It wasn’t. I didn’t want to go have another fight where you have toe, argue with everyone, why you should save lives. No. One here. I thought you shouldn’t. It was just how to get there. And so that’s what we’ve kind of done the last couple of years is just tow to turn it into a really, truly sustainable model where the vast majority of pets make it out alive and everybody gets a fair chance it alive. Outcome. Yeah, now you know, you said it’s what 17,000 animals and take every year. And then how big is the community? It’s only about a 1,000,000 people spread out over 9000 square miles. That’s the size of New Hampshire. It’s huge, Uh, and a lot of it is just swaths of desert. So it’s a we oversee animal control, which is now called animal protection, and all of the in house animal service is and where it’s a constant battle to figure out how to get enough resource is to put money into the community to reduce the intake. We’re still dealing with that problem. Now tell me about some of the programs and things that you guys were doing there, that air. They’re really helping to keep that live release rate up. Well, thanks to Maddie’s fund. Within a couple of months of coming in the door, they gave us a large grant to build what we wanted to be and have made the world’s largest municipal municipal shelter foster program. So last year and 2018 we sent 5000 and 80 pets to foster homes. That’s a lot, Yeah, I think it blows away any any previous record, but we wanted to make foster and option for basically every pad and sort of turn kind of what they did for kids. You know, like we could very well be looking around a nation that’s full of orphanages on every block. But instead we build a giant foster system for for human kids. And we wanted to take the same approach for animals and say Foster should be the first option for any pet who isn’t directly benefiting from being in the shelter. Okay, so tell me, how does how does that program work? I mean, how do you get to that many fosters? That seems enormous, really? Simply, I think two things. One, we don’t have any barriers for fostering. So you can walk in, pack on any given day and tell us you want to foster a pet and you’re gonna go home with a pet unless there’s a reason not to s. So we just make it easy to foster. It’s It’s the same process for Foster as it is to adopt. And both of those things are really simple. And take about 20 minutes to 40 minutes. The second thing is that we just talked about Foster all the time. If we talk about adoption, we talk about Foster. And so we are social media are press releases virtually everything you see coming out from our organization is going to at least mention fostering. So now how do you manage a program of that size? I mean, how many foster managers do you have? I mean, how do you keep track of that many? Well, we think you can do this volume with probably to foster coordinators if you make an organizational change. But we have four, and that’s because we’re piloting a lot of new programs, and we’re also very carefully. We’re working with Gary Pay Tronic, who is one of my uber heroes and animal welfare, and a veterinary epidemiologist on Dr Sheila Stay. Gerson, who is with Maddie’s Fund toe, oversee the research on this project. But we’re learning so much. This is more than a program. It’s like a foster laboratory where we can ask a 1,000,000 different questions about what’s working, what’s not and how we can do better. So we have four coordinators, but we know that one coordinator can successfully send about 3000 heads for Foster every year. Wow, that seems a lot more than I would expect just to be able to manage that number of people. I mean, you’ve gotta have some secrets as to how to do that. Well, yeah. I mean, we we know there’s about six cities who have done it have gotten to that 253,500 mark on the way they’re doing it is that they’re engaging all the other stop in the organization, so they’re not limiting it. It’s not just a program of the shelter, it’s It’s a change in the way the shelter operates. So in our organization and hiva other high volume shoulders, everybody takes responsibility for Foster. So the adoption counselors, if somebody says I’d liketo foster, they’ll just help. That person and the Fosters also are part of the process and that they adopt out their own pets once a pet goes to foster. It doesn’t come back here unless there’s a reason for it to. It gets adopted by the foster parent. Interesting. So you almost make them an extension of your shelter. Yes, we turn our whole community into a big giant animal shelter. I think it’s pretty cool. That’s that’s obviously the best way to do it is to involve your community and make them a part of everything that you’re doing to save lives. Yeah, we don’t. There’s, you know, too many programs. We teach a foster apprenticeship here. So we bring in about 100 100 ish students from different shelters around the U. S. And they come and learn about our foster program and we find over and over and over again, is that we’re our own worst enemies. And we’re putting way too many barriers in place to letting people take animals out. If you come in here, there’s very few animals. We’re gonna tell you you can’t foster Andi. We’re not gonna dictate the length of time you foster. Just getting an animal out for a couple hours can save its life. Interesting how far you’ve come in just a few short years. I guess from my perspective, from spreading this off forever 10 now leading these innovative programs, I must have done this in a previous life. Like I feel like I just was born to do this. And I say that because I just love it