Discovering Passion through Tragedy
It is such an honor to join the Sacramento SPCA family. It is an amazing organization that touches tens of thousands of lives—feline, canine, human and others—every year. In the coming months, I will be working hard to learn more about the organization and the people who make it so successful—the staff, the volunteers and you, our wonderful supporters and advocates.
So, it’s only fair that I share some of my background and my passion for helping animals in need. For most of my career, I have been a journalist—an editor, then a manager and, ultimately, an executive. I’ve worked at newspapers across the country: Norfolk, Va.; Owensboro, Ky.; Lincoln, Neb.; San Antonio; Houston; Reno; San Francisco; even Hagatna, Guam.
So how did I end up walking dogs and herding cats for a living?
It started with Hurricane Katrina. A dear friend and fellow editor (and a die-hard animal lover) asked me to join her in Gulfport, Miss., in November 2005. New Orleans had received much attention and help, but Gulfport was still struggling three months after the hurricane. Of highest importance to my friend, the Humane Society of South Mississippi was desperate. So we took three-week leaves from our jobs and drove down to see how we could help. The need was staggering. The aging shelter was full: four or five dogs in kennels designed for two, with more animals coming in daily as strays or—tragically—surrenders from residents who had survived the storm with their families intact only to learn that the long-awaited FEMA trailers could not or would not accommodate their pets. Each day, another traumatized family would arrive and stand there numbly as we led their cherished pet away. Those images haunt me still.
I started each morning cleaning kennels, and then spent the bulk of my day with the dogs—walking them, determining their level of training, and writing note cards to post on the kennels to let prospective adopters and rescue groups learn as much as they could about the dog. I had no experience at doing any of this—other than having had dogs and cats in my life since childhood—but if I didn’t do it, there was no one else who would. It was hard, heartbreaking work—and the rewards of seeing love come from disaster were equally overwhelming.
Back at home in Houston, I wanted to continue to help animals and became a very active member of Scout’s Honor, a community-based animal rescue/adoption organization that is 100% financed by donations and 100% volunteer-run. There is no physical address for this organization: it is a collective of “foster parents” who network with each other to rescue animals who are out of time at local shelters. We would take the rescued animals into our homes and nurse them back to health, provide them training, and then work independently to find each a good permanent home.
My fosters included Crockett, a Tennessee treeing Walker coonhound. But, as we say in the South, “that dog don’t hunt”—which is probably why Crockett ended up at the shelter before being rescued. I spent nearly five months dealing with Crockett’s severely abraded tail that would not heal because he kept wagging it and hitting walls and furniture, as well as giving him house manners and leash skills. Placing a large dog in an urban environment is very difficult. I finally came up with the idea of posting pictures of Crockett in feed stores in small towns surrounding Houston. I was ecstatic to find him a multi-acreage home with children, horses and chickens to keep a watch over.
Then there was BooBoo, a rat terrier. Boo was very sick when we rescued him, with heartworm and the weight loss and cough that go with it. He had little energy and liked to hide in the laundry basket, where he felt safe. Once I got his heartworm treatment started and his weight stabilized, I placed him with a family that was committed to following through with the treatment, including keeping Boo as still as possible during recovery. Boo prospered, but when a new baby arrived, it was harder for the family to give him the care and love he needed and deserved. Boo returned to me, and over the next few months, he healed completely while I looked for a permanent home. We finally found this in Dallas, and I still get email updates from his new family.
Then there was Maximus, a street puppy who is most likely part lab and part shepherd. He was younger than six months old and had no manners, was slightly cross-eyed and totally irresistible—so much so that I ended up adding him to my own family. He’s eight now and loves to visit our 80-acre property in the Scott Valley of Northern California and spend his weekends chasing squirrels and patrolling the woods.
These rescue efforts would have been unsuccessful if not for the kindness and gentleness of our Carolina dog, Zed. Zed is a gentle soul who only wants to give and receive love. He is a perfect host for lost and stray dogs, welcoming them into the house and often sharing his food with them. At one point, Zed was hosting Crockett, Boo and Max all at the same time. He seems surprised that, more than seven years later, Max is still “visiting.”
But none of these activities prepared me for the impact that accepting the position of executive director at SoHumane in Oregon would have on me. The past five years have taught me that my love for animals goes far deeper than growing up with a variety of cats, dogs, chickens, ducks and others, and has awakened a part of my heart that was yearning to do this important work.
The ability to daily make a difference in the life of an animal is something I not only cherish—it is something I now demand in my life. The opportunity to do that here in Sacramento with the SSPCA is a gift, and I am deeply cognizant and appreciative of the opportunity and responsibility I have been given.
I look forward to meeting you in the coming months and hearing about your passion for the animals entrusted to our care—companions who ask so little, but give so much.
Kenn Altine, Chief Executive Officer