Today we have a dual interview for you with both Kelly & Tabitha. Kelly has been in the animal welfare field for over 14 years, primarily working as an animal control officer in Central Texas. Over her career, she also worked as a kennel manager for a private, no-kill animal shelter, a veterinary technician for a small animal hospital, and worked for the Texas Department of State Health Services Zoonosis Control Program. Tabitha has over 19 years of experience in the field of animal care and animal services. While residing in California she worked as the education director for a non-profit wildlife rescue organization with a special focus on large cats. She also worked for private animal boarding and training facilities in the San Diego area, as well as for the North County Humane Society. Together they run the Humane Educators of Texas providing animal control officers with state-approved Continuing Education (CE). Humane Educators of Texas strives to change the public opinion of Animal Control Officers from simple dogcatchers to dignified and respectable professionals who serve as resources to their communities for animal-related issues.
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Hey, Kelly. Hey, Tabatha. Welcome to the program. Well, I’m really glad to have both of you here, and I’ll have you start us off, Kelly. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about you and your journey to get to where you are now? Sure. Yeah. My name is Kelly Thyssen. I’m one of the owners of Humane Educators of Texas. And I started in the control field when I was 18. I was fresh out of high school. I wanted to become a cop. I couldn’t afford vet school. So, you know, working in animal control is right down the middle, right? Sure. No, I’ve, for the past almost 14 years, I have gone everywhere from being kennel manager to cleaning kennels, veterinary technician, animal control officer, working state health department, And throughout my journey, I have wanted to just expand on animal control and make the profession better because we’re always seen as the dog catchers, we’re the red headed stepchild in the department. So how can we grow this profession? So this year will be six years, I started this company and it’s just grown. It’s been so exciting to actually get to a point where, we travel the country and get to teach people, not just what animal control officers do but, you know, we talk about all the aspects of the animal sheltering world, animal control, you know, the animal health side of things. So it’s been a lot of fun, and I brought Tabatha on with me 2017. I think so, yeah. Yeah, 2017. And she’s got a crazy background. Well, thanks quite the intro. Thankfully, we have both diverse backgrounds and we have different strengths and weaknesses. You know, my strengths are the icky, squishy stuff. I love the vet tech stuff. Her strengths are laws. Laws bore me to death, but she will breathe laws all day long. So you know, it’s brought on this dynamic that we can provide a diverse training course catalog. But we’re not getting bored of classes because we like what we teach. We teach different things. Very cool.
Okay, well, Tabatha, now your turn. Since she teed you up that way. Wow. She set the bar really high. My name’s Tabatha Blewett. I’m the other owner of Humane Educators of Texas. I got my start in animal welfare at 19 years old. When I got out of high school, I actually went to medical school to become a medical assistant. And that lasted only a few months. And I got bit by a human. Decided this was for the birds. Hey, a human. Okay, I’m human. So I just took a job cleaning kennels at the local animal shelter, back in San Diego and didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up. So I just started doing everything, and I worked for every kind of shelter on the planet. Open admission, limited admission. You know, I was around when the no-kill movement first started. I’ve worked in boarding, grooming, training, all kinds of stuff for a while. In California, I was an educational director for Wildlife Sanctuary, where we specialized in large cats, and we would go into schools with a mountain lion and talk to the kids. And then I came to Texas and worked at a couple of different shelters, doing kennel manager and sat on advisory committees. And one day a friend of mine, who is an animal control officer, said, You know, we have a new opening and you have loads of experience. Why don’t you apply? And I thought, Well, that’s about the only thing I haven’t done. So I’ll give it a shot. And I left the department that I worked for, in September of 2018, had been there for 10 years and left as the Animal Control Supervisor and local Rabies Control Authority. So I kind of started my teaching career just before I came on with Kelly. Because I enjoyed teaching so much, I started just doing it for my department and kind of building my reputation, just by word of mouth and developed some programs for the county that I worked for. And one day Kelly said, Hey, you like teaching and seem to be good at it. Why don’t you come do it with me?
