Maddie's Pet Project

Inspiration at the First Saving Nevada’s Pets Conference

By Bonney Brown

For people in animal welfare, time for networking with peers can be hard to find. So we were pleased that more than 70 people from across Nevada and five invited speakers joined us June 5 for the first Saving Nevada’s Pets Conference in Las Vegas. Top leadership of the state’s largest humane societies and SPCAs, as well as directors and managers of animal services agencies, nonprofit spay/neuter clinics, rescues, and TNR groups large and small, came together from across the state for a day of networking and inspiration.

Remembering Why We Got Involved
The day started with the presentation More Than Just a Pretty Face: The Amazingness of Dogs and Cats by animal behaviorist Kelley Bollen (watch video at bottom). She shared the long and rich connections humans have with dogs and cats and highlighted their incredible adaptability that allows them to overcome dramatic life changes and physical impairments – that would challenge most of us – and go on to thrive.

After the talk, I asked Bollen what she wanted people to take away from it. “I hoped to remind people how amazing and wonderful it is that dogs and cats have become our companions, especially when we realize that they are their own unique beings, with senses that are superior to ours and value apart from the roles they play in our lives,” she said. “Understanding how they perceive the world and their unique capabilities helps us to appreciate just how fortunate we are that they share our lives.”

Several people told me they were astonished by all they learned about animals from Bollen’s talk in spite of having worked with animals for, in some cases, decades.

Networking With Peers
At lunch, each table was dedicated to discussion of a different topic. I was at the spay/neuter table hosted by Harold Vosko. Vosko’s animal rescue work brought him to the realization that the best way he could help animals and prevent suffering was by ensuring that people had access to spay and neuter services for their pets and feral cats. Heaven Can Wait, the organization Vosko founded, has neutered more than 130,000 dogs and cats over the past 18 years.

Vosko shared the history of many other organizations and individuals who have worked tirelessly over many years to bring about animal welfare improvements in Las Vegas. While large national groups tend to garner headlines and donations, it was an important reminder that most often the work is (and has been) done by local organizations and dedicated individuals. One of the goals of Maddie’s® Pet Project in Nevada is to highlight and support the work of these local heroes.

Communication With the Wider World
The afternoon workshops included a talk by Christie Keith, a communications expert and consultant to animal welfare groups across the country. Keith spoke about how to get media attention and communicate successfully to attract support.

“We need to learn to communicate with people who are not us,” urged Keith. “We not only use words that others outside the field do not understand, we sometimes choose words that have a different meaning to others or even create a negative impression.” Keith recommended a book by George Lakoff, Moral Politics, How Liberals and Conservatives Think – not to promote any political agenda, but because it helps readers understand how to more effectively communicate with a variety of audiences.

Inspiration and Advice From a Dramatic Turn-Around
Gina Knepp, manager of the Front Street Shelter and animal services in Sacramento, gave a talk titled From Pound to Performance – How a Once Low-performing Shelter Became a Vibrant, Innovative, and Successful Lifesaving Machine. Knepp started off: “It takes one spark to ignite a huge forest fire. So I am hoping when you leave here today, your butt is hot!” The entire room was riveted as Knepp shared how she was brought in to shut down the struggling shelter and instead turned it around. The bar graph Knepp displayed shared the story – dismally high intake and euthanasia rates plagued the organization for years. The graph also showed a dramatic upturn in live releases when Knepp took the helm.

A former manager of Sacramento’s 911 and 311 call systems, Knepp shared that her prior job, which many would regard as challenging, was a cake walk by comparison to running an animal services shelter. It seems to be the toughest job she ever loved as Knepp has jumped out of an airplane to raise funds for the shelter and, perhaps even more remarkably, created and attended 52 offsite adoption events in her first year on the job. Every dog picked up by animal services is posted on Next Door (a popular neighborhood networking app) by Front Street Shelter volunteers. This effort has reunited countless pets with their families.

Knepp offered up three keys to their success, which she urged other directors to embrace: 1. Take risks, 2. Trust people, 3. Tell your stories. Knepp’s energy and enthusiasm was as contagious and inspiring to the attendees as it has been to the community of Sacramento.

Foster Caregivers Galore
The last workshop of the day I attended was by David Loewe, CEO of Seattle Humane Society who shared how they grew a powerful foster care program from 10 people – all staff members – to a network of more than 800 volunteer foster caregivers. Loewe shared that process, the adjustments needed for staff to learn to trust the public, and the investments the organization undertook in making this program successful. As a result, more than 3,500 animals – including many underage kittens – go through the program each year, saving many lives and engaging the community in the work of the shelter in a powerful way.

Loewe also made a comment that I felt gets right to the future of our movement: “It was about numbers and percentages because there was so much work to do, and it was easy to forget the individual pets that represented each of those numbers. As animal welfare has continued to grow and be nurtured. . . I’ve started to think more about what the pet experiences. . . My goal today and moving forward is making sure that we have a community with the resources and the safety nets to solve the situations animals encounter.”

The remark reminded me how it seems that things are coming full circle. Often it is a single individual animal who leads us to get involved. For Loewe, it was a rescued cat named Tucker; for me, it was a black feral kitten in the gutter caught in my car’s headlights one night; for the Duffield family, who are so generously funding this effort, it was a miniature schnauzer named Maddie; and for you, it is another animal who will live forever in your memory. While the statistics we use to track progress are important, at the very heart of the work we do is the well-being of individual dogs and cats. It’s an exciting time to be in this field, as years of work have created a level of success in many parts of the country that is turning shelters into community animal resource centers and allowing a focus on sustaining the human animal bond.

Maddie’s® Pet Project in Nevada – and the Next Conference
The mission of the Maddie’s® Pet Project in Nevada is elevating the status of dogs and cats all across the state. It’s a big goal but, with this very first Saving Nevada’s Pets Conference behind us and the memory of all the amazing and dedicated people who attended, achieving the goal seems a bit closer already.

The Saving Nevada Pets Conference on June 5 was hosted by Maddie’s® Pet Project in Nevada. Thanks to the generosity of the Dave & Cheryl Duffield Foundation and Maddie’s Fund®, the conference was free for managers, directors, and leaders of Nevada humane organizations and animal services agencies. #ThankstoMaddie

Save the date: The next Saving Nevada’s Pets Conference is set for October 25 in Reno at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa.

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