Fifteen years ago the animal rescue world was a much different place than it is today. Rescue and adoption organizations struggled with getting the word out about adoptable animals and potential adopters were faced with the sad task of visiting shelters to locate their new four-legged friends. Few could imagine how much that would change thanks to the internet and one pet-loving pioneer, Betsy Banks Saul, co-creator of Petfinder.com, the Nation’s largest placement group for shelter and rescue pets. This past year Petfinder has been celebrating 15 years of success marked by more than 17.5 million adoptions and more than 13,000 participating adoption groups to date. Petfinder has made it possible for groups to harness the power and reach of the internet to promote available animals nationwide and has become the go-to site for organizations and adopters alike. Nonprofit rescue organizations create and maintain their own home pages and available-pet databases on the site and all adopters need do is enter their ZIP code and the type of animal they are looking for, and the website shows photos and information about the homeless animals that fit best with the search criteria. It’s easy, it’s effective and, most of all, it’s FREE.
Betsy and her then-husband Jared Saul didn’t start Petfinder to make millions or to gain notoriety, they started it to help animals and as a way to use the power of the internet to do good. Betsy, a lifelong animal lover, also saw this as an opportunity to make an even larger impact in the lives of shelter and rescue animals who, at the time, were being euthanized at alarming rates with between 16 and 20 million losing their life each year. They launched the site in 1996 with 13 New Jersey shelters and are now the leading adoption and rescue resource on the web with more than 6 million unique visitors each month logging on and making a difference. By keeping the site simple and free, they have been able to broaden the exposure of animals looking for a new home, while also generating awareness of the plight facing homeless animals and educating people about the animal overpopulation crisis plaguing America.
Upon meeting Betsy, you immediately see why Petfinder has become so successful. She is energetic, driven, kind, and incredibly charming. You can feel her passion for helping homeless animals and see the sparkle in her eyes when she starts to talk about the many animals she has personally adopted and how they have made a difference in her life. Growing up in Joplin, Missouri, Betsy started volunteering to help homeless animals at the age of 12. She grew up in a family that felt a sense of responsibility to do the right thing by all creatures and they opened their door to any animal in need. That sense of responsibility became part of her family’s culture and served as a foundation for her love and respect of all animals, especially ones that needed a helping hand.
When she started Petfinder.com, she didn’t set out to change the animal world, she set out to change the world for each animal. They had initially hoped to save least one life a month, and now, through the site and organized adoption campaigns like July’s Big Birthday Adoption Event, they can save more than 15,000 animals in just three days.
The site has also grown over the years and is more than just a site for adoption, it’s a site for education, advocacy, and awareness, and has become a gathering place for animal lovers of all walks of life to share stories of encouragement and inspiration.
We had the opportunity to meet Betsy recently during our trip to the annual animal blogger conference, BlogPaws 2011, and we were immediately smitten. After a few brief chats, we set a time to visit her at her North Carolina farm just after the conference. A few short days later we were sitting down to talk with Betsy about her life, her love of dogs, and her passion for saving all animals. We hope that you will be as inspired by her dedication and drive as we are and that you may be compelled to follow in her footsteps and do what you can to make a difference for our four-legged friends.
LIFE+DOG: Have you always been drawn to animals?
Betsy Banks Saul: I have always been an animal lover, just ask my parents. I was always bringing home something, even snakes. At age 12, I started volunteering for a woman who rescued pets. She called her organization Animal Aid, and I fell in love with helping the revolving menagerie that she always had on her farm. Even then, I didn’t realize that there was this big national issue of unwanted pets. At the time, the US would have been euthanizing well over 20 million animals a year, but from a 12-year-old’s perspective, the homeless pets that I encountered were taken care of. Whether they were strays my family found and casually rehomed or they were at the shelter, they were getting rehomed. I didn’t see our activities in Joplin, MO, as part of a budding movement. Little did I know!
BBS: I had pets growing up. When I was born, I came home to cats. Cats were soon accompanied by a variety of small, furry animals – we even had a pet raccoon for a while. It wasn’t until I was in elementary school that we got our first dog.
I really have always loved animals deeply. I’ve always been amazed that such intense regard can cross species and language boundaries. It makes me feel like a part of something so large and universal to be able to attract the love of a pooch, the good humor of a horse, or the trust of a chicken.