Just that simple? I was gonna ask you guys how you met. Was it just that you’re paths kind of crossed, as you’re both doing these things? She was a mysterious voice on the phone when I first met her. So I worked for the State Health Department about the time that she was at the agency she was at. And so the department I worked for, for the health department, we did the Rabies Case investigations. So we handled any time there was a positive or a nonnegative rabies result, from the state lab, we handled calling the animal control agency going, Hey, what’s your case information? And so Tabatha likes to pick fights and cause trouble with the state. So she was calling, like weekly, with questions about laws and things like that, and like, Oh, it’s Tabitha again. And so then I actually applied for her agency and boarded. And I was not the supervisor at the time. No. The supervisor at the time said that I knew too much and so I wouldn’t work out. So I didn’t get hired on with her. But the agency next door, a few months later I got hired on. So we ended up working in the same county and working together, and I was like, Hey, I know you from over the phone. We just become fast friends. So that was what, almost 10 years ago.
So now what made you want to start Humane Educators of Texas? I think you mentioned I mean, you know, ACO’s sometimes get a bad rap and things like that. But was it to educate the public about ACO’s? Was it to provide education for ACO’s? It was to provide education for animal control officers. So in Texas, we have continuing education requirements that are put out by the state law. So officers have to get trained and certified, you know, through the state. And then they have to keep up with their CE hours, over a three year period. And the options were very limited, at the time, where you could get your CE hours and you just take the same classes over and over again. You can only take so many classes about Rabies or so many classes about how to be a local Rabies Control Authority. So I wanted to provide classes that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Report writing, communication skills, public relations, things like that, that they weren’t getting anywhere else so that we could build on the profession. You’re hindering yourself in your department if you’re not learning anything new. So I wanted, they required new training so officers can actually grow and build in their profession. And now what started as like eight classes, we’re now up to almost 40 classes that we offer, so it’s kind of neat to see it grow. And over the years there’s more people offering classes in Texas. But they still seem to offer the same classes. Same 3 or 4 classes. So we are still putting out that diverse training opportunity for animal control officers.
One thing we didn’t see coming when we started this company was how much public education we would be doing and how much public outreach we do. So now we even offer a lot of public classes. So we do kids camp, so middle schoolers, ages 12-15 come to our kids camp and learn about animal-related careers. We go to the local high schools and middle schools and talk to them about animal control. Talk about animal-related careers. You know, if you want to be in an animal field, the options are almost infinite. Whether you want to work in a zoo or become a game warden or become a canine handler or animal control officer. Which I have all of those aspects and options for kids these days. And then CPR classes. I provide CPR classes for the public and pet professionals. We do dog and cat CPR classes. So I didn’t see that aspect when we started this, six years ago. It was in the beginning, just CE hours that’s all we focused on.
Now. Tell that I know, she said, that you’re a lot more focused on the law and the legal and all that. Where does that passion come from? It’s my secret dream to be an attorney one day, but you know, I don’t have time or money for law schools, so I just play one on TV. But I just sort of fell into it organically, working for the sheriff’s office and having big discussions with other professionals and my poor county attorney. I just put him through the wringer, just trying to squeeze as much information out of him as I can. And really kind of my revelation moment with laws and things, came when I was very early in my animal control career. And I said to one of our local judges, Thank God it wasn’t in court. It was just happened to be speaking with one of our local judges. And I said we were talking about providing shelter for livestock and I said, Well, I know that shelter is required for livestock, here in Texas, whether it’s a tree or a lean-to or a barn. And she stopped me and she said, Where does it say that? And I said, Well, I don’t know. That’s just what I was told. You know, the look she gave me and she said to me, I don’t ever want you to utter those words again. I want you to never repeat something that you were just told. I want you to look it up. You should always be able to back everything you say up with a book, chapter and verse from the law. And I really took that to heart and just poured myself into law, and it’s like a little personal victory. Every time I can read a law, interpret it and discuss it with lawyers and they go, Yeah, you’re on the right track and I love that. And so that’s kind of one of the things I teach in all my classes is I love it when students come in and tell me that now and they say, That’s just what I was told, that’s how I was taught. That’s what we do in our department. And I say, Well, let’s open the book. Let’s see what it actually says. Nice. No. Yeah, I like that. I mean, I do think that people assume what they hear, What they think, maybe should be legitimate, is really the law.
