Animals In Print
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25 September 2010 Issue

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Don't Call Them Animal Shelters


After listening to Mike Arms, president of Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Sante Fe, CA, I am looking at animal shelters in a new light. We all agree that many shelters need to change.

Mike Arms, president of Helen Woodward Animal Center, poses with a friend.

I’ve been reluctant to enter many because I hate seeing dogs and cats caged. I hate hearing about animal abuse, and I hate feeling helpless about their plight. The good news is that change is coming. Many people in the animal world are starting a revolution.

A number of shelters, which are now being called Centers, are presenting the dogs and cats that are up for adoption in a whole new light. Thank goodness for the no-kill shelters and the energized crews at places like Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC) and Animal Haven Center in New York. These are actually fun places to visit. Thanks to programs for kids that educate and have kids take part in the rehabilitation process, shelters are becoming a thing of the past.

And that’s where Mike comes in. He no longer uses the word shelter. It’s Animal Center. “Shelters are cold places,” he says. “Just think of the words orphanage and old folks’ home. We don’t use them any more. I want to see the same thing happen with animal shelters.”

When I think of an orphanage, I think Oliver Twist. Old folks’ homes conjure up images of seniors sitting in antiseptic rooms starring out in space. No one wants to go there, and no one wants to go to an animal shelter.

Last year, I wrote The Everything Guide to Working with Animals. It was a joy to write. Every morning I would get up and interview people who worked with animals. Everyone—except the shelter workers—was eager to go to work. Well, that is changing.

“When people adopt from Helen Woodward,” says Mike, “we stay with them for life.” “Everything is here—from veterinarians and vet techs who care for your pets to boarding facilities, a kids’ camp, and so much more.” I like to think of this relationship in the same way as the one I have with my child’s pediatrician. It’s comforting knowing that I can call my son’s pediatrician to get advice. I don’t have to go into the office to ask a question about his health. Obviously, if he needs to come in, I will take him. Well the same is going on at HWAC and at other animal centers in the U.S.

Mike talked to a crowd at BlogPaws, a conference for pet bloggers. He knows that there is a lot of work to do. “We have to change the mindset of many people in this industry,” he explained.

In addition to making animal centers more welcome for the pets and for us, HWAC is changing the way marketing is done. For instance, when he got a call saying that a nine-year old Rottweiler just gave birth to 6 puppies, he sent someone from Helen Woodward to bring in the dog and her pups. He immediately jumped on the marketing campaign to put this dog and her pups up for adoption.

While his marketing manager looked at him and said, “Who is going to want a nine-year old Rottweiler and 6 puppies?” Mike said, “Well if you say it that way, no one. But if you say, “63 year old gives birth to sextuplets, we will get media coverage.”

And coverage they did. According to Mike, the mom and all of her puppies went to good homes. “We are in the business of saving lives,” says Mike. “I hear people say ‘I love animals.’ Love is the most over used word in our language. I prefer to say, ‘care about.’ We care about the animals.”

So Mike, who used to work at the ASPCA in New York City, is now working to change our language, our way of thinking and the way we treat dogs and cats. “We too often devalue animals,” he says. “I have the highest prices for dogs and cats in the area, and yet, we have the highest numbers of adoptions with low return rates. We can’t devalue animals. We have to treat them well, and that means not giving them away for free. Animal centers that do that have a high return rate.”

Running an animal center as a business makes a lot of sense. “I’m with the times,” jokes Mike. “I’ve learned a lot from Starbucks. We don’t have mutts; we have blends.”

All joking aside, HWAC is looking at the whole picture. For instance, a lot of shut-ins—people who get Meals-on-Wheels—were giving up their pets because if they can’t afford to feed themselves, they can’t afford to feed a pet. So HWAC launched AniMeals, which means that people who are enrolled in the Meals-on-Wheels program that have pets, get food for their pets.

That’s just one of many programs at HWAC. This is just an overview of HWAC and my talk with Mike. I plan on blogging about the changes in the movement and the goings on at HWAC. Stay tuned.


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