I think I was less influenced by having pets than by the fact that my family always had an open door for anyone in need. If we encountered an old stray dog, hungry and covered with mange, while we were out picking blackberries along the county road, we would bring him home, fix him up, and find him a home. I don’t think anyone thought of this as “rescue.” We were just being neighborly – responsible. Having that sense of responsibility as part of our family culture was hugely formative for me.
L+D: What were you doing before you founded Petfinder.com?
BBS: I was working for New Jersey’s urban forestry program when we decided to start Petfinder.com. By day, I was helping develop educational material and programs to get folks interested in protecting and preserving their street trees. While I was at work, pet lists were arriving in my mailbox, my inbox, and on my neighbor’s fax machine. I went home every night and entered homeless pets from local shelters into the newly created Petfinder database.
L+D: Before Petfinder.com, what was your largest accomplishment or what were you the most proud of in your life?
BBS: When I was in college I designed a little house and, with a lot of help, built it, by hand, from ground up. After college I was a park ranger in Alaska at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – a very cool and primitive park. Those are my two accomplishments that I most want to define me. I’ve done a lot of things that were more important. My graduate work at Clemson was focused on ground water contamination. Then I got a job helping to promote green spaces in urban areas. But it wasn’t until Petfinder that I hit upon something else that felt like a part of my definition. And that isn’t just because of the animal advocacy, but also because of the people advocacy and the transformative business approaches we’ve undertaken at Petfinder. We really reinvented some approaches to business and social justice that have had an impact on our industry permanently.
BBS: One of my personal heroes is a woman named Opal Hyslip who was the one-woman force behind Animal Aid, where I volunteered as a teen. She had 40 animals for adoption and another 40 of her own. She was kind, tireless and inspirational in her good deeds, and she was way ahead of her time. She could also be no-nonsense and completely intimidating. Looking back, I think she is the only woman I’ve ever been terrified of. To this very day, I am in awe of her not only because of her good work, but because at the end of a hot day cleaning kennels she would plop down on her Naugahyde armchair, pop open a bottle of Pepsi, and bark “go to bed!” And just like that, every one of her 40 yipping, nipping house dogs would immediately scatter to his or her own little dog bed that lined all four walls of her linoleum-floored family room. It is still unbelievable to me. If only I’d have known to get a few training tips…
L+D: Who inspires you today?
BBS: I’m a little like a toddler: I have very low standards for inspiration. I’m inspired by pet parents who play games with their dogs and take them to the dog park, by shelter workers at the county shelter who keep an open heart day after day, by my teenage step-kids and their friends – their tireless ability to learn so much, play so well, and work so hard (we’re going to be in good hands when this generation grows up), and by our new dog, Jake, who can be entertained all afternoon by a good yard sprinkler. I think if we open our hearts and minds, it is hard to avoid inspiration.
L+D: Tell us a little about some of the animals at the farm and how they got to you.
BBS: Today I live on a farm with lots of animals: cats, dogs, guinea pigs, a sheep, goats, senior horses, cows, chickens, and guinea fowl insure there is never a dull moment.
Our most exciting moment this year was thanks to the cows. At Christmas we decided our very lonely cow, Missy, needed a friend, so we went to the auction and bought a “slaughter cow.” A slaughter cow is one that is so old or scrawny that she has passed her useful point and her next gig is to be hamburger. We brought this bedraggled old girl home, and she immediately jumped our fence and tried to make a go of being a wild forest cow. After a few days we finally lured her back onto our farm, named her Harriet (after Harriet Tubman), and gradually, after a month or two of good nutrition, her real self emerged as a beautiful cow – plump enough that she could no longer jump our fence. Last month, while on vacation, we got a message that we had a surprise – a newborn calf was in our pasture. It turns out scrawny Harriet was pregnant at the auction. So Missy not only has a new best friend, but she gets to be an aunt to a beautiful, healthy calf we’ve named Juliette. The three of them are inseparable.
BBS: In 1995, I was working for New Jersey’s urban forestry program. My husband at the time and co-founder of Petfinder.com, Jared, was in medical school. While we certainly weren’t dot-commers, we were on our way to a New Year’s dinner when we began talking about all the opportunities the Internet had for doing good in society. As an animal lover myself, it dawned on me that we had a chance to really help shelter animals. At the time it was estimated that 16–20 million pets were euthanized every year simply because they were homeless. We launched Petfinder.com as an online directory of adoptable pets with 13 shelters in New Jersey. Shelter workers and volunteers used to slide photos of adoptable pets under our neighbor’s door while we were at work, and we would scan them in and put them on the website. Now, 13,500 members and over 17 million adoptions later, the rest is history.
