By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Dec 15, 2017 at 10:03 AM

Even at 138 years old, the Wisconsin Humane Society is an organization that doesn’t rest on its laurels. Just this month, it announced it will acquire the Bay Area Humane Society in Green Bay and the Door County Humane Society, bringing its total number of campuses to five.

Leading this charge is President and CEO Anne Reed, a lawyer by trade, who joined WHS in 2010. Under her leadership, the organization has made incredible strides in shortening the time animals stay at the no-kill shelter before being adopted. The average length of stay for dogs is now under nine days, and cats are typically adopted in less than two weeks.

As the Wisconsin Humane Society continues to innovate in the field of animal welfare, Reed and her staff can now focus on other emerging issues facing the community. We sat down with Reed, an Indiana native who has called Milwaukee her home for 36 years, in this latest Milwaukee Talks.

OnMilwaukee: Tell me about the significance of acquiring Green Bay and Door County.

Anne Reed: There's certainly been a lot of organizations that have come together and consolidated in animal welfare in the last five years, and it started before that. And there are a lot of really important reasons why we've identified that as an important direction to explore. But I don't know of a time when it's been done across such a great distance.

You acquired both Racine and Ozaukee in the past 15 years. Did that teach you any lessons in bringing these two new shelters into the fold?

We don't have to guess what the impact is for animals. We know it is an improvement in several ways. First of all, just plain space. In so many other businesses you see moving away from bricks and mortar to some other format. Obviously the care of an animal cannot take place outside of a physical space, so when you're sheltering, managing space in such a way as to support rather than detract from the health of animals, and to allow our uniform commitment to the world, which is every healthy, safe animal has as long as it takes to go home. Every treatable, safe animal, because we treat thousands of sick animals every year.

The simple fact is that we have options. If Racine becomes crowded, Ozaukee might not be. If a number of animals are sick and need to be isolated, maybe that can happen at a ward we have here in Milwaukee. Maybe the trailer that sadly is still sitting in the parking lot at Racine while we work to raise money to replace that building, maybe that turns out to be a great place to do that isolation.

Second, we have developed such strong processes to support that promise that every treatable safe animal has as long as it takes to go home. You can't just say that and make it happen. We've seen horrible, overcrowded situations where somebody tried to do that and it was a disaster to animals. But because we have processes that make adoption easy, quick and fun for the person, and safe for the animal, because we have learned so much about supporting health, and because we're so connected with the community, we can do that. As good as the work they're doing up there in Brown County and Door, we’ll be able to bring things that we've learned that will support that even more.

You do so many transfers from shelters in the South. Does this give you an opportunity to move even more animals around the system to a better place?

One of the fundamental driving facts of animal welfare today, as opposed to even 10 years ago, is the happy fact that animal homelessness is falling across the country. And it has fallen much faster in the northern part of the country than in the south. Higher spay/neuter rates in the North, cold winters and more adopters per square mile around a denser population means it's easier to get animals through your shelter quickly.

Puppies basically do not become homeless in northern cities, unless they look a lot like pits, which a lot of people want to bring home, and a lot of people don't. We all have an idea in our mind of what dog is right for us. And the more variety you can get on the adoption floor, the more it helps all animals.

When we bring animals from the South, we are directly saving those animal's lives, because euthanasia rates are so high there. And we are attracting people to our shelters who might adopt the animals who came up from the South or might adopt a local dog who was next to that dog. And in adding more campuses, we again, just increase our options in being able to work in that.

How do you continue to innovate in this space?

I sent out a questionnaire that went to everybody in the organization, and it had all kinds of questions about values, but one made the biggest difference: give a word or a phrase that describes who we are at our best, and explain why.

We built our values out of the answer to that question. And the key ones, the one that make us different, not only from other enterprises, but other animal welfare organizations, at least some of them were compassion, respect and kindness, a positive approach, professionalism and innovation.

What we tried to do with the leadership team level is create the ability for people to innovate, rather than try so much to innovate ourselves.

I was pleasantly surprised to see what an efficient and professional operation the adoption process has become. The wait time software you use is impressive, because I could see that being frustrating for people who want to adopt.

We were struggling, and reputation is key in this business. One way you save animals’ lives is to have people say great things about you. And if they waited four hours and they're mad at you, then they don't do that. So that idea came from somebody who's under 30 in our organization, which doesn't narrow it down; lots of people in our organization are under 30.

