|MF: Mike Fry|
BN: Beth Nelson
HH: Holly Henderson
MF: Beth and I have big smiles on our faces, because we’re in the middle of a special show celebrating the recipients of the No Kill Advocacy Center Henry Bergh Leadership Awards for 2012. They do it every year, and they always pick a great group of people. Talking to them and meeting the people who are out there changing the face of animal welfare is just always inspiring, and the people are great. Some of these people we know, some are new to us.
We’re welcoming for the first time to Animal Wise Radio Holly Henderson. She runs the Chippewa County animal shelter in Michigan. Welcome to Animal Wise Radio, Holly, and congratulations on your award.
HH: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
BN: We want to give people a chance to know a little bit about the story behind Nathan’s choice of you for the award, and so we’re just going to try to build the story a little bit by asking a little bit about your community. Where are you located, and what does the population look like?
HH: We are actually in Sault Saint Marie, Michigan. That’s at the top eastern side of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We border Canada. We cover Chippewa County, which has a population of about 38,000, and a per capita income of about $19,000.
MF: So rural, poor.
HH: Yes. We’re pretty rural. The population of Sault Saint Marie itself is 14,000, but we’re pretty small, and we’re relatively isolated from any other large Michigan communities.
MF: It seems like the kind of place if you talk to people in sheltering, oftentimes they would say it’s the kind of community where you could never muster enough support to get the animals out of the shelter alive, but in spite of that, it looks like you’ve got a save rate of 95% from the open admission animal control center, is that right?
HH: We do.
BN: I have to ask – you’ve got some background in working in shelters, but when did you first start that, and how did you end up in Michigan? Did you grow up there? What brought you to the Midwest?
HH: I actually grew up in Santa Monica, California.
BN: Why are you in the Midwest?
HH: I followed my best friend after high school. Her family moved to Michigan, and I ended up following them a year later. It’s a long story. I ended up in Sault Saint Marie, and I really didn’t have much of a sheltering background. I did volunteer for a few years at the Santa Monica animal shelter, but I did not volunteer at our shelter in our community. I didn’t even know that it honestly existed.
A friend of mine who is a police officer for the city of Sault Saint Marie told me about a job opening and thought I would be good at it, and she encouraged me to apply. When I applied, I actually applied for animal control and they had a union dispute, so they said there was no opening at that time, but they were wondering if I’d be interested in the shelter attendant position, and I said I was. That’s how it started.
BN: Here’s a question that’s a little bit off script – what did your friend see in you that made them think it was a match to work at the shelter?
HH: I don’t know. I probably should have asked her. I know that I really loved animals – I still love animals, and I probably possess a high level of empathy. She kept bugging me and bugging me. “Did you do it yet? Did you do it yet?” I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.” It was such a great fit for me. I feel like this was really what I was meant to do and where I was meant to be. I’ve been there almost nine years. I love my job. I love going to work every single day.
MF: I’m curious, when you first started at the shelter, I’m guessing there wasn’t a 95% live release rate.
HH: No. I think they were euthanizing 90%. It was pretty amazing. They had just built that shelter. They had a local group called FOCAS, which is Friends of the Caring Animal Shelters, that had basically gotten the county to build the new shelter. Basically it was contracted out to farms and things like that. They built this new shelter and they had a staff there, but they were still continuing to euthanize almost everything that came in.
They were euthanizing a cat if it dumped its litter box. They were euthanizing a dog if it was pregnant. They euthanized a puppy they said was kennel crazy because he was whining in his kennel. This is obviously secondhand experience. I didn’t witness this myself, but this is what I was told before I came in, and this is why they wanted me in there. It was a fresh start for me and for the shelter, really.
BN: What was the framework that you had though stepping in? You must have had some information about how it had been, and there must have been some desire for change. What was your framework for stepping in and starting your work?