so much and it’s like this movement. The other thing we do is we have a ton of programs to help keep pets with their families, and we operate off the belief that cuts belong with families they don’t belong in a shelter and that sheltering the system of sheltering is a broken system. It was built to hide and kill animals on mass. And so when we come from that approach and we recognize that pretty much everyone deserves to have an animal in their life, unless there’s some, you know, horrible, violent animal abuser. But even poor people deserve to have animals and even people that face other kinds of challenges. And older folks visit probably animals. So do younger people. We just try to celebrate that bond. And I think the rial part of the work that I love the most is making that easier for people to have thio get and maintain that bond and all of our programs are designed for that on Do not lost on me that this is a fairly poor part of the country. People face a lot of economic challenges if you walk around her shelter. Today we have 450 dogs on site. We have 200 cats and of those, 95% are in great physical condition. Their coats are shiny, they are healthy waited. So why were those animals here? And that’s the question. We have to start doing a better job of asking because these air not abused neglected animals. They’re animals that somehow have been separated from their families. And now how do we get them either back with their person or with another family as soon as possible? Yeah, I love I love that outlook on it and that it’s almost like it’s your roll. It’s your purpose that you guys were trying to make sure that they get to either, like you said to their person or to a new family. And I think that’s smart, that you’re focusing on those individual animals and realizing that you’re just a temporary step in their journey. Yep, where their little were there a little way station wellness. Natural pet food is for pets and their parents, who believe, as we do, that good nutrition and healthy food are the building blocks of a long, happy life created by a nutritionist, veterinarians and animal lovers. Wellness recipes provided an ideal balance of nature’s finest ingredients. I won this. Recipes include lean meats, whole grains and fruits and veggies with no wheat, corn or soy and no edit artificial flavors, colors or preservatives from head to tail. Wellness is nutrition with a purpose. You can learn more at wellness pet food dot com and follow them on Facebook and Instagram at at Wellness. Pet Food. So what’s what’s next for you guys? You’re doing so much in the way of innovation and fostering what’s next, I think, for Pack, we need to figure out if we’re gonna do transport. It’s a real It’s a question like we’ve gone back and forth on because 450 dogs, even in the best shelter, is just too many in it. And right now with cats, we only have 200 the shelter. But we’ve got another 600 Foster and I think we would like to have fewer animals here so we could utilize our spaces differently. So, for instance, we would like to have space to provide short term boarding for people who go into hospital care. It actually saves taxpayers money to do it that way. Um, and it could see animal back with the person. Well, we can’t do that now because we are near capacity all the time. And where are big question is is the right option for a shelter like guards to transport pods up out in the communities of your animals? Or should we just try to increase it? Options here? And I don’t know that we have data to know, but we do. We are also really focused on length of stay, and our our opportunity to state for darks is still only 12 days. So that tells me that maybe we can continue to focus in this area and use transport to get the most at risk dogs and cats out more quickly. But were right now, just like looking at the next question and and, of course, figuring out better ways to engage more people. This community loves pads, and we have to just give them more and more and more ways to help. Yeah, so I’m curious. What is an average week look like for you? Don’t ever ask me that. Uh, well, we’re all we do with a lot of crisis. We have a lot of medical crisis. We have a lot of courting here. We took in 600 animals from 14 cases last year. Most weeks there’s one crisis situation, whether it’s a disease outbreak that we have to contain or hoarding situation. Last week we had a guy with 50 Huskies on, and I just It’s amazing to me that people on one house key in Arizona, but that if those 50 Huskies were to commodore organization all in one day, we would be euthanizing for space the next day. So we’re always trying to manage the relationship with the community and serving as many heads as possible, but not just doing things in the old way. So in an average week, I’m figuring out, How do we if we know there’s 100 cats in one house and 30 or sick and the owner wants them all gone? How do we work without owner to say Okay, we’re gonna come and get seven a week, and we’re going to start with these. We’re gonna get the guys who are pregnant for are gonna be you breeding first, like we’re managing a lot of community situations. And then my job is it. Director is I’m also we’re municipal agency, so I’m navigating all the things it means to be a government shelter in a community like this and managing about all in all, 100 and 50 people, including our contract cleaners. So we stay pretty busy and we’re trying to figure out the lives of the animals that were still losing. We’re still losing a lot of young kittens. If I could get people to stop bringing Dayle kittens into the shelter, I mean, that