What are the laws like for animals in Texas? Well, it depends on what kind of animal you’re talking about. Turns out I was very wrong about the livestock. They do not have to be provided shelter. Now. My weakness really is livestock. I don’t know a whole lot about livestock, so I don’t delve too much into that. But we do have cruelty laws here in Texas for livestock and nonlivestock sold, separated in the penal code as far as cruelty to livestock, cruelty in a nonlivestock, dogfighting, cockfighting things like that, is all separated here in Texas. And luckily I believe, it was two legislative sessions ago, they strengthened the cruelty laws. So we have a little bit higher level of enforcement with that now, so that’s good. We have largely fairly decent laws here in Texas. There’s certainly states with much better anti-cruelty laws, but we’re by no means the bottom of the barrel. So pretty happy about that.
That’s good. So, Kelly, I know you said sometimes the ACO’s are kind of like the red headed stepchild. Have you seen that change over the years, since you got into this when you said you were 18? So I’m just kind of curious how the perception has changed over the years. I feel like it has slowed the flow. It’s very slow. What’s funny is one of the classes we offer is Compassion Fatigue, and we have an outside instructor who teaches that. And she’s a retired police Lieutenant, and she is retired from the police department that I started at when I was 18. So you know, we got to talking. We didn’t really, Animal Control and the Police Officers are just too separate. We didn’t deal with each other and so she was like, I’m pretty sure that you know I was pretty terrible to animal control. I didn’t understand what you all did and you all needed to come out. It was just like, Well, that’s your problem. I’m out of here and I’m not going back you up. And it’s like, Yeah, that’s pretty much how I felt at that agency as I progressed in my career in many different agencies. It really came down to whether it was agency-specific. Even to this day, some agencies we hear from their officers and like I have zero support for my department. No one talks to me about it. I have zero resources and then you go and talk to a town, you know, that’s just next door to that same agency, and they’re like, they give us whatever we want. We asked for it and they delivered. The officers back us up on everything, so it’s really become agency-specific. But I feel like it has progressed. It is growing. I think there’s more departments out there that are supportive than there are not supportive versus, you know, almost 15 years ago, it was the flip of that. It was much more unsupported. The agency I left to start this place was very supportive. And, you know, our police officers were like, I couldn’t do what you do. Whatever you need, we’re there to back you up. Our police chief was like, Yep, Wherever you all want to go, whenever you need, we’re gonna get it for you. Then since I left, I was very, we still have a great relationship with them. We still do a lot of work with that agency. So I think it is growing and is getting better, but it’s still department by department.
That’s kind of disappointing, but I’m glad to hear that it’s definitely getting better. I think as I mentioned to you both before we started, I really don’t know all that much about the day to day of an animal control officer. So, Tabatha, maybe you can go first and give us a little perspective. And then Kelly, you can get some of your perspectives as well. What is it like for an ACO just kind of on a daily basis? Here in Texas, especially in the area of Texas that we’re in, Central Texas, just north of Austin, our biggest focus down in this area, 100% is Rabies. Here in the county that we’re in, as well as the county that Austin’s in, we usually sit number one and number two for positive Rabies exposures in the state. So we have a lot of Rabies issues in the whole of the state, but especially in this area. So for me and my team, every day we were running just nonstop Rabies calls, whether they were animal bites to humans or somebody’s dog or cat or horse was exposed to a skunk or bat or whatever it was. So we do a lot of Rabies investigations. Of course, we do stray animal containment, if there’s dogs running loose and kind of my big focus with my guys was public outreach. Even before I started teaching full time, I really encouraged my guys to do public outreach, even if it wasn’t so much a formal class. Just your, with a citizen in their driveway or on the side of the road and taking a couple of minutes to explain to them why having that nonvenomous snake on their property is actually a good thing and not a bad thing. And, you know, to try and improve the lives of those animals and make people feel safer in their homes and safely co-existing and things like that. So that was kind of a Rabies was really kind of our day to day what we did primarily.
