Photos by Brett Chisholm and Mel Hammonds
Mike Arms came to animal welfare in a most unusual way. He arrived in New York in the 1960's ready to take on the world with an accounting degree and the desire to make it big. An employment agency suggested that he might take a position at the ASPCA because it would look good on his resume. Mike didn't even know what an ASPCA was at that time, but thought it would be a good experience to manage the finances of such a large organization. The stress of seeing the horrors that mankind perpetrated against the animals of New York quickly became too much for Mike, as the ASPCA was killing over 140,000 innocent animals a year at that time. He gave his resignation and was running away from animal welfare.
With just six days to go until his last day, Mike got a call that there was a dog hit by a car on Davidson Avenue in the Bronx. There were no ambulance drivers available, so he took off his suit jacket and put on an ambulance driver jacket and drove out to the accident scene. Upon his arrival he saw a black and tan shepherd/terrier mix lying in the street. The dog had been hit with such force that his back was broken - he was literally bent in half. As Mike approached the injured dog two men came out of a nearby doorway and asked him what he was doing. Arms calmly explained that the little dog was dying and he was taking him to the hospital. The men told him that he wasn't taking the dog anywhere. Mike inquired as to if it was their dog and they said, "No, but we are taking bets on how long it is going to live." Arms told them they were sick and turned to lift the dog into the ambulance. As he bent to lift the injured puppy, the men attacked him with a bottle to the head followed by the smack of a baseball bat and the sharp pain of a knife thrust into his hip and shoulder. Mike was knocked unconscious and as he lay in the street bleeding the little dog, who should not have been able to move, crawled to Mike's side to lick him awake.
It was a true epiphany for Arms as he spoke to God and said "Let me live, and I promise you, I will do everything in my lifetime to protect them." Mike has remained true to his word as the man who has saved more animals than any other person, living or dead, in animal welfare history.
Back in the day when orange groves still blanketed Southern California and Beverly Hills was a sleepy village, California native Helen Whittier Woodward lived a typical life for her generation and affluent background. You see, her father struck oil while looking for water, à la Jed Clampett in the old television show, The Beverly Hillbillies. As a result, she had money from her family’s oil business, but her focus was more on animals, and after she married, raising her children. Her father had been raised on a Maine farm and passed on to Helen his respect and care for animals. After her children left the nest, Helen poured her love for animals into creating and building an extensive animal care and education center. She bought an old farm with a wooden water tower in Rancho Santa Fe, north of San Diego. Helen and a group of friends envisioned a facility that would encompass comprehensive animal care as well as public education programs. Working alongside her to turn her dream into a reality was longtime friend Mel Morse. Together they built the San Dieguito Animal Care and Education Center, opening its doors in 1972. The Center was dedicated "to the principle of a better world through the teaching of a humane philosophy toward all living creatures." With his background as the former president of the Humane Society of the U.S., and as a longtime executive of the American Humane Association, Morse served as the Center’s first director.
In 1985, after Helen had passed away, Morse led in the opening dedication of the Center’s modern facility for veterinary care and animal boarding. This addition to the original campus meant they could offer veterinary care for the animals at the Center, as well as for privately owned animals in the region. No longer did people have to travel hundreds of miles to get state-of-the-art treatment for their animals. The facility was launched with an incredible array of cutting-edge equipment, surgical suites, a pharmacy, 24/7 technicians, even furnished lodging for on-call visiting veterinarians and interns who want to stay close to their patients. Morse said at the time, “Most veterinarians cannot afford such medical equipment and facilities on their own; now they will be able to take their clients' animals to the Center for treatment or surgery.”
Helen’s love for animals and Morse’s humane agenda also meant that the boarding facility for dogs avoided the typical cold dark metal cells and chain-link fence design. Instead, a modular concept was used for the layout, allowing the pens to be cleaned without disturbing the dogs. Skylights and colorful landscaping were also implemented in the indoor space, imparting a bright and airy feeling to the facility. Since San Diego County regulations prohibited outside exercise areas, the unique warm design gave the impression of outdoor openness and light for the dogs.
