A new Community Outreach program is building connections in Frogtown, changing perceptions about Animal Humane Society and delivering essential services to pets in one of the Twin Cities' most diverse neighborhoods.
BY ROSE MILLER
On an overcast Saturday in early August, Danielle Sanders stands at the entrance to Ryan Park in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul holding her 3-month-old terrier mix puppy, Duchess. Though it's only 7:15 a.m, the area is beginning to come alive with activity. The two watch, Duchess' small black ears alert, as Animal Humane Society volunteers and staff carry tables past the quiet swing sets, and assemble small tents on sun-scorched grass that will later host more than 300 pets and their owners.
Sanders and Duchess are the first in line for a wellness event that AHS is hosting in Frogtown. Sanders saw a flyer about free vaccinations and veterinary exams being offered to the pets of area residents, and came hours early to take advantage of this opportunity for her puppy to receive care. Later in the day, Duchess would also be registered for a free spay surgery by Kindest Cut at Melrose Animal Clinic.
In the past few months, AHS has hosted two community wellness clinics in Frogtown. Residents can bring their animals for free wellness exams, rabies shots, and other basic vaccinations, and sign them up for free spay/neuter surgery. More than 100 AHS employees and volunteers have staffed each clinic, vaccinating about 600 dogs and cats and signing up more than 90 pets for sterilization.
These events are just a small part of the work that a new Community Outreach team has been doing in the neighborhood and in other Twin Cities communities over the past two years.
Community Outreach became an organizational priority in 2011, when Animal Humane Society set out to determine which areas of the Twin Cities weren't using its services and why. "We decided it was important to go out into communities that historically haven't engaged with us to hear directly from them what they want and need from AHS," says Kathy Mock, chief government affairs and community engagement officer.
By analyzing organizational data and speaking with local animal welfare organizations such as St. Paul Animal Control, AHS identified three urban neighborhoods in the metro area under-utilizing AHS services: North Minneapolis, Frogtown, and East St. Paul. All three of these communities are low-income in comparison to the rest of the Twin Cities, with many residents born outside of the United States, high rates of foreclosures, and youth comprising the highest percentage of the population.
Outreach Coordinator Brianna Darling held focus groups and conducted interviews with neighborhood residents and leaders. She found that, while animal welfare problems differed slightly in each area, some of the most common were limited access to affordable pet care, aggressive dogs, cultural differences in animal care, and dogs and feral cats allowed to run loose.
According to Corrie Schueller, director of community engagement, Darling's research also shed light on the reasons community members weren't using AHS services. Most simply didn't know about AHS or the services offered, or thought AHS was the same as animal control. Residents also didn't realize that there were options at AHS available for those with low incomes. Another barrier was location, with residents unable to find bus routes to AHS shelters and unsure which taxi services accommodated animals. Many residents in these communities also had a perception of AHS that excluded them. "They had misconceptions of what Animal Humane Society was. They saw it as a place where only middle-class white people were welcome," says Schueller.
But Darling also witnessed the true love and compassion residents had for animals. "There is a deep bond between people and their pets. I heard many stories from community members about the commitment they have both for their pets as well as for dogs and cats that are living in the community without an identified owner," she says.
With all of this knowledge in hand, AHS began building a Community Outreach Program to deliver community-based services and provide resources for pet owners in the target communities. The Outreach team adapted strategies from Pets for Life, a successful model developed by the Humane Society of the United States that incorporates ongoing neighborhood outreach, community-wide events, and free or very low cost services for pets such as dog training, humane education, spay/neuter surgeries, and wellness care.
Grassroots outreach and direct connections with neighborhood residents became a main tenet of the team's strategy. Outreach staff and volunteers distribute free dog and cat food, work to connect people to resources they need for their pets, and talk about spay/neuter, providing information on low-cost sterilization and wellness services available through Kindest Cut.
