Animal Shelter of the Week: Episode 37 – Humane Society of West Michigan

The Humane Society of West Michigan opened its doors way back in 1883 by a group of citizens with the same concerns for animal welfare. This organization has the vision to build a healthy, safe, and compassionate community where all animals receive the care they deserve. With a dedicated staff of over 45 employees, they stand by their mission to promote the humane treatment and responsible care of animals in West Michigan through education, example, placement, and protection.


Welcome to the ARPA Animal Shelter of the Week podcast where we introduce you to incredible organizations around the country that are focused on helping animals. We’re proud to be sponsored by Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters, and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Let’s meet this week’s featured animal shelter.

The Humane Society of West Michigan was originally known as The Humane Society of Kent County which was first organized in 1883 by a group of people who shared the same concern about abused, neglected, and homeless animals. Over the years, this shelter has experienced high points as well as low points but they have always managed to come through on top. As the area’s leading animal welfare organization, they strive to make a difference in animals’ lives.

Hey Parker, welcome to the show. Hi. So you are the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Humane Society of West Michigan. And why don’t you just start us off and tell us a little bit about your organization and how you got started there? Yes, so Humane Society of West Michigan is a private animal shelter in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. I personally got started a few years ago. I interned in our Development Department, helping with events and fundraising. I then did a year at our front desk where I got to learn all about the adoptions and admitting and pretty much everything that goes on and then did recently start my new position about five months ago. Oh, wow, so you’ve kind of done everything. Yeah, okay. And wore many hats. Yeah, that’s great. What has been your favorite role, would you say? I did really like the front desk. I really liked interacting with our community and seeing the animals go home. But I also really love getting to manage the social media in my current position. Sure.

So can you kind of tell me about the community in your area? Are there any particular challenges for animals in Michigan? What does your community look like? We have a really great community, and I can’t speak for other organizations, but we have a very philanthropic community in the West Michigan area, so we’re able to fund raise quite a bit and rely on our community for help. It’s also a pretty Pit bull friendly area, which is awesome for placing animals. I know that that’s not the same around country. As far as challenges, I think we do see a lot of struggle in placing animals that might need to be the only pet in the home, because it’s such a great pet-loving community that everyone already has a pet. So it’s something we struggle with and then just combating, you know, stereotypes about animals or things like that. But otherwise we have a really great community. That’s awesome.

So I know you said that you are a pretty Pit bull friendly community. Do you guys not have—. Breed specific legislation? Yes, thank you. Yeah, yes the city of Grand Rapids does not have any breed specific legislation they are still allowed to have, like landlord housing restrictions, which is something that we do run into a little bit as far as placing animals. But we are seeing that a lot of them are trending towards being more accepting, or sometimes they’ll put in stipulations like if a dog, completes certain level of obedience classes, the way of restrictions. It’s definitely moving in the right direction. I’m in Colorado and we do have a lot of breed restriction here, so that’s a pretty different comparatively. Yeah.

So why don’t you tell us a little bit about some of the programs that your organization offers? I looked at your website and it looks like you have quite a few, so why don’t you just tell us about a few of them? So we have a lot of different programs that kind of chunked up. We have education programs, which are really booming right now, and those include our summer camps and like camps throughout the year as well. It’s just education programs for kids. So our Education Director, her name’s Ashley. She does a really great job running camps for over 300 kids every summer. She visits schools with her registered therapy dogs, kind of training on how to interact with animals and just teaching kids more about how animals think and behave and just making things safer for everybody. So that’s a really cool thing that I don’t think a lot of shelters can offer yet.

So when she teaches kids about service animals, is it like how to recognize them? How to approach them? Like, what are some things that she teaches the kids? So yes, she teaches just general animal polite approaching. So It’s not just service animals, pretty much any dog she teaches that you need to ask before you approach them and pet them when she like recognized body language. So if they’re not interested in interacting with you, you need to respect that. So just general safety that a lot of parents may not know to educate their kids on and just can promote responsible pet ownership for kids.

Are those the classroom visits for the youth camps? So she wraps that idea into everything the youth camps do kind of specialize a little bit more, depending on the children’s age or their interest. Okay. So for the younger kids, we just have general like animal info camps where they get to learn about all sorts of different things. When they get a little bit older, they can specialize. We have called Medium Mutts, where they make a music video that’s animal themed. That’s always really fun to see. And then there’s also a Vet camp where they get to actually go in and see surgeries and work with our vet tests and kind of learn more about that career field. I feel like I haven’t really talked to anyone who has something like that where kids can actually go see, like the career side. Yeah, I think that’s one of the coolest things we offer.