And being in a county versus being in a city. So I worked for a city agency issuer per county. Our priorities were very much different. Their agency didn’t do the Big 3. They didn’t pick up dead animals, they didn’t really do catcalls. Cat nuisance calls and barking dogs. Whereas in a city, our job was to cater to the public. Rabies was 100%, you know, our big focus. Public safety is our big focus. But whatever the public needed, we did, whether it was, Hey, can you go talk to my neighbor? They looked at me funny and their dog barked at me. Okay. Let’s be good neighbors. So, you know, day to day was very different, which I that’s what I love about animal control. Every day was a different day. You didn’t know what you were gonna get. You’re either gonna go chase 30 sheep on the side of the road or you’re gonna just do barking dog calls all day. You know, you didn’t know what was gonna happen, but we did everything from bite investigations, to dangerous dog investigations, stray animals, stray livestock, just kind of nuisance complaints. You know, my neighbors got too many chickens or cruelty investigations. So every day was different. I may do, you know, 15 calls a day or may just sit and do one call a day. It was very hit or miss every day, but that’s kind of the excitement of it.
The other difference was I work in our shelter. So our agency was tied with our shelter. Our office was in the shelter versus Tabitha’s agency, they contracted with shelter, So they just did animal calls. So I liked going in and doing it options. It wasn’t in my job description, but I’ll go talk to the public. And, hey, this dog, I think, would be great for you and doing great. Help our shelter staff with, you know, the answering phones or answering questions of the public that are there in the shelter. So I really tried to be present for the public within our shelters.
Yeah, that was gonna be a question I was gonna ask you is, it sounds like sometimes the ACO roles are within police departments, sometimes they’re underneath the shelter. Like, give me some context on how all that works. It varies so widely. And this is one of the goals that Kelly and I strive for, long term, is to educate these departments on how to run a successful animal control unit, and kind of the placement of it is so varied. I mean, Kelly and I both worked for departments that were tied. We worked directly for law enforcement, so she worked directly for the police department. I work directly for the sheriff’s office, but there are ACO’s that work under public works. The Health Department. We had an ACO in class a couple of weeks ago, who I said, Well, what department do you work under? And he said IT. That’s what I wouldn’t expect. I didn’t expect it either, and I said, How did we get there? Because that is beyond anything I’ve ever heard of. And it really just came down to budget because he used to be, I believe he was under public works before. But someone in the city decided that even though animal control really had their own budget, they were under the public works umbrella. And so they said, Well, IT has this tiny little budget, let’s move them under the IT department. So on paper, everybody looks like they are roughly or dealing with the same amount of money. And so his boss is the IT director, who has no idea what animal control. Yeah, so there’s no real consistency in it at all. I mean, what’s the requirement on a city, county, state level is a requirement. Is that just kind of default to the Police Department? If there’s not a specific ACO?
Yeah, If there’s no animal control, it does fall to either the Police Department or the sheriff’s office for the city or county that they’re in. Now, the other interesting thing, or question, I guess I had was, How do you guys work with and relate with, you know, rescues and TNR groups, in addition to the shelters? I mean, are you guys considered kind of separate and independent, or do you see a lot of crossover in your day to day? We’re used to be for you guys anyway, in the day to day. Well, right now we’re pretty separate cause we’re just our private company. But we work, really, Because we have so many contacts in different organizations. We are trying to help kind of bridge this gap because there’s been this kind of gaping hole between Animal Control and the no-kill movement or animal control and TNR groups or rescue groups and shelters. And Kelly and I have always, and the older we get, the more we feel this way. We’ve always felt that everybody, no matter what their views are, has relevant things to discuss and ideas, and we kind of have taken it on that, we’re trying to find a way to bridge this gap and bring everybody to the table. And we, actually, I’m in the process right now of setting up a meeting with a local TNR group, who has similar questions. They say I don’t understand why Animal Control fights us so hard. And what is the problem with TNR? And I’m trying to get this meeting put together so that we can bring everybody to the table so that Animal Control can kind of pull back the curtain and see what they’re dealing with. But they can also understand some of the laws and things that Animal Control is bound by so that everybody kind of understands where we’re all coming from. And let’s try and work toward a common goal so that nobody is violating laws. Nobody’s compromising the health or safety of the animals, and we’re all accomplishing the goals that we set out to accomplish. Yeah, definitely. That’s a challenge, I’m sure right, particularly with TNR groups. A lot of times they have to be more cloak and dagger because it could be illegal in their community, things like that.