The Outreach team's philosophy is that big change comes slowly through genuine connections with others. "Our outreach work is driven by a soft, gentle and nonjudgmental approach," says Darling. Starting with something small, such as giving people free pet food or supplies and showing genuine care for their pets, helps relationships begin to form. "Once the relationships are in place, the spay/neuter surgeries – and everything else – will follow," Darling adds.
Focus on Frogtown
The Outreach effort got a significant boost in 2013, when AHS received a PetSmart Charities grant to fund 1,175 free spay/neuter surgeries in the Frogtown neighborhood. AHS donors stepped in to fund free vaccinations with every surgery, and the AHS Outreach team now provides door-to-door transportation to and from Kindest Cut for Frogtown residents.
Bordered by University Avenue on the south, the Pierce Butler Railroad Tracks on the north, Lexington Parkway on the west and Rice Street on the east, Frogtown is among the most diverse communities in St. Paul. For more than 150 years, the neighborhood has been one of the first places immigrants settle in the city, in part because of the relatively inexpensive housing prices. In the 19th century, that mostly meant newcomers of German, Irish, or Scandinavian descent. But over the last three decades, the neighborhood has been strongly influenced by new waves of immigrants, particularly of Hmong, Latino and Somali heritage.
According to data collected by the American Community Survey, 33 percent of Frogtown residents are of Asian descent and 33 percent are African American. Over a quarter of residents were born outside the United States and almost half speak a language other than English at home. The area is economically and educationally varied as well.
Though they love their pets, the significant financial, social, and healthcare hardships that Frogtown residents face mean that animal care can't always be their first priority. "The reality is that 50 percent of the households in Frogtown have an annual household income of under $35,000. People are struggling to feed themselves, let alone their pets," says Schueller.
With the new grant, AHS expanded its outreach team and began canvassing more intensely in Frogtown. Developing relationships with social service agencies and community groups in the area has also helped AHS establish trust and create referral relationships, as well as build acceptance in the community.
Darling began staffing a table at Sharing Korner food shelf in 2012 and built a strong relationship with owner Mary Brent, who now lets her clients know about AHS services whenever possible.
Outreach volunteers also table at Loaves and Fishes, a meal program housed in the basement of Frogtown's Faith Lutheran Church. Beyond just a place for a warm meal, Loaves and Fishes is somewhere people come to learn about jobs and other resources available to them through Ramsey County and private organizations.
Before AHS' presence, site coordinator Diane Heitzinger had no resources to provide to pet owners struggling financially. "It was very nice when Animal Humane Society contacted us about coming down here because they can talk to the guests and see what their problems are and help them if they can," she says. Residents have come to rely on AHS for their animal care needs, Heitzinger adds.
Meeting residents through intensive boots-on-the-ground efforts, the team has formed relationships with residents who in turn have become some of AHS's greatest community ambassadors.
Francis Marvala has lived in Frogtown for two years with her daughter Sophia. A self-proclaimed animal lover, she has become a resource to neighbors and family alike, temporarily caring for friends' pets and then often taking them in permanently. Marvala has told many of her family and friends about the free spay/neuter surgeries available through AHS and Kindest Cut, and uses AHS services regularly herself in caring for her pets. "Sometimes feeding them is hard," she says. 'But Brianna has helped with fixing them and giving them their shots so they don't reproduce. And she's given me advice."
Another resident, Patricia Ohmans, was instrumental in connecting AHS with a local organization offering rescue and relief to homeless and endangered cats. Kindest Cut now sterilizes feral cats trapped by this organization every week, helping to control the feral cat population in Frogtown.
Relationships with community organizations and community members will be crucial in continuing the work in Frogtown and future target communities for the long term. "We want to make this work sustainable in each community," says Schueller. "Our goal is to work with community organizations, leaders, volunteers, and members to be able to keep this work going as we put our resources into other communities."
As of October 1, more than 600 Frogtown animals had been spayed or neutered at Kindest Cut, and between the surgeries and the wellness events, close to 1,000 had been vaccinated. By mid-November, the team hopes to be doing 47 surgeries per week in Frogtown and East St. Paul.
