Tell us about you and your history in animal welfare.
I moved over 30 times before I was 18 years old, so it’s hard to say where I am from exactly. My mother was an activist and we traveled the globe from one commune to another chasing the next worthy cause and burning our toasters in protest of undersea mining along the way. It was never dull but sometimes always being the new kid got a little lonely. Luckily I found a best friend I could always count on in my big fluffy tortoiseshell cat Pussywillow. Where-ever we landed she would quickly find her spot as the ruler of our new domain. With her as my inspiration, I always thought animals would be part of life in some way, but it was in Santa Cruz, California, that I began my career in animal welfare. I took a job at the Santa Cruz SPCA because it paid well (a big $4.49 an hour, if memory serves, nearly a buck more than I was making at the coffee shop where I worked at the time) and I needed the funds to put myself through college. I suspect you probably don’t hear that all too often, but it’s the truth: I got into animal welfare for the money 🙂 I soon went from front office clerk to kennel attendant to animal control officer, a job I enjoyed more than I would have ever imagined. For six years I suited up in that khaki uniform and proudly displayed my badge. I loved that it was my job to protect animals and help people take better care of them. I loved it so much that I decided to go to vet school. I packed my bags (still have that uniform!) and headed to UC Davis.
After graduation I jumped right back in, taking a job as a shelter vet, where I would soon spend many days battling feline upper respiratory infection and other shelter ailments and wishing there were more of us to commiserate. It was a different world back then; Shelter Medicine wasn’t a thing yet and we didn’t have a lot of places to turn for help. There was no sheltermedicine.com or Maddie’s Pet Forum. For the few of us practicing veterinary care solo inside a shelter, it felt a bit like we were our own islands. When an opportunity presented itself (thanks to a grant from Maddie’s Fund, as it happens), I jumped at the chance to become the first Shelter Medicine resident in the world specializing in the field. I returned to my alma mater, UC Davis, and embarked on a journey I still can’t believe was mine to take.
There were so many discoveries to be made, a good number of them that have changed the way we shelter, that happened almost by chance during those years. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, ya know? Like the time I learned on a phone call with Dr. Ron Schultz at the University of Wisconsin that vaccines could provide protection within hours, not weeks as I had learned in vet school. I looked up the research for myself and sure enough it was true. Once we learned that an animal vaccinated before they were introduced to the shelter population could be protected in as little as hours, distemper plummeted. Who knew? Now we did!
Another happy finding was discovered while researching the variables that contribute to URI outbreaks. What we thought we might find on a culture plate, we found on the floor – floor space, to be precise. Discovering that inadequate housing and floor space led to increased levels of stress, the most common contributor to URI, shaped the next stage of our work. It turns out, to give cats more space, you have to find the right outcome for more cats. Otherwise the shelter fills up and soon doors between compartments get closed. A chance visit to the City of Jacksonville shelter around the time they started Feral Freedom (now known as Return to Field) provided the missing piece of the puzzle. It was like a collective AHA moment that grew into what became the Million Cat Challenge. Hopefully you all know about that!
There’s been a lot of great moments along the way, but maybe the very best one so far was when I got to stand up on a stage at the HSUS Expo in Kansas City last year and announce to a cheering crowd that collectively the Million Cat Challengers had increased life saving by 1,148,129 lives a whole year early. I think of what Pussywillow meant to me as a lonely kid and multiply that by over a million and it still blows my mind. Pussywillow, if you’re out there, I hope you’re purring right now.
Dr. Kate Hurley as an animal control officer with her beloved first dog, Stumpy!
What's an accomplishment that you're most proud of in your career?
This is like asking a cat which of her kittens she loves most – I just can’t pick one. So in no particular order:
- The ASV Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters went from a notion that Sandra Newbury and I, along with the other members of the ASV board, had been kicking around forever, to a reality that any shelter, anywhere, could turn to for expert guidance. I’ve lost count of how many languages it’s been translated into. Just yesterday we walked into another shelter that was using it as their guiding principle – that makes me so happy for the animals AND the staff who deserve to be able to provide that level of care.