Kelly, what would you recommend to groups to do to establish? I mean, it sounds like there is this big gap with a ACO’s. Where did people begin? They just got to start the discussion. I feel like people need to be open to listening to both sides of the table. So I was very adamant that we had in the agency and work for the city I work for. We did have active TNR groups in our city, but we enacted laws that you couldn’t have free feeding. So that meant those TNR groups, they had to sit out there and put food out, monitor the situation. What the cats eat and then pick that food up and leave and then any animals that they did t. And are we microchips to that specific person who was monitoring that? So if we had issues, we could directly relate with that person and say, Hey, your cat just mauled the neighbors’ Chihuahua, right? And we can deal with those consequences. But it just, when we enacted those laws, opened up the discussion with those TNR groups of, Hey, we understand you’re trying to solve a problem by limiting the unwanted kittens that are popping up everywhere. And we understand you’re trying to keep these cats, you know, out in the environment doing their thing. But we also need to think about public safety, we need to think of disease transmissions and bringing, you know, the skunks, which Rabies is huge here. You know, if we got skunks interacting with these feral cats, what’s the rabies risk to the public and just opening the discussion and thankfully, the TNR groups in our area were very open to listening to us and Okay, I understand. We will do X, Y, and Z, to make sure that we are, making sure these cats get vaccinated. Make sure that you remove the ones that are sick or injured. And we’re monitoring that we don’t have wildlife coming to our feeding stations, that sort of thing. But I think anybody who’s wanting to set up a TNR program or a managed Cat Colony program, they just need to go talk to the Animal Control and be willing to listen to what Animal Control has to say and be open to a discussion of ideas and plans instead of, I’m gonna do it this way and I don’t care what you have to say. It’s my way or the highway. It’s the right way standpoint. You just need to get the sandbox and play together. Let’s just talk and actually listen to each other.
But from the same perspective, Animal Control needs to extend the same courtesy to the groups. They need to be willing to listen to the things that the TNR groups are trying to accomplish and things like that, cause one of the things that we talk about in our classes is it’s no secret of the vast majority, I would say of Animal Control Officers either dislike, hate or have reservations about the no-kill movement. And so we hear it a lot in our classes. And one of the things we come back with him at is well, but can you name three things that the no-kill movement has done that has benefited this industry? And a lot of them go well, No, we go. Well, what about those tiny, tiny little towns in Texas that, because of the no-kill movement, are now getting funding from their city council? There are things that have benefited our industry and benefited the shelters and benefitted animal control. I mean, it’s a slow process because Animal Control and Law Enforcement are notoriously resistant to change, so it’s a slow process. But it’s one of those things that we’re really trying to help move this industry forward in that respect.
Yeah, and I really appreciate the tone that both of you have taken, which is to try and have that open dialogue, right, that respectful dialogue and you know the way things are today is very different than 5, 10, 15 years ago and right, I do think it’s important. I’m always somebody that says, I believe in people’s intentions right? And if they’re focused on doing good and helping animals, they may be doing it differently than the way I would choose to do it. But the best way for us to learn is to share, to educate. Here’s why I do it the way I do it. And here’s their perspective. And I think through that open and respectful dialogue, I think we could make a lot of progress. Yes, for sure. And I think the keyword is respectful and respect goes both ways. So everybody needs to come to the table with that on their mind and leave their egos behind. Leave the egos behind. That’s probably the hardest thing to do, isn’t it? Yeah, yes, yes. And you know, we can argue all day. I mean, we do it to each other. We play the devil’s advocate on everything we discuss. And so, you know, we could go the table where we can argue the good side of something we can argue that outside of something, but being able to be open to playing either parts, I think, is what helps us stay open to those different views of the no-kill movement or TNR groups or rescue groups. We try to keep that open mind so that we can argue the for and the against.