The team has found that a persistent presence in the community over time gets people thinking more about how they care for their animals. Their goal is to make several small changes in the lives of animals, which eventually will create a large, community change for animals.
Darling stresses that the work is about empowerment and information-sharing for neighborhoods that otherwise lack a place to turn to for affordable pet supplies, training, and healthcare. "The point of our work isn't to take care of their animals ourselves. Right now as we are just trying to make it as easy as possible. Over time, we see the community carrying the torch. Access to resources and information will become embedded in the culture," she says.
The team already refers community members to AHS' humane education programs, behavior helpline, and Melrose Animal Clinic. In the future, they will be integrating community-based dog training classes and adoption events in Frogtown, and adding a dog trainer and veterinary technician to the canvassing team. They plan to visit more Pets for Life cities in 2015 to see the work others are doing and share their experiences implementing the program.
Work in Frogtown will continue, but the team's focus will eventually transition to East St. Paul and beyond. "We're excited to go out into more communities. There is a lot of need out there," says Mock.
The Community Outreach Program is a clear extension of the values that AHS embodies, from partnering with people, to leading responsibly with compassion, to being good to animals. Mock says, "We really have an opportunity to make a big difference on the whole continuum of an animal's life."
Frances Marvala adopted Pooah, a 5-week-old American Bulldog mix with a shiny white and grey coat, from a friend. "He was the only one that survived out of his litter."
A social butterfly, the puppy has a special bond with Marvala's 13-year-old daughter Sophia in particular. Sophia is a natural at obedience training, working with Pooah on sit, mouthy behavior, and crate-training. The two are obviously attached, and he follows her every move with rapt attention.
Marvala has been one of Animal Humane Society's biggest advocates in Frogtown and believes in the importance of spay/neuter, but her son had other ideas when it came to having Pooah fixed. "He wanted to mate Pooah with a female he had in mind to make money off of the puppies," she says. Marvala scheduled Pooah for a free neuter surgery at Kindest Cut anyway.
"It's good there's these types of events going on that the Humane Society can help with vaccinations and with preventing unwanted litters. To us people [of limited means], it helps us a lot," Marvala says.
If you looked up the word "energetic" in the dictionary, you might find a photo of a little Chihuahua mix named Duchess. The 1-year-old dog loves to play. Melissa Vaughn surprised her son Alijah with Duchess for his eleventh birthday, and she has been a welcome addition to the household.
Alijah has ADHD, and having Duchess helps him and the family to get outside and stay active, Melissa explains. "It's nice for our whole family to be outside and moving with her. We walk around Como Lake and go to Crosby Farm Park when we want to be in nature," she says.
A Frogtown resident for nearly two years, Melissa attends Century College and works part-time at a call center. The financial responsibility of caring for Duchess can be difficult at times. "Getting her shots and routine stuff can be expensive, and sterilization surgeries can cost hundreds of dollars," Melissa says.
After hearing about the free spay/neuter surgeries available to Frogtown residents, Melissa called and made an appointment for Duchess to be spayed. Though the idea of trusting Duchess with strangers was scary at first, Melissa is thankful that AHS could provide this option, because otherwise Duchess' surgery would have had to be delayed while the family saved enough to cover it. "The grant really helped us financially lift that burden. It's really just a blessing. She's like a kid to us."
Monthly giving (or “sustainer”) programs are becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. as supporters of non-profit organizations recognize their advantages – most notably the convenience of making automatic contributions.
It’s not summer in Minnesota yet (we just hope spring has come by the time this magazine arrives in your mailbox), but we’re already thinking about our big plans for Youth S.A.V.E. – our Summer Animal Volunteer Experience.
Youth S.A.V.E. is a unique program open to 16- to 18-year-olds who
want to volunteer with AHS over the course of an entire summer. Participants will help by assisting customers looking to adopt an animal and providing for the daily care needs of animals in the shelter.