HH: The person who did the job interview gave me the background of the shelter, and I really, honestly in my mind, I don’t think I knew what I was really getting into. When I came in, there were no shelter staff employees. It was just me. Most nights, I went home and cried to my husband. I said, “Oh my gosh, there’s so many animals! What do we do? What do I do?”
I really don’t know how it came to be. I started off with people coming in, and I’d encourage them to volunteer. I’d ask them to come back. I became really good friends with the President of the group that started that shelter, FOCAS, Deb Green. She helped, and we got involved with the schools. I got help from community service from the jail.
It was a slow process, but when you become the person and you’re the person who decides who is getting put to sleep or not, it’s a big responsibility. I knew that I could do more and that we could do more, and I wasn’t willing to euthanize for space. I just wasn’t.
I didn’t realize that even before I stepped into the position that it would be that way. I wrote on my resume that I understood the need for euthanasia and looking back now it’s like, “Oh my gosh – I can't believe I was that person!” There is no need. There’s really no need.
Every year we get bigger and we have more people involved. Yesterday we had a 10-year-old dog that was born with his tendons basically malformed, so she steps on her ankles, and she got adopted. That’s amazing. It’s just amazing. Every day I’m amazed.
MF: When Nathan was introducing you in the earlier part of the show he mentioned that you’re breaking ground with new levels of transparency, in fact even giving keys to the shelter to your volunteers. Can you talk about what brought you to the place where you were open enough to do that?
HH: It started off with one of the first volunteers, Marilyn Carter. She was a retired teacher, and she was coming in daily and helping with the cleaning. We’re really busy. We’ve really grown. We’re a very small shelter. It’s very packed. It’s hard to get things done when there’s people walking in the building constantly. Basically, we talked about her coming in after hours and being able to do things after hours. I was comfortable with her. I trusted her enough that she got a key to the building, and it grew from there.
Obviously, I don’t give keys to every single person who walks in the door, but there are probably six or seven volunteers that have their own keys. Kristen Green, Tammy Prew, they have keys. They take our Petfinder pictures, and they let our dogs out for a potty break on Sunday nights when we’re closed. Sharon and Don Brenner, they have a key. They come in and they do our cat bios. Basically, they take the cats out, they get to know them individually, they write little write-ups that go on their cages and on Petfinder, and that’s how we get those animals adopted. Those things aren’t possible when the building is open. It’s just too busy.
I know when I talked about that at a conference I went to, a lot of people in the room where, “Oooh! She gives them keys!” I was taken aback. What do you have to hide? What’s the big problem with giving them keys? What works for them? These are professional people who really care about the animals. If that works for them, it works best for them to come after hours, then they can have their own key.
MF: It just goes to show – what I heard in all that and I’m just going to put a couple of words in your mouth, and if I’m completely crazy, just reach through the phone and slap me, but it sounds to me like what happened in your shelter is that the person in charge of the shelter made a commitment to stop killing and then just creatively found ways to do that.
BN: And to find support.
MF: Right; and you didn’t make excuses for continuing to kill. You made excuses for doing things differently so that you could change the status quo, and all of those changes, all of that success comes from that commitment at the top. All the things that you’ve said tell me that that’s exactly what happened there. I think it makes perfect sense to me that you would be a recipient of the Henry Bergh Leadership Award. What an inspiring story. If you can take a shelter from 90% kill rate to 95% live release rate in your community, I think anybody could do it.
HH: Thanks. They can. If anybody needs advice, we are welcome to give it. They can do it. They can. There’s no excuse. We’re a municipal shelter, we’re an animal control, we’re in a rural area. Our per capital income is low. There’s just no reason why you can't.
BN: Holly, my jaw is a little bit on the ground, because I’m a little speechless in my gratefulness for the light you are in your community and what you’ve done. We want to thank you for just sharing your story and for doing what you do, showing it can be done.
MF: Congratulations on your award.
When we come back, we’ll be talking with Sergeant Carl Bailey.
BN: From Seagoville, Texas.