There are a lot of non-profit organizations that are run by wonderful people who have huge hearts, but they don't necessarily come from a business background. You are an attorney by trade. Do you look at this organization from a really different perspective?

Yes and no. Having worked in the business world certainly helps. This is, in many ways, very emotional work, both joyful and sad for the amazing people who have chosen it.

While that must always be honored, especially in animal welfare, it's helpful to have a background that also keeps you from forgetting the overall landscape, and overall stability. But at the same time I'll say, when I started I was new to animal welfare and new to leadership. I just had never run a thing. Some of it is just the amazing sense that the stewardship of the historical treasure that's been in our city since 1879 and has become a national leader in the quality of animal welfare work. Not wanting to mess that up has been as much a force as any business background I ever had.

Did you have any fundraising experience going into this?

I had been on non-profit boards before. The kind of systems that you have to put in place for animal welfare work is very different from what you put in place for health and human services, or the performing arts. So learning that and trying to get our systems right for us, that was all new.

So how did you wind up at the Humane Society?

I had always thought as a lawyer that there might be some sort of second chapter. I think many practicing lawyers think that. And I thought it might be sort of more of a giving back phase. I had not done very much to make that happen. I knew of the Wisconsin Humane Society, but I had not had any contact with the field at all. I liked animals, but things kind of took me another way.

Were animals always your nonprofit passion?

No. I mean, I like animals as much as the next animal lover, that's authentic. But I had been on the board of Meta House, which is a fantastic substance abuse center for women here in town.

My predecessor (at WHS) sadly passed away in 2009. I was aware of that, but it never occurred to me to apply for the job. Several months later we got a dog. I was looking for a class for the dog. I was just really impressed at the quality of work that was being done. And the position was still open, and I looked into it.

People say, "You must've been on the board," but it was the idea that they say that if you really envision something, that'll make it happen, and this was the first time in my life where I actually experienced that. I started to picture in my mind what it might be like to help take this organization to its next stage after such a traumatic loss.

Was the organization in distress at that point?

No, no. My predecessor built an extremely strong organization, so it was truly an organization to be proud of. We were coming out of the recession, so everybody had taken a couple of kicks during that, but what they needed was a leader. They did not need a turnaround at all.

This must’ve been a pretty big move right in the middle of your career.

I had recently turned 50, that may have been part of it. It did completely upend my life in a way that was quite stressful at the beginning. People would ask, "Do you miss practicing law?" And I would say, "I miss knowing what I'm doing." I miss almost 30 years of reflexes built on having seen something before.

There's a little bit of lifestyle adjustment, certainly. I'm very lucky to have a board who believes in supporting leadership and things that make the organization strong. So it was a change that I was able to make financially. I could've retired from that job and felt like I had a long and happy career of a reasonable amount of contribution. The historical treasure, the strength that I was inheriting, the people – what was then 100 and is now 160 people. All of them could be making money someplace else. All of them deserve the best workplace you can give them. So no pressure!

Are you pleased with the decision?

It's been a privilege every day for all the reasons you might expect. But also, it turns out I really, really love leadership. And the opportunity to help steer an organization. One thing about law firms, they're not really steerable.

To come here and realize we could actually not only maintain and bit by bit improve the day-to-day, but we could choose direction and pursue it. And we could choose directions we weren't going to follow and not drift into them. And to get to a point now where we're all confident that we can do that year in and year out, and to do that on our bandwidth and our capacity.

What are some of the new initiatives you’ve spearheaded?

We've added a barn cat program, and we've added neonatal kitten program, and we've added much more adoptions of animals with special needs. And to know not only that we did those things, that's cool. But that we'd do them on purpose as part of an ongoing process, where we are choosing direction, pursuing that direction, looking around at where we are.

So the organization is in good shape. You want to be careful when you say that, though, because you don't want people to think …

We always need money.

But all your animals get adopted, right?

Here, and in any other organization that never turns an animal away – which we don’t – we take seriously our obligation to make sure that risk to the community is not coming out of our building. Euthanasia is going to happen here, and it does, and we take that deeply seriously, and ensure that in those last moments of the animal, there is heart and love and peace.

So sitting for too long isn't a reason to euthenize?

You can't run out of time here, and we refuse to run out of space. We will drop that price. We’ll do whatever we can.

So where are the growth opportunities, if every animal is getting adopted so quickly?