“The volunteer commitment is easy and flexible,” said Lynne Bengtson, AHS volunteer services manager. “We just ask for a three-hour shift three times a week, over three months, from mid-June to late August.”
Volunteers will be invited to attend guest speaker presentations to hear about hot topics in the animal welfare community and to explore possible career options. Topics expected to be covered include wildlife, dog training, vet services careers, issues in animal welfare, and using volunteer experience on a resume or college application.
The application for our 2015 program has now closed. Applications for next year's program will begin in March 2016. The cost to participate in the program is $50 and payment will be collected upon final acceptance to the program.
At the time this edition of Animal Tracks went to print, Animal Humane Society was involved in a number of efforts at the Minnesota Legislature, including supporting a bill that would require licensing and inspection of large commercial dog and cat breeding operations.
Because action was expected in both the Minnesota House and Senate between the time this magazine was printed and when it arrived in your hands, we have created a page on the AHS website to give you access to the most current developments in our legislative efforts.
An AHS/U of M partnership provides valuable experience.
University of Minnesota veterinary students are getting hands-on surgical experience through a partnership with Animal Humane Society, Kindest Cut and the Melrose Animal Clinic, located at AHS’s Golden Valley facility.
Animal Humane Society plays a starring role in a new eight-part documentary series that debuted online in March.
“Rescue Waggin’: Tales from the Road” follows 21 dogs on their journey from the Carthage (Mo.) Humane Society shelter to Golden Valley, where AHS staff and volunteers help them find new homes with loving families in Minnesota.
It’s been nine months since Animal Humane Society was called upon to rescue 133 dogs and puppies from a breeding facility in northern Minnesota. But to many involved in the case that has become known simply as “Pine River,” after the Cass County town where the seizure occurred, it feels like it was only yesterday.
Mainly, though, the memory of Pine River is so fresh because the emotional impact of the case continues to be felt – the incredible work on the part of AHS staff and volunteers to care for the dogs and the outpouring of support in the community to find them homes will not soon be forgotten.
“I continue to be amazed at that effort,” Brayshaw said. “It was phenomenal how an entire organization, and an entire community, could pull together to accomplish such great things.”
“Our staff and volunteers worked themselves ragged taking care of these animals. We had staff and volunteers who normally did not work in animal care who agreed to pitch in, and we still needed assistance from the local volunteer community and rescues to provide these dogs with the care they needed. It was truly a team effort,” he said.
Adopters lined up at AHS’ five facilities when the dogs were first available for adoption on October 12, and by the time it was all over, a total of 167 Pine River dogs and puppies had found new homes through AHS. In addition, Twin Cities rescue organizations helped place many more of the dogs.
“It really was inspiring to see how many stepped up in such a tough situation,” Brayshaw said. “It’s something we’ll feel and talk about for a long time to come.”
The Pine River case touched many Animal Humane Society staff in ways that went far beyond their professional capacities. They were reluctant to grow close to animals that could very well have ended up back with the breeder from whom they were seized – but they couldn’t help it. So when the long-awaited day came when AHS was allowed to put the dogs and puppies up for adoption, several AHS staff were happy to be able to join the wonderful adopters from the community in taking home their own animals. Here are three such stories, told in their own words.
Kathy Johnson & Shelby
Kathie Johnson is senior director of operations at Animal Humane Society.
Many of the Pine River dogs required foster care to help ready them for adoption. I decided to foster a little Chihuahua we called Shelby Ann. The minute Shelby walked into our home, she touched our lives and just seemed to “fit.” Before the case was resolved, I overheard my kids talking about how much they loved her and how awful it would be if she would have to go back to the breeder. I also heard them say, “I don’t think Mom will take it very well if she has to go back.” They were clearly concerned, but because we are seasoned “fosters,” they knew the drill and were content with just caring for Shelby and giving her a great life while she was with us.