So then, just looking at your services it looks like you have obedience classes and seminars. Why don’t you talk a little bit about some of those? We have a really robust obedience class program. We have two main trainers and then a few like assistant trainer. So there’s a lot of one on one attention in the classes, and we do try to keep class sizes small. We have everything from basic puppy socialization classes to specialized classes for reactive dogs and shy dogs. Kind of making it easier for you to find the right fit for your animal. And then just general one on one courses, as well as courses that lead up to the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Certification.

It looks like you have something called Baby Ready Pet Seminar? Okay. Can you talk a little bit about that? That sounds like something really unique that you guys have, too. Yes. So we do that about twice a year, depending on interest. And a lot of people don’t realize that one of the reasons pets are often surrendered is because they aren’t adapting to a new child in the home. So baby ready pets is kind of a way to prepare the parents for that change and how it’s going to impact their animal. I mean, kind of, help them prepare their home and their pet for that big change. Then see signs of stress and things to adapt because we don’t want that pet to come into us just because of the new baby.

Do you have any recommendations just right now? Like if someone were to, you know, they’re bringing home a new baby. What are some things that you guys would teach them in that class? A lot of it is just exposing your animal to things early. So if you know you’re gonna be popping up a stroller and going with that, start doing that now you can start setting up your items and things. Just get the dog or cat or any pet used to seeing those things. Start acting like you have a baby. Just they might find these things weird, so the more that you can kind of expose them to it, the better.

Do you do anything with animals? I know you said that you have a problem with the one pet home where only one animal can be in the home. Do you have any classes or anything? You kind of talk about introducing animals together or bringing home another animal when you currently have one? Yeah, so we really, really stress good introductions between animals because we do see poor introductions as a reason for returns pretty frequently. So with every adoption, we have an adoption counselor kind of go over how to properly introduce an animal before they even meet with the animal they’re interested in, because we do want to build that foundation. So we do a pretty lengthy explanation on how to introduce dogs together. How to introduce cats, cats to dogs, et cetera. We’ll also do dog to dog meetings at our facility to try and show potential adopters how that would go. Yeah, I feel like when you bring home a new animal, it’s hard to adapt. Yes. And I feel like sometimes, like you said, it’s different depending whether you have a dog and a dog, or a dog and a cat, it can really depend on the situation.

So that’s cool that you guys offer something like that. Yeah, and we always stress it could take a while for things to settle down. Sure. I know sometimes animals may not meet well right away, but we always recommend giving it like, a week or two just to let them settle in and actually show their true personalities because they’re all stressed and confused. And you just want to let them work through that on their own. Yeah, definitely. I know I would be nervous if I was in some new territory, and I had no idea who’s around. No clue. So that makes total sense.

So what program would you say that you’re most proud of? Or that you like to tell people about when they ask you about your shelter? I would either say the camps just because they’re so unique. But it’s something that I would have liked to have done when I was a kid. And then we do also have quite a few resources for people in our community that may not be able to afford pet care or pet food. I think that those are extremely important. We have a food bank for people in our community. It’s called Kibble Connection, and that’s where people who qualify as low income. They can get food from us as long as they fit the requirements and that way that can prevent the animal from being surrendered to us. We do something similar with vaccinations and microchips and things like that.

Do these people just have to fill out like a form or something or like an application? And then, once they’re approved, they can come to the food bank? Or how does that process kind of work? Yes, so there is a paper application, and then they do have to just talk to our Outreach Coordinator just to kind of learn more about their situation, how long they expected the need to be just so we can be kind of familiar with the amount that we’re going to have to prepare. We do see a lot of food donated all the time, so we are usually pretty able to provide supplies. There are some rules, whereas you’re not allowed to adopt another animal while you’re on the program just to prevent further usage of it. But otherwise it’s a really, really cool program, and it’s not too difficult to apply and we’ll walk you through that. And if someone wants to join that program, do they just find the information on your website or where would they go to sign up for that? Yeah, so it’s on our website. Under services, and there’s a tab that’s low-income resources, and you can read about our Kibble Connection and the low-income vaccine clinics as well, there. So all the info is there as well as who to contact.

What events does the Humane Society of West Michigan put on. So we have three signature events that we do every year. One of them is new, and then we also do dozens of third party events every year. So our main signature events are a gala, which is called Paws, Claws and Corks, and that takes place in a large event space in Jonestown, Grand Rapids. It’s a little bit dressier, local restaurant sample food and beverages, and then we do a silent and live auction, so that raises quite a bit of money. We are a 100% donor-funded organization, so these events are critical in meeting our budget and kind of keeping the lights on, if you will. Sure. So that event raises—our goal is usually about $200,000 for that event, and a lot of people do look forward to it, that’s a little bit more corporate-driven. People by corporate tables and bring their company kind of for a night out. And then on the more casual side, we have Bark in the Dark, which we just completed last weekend, actually, and that is a 5K one mile fun run where people bring their dogs, they can just have a good time with dressing the dogs up in costumes, sampling things from vendors. We’re just partying in the park for that night.