Helen Woodward's vision was to create a special place where "people help animals and animals help people." The Center leads the country in how it helps animals and saves lives. Its educational and humane programs are demonstrating every day onsite or out in the community how animals help people. On any given day, you will find a disabled child or adult participating in therapeutic horseback riding. Their Therapeutic Riding program helps those who have a variety of special needs relating to cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism to stroke recovery and learning disabilities. Another way animals are helping people at the Center is through the Pet Encounter Therapy program. Staff members bring a variety of animals to people in abused children's shelters, hospitals, psychiatric facilities, and senior centers. The power of the human-companion animal bond is felt by those most vulnerable who might otherwise not experience the affection and closeness of an animal. The unconditional love and benefit from caressing and petting the animals is passed from animal to person and back again. The therapeutic effect animals have on people is supported today by the increased use of therapy dogs in reading assistance programs, veteran’s programs and prisons.
It was Helen’s vision and love for animals that laid the foundation for a world-class animal center whose focus is public education along with outstanding veterinary services. However, to change the face of animal welfare it takes continual innovation. In 1999, the Center hired a new kind of animal welfare advocate, one with a big heart but who is all business. To many, Mike Arms is a recognized pioneer in the animal welfare field. As the president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center, Mike applies his business sensibilities to increasing adoptions and lowering the rates of animal euthanasia. He has built upon Helen’s legacy, developing new programs that seek to change how people view animals and our role as their guardians. In addition, the Center includes a no-kill shelter. Mike takes that label very seriously, creating successful adoption promotions that set records each year.
Before Mike became the president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center, he spent twenty years contributing to the renovation of the North Shore Animal League. During his time there, he oversaw 400,000 animal adoptions and turned their annual local adoption event into an international collaboration involving 2,200 shelters in 9 countries. Today, North Shore Animal League is the world's largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization. Like Richard Avanzino, the former president of the San Francisco SPCA who is considered the godfather of the no-kill movement, Mike has significantly transformed how we view animal welfare as well as the field itself. It takes a combination of programs and services from animal shelters, spay/neuter clinics and rescue groups combined with community support through adoptions and foster care if a place is to achieve no-kill status. What sets Mike apart is his ability to offer plain and simple ways to accomplish this goal.
Want to increase adoptions? Take Mike’s concept, “make it fun and make it count”: the Home 4 the Holidays adoption program that he created his first year at the Center initially organized fourteen shelters in San Diego County. Reaching into their communities, they encouraged families to save lives by adopting from animal shelters and rescue groups. Simultaneously, the Center strove to take business away from puppy mills and backyard breeders. During the first year alone more than two thousand animals found forever homes. Twelve years later, millions of orphaned animals have been adopted. Fourteen local shelters has turned into 4,000 participating rescues and shelters, all thanks to Mike’s Home 4 the Holidays program. The success of this initiative illustrates the effectiveness of business principles on adoption rates.
The Center is “in the business of saving lives.” By providing participants with materials to assist in the marketing of their adoptable animals, the number of successful dog and cat adoptions over the holiday season continues to reach record levels year after year. It is these common-sense points of view and creative marketing promotions that set Mike and the Center apart.
“Dogs already have our hearts, they need our minds” is a no-nonsense phrase you don’t expect to hear within the animal welfare movement; there is more often emotional hand-wringing from the many challenges. That perceptive phrase was spoken by Mike at a conference I attended, and is one reason why LIFE+DOG loves him. Everyone in the corporate world knows that to be successful, you need to look at the big picture and come up with simple and practical steps to achieve your long-term goals. Mike has pioneered the concept of using simple and effective marketing strategies and tactics to increase dog and cat adoptions, provide education to families on the detriments of puppy mills, and why spaying & neutering saves lives. He realizes that change has to happen at all levels.
There are many programs at Helen Woodward focused on children of all ages. Mike explains, “In order to change tomorrow, we have to educate the children of today.” By introducing children early to animals through a positive experience, the Center’s programs provide a strong foundation for the kids to develop into responsible adults. In the company of a teacher and a parent, the toddler and preschool programs have little ones meet and pet a variety of animals. There are a variety of programs that nurture knowledge, compassion and respect towards all living creatures. Teachers can have animals brought into their classroom to enhance lessons on animal care, habitats, or communication. High schools can bring in an instructor to discuss career opportunities in the field of animal welfare and medicine. They also have an Animal Violence Prevention series of classes teaching respect and proper care of animals. There is even age-appropriate animal science classes that fulfill California State Science Standards for home-schooled students.