The day I was able to share with my family that the dogs were released for adoption, we all cried a bit and then looked at Shelby. “What now?” Everyone knew in their hearts that she wasn’t going anywhere. How did she change a “big dog” family into a family that adores this little dog, spoils her rotten and buys her sweaters? It’s beyond me. She brings so much joy to our lives and the people that she meets. Our friends and neighbors just love her and so do we. There is truly something special about this little dog and we feel so lucky to have her in our lives.
Jen Gackstetter & Winnie
Jen Gackstetter is the animal transfer liaison for Animal Humane Society
Winnie, a chocolate lab puppy, was born at AHS to a mom that was pregnant when she was seized from Pine River. Although Winnie didn’t have to live in those terrible conditions, I watched her and feared so much that she would somehow end up being sent back there. It was such a relief that she and her family and her canine friends didn’t have to be returned. And then I knew that her home had to be my home. Winnie has been so much fun, and it’s been a joy watching her grow. Winnie and my Dachshund hit it off right from the start but it took about six weeks after Winnie’s adoption for my Westie to stop being crabby about the new pup at home. The first time they played I almost cried I was so excited.
Winnie is just the happiest dog I’ve ever known and just loves to be around people. I can’t imagine my life without her now. We weren’t looking for a third dog but there was something about this little brown chubby pup that just got to me, and I knew I couldn’t let her go. It breaks my heart to think that so many of those Pine River dogs went through years of life without knowing what the love of a person is like, but it’s so comforting knowing that they are in good homes now.
Nicole Wallace & Kodiak
Nicole Wallace is a wildlife veterinary technician at Animal Humane Society
My Pine River guy is Kodiak, but we call him Kodi or Kodi bear. He is one of the Pine River dogs that had to go through our adoption preparation program. When I first got him he was so shell-shocked. He didn’t know how to climb stairs, jump into the back of a car, or play.
He would flinch if I raised my hand to pull my hood over my head. He had no idea what it meant to be a beloved house pet.
When Kodiak first came out to live on our hobby farm, he couldn’t even run without falling down. The veterinarians assured me it was nothing medical; he just didn’t have any muscle mass. It was so sad to watch this big beautiful boy be so excited to get outside and run, only to have his legs give out. But it didn’t slow him down much. He loves to go on walks and help with the horse chores. He instantly got along with the other dogs and cats.
It has not been an easy transition and not without challenges. Every day I pray to St. Francis for patience, but he is truly a great dog with a heart of gold. He is making huge progress and has even recently started to play with some of the plethora of toys he has at his discretion!
It is unbelievable to think of him back as one of the Pine River garage dogs and now the beautiful, beloved house pet he is becoming. He is the light of my life and I could not imagine my life without him, or his without me! Today he is a strong healthy boy with a forever home. It almost brings a tear to my eye to read this and know what he has gone through and where he is today.
With more than 20,000 animals coming through our doors each year, Animal Humane Society needs to use every tool at our disposal to match up pets with adopters.
In this day and age, that means engaging not just the hearts, hands and minds of the community to help animals, but engaging their newsfeeds – and their TV sets -- as well.
AHS’s website may be our most prominent and important marketing tool, a place where thousands of people see their next pet for the first time. Increasingly, though, both new and “old” media are being used to introduce animals to prospective adopters, especially those animals that might need a special showcase.
Here we look at some recent stories about how animals looking for a second chance found their new loving homes through social media and the airwaves.
When Elvis arrived at AHS last October, he was like any puppy – playful, active and attention-seeking. But Elvis had a few challenges to face before finding a home.
Our veterinary staff discovered Elvis was suffering from Sarcoptic Mange, a disease caused by small mites on the animal’s skin, which if left untreated results in itchiness, hair loss and even infection. Elvis received extensive treatment from the vets, and because this type of mange is highly contagious to other dogs, Elvis had to be isolated for a large portion of the time.
So we convinced Elvis to pose for a photo and we posted his story on our Facebook page. After 594 likes, 314 shares and three days, Elvis was adopted by a family who saw him on Facebook. They already had a pit bull/terrier mix at home and decided Elvis would make the perfect companion.