The biggest opportunity for the future is to help animals in their homes. When animals were becoming homeless in such incredible numbers in the 1970s and even the 1980s, then all any organization like ours really could do was to handle that as best we could, and to try to really work toward maximum lives outcomes and holding ourselves to a high standard of accountability for that.

Now that homelessness is falling, but there are still quality of life issues for animals that are pressing, we are very excited about working into the community. Our clinic creates an affordable price point for spay/neuter surgery, and just making that service available in the general public. Secondly, connecting with communities that suffer from poverty. Animals from those communities suffer, as well. They do not suffer from lack of love; everybody loves their animal, what they suffer from is lack of resources.

In 53206, there's not one single veterinarian, and there's not one single big-box store along the lines of where most of us probably buy our food. They suffer from lack of information. So when we started working in 53206 in 2012, that was the first time we started adding door-to-door service.

The spay/neuter rate in that community was 9 percent. If you live in an area of resources, it's going to be closer to 80 percent. Higher spay/neuter rates are good for animal welfare generally, but they're also good for animals. That surgery tends to support animals' health. So why aren't people in Milwaukee's poorer neighborhoods getting their animals neutered? Because they never knew anybody who knew anybody who ever did it. At 9 percent, it's not something that you have had come into your life at all.

(In 53206) we’ve built a friendship. There's a trust. There's a sense that when we say, "Your animal has a lower chance of cancer if we do the surgery" that's believed, and it's true. So that kind of work, changing our food pantry program to eliminate the requirement that you prove that you are poor. When you're a family with low resources and a lot of stress, if somebody thinks they need free food, they probably do. And we're going to give it to them.

I didn’t know the Humane Society runs a pet food pantry …

We've run a pet food pantry for many, many years. That's not a recent innovation. But changing it so that we're serving more people with fewer barriers, and that we're serving more people in need, has been cool. And that's just within the last year or so.

How do you deal with the sad parts of this job?

Sheltering outcomes rise and fall with the economic well-being of the community. Live outcomes in animals from River Hills are roughly 100 percent. But because we serve an area with so much poverty, we see animals who are behaviorally extremely unsafe, or whose health situation is just not going to be something that a family can take on.

If any individual, and certainly any organization, gets to a point that they're not feeling the deep sadness in that, you shouldn't stay in this business another day.

It is a real pride in having the backbone to be the organization that has the courage to say "Look, the buck stops here." There are way too many people in animal welfare right now who are pointing fingers and saying things like "100 percent life outcomes is reasonable" and not actually doing it. That is not actually doing this work. Not actually sheltering animals and having to make the hard decisions about whether you can put this animal out into the community. Somebody has to be there for that, and that's us. And we put ourselves as individuals into this space where that pain is part of the work, because the community needs someone to do that, and doesn't need somebody shaking a finger and name calling.

You're making Milwaukee and Wisconsin a better place. And you're not just talking about it, you're doing it. How does that make you feel on a personal level?

The answer, of course, is really, really good. But I will say, I have come to deeply love the city. There's certainly a lot of healing to do, but I do think Milwaukee is on that path.

We have operated continuously here since before Harley-Davidson, since before City Hall. I think we were here before Marquette. Captain Frederick Pabst had the idea to bring a speaker out that ended up being our founding moment.

That’s amazing to think that Milwaukee was concerned about animal welfare back then.

Captain Pabst was concerned about his horses who were pulling the carts that were delivering the beer. We are not only still here, but that we really are a leading light nationally, we really are doing things that have never been done before. Other organizations see and get to watch us experiment for awhile and then they're able to follow because we took that risk. And that this city, which I love so much, can treat its humane society as as much of a treasure as anything, as the Art Museum, as anything else that we rattle off. That has been placed in my hands, and that this is my stewardship. It is very, very cool. And it means a lot.

Everybody has such assumptions about what the humane society is like, from the fact that we're all part of one national, which we're not, there isn't one, there never has been. To think that we're "killing factories," small, dark, smelly and sad is what people think they'll see. And then they'll come here, and it's the opposite of those things.

And every time, when somebody comes in, not even knowing that they're carrying those preconceptions, and then they look around and say "Cool! I can't smell anything!" And just to know, person by person, that we're changing the way the work is experienced, and that that in turn creates a level of wellbeing for animals that wouldn't be possible without it.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.