- The textbook Infectious Disease Management which I co-edited with Lila Miller. I love thinking of shelter veterinarians having it to turn to, no longer having to feel as alone as I did in my first years as a shelter vet. And speaking of infectious disease, the next member of this litter of kittens would have to be….
- Our URI research project (paper published last year) led by Denae Wagner was an integral part of identifying the lifesaving impact of providing double compartment housing for cats. It led to Capacity for Care, portals (!!!) to retrofit existing cages to meet the new size guidelines, and, ultimately, as I mentioned, to the next kitten in this litter…
- The Million Cat Challenge. I’m proud of being one of the wild-eyed optimists who cooked up that little scheme along with co-founder Julie Levy. (A million cats? How hard could that be?) But I’m way more proud of the Million Cat Challengers that crushed that goal a whole year early. Talk about grit!
- Phew, I could go on and on – this is a big litter! I’m proud to have been on the organizing committee for the boarded specialty medicine, proud to have been part of developing the shelter management model of Capacity for Care and piloting it in partnership with Humane Canada, proud of the Capacity for Care “Bootcamp” our team just launched, proud of the Shelter Medicine Resource Center and Shelter Medicine Fellowship we operate in partnership with the team at University of Wisconsin….
- One thing you’ll notice though, is that there’s not one single thing I’ve accomplished alone. So I guess what I’m really proud of is this beautiful, determined, flawed, fearless community we are a part of. Little did I know where that job paying $4.49 an hour would lead!
Name something related to animal welfare that you're super passionate about and want others to learn?
I want others to believe in the lifesaving, shelter-elevating benefits of doing less, better – what we now call Capacity for Care.
When we place top priority on welfare and truly meet the animals’ needs, stress and disease nearly disappear. Healthy animals move through our system faster and improve morale universally. The entire system flows better and ultimately results in an expanded capacity.
Now, I know that sounds too good to be true. There’s a real fear that we are in this alone- the buck stops here- that keeps good people from their deserved sanity, sleep and peace. We share a constant worry that if we don’t solve for this right here and now, no one else will. But we do our animals a disservice when we operate outside our capacity and take on more than we should. We feed the continuous cycle of being overburdened and under resourced that creates barriers to reaching our ultimate goal as an animal sheltering community. Imagine if we all had permission to focus on providing excellent service and made room for our community and rescue partners to step in at the same elevated level we are able to demonstrate when we do less, better.
I want others, who haven’t already, to feel safe making that shift knowing their communities share their goals and have demonstrated over and over again that they are our partners. Start down that path and watch the pieces fall in place in a way that I’ve heard described as magic more than a dozen times. And let this community in the Pet Forum help you when you run into a roadblock.
Tell us something about yourself people might be surprised to learn.
I love to ballroom dance, I hate bananas enough to start a club, I’ve never lost a game of boggle, my cat is a one-eyed pirate (I guess that’s redundant), and there’s a decent chance I’ll knock on your door sometime during the next election.
Not surprising: I don’t love knocking on doors, but I like it more than the current political climate, and I’m still optimistic enough to believe that talking to people makes a difference.
Who is your animal welfare crush?
When it comes to shelter crushes, I’m definitely polyamorous. If you asked me this question 3 times this week you’d get 8 different answers.
That said, I have noticed I have a type. I am smitten with the shelter veterinarian or leader that doesn’t have the budget for the latest and greatest, doesn’t have permission to try something new, knows they’ll be taking some heat no matter what they do, and somehow still finds sheltering best practice resources and just gets after it and gets it done.
If you don’t want me crushing on you, never answer the question “Were you allowed to do that?” with “I don’t know, I never asked.”
Thank you for such a fun, in-depth interview and all of the amazing work you have done to literally help save a million+ animals!
Be sure to leave a comment or ask any questions for Dr. Kate Hurley below.