AHS joined the world of likes and shares back in 2008 and since then we’ve gained more than 30,000 fans who share in and help us promote the work we do for animals every day.
Through the use of our social media channels, we are able to engage with supporters in a variety of ways: to promote our lifesaving programs and services, gain new supporters who will donate time and money to help animals, and share the stories that take place at each of our five locations.
We are fortunate to have a supportive community of people who believe that adoption is the best way to add a companion animal to their family. The length of stay for animals on our adoption floors averages only 10 days.
Occasionally however, there are animals – like Elvis – who need an extra push; animals who are passed over by potential adopters, senior animals, or those with special medical needs.
Tinkerbell found a new home just a few hours after her adopters saw her video on our Facebook page. She was just two months old when she came to us a stray with a shattered hind leg. After surgery and lots of love from our staff, she was as sweet and playful as ever. So we shot some footage of Tinkerbell playing, created a simple video and encouraged our supporters on social media to share our post.
Dabit’s wishes came true when his new person John saw his sweet face and read his wish list on our Facebook page last December. A 6-year-old lab mix, Dabit had been waiting longer than the average dog for a home and was now what we refer to as a “forget-me-not.” When they met, it was as if it was meant to be. A total of 184 people shared Dabit’s wish list and helped us find Dabit a home. File that under #madeourday.
Everyone at AHS, and our Facebook friends, love to hear how pets are doing after they’ve been adopted. That’s the concept behind Success Story Saturdays, when we let our adopters take center stage and provide updates about their new companions. For example, Holly told us about Bear, a 13-year-old lab who came to us after his owner passed away. Senior pets aren’t always people’s first choice when adopting, but Holly saw something in Bear she couldn’t pass up, and a month after adopting him, we passed along her report on our Facebook page: “He was so depressed when we first got him and now his tail never stops wagging! I just adore this old boy! Please don’t forget the senior dogs!”
Sharing these success stories has helped us spread the word about the benefits of adoption. Each adoption is a happy beginning and brings thousands of likes and hundreds of shares, not to mention a lot of smiles.
As valuable as social media is these days, we also take advantage of good old-fashioned news media through a partnership with WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis. Every Friday on the noon news, WCCO features a “Pet of the Week” segment, where we introduce viewers to an adoptable animal live on the air.
Barney, a senior Chinese Shar-Pei mix, was found in early December, roaming free in subzero temperatures. A Good Samaritan brought him home, and made an appointment to bring him to AHS. It appeared Barney had been through a lot recently and was in need of some TLC. Our vet staff prepared Barney for adoption, and because older dogs often take longer to find homes, he was featured on WCCO. That day, Jean was at home watching TV and saw Barney’s appearance. She and her husband Dave had said goodbye to their family dog earlier in the year, and were ready to start looking for a new furry family member. Jean told Dave about the sweet dog she saw on the news, and they adopted Barney that evening.
We’re happy to report that Barney, now named Bosco, is doing great in his new home. As he discovers he is in a warm and safe home, his personality is shining. He’s enjoying exploring the outdoors when temperatures allow, and he’s getting along great with the three other dogs in the family.
For the past four years, Carrie Libera, AHS public relations associate, has taken dozens of dogs on the WCCO Pet of the Week segment. “It’s such a pleasure getting to choose a lucky dog each week, knowing that their perfect match may be tuning into the news that day,” Libera said. “Many times when we return to the shelter, the phones are ringing off the hook with interested adopters – and sometimes there is someone already on the way.”
The segment has a loyal following, with people telling us they watch the Friday news just to see the Pet of the Week. “The best part is when I get updates from viewers that have adopted,” Libera said. “Sometimes I get to meet them that day, other times they come back for a visit. I’ve even received Christmas cards from dogs that I’ve taken on TV. It’s a special thing to be a part of and we’re grateful for the opportunity.”