L+D: Were shelters always willing to work with you?
BBS: In the very beginning, shelters were nervous about putting their pets on Petfinder.com. Because the Internet was still a relatively unknown space, they were concerned about finding the right kind of people that would make good pet parents. However, they also saw the opportunity and awareness that the Internet provided their animals. When we started, there was no significant national, cohesive marketing strategy for all homeless pets. But with Petfinder, local adoption groups could tap into a national audience, generate national awareness, and have it fuel local successes. Interestingly, it turned out that the Internet (and specifically Petfinder) helped attract the best adopters. Adoptions from Petfinder have always been more likely to succeed than adoptions off the street. We started with 13 original shelters and pretty soon they found that we could double their adoptions. Since then, word of mouth between shelters has always provided our largest growth.
L+D: What were the biggest challenges facing the early Petfinder.com?
BBS: Everyone was learning about the Internet as it was being built, so we were really in the same boat with all of the web businesses. But of course we didn’t know that. There was this huge gulf between traditional business and the dot-com world, but because we weren’t from traditional business, we lacked some of the bluster and confidence that a lot of more seasoned business veterans had. I think this resulted in us missing a lot of early dot-com dollars. I had lots of folks tell me I was naive and would never last. I remember one MBA-type pointed his finger at me and told me I would regret turning down his offer for the rest of my life. I honestly can’t remember what his offer was, but at the time, it was very stressful to have someone so savvy be so certain I was ruining my chances of success. It all turned out to be okay, though, because as the other dot-coms were chasing dollars (dollars so big we couldn’t even imagine) we were plugging along building what was to become a culture and a foundation for all of animal welfare.
L+D: Who sponsors Petfinder.com today, keeping the services you provide free to the shelter network and also to the potential adopters using the site?
BBS: It is very important to us that we stay free to our members and adopters. Petfinder.com was acquired by Discovery Communications in 2006, and we are funded entirely from advertisements and sponsorships, by a variety of wonderful organizations including our exclusive sponsors BISSELL Homecare, Inc., PETCO, The Animal Rescue Site, PetFirst Healthcare, and Merial. Some of these guys are old friends and have been with Petfinder from the early years.
BBS: We do as much as we can to help our shelter and rescue group members continue saving lives. In addition to hosting the adoptable pet photos, videos, and Pet Details on our website, we often launch campaigns specifically to increase adoptions. Most recently, we kicked off Adopt-A-Less-Adoptable Pet Week this past September with the campaign, “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m (____), Adopt Me Because I Need You” to shed light on how often people unconsciously judge or discriminate against certain pets when looking to adopt. In July, we hosted our first-ever on-the-ground “Big Birthday Adoption Event” where more than 1,500 shelters and rescue groups participated by holding events in their areas. We found homes for more than 15,700 adoptable pets in just three days.
L+D: How many animals has Petfinder helped to adopt?
BBS: This year is Petfinder’s 15th birthday, and we are proud to have found forever homes for more than 17 million pets over the years. To be a part of this – so many pets’ lives saved and so many human lives enhanced – and to work with so many dedicated people in animal welfare, is truly a gift.
L+D: Tell us about some of the special weeks and months that you facilitate.
BBS: We spend a lot of time dedicated to recognizing and focusing attention on different types of adoptable pets so that we can help increase awareness and drive adoptions. This year in particular was a big one for us as we celebrated our 15th birthday. In March, we held a very successful online program called “Help Petfinder Adopt the Internet Day” so that everywhere you turned on March 15 you would see adoptable pets. As I mentioned earlier we held the Big Birthday Adoption Event in July as well. We also always celebrate special designated months, such as Adopt-A-Shelter-Cat Month in June, Adopt-A-Shelter-Dog Month in October, and Adopt-A-Senior-Pet Month in November.
These days, we’re also working to make sure that once pets are adopted they are really part of the family and have truly found their fur-ever homes. A relatively newly launched FurKeeps program has been one of our recent focuses, which is an initiative to arm pet parents with the tools they need to make sure an adoption lasts forever. There are a few key components: ChipFurKeeps (helping educate pet parents about microchipping), Insure FurKeeps (our pet insurance program with PetFirst) and Train FurKeeps, which we launched in January. You can learn more at www.petfinder.com/furkeeps. We are currently in the midst of planning our big initiatives for 2012, so stay tuned – you won’t want to miss it.