How you tailor your message to different groups can play a big role. Over the years, Mike has achieved success and the Center continues its evolution—and that has partially been achieved by how they choose their language. Using words and phrases such as ‘animal center’ instead of ‘shelter’ and changing ‘stray’ to ‘orphaned’ has really made a difference in the way the Center’s programs are perceived by the public. Mike has a voice that manages to elevate the animal welfare conversation by changing its tone. He speaks about the overuse of the word love; that people need to care about animals. He explains, “It is better to care than love, because to care is to make a difference.” Mike is onto something, because his perspective is in high demand across the globe. Besides his international speaking engagements, he leads annual conferences in San Diego with like-minded experts sharing ways other animal shelters and rescue groups can incorporate marketing and business strategies into their programs to increase adoptions and lower euthanasia rates.
Thirty years ago, Richard Avanzino credits Sido as the dog who helped inspire the modern no-kill movement. Her story signaled to him the time was right to move away from using euthanasia as a method of dealing with homeless animals. This sweet dog and her life’s story changed the course of Avanzino’s own life. On the other side of the country, around the same time, Mike Arms also had an encounter with a dog that transformed his life forever.
Now both of these men are leading the way towards ending animal overpopulation in the America. Two years ago, I met Mike for the first time after hearing him speak. Afterward, I shook his hand in gratitude for sharing not only the inspiring story of the injured dog that changed his life, but his pragmatic views on animal welfare. Mike is a true pioneer in the field, frequently traveling across the country and internationally to speak about how everyone, at every level, can make a difference and save lives.
Recently LIFE+DOG met up with Mike:
LIFE+DOG: It has been more than 45 years since you began saving orphaned animals—what started you off on this quest?
Mike Arms: When I first started working for the ASPCA, I took the position really as a job, not knowing how I truly felt about domestic animals. Then one day, saving an injured dog, my life turned around. This became a mission for me and was no longer just a job.
L+D: What made you realize you needed more than good intentions or a love for animals to make a difference? What else is needed?
MA: It didn’t take me long to realize that simply loving animals would not save their lives. Back in the sixties most of the animal shelters were built as warehouses, holding the dogs and cats for 24 hours to see if anyone claimed or adopted them, then euthanizing them. Yet all the people working there claimed they loved animals. I quickly realized that in order to save these animals’ lives, we had to let the general public know that we have these beautiful animals that need loving homes. We also had to change the perception that there is anything wrong with these animals. The truth is that there is something wrong with the owners who do not keep their commitment to these animals. The most important thing needed to save animals is creativity; to promote and market these magnificent creatures.
L+D: When did you realize that the emphasis was needed on the “business” side of saving animals’ lives?
MA: When I worked at North Shore Animal League, we started to advertise in all of the local papers, competing with the backyard breeders’ ads in the classified sections. Where they took out line ads, we took out display ads. Doing so increased our adoptions dramatically. In 1977, we did approximately 40 adoptions a week and within the next 11 years, we were doing 850 adoptions a week. Simply by marketing our product—beautiful dogs and cats.
L+D: You’ve said it is better to care than love animals, because to care is to make a difference. Why do you think the word “love” is overused in the animal care industry?
MA: I am a firm believer that the word love is the most overused word in the human vocabulary. We currently use it for everything. Everyone should pay attention to how many times a day they use that specific word. For example, “I love those shoes, I love that shirt, I love that blouse, I love that movie, I love that dinner,” and it goes on and on. We use this expression for our companion animals. “I love animals.” Where the word ‘love’ used to have great meaning, it has now just become an everyday word, with really no true meaning. But we very seldom use the word ‘care’—we don’t say, “I care about that blouse, I care about that dinner.” To me, it means much more to say, “I care about animals and I want to do something to help them.”
L+D: Why are companion animals so important to peoples’ lives?
