If you’re anything like I was, maybe it’s cold concrete floors, windowless rooms, and sad faces peering out from between metal bars while maudlin Sarah McLaughlin music plays in the background (please don’t get me wrong, I love Sarah, but I really hate those animal cruelty commercials!)
Well, here’s the great news: almost everything we used to know about animal rescue is changing, and in a big way. And nowhere is that more apparent than at the Helen Woodward Animal Center.
Animal Rescue Redefined
I first heard about the Helen Woodward Animal Center through their annual “Remember Me Thursday” adoption campaign, so when I had the opportunity to tour their campus on a recent trip to San Diego, I jumped at the chance. What’s so incredible about HWAC is the way they view animal adoption – it doesn’t just start and end with the rescue process. They understand that the best way to ensure a pet has a long, happy, healthy life is to offer ongoing support and resources that starts when an animal first comes into their shelter, and continues long after the pet has been adopted into their forever home.
I’ll get to exactly how they’re able to accomplish this, but first, here’s how it all started.
A Revolutionary Vision
Helen Whittier-Woodward grew up in Los Angeles. In 1971, she bought a small farm in Rancho Santa Fe, an area just outside of San Diego surrounded by trees and endless rolling hills. A passionate animal-lover, Helen created the “Animal Care and Education Center”, a facility with both a pet adoption center and a humane education department.
Helen realized that in order to give animals the best chance at a happy life, she needed to not only help them find homes, but also to focus on changing the way they were viewed and treated – and that started with humans. The Center offered programs geared towards children to educate them at an early age about how to interact with animals and be compassionate and respectful of all living things.
Over the years, the Center continued to grow. Helen died in 1984, and in 1987 the Center was renamed in her honor. Located on 12 acres, it now houses an adoption center for dogs and cats, horse stables and a therapeutic riding program, 2 veterinary hospitals, an education center, a retail thrift shop, and pet boarding and grooming facilities.
The Tour That Changed Everything
Everything I knew about animal rescue was mostly shaped by what I had been exposed to growing up. A trip to the county shelter when I was 15 left me horrified and depressed, and as a veterinary technician, I was well-educated in the statistics of euthanasia in animal shelters around the country.
However, my visit to HWAC was like walking into a whole new world, starting with the adoption center. I was graciously greeted by Mindy Wright and Jessica Gercke, who took me on a comprehensive tour of the campus.
Not only is HWAC a no-kill shelter, but their accommodations for orphan dogs and cats are state of the art. Kittens have their own play area with huge structures on which to climb and jump, spots to perch and sleep, and floor to ceiling windows facing the outside entrance to the center, providing views of birds, trees, and people who are coming and going.
Dogs at HWAC enjoy spacious, outdoor custom modular-designed dog runs built in a circular shape with the gated entrances facing outward. This prevents dogs from having to directly face other dogs while in their runs, which in a shelter environment can sometimes contribute to stress and aggression. Since San Diego’s climate is very mild year round, the outdoor accommodations allow for plenty of fresh air (which reduces the likelihood of dogs being exposed to airborne viruses such as kennel cough), beautiful views, and lots of mental stimulation.
But perhaps one of the best things about being a resident at HWAC is the dedicated playtime. This is especially critical for dogs and puppies in shelters; not only do they get to spend daily scheduled time outside of their cages romping and playing in a huge fenced grassy area with other dogs, they also receive consistent socialization with humans and even some obedience training, making them much more adoptable.
Approximately 90% of the dogs and cats who come to Helen Woodward Animal Center are from county and kill shelters in California and surrounding states, some even coming from as far away as Hawaii. The rest are surrendered by owners who can no longer care for them. Upon arrival, all pets receive medical and behavioral screening, vaccinations, a microchip, and are spayed or neutered (if they aren’t already). HWAC also has an online adoption center, and they place thousands of pets into loving homes every year.
An Unparalleled Model For Animal Rescue
And if that wasn’t impressive enough, the adoption center was just the beginning. As I continued on the tour, I was amazed by all the other facilities and programs operated by HWAC, including:
- A medical campus with an equine hospital that treats more than 1,000 horse patients each year, as well as a separate, brand-new state-of-the-art companion animal hospital for dogs, cats, and exotic animals. These hospitals are also available to the public, providing care for hundreds of patients in the community.
- Club Pet, a boarding facility in which all proceeds support the adoption center and programs at HWAC.
- Dog and Cat Daycare.
- Pet Grooming Services featuring all-natural, eco-friendly grooming products.
- A Dog Training program that provides training for dogs staying at Club Pet.
- Orphaned Objects Resale Shop, a boutique that carries donated furniture, decor, books, jewelry, art, clothing, pet products, and sports equipment. All proceeds benefit the programs and pets at HWAC.
But what makes Helen Woodward Animal Center truly unique are the programs it offers – ones that go far beyond the scope of traditional animal rescue to enrich the lives of both human and animal residents of the community.
For homebound senior citizens and the disabled, the cost of buying and obtaining pet food can be a serious challenge. The AniMeals program ensures the pets of homebound individuals are fed by delivering over 3,000 pounds of food to over 250 pets per week.
This program allows both children and adults with special needs (such as those with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, autism, stroke recovery, and learning disabilities) to ride specially trained horses with certified instructors. These sessions help with muscle control, balance, concentration, confidence, and self-esteem.
Pet Encounter Therapy
Through the PET program, therapy pets (including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and guinea pigs) are brought into more than 50 hospitals, nursing facilities, children’s homes, and psychiatric units per month to bring love and physical affection to those who need it most.
Children’s Educational Programs
These provide hands-on interaction for children of all ages, teaching them about animal communication, compassion, and educating them about many different types of animals such as bunnies, horses, dogs, snakes, birds, lizards, sheep, cats, alpacas, even hissing cockroaches!
Business Of Saving Lives Conference
Helen Woodward Animal Center pays it forward by conducting complimentary conferences for animal rescue participants from over 40 states and 17 countries, instructing them in more effective ways to find families for orphan pets, improve their fundraising skills, manage volunteers, and utilize social media.
Remember Me Thursday
This annual worldwide event helps shine a light on the millions of orphan pets who are waiting in shelters for their forever homes by asking people to light a candle (either in person at candle-lighting ceremonies or online) on the fourth Thursday in September. By increasing awareness and encouraging people to “opt to adopt”, the goal is to help reduce the millions of animals in shelters that are euthanized every year.
A New Approach To Animal Rescue
According to the ASPCA, there are over 2.7 million animals euthanized in U.S. shelters alone every year – and sadly, only about 30% of pets in U.S households come from rescue facilities. Fortunately, thanks to innovative shelters like Helen Woodward Animal Center, the old model of animal rescue is slowly going the way of the dinosaur, and a new way of approaching the problem of animal homelessness is emerging. HWAC has proven that it can be done, and by sharing their knowledge with other shelter facilities around the world, we are one step closer to the goal of finding forever homes for all orphan pets.
You can participate in Remember Me Thursday, which is held every year on the last Thursday in September, by lighting a virtual candle and sharing a personal message on the online candle gallery here, or by holding your own candle-lighting ceremony on that day. You can also help spread the word on social media with #RememberMeThursday.
When it comes to animal rescue, the times they are a-changin’ – and fortunately, in a very positive way!