L+D: How important is fostering to the success of the shelter system?
BBS: Fostering is so important; I can’t emphasize it enough. Not only does it make more room in shelters, it’s also a great way to learn more about what type of pet fits with your lifestyle the best. That’s why Petfinder.com has an annual program each December called “Foster a Lonely Pet for the Holidays,” which allows families to give pets a warm, loving home just for the holiday season. In November you can visit www.petfinder.com/fosteralonelypet to find a participating shelter or rescue group near you.
L+D: What are some ways someone can help homeless pets if they do not have space in their home to foster or adopt?
BBS: I know people are always surprised by my answer to this. Getting the pets out of the shelter is the goal, but we really need support for them while they are still there. The big deal at shelters is that the pets there are so often bored (and stressed) out of their minds. Literally. The stress associated with losing your family and freedom and being confined in an unfamiliar, sometimes scary place can cause severe depression and increase illness. So one of my favorite ways to help is to just show up and exercise their minds. Learning a new trick will tire-out a dog or cat much faster than physical exercise, so in one lunch hour, you can help three or four animals cope with their situations. Simple tricks like high-five are good brain builders (and energy releasers) for cats and dogs. Teaching a dog to sit whenever he sees someone holding a leash might get him adopted faster. Believe it or not, this sort of mental exercise can mean the difference between life and death for a shelter pet.
L+D: What are some challenges either Petfinder or participating shelters may face in a tougher economic climate?
BBS: During these tough economic times, the adoption community has been hit with a triple whammy… people have been more reticent to part with their money, so donations have fallen; adoptions have slowed as people became uncertain about their futures; and more pets have been relinquished to shelters in the communities where lots of folks have lost their homes. Now it seems like there is a fourth issue emerging – after a few years of cuts, municipal and county budgets remain tight. While most adoption groups rely primarily on private donations, many shelters exist solely on public budgets. They are in the position of doing more with less and they didn’t have a lot to begin with. Of course, if there is a silver lining – it could be that we’ll see volunteerism increase. We know that many people are out of work or have had hours cut. I hope they are volunteering at their local shelters.
(Note: A Petfinder.com survey from 2009 found that 84 percent of shelters and rescue groups were reporting pet surrenders because of the economic downturn, foreclosures, and/or job losses. The survey also revealed that 37 percent of shelters and rescue groups have seen a decrease in pet adoptions because of the economy.)
L+D: Where do you see Petfinder.com in the next 15 years?
BBS: Though we have come very far, I sometimes think the toughest challenges lie ahead. With our success, we have broadened our definition of who gets to be saved. Now shelters are tackling even the most challenging of medical and behavior issues. At the same time, in many communities, pets have won a higher place in our family structure – they are full-fledged family members, no longer consigned to the back yard or linoleum floor. We’ve increased our standards all the way around and this means that even though we will have fewer pets to save, our efforts will need to be smarter, more focused, and more aggressive. This year, almost 4 million pets will be euthanized, so we have plenty of work ahead. It is the type of challenge that excites me.
I think much of the work to be done is going to come not from professionals, but from individual animal lovers. Keeping pets from entering the shelter (keeping them in their homes) is going to be a huge focus over the next 15 years. I’m constantly on the hunt for partners and resources that I believe will forge the way for pets as permanent family members. Here are a few of the things I think will make the difference: great training tools, pet insurance that focuses on wellness and training (check out my favorite, PetFirst), microchip registration renewal incentives (check out petfinder.com/furkeeps), and Thundershirt, one of the coolest new items for anxious dogs. The list is growing every week. Last week I saw the prototype for a GPS locator for a pet that is finally the right size and weight to be practical. Love it. Can’t wait to get one. These are the types of things that will help pets stay in homes.
L+D: What have your dogs taught you in life?
BBS: Two big things stand out. First, I think dogs have taught me how precious unconditional love is, but also how easily we can become biased by strong associations. I have a new pooch who drags himself over so reluctantly when he hears the word “come,” that I can only guess that someone who knew him before I did regularly used “come” to precede something unpleasant to him (like being put back on the leash after an illicit freedom run) but never made “come” deliciously exciting. I wonder how many things we ourselves approach with dread or excitement just based on some random association. Are we able to differentiate? It is curious enough to me that I’ve begun to be a lot more aware of what associations I may be building amongst my other animals, my step-kids, and my friends.