is it’s impossible. It’s nearly impossible to keep them alive for us. And we’re trying. We’re working with us for pets alive and other groups to try to help more of those actress animals still so busy. Yeah, it sounds like it sounds like no two days are the same for you, but you know, like any other like any other. Shocked, right? I always focus on the community, and the problems were different in every community, and some might be listening to this saying, Yeah, but you’ve got this amazing senator 150 staff. But every shelter still has problems. They’re just different, and we’re all focused on the same care and compassion for animals. Yeah, the thing that we have like it’s always grass is greener. And I remember being in a shelter where we didn’t have you know a ba jillion animals. But the thing that’s really special about this community and I don’t know why is that from the very top leadership of the city and the county all the way down to the person in the most challenged neighborhood who just is begging for food for their animal? It’s like this consistent love of putts on Dhe. Who knows why that’s true here? I kind of wonder if maybe it’s true everywhere and we’re just not kind of realizing that, But that’s that’s been the real joy of being in this community, and I also saying that is someone who works with hundreds of other shelters every year trying to help them, and I think we need I think we need to recognize that the foundation of the system is broken and we have to start rethinking everything we d’oh because we’ve done that. We’ve done everything the same since 18 25 in New York City when we opened up thes killing centers, and it’s time to really rethink all of that. Yeah, I love I love the way you say that, and I’m a big believer in its time. We really need to innovate and you know transport is an option. It’s not a solution. It’s We’ve gotta arm our teams across the country. We’ve gotta share best practices and and try different things to figure out what works. Because I do believe like you that there’s a lot of people out there that love animals. And if they really knew what was happening, they would be appalled. And if we can provide them an easy way to get involved and be a part of the solution that I think they’ll take, Yeah, people really want to help. They really want to help. And they want to help the animals that are still dying in most shoulders. And that has been the the phosphorous. Doing phosphorus has been like the most heartwarming part of by job for the last few years, because you take these animals and they’ve got, you know, a month to live. And they maybe got cancer some sort of thing, and they go home with people and just come back to life. And they spend that last few months or even sometimes it turns into years knowing the love of a person, and then they often get to have their life end in a home and we end Lives were not even Children’s that air. No kill. There’s still a small percentage of animals that are going to have their lives ended in it, and we pay attention to that, too. And I think that that part of the work, our staff, does this thing when it when an animal’s life is ended here. For whatever reason, they have this stuff called Connect Connect, which I don’t really know what that needs. I think they might have made that word up, but it’s like these little blend of like desert plants, and they Sprinkle them over the body. And I think that’s the kind of culture we’re trying to foster now is that animals even that are going to die in your care, that their lives still matter and that they’re still individuals and, like, how can we make this a cute, truly humane community? An organization, even though we deal with the like true tragedy of life and death on a daily basis? Yeah, no, I absolutely love that, and I can I can hear the passion in your voice and the desire to do more and to be a leader, and I’m I have to say I’m personally so excited that that shelter, um, the person you work with turn turn this around right. And look at where you are today and the impact you’re having. And I’m aligned with you and all the all the thoughts about how we’ve got to keep going and we’ve gotta really revolutionize things and make make the world a better place for him. Yeah, and last thing I want to say is that I believe I think this might be more of a personal belief than anything, but I believe that letting people into our shelters and letting them see the quote behind the scenes and see the back of the shelter I think we have to start letting people in and trusting that they want to help. And we still close our doors much too much to have. We’ll have 10% of our animals in the quote adoption areas and 90% in the back. And I think that’s a change that needs to happen now to increase the transparency because people don’t know the problem. They can’t hope solvent. And we have to do a better job telling our communities what are problems still are. Yeah, I think that’s great, Kristen. And I’m so glad you came on the program today to share your story and how you got into this. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? No, thanks. Definitely. I’m gonna make it. Make it a point to come see you. Because Wisconsin winters are often tough. So Chamber County sounds like a great place to be. Well, thank you so much, Christopher. Come on. The program is great to talk to you. Thanks for tuning into today’s podcast. If you’re not already a member, join the air p A. To take advantage of all the resources we have to offer. And don’t forget to sign up with do bert dot com. It’s free and helps automate the most difficult tasks in animal rescue.