So what does 2020 look like for you guys and for Humane Educators of Texas? What’s your goals with your vision? Busy. Our goals really have stayed the same that we just want to get out and educate as many people as possible. Whether that’s the public or its Animal Control. We want to get out there, get our name out there, build a brand, but also provide that training. So that was the other aspect of starting this business. I don’t think we anticipated as much national travel as we’re doing. And so this year we’ll be in Maryland. Next month for the Mid Atlantic Animal Care conference. I’ll be going to Indiana this summer to teach some classes. We’ll be going to New England for a week to teach some classes. We’re going to agencies that don’t have either laws regarding continuing education for their officers. Maybe don’t have state associations that help with providing training for their officers. So we’re trying to get out there and fill those gaps and help those departments grow because they don’t have a resource in their area. So definitely more of that.
We’re working with other companies, right now, to build some training programs for the private sector of animal care. So boarding facilities or training facilities that private side. So how can we get some disease transmission training and animal health training out to those guys. We’ve launched a monthly, It’s gonna be one Saturday a month here at our academy. It’s open to the public for kids, teens and adults, and it’s a little to our class called, Who are the creatures in your neighborhood? And it’s just a family-friendly, little laid back class. And they come in and we talk about urban wildlife and how to safely co-exist. And we keep some snakes here, on property so that they’re gonna be able to interact with some native species snakes. And we’re doing that. We’re also gonna be, hopefully in the fall, launching with Kelly touched on it earlier, with the high schools with what they call their CTE. Which is their Career and Technical Education classes. And we’re gonna be working with the ice teas and bringing some of our classes into schools so that, you know if there are high school students that want to become Animal Control officers or get into some sort of animal-related law enforcement, we’re going to be in there teaching those classes as well. They’ll graduate and get their state certification, but whatever they need.
Yeah, it sounds like you guys have a lot of things planned. So, Kelly, when you look back upon this, is this where you thought you’d end up? No way. I say every day, we’re not really sure quitting our jobs was a good idea. But we’re managing now. I saw myself providing continued education for Texas Animal Control Officers. That was the niche I’d put myself into. And so now to be almost five years down the road and we’re traveling the country, we’re getting, you know, speaker requests all over the place, and we’re providing that public aspect of it. Train the public on what wildlife are doing. You’re training the public on how to be better pet owners. So that aspect, I didn’t see myself doing any of that. But I’m very happy that this is the niche we’ve gotten into and this is where we’re growing. And I think it’s just kind of infinite at this point, we’re just going to keep growing.
How about you, Tabatha? Is this where you thought you would end up? I mean, it’s kinda where I hoped we would end up. You know, when Kelly asked me to come on, we always knew that the end goal was to leave our jobs and buy a building and have a brick and mortar location. So I think in that respect, we’ve accomplished at least that goal. But yeah, I mean, I agree with Kelly, we didn’t in any way, anticipate the national stuff. We even had an international request, not too long ago. And the public education, even though that’s kind of where a lot of my love lies, is because I love educating children. I love doing all the school programs and things like that, but I didn’t anticipate having as much public education as we do, but it’s a good thing. Yes.
So Kelly and Tabatha, I really appreciate you both coming on and sharing your perspective. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up today? Well, you can find us online at HumaneEducatorsofTexas.com. We’re also on Instagram with just the handle, Humane Educators of Texas. We’re here for anybody. If you’ve got questions, you just want to pick our brains, we’re open. The phone calls, we’re opening emails. We are also working on some crisis intervention training or peer support, so hopefully, in the next few months, we’ll actually be trained Peer Support counselors. So if shelter workers, animal control officers, if you need someone to talk to or you’re having issues with Compassion Fatigue and move that we’re here for you or a safe space, we have officers come in all the time. I was calling to say, Hey, I need to talk to someone. Great. Let’s vent. Let’s let’s talk. So you know anybody needs anything, Just give us a call or just email. We’re here. We’re open. Great. Well, thank you so much to both of you for coming on the podcast today. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
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