MA: I just don’t know how we as humans would be able to exist without these beautiful animals. If we were unfortunate human beings who lost our sight, there would be a dog that would be bred, raised, trained to be our eyes, and lead us wherever we need to go. If we are confined to a wheelchair, a dog would be trained to pick up what we drop, open doors for us, turn on lights for us, and be our loyal companion. These magnificent animals also do so much in search and rescue, and have saved countless lives. How many of our military have been saved because of arms-sniffing dogs that bravely give up their lives rather than have a human give up theirs? How many studies have shown that having a companion animal, K-9 or feline, lowers blood pressure?
L+D: How did you come to the realization that reduced or free adoptions devalue animals as a "cheap, bargain basement throwaway pet?" There are a lot of groups that market this way. How does this harm their cause?
MA:Remember, I’ve been in this industry for more than 40 years. I have worked in establishments where the only adoption fee was the license. I have worked in places where the animal was free, and only a donation was suggested as a form of payment. Now I currently work at a facility where we have the largest adoption fees in the community. I know that all of us who really care will do anything not to have to euthanize an animal. In my experience at previous organizations, we found that when we gave animals away for free, and did post-adoption home checkups, many times the families no longer had the animal.
Over time, here at Helen Woodward, we keep increasing our adoption fees and we are fortunate that our adoptions continue to grow. The facts are simple: if we don’t bring the public into our facilities, we can’t do adoptions, regardless of the prices. We must learn how to work with the media to show the beautiful animals that we have, and bring more people into our facilities, giving these wonderful animals maximum exposure. I really don’t want people coming to the Center looking for a bargain or something cheap. I want them to come in, fall in love with an animal and say, “I don’t care what it costs, I have to have it!” We know that doesn’t necessarily translate into a good adoption, but it does establish a foundation. If the customer is that invested in getting the animal, then they’re more likely to invest in the future care of the animal.
L+D: What is the biggest hurdle you see to solving the overpopulation crisis?
MA: You know, there is really a very simple solution to this problem. I feel very strongly that the government should enforce, at point of sale, that each animal be spayed or neutered. Unless the animal is going to be used as a show animal, there is no reason for this not to be imposed. The breeder will simply pass on the cost to the new owner, so nobody loses. Why is it that in places like San Diego, where we are, it is mandated that no animal can leave a shelter-type facility, whether it be private or government-run, without first being spayed or neutered? Why can’t they impose this rule on all pet shops, backyard breeders, and the like?
I do want to emphasize that I totally support REPUTABLE breeders. A reputable breeder wants to keep true bloodlines in these magnificent animals. A reputable breeder will interview you before you purchase an animal from them. If they don’t feel you are going to give that animal a quality home, they will not sell it to you for any amount of money. Also, in the future, if you find you can no longer care for that animal, the reputable breeder will take it back. Money to them is secondary to keeping good bloodlines in these superb creatures.
L+D: Is there one overwhelming obstacle most shelters don’t understand that would increase adoptions?
MA: They truly don’t understand that they need to become friends with the media, who in turn will help them market their exquisite animals, which will bring more families into their facility, thus giving their animals maximum exposure. Their hours of operation should also include weekends and some evenings, so entire families can visit their facility together.
L+D: What do you think of rescue organizations in general, versus animal care centers? How is their role most effectively filled?
MA:I do not really see too much difference across rescue organizations and animal care centers. Many rescue groups put their animals in foster homes where the animal can get greater one-on-one care, and the group can learn more about the history of the animal. Many rescue organizations are very skilled in screening potential adopters, making sure that the animal and the family are a match. My real concern is that some rescue groups try to do more than they are capable of. In rare cases, they wind up as hoarders. It not only hurts their wellbeing, but it can be detrimental to the animals.
L+D: How do we ensure that animals adopted from the rescue are not later being surrendered to animal care centers like Helen Woodward?
MA: Over the years, we have not seen a spike in the intake of our animals because of rescue groups. They probably have a lower relinquishment rate than pet shops and backyard breeders. Most reputable rescue groups will take the animal back, if the family can no longer care for it.
Find more insight from Mike Arms in future issues of LIFE+DOG. Support the Helen Woodward Animal Center today by visiting www.animalcenter.org.