Second, I think all of us pet parents are incredibly influenced by our dogs. It is hard to take myself too seriously with an adolescent dog around. With a strong, healthy best friend in my life I tend to get more exercise and feel safer – more rooted. My old (very old), loyal pooch is so full of love and acceptance for me it is hard not to mirror his good influence with others. I want to deserve his loyalty.
L+D: What is your favorite memory of your dogs?
BBS: As an adult my first dog was Max, a shepherdy-huskyish guy. Max redefined pet parenthood for me. And it was the untenable thought of many Maxes in shelters across the country that fueled my compulsion to grow Petfinder into what it is today. He used to have this move where he’d quietly get into our bed when it was time to go for his Sunday morning excursion, and wake me up by standing over me in bed, his expectant, eager face about six inches from mine, and chuff. Not a bark or a whine, but a chuff that said, “Hey. The sun us up. Let’s get the show on the road.” I’d wake up to that expectant, happy face so close his nose was out of focus. When he passed away, a friend had a painting made of him with this same expectant expression. It hangs on my wall just outside my bedroom so it is the first thing I see every morning before I start the day.
L+D: What is your favorite memory of any animal in your past?
BBS: I just don’t know how to choose between them. A fun time was picking up my sheep, Angus and his goaty girlfriend, Macie. I drove them home through central New Jersey in my Ford Explorer. We transferred them from a rescuer’s farm truck to my SUV in a fast-food parking lot along the Parkway. Angus rode like a dog, with his head between the two front seats, looking out the front windshield. We got some pretty funny second looks at the stop lights. I had this overwhelming sense that they knew things were going to be okay. They seemed ready for an adventure together, and we all liked each other right away.
L+D: Do you have a favorite dog-related quotation?
BBS: Oh yes. Henry David Thoreau’s “When a dog runs at you, whistle for him.”
L+D: If you could describe your relationship with your dogs in just a few words, what would they be?
BBS: My dogs are at once heart-healing and heart-breaking.
L+D: What is your favorite thing about dogs?
BBS: Dogs greet us first when we walk in the door, they love us almost unconditionally, and they help get us outside of ourselves – which is all very healthy. I think it’s amazing how dogs can sense when something is wrong and intuitively know to get help. We hear so many times that a person adopted a dog to help save its life and it ended up being that the dog saved her or him in some way. One of my favorite adoption stories from Petfinder is one of our adopters wrote and told us just after adoption that their brand new pooch woke them up in the middle of the night and poked and barked at them until they followed her into their infant child’s room. The child had stopped breathing. The new dog had saved her life. We can learn a thing or two about what family means from dogs if we open our hearts and minds to letting them be part of ours.
L+D: How have your dogs changed your life?
BBS: Pets play such an important role in our lives. For me personally, all my pets, including my dogs, have helped give me a rich perspective on life and remind me what’s most important. Like laughter and play. But practically, I guess dogs have mostly changed my life because the injustice suffered by dogs (and all homeless pets) led me to create Petfinder. After over 15 years, it still gives me goose bumps when I think about what we accomplish each day – introducing new families to each other. I can’t imagine more fulfilling work. And it is fundamentally the love of a dog that fueled it.
L+D: Do you have a favorite animal welfare organization?
BBS: This is a trick question, right? Who could choose just one?
I think everyone should support his or her local shelter and treat it like a favorite. Walk its dogs, attend its charity gigs, and “like” its Petfinder posted pets on Facebook.
I’m on the board of two national companion animal organizations. One is the Petfinder.com Foundation, which fosters proactive, forward-thinking programs that increase adoptions. The other is the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs, a group that stimulates good science and advancement in the field of non-surgical spay/neuter. Both of these are very future-focused, which I like.
As for animal welfare in general, I’m a big fan of those groups that are working to make the lives of farm animals richer. And I’m an annual supporter of Bat Conservation International. It probably seems weird to a lot of people… but just look at bats! They look like little dogs with wings. Who wouldn’t support little dogs with wings?
To learn more about Petfinder and the adoption and animal resources they provide, visit www.petfinder.com.
This article was written by LIFE+DOG editor Ryan Rice.
To read more from Ryan, visit his blog on our site.