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Great. So the Paws, Claws, and Corks, can anyone join that? Or is that, I know you said it’s more corporate-driven. So is that invitation only? Or how does that work? Anyone’s welcome to come to Paws, Claws, and Corks. The tickets are a little bit pricey because of the level of the event, so it may not be is accessible to everyone as our other events. Which is why we like to offer a variety. So tickets are usually about $100 but that does include samples from multiple restaurants, different beverages, participation in the auctions, you know, everything like that. Whereas Bark in the Dark is more affordable. It’s usually about a $35 price point for the race. All the goodies, the experience and things like that.

Let’s kind of switch gears and just talk a little bit about general adoption. Okay. So what is the process for that at your shelter? And kind of just walk me through the adoptions at the Humane Society of West Michigan. We always encourage people to just come in and take a look before they even fill out an application. Just to kind of get a feel for facility, kind of talk to our staff and answer any questions that they might have before they go through with filling out the paperwork. Once they are ready for that, there’s a simple survey that we have, it’s broken up by cat, dog, or small critter. So they fill that out either in person in our facility or they can do it online on our website. And that just gives us a general idea of what they’re looking for, what their home is like anything to be aware of, as far as, maybe their landlord restrictions, they have kids, or other pets, things that we need to know before trying to match make them. Once they complete that and they’re all checked in, we have them meet with an Adoption Counselor. Our Adoption Counselors are trained volunteers who really just wanna have a conversation. It’s not so much an interview as much as it is a general conversation to learn more about the adopter. And really, the goal is to find them the perfect match.

So while we do let people walk through the kennels or the cattery and see who they may be interested in, we also want to make recommendations based on what we know about the animals. Oh, that’s cool. I’ve met like most people, when they walk in there like, “oh, I’m gonna go and see a cat or a dog that I like.” But that’s interesting that you guys do recommendations based on that interview.

Do you guys just do cats and dogs or do you have small animals? What kind of animals do you guys have? Yes, so primarily, cats and dogs are our biggest areas, but we do have quite a few small critters. We did just create a designated small critter area to try and kind of boost up that part of our adoptions. We see quite a few rabbits come in. I mean, those are pretty popular. And then from time to time we are able to take guinea pigs, rats, mice and even occasionally, were pretty open to what we can take. It just depends on the staff resources needed and where we can house them. Sure. So people always ask if we can take birds. We usually can’t take birds just because of the high level of care required, but mainly small critters are what we can do.

And people can just walk into the shelter if they want to adopt, but do you feature the animals on your website? or is it kind of more of an in person thing? So we do have kind of a gallery of all of our animals on our website. If you go under, adopt and view adoptable animals, they are broken up by cat, dog, and small critter. Most of them we try to have pictures. Sometimes it’s hard because they come in and out so quickly, which is a good problem to have. But so when you go there, you can kind of click on a profile and it’ll show you like their age, their weight, their suspected breed and sometimes even a bio, if we have that. So that kind of gives you a little bit of an idea, but you’re never gonna know a lot until you come in and actually meet them.

So what would you say are the biggest challenges in your organization today? I think we are unable to help everyone, which is definitely a challenge. I think that every shelter can resonate with. We do have limited resources being, you know, 100% donor funded. We can’t rely on local government or things to help us out in times of need. So a lot of it comes down to managing or resources with this past kitten season this summer, definitely saw some struggle in keeping up with the need for formula and wet food and things like that. And so well, that is a struggle. We did see a lot of support from our community and then also just kind of getting people to understand why we do what we do is really important. I think kind of being more transparent is definitely something we’re working on.

I know you mentioned that you need a lot of donations like food. So is that something that people can donate to that food bank that you were talking about? Is that where you get most of your food donations and things that you guys need? So the food bank is designated or the people that are in that program then we do also accept food donations for general shelter use as well. Main difference is for our Kibble Connection Program, the food can be opened bags as long as it’s on the original packaging and not expired, so that could be used for that purpose. Otherwise it might go to waste, whereas for shelter use, it does have to be unopened. And we do kind of request certain types of food, especially for kittens, just to keep them healthy. But that all comes in the same way. And then we manually sort it out.

Do you have any memorable stories that you would like to share? Could be about an animal, just something that kind of reminds you why you do what you do I mean, I’m sure there’s a dozen, you know, I think everybody has. Their story is the one that comes to mind right away. It was a dog named Aurora. She was with us for such a long time at least a year. And she was in and out of foster. She was starting to develop some behavioral problems because she was so frustrated with her environment, where we were really starting to worry about her adoptability just because we didn’t know what was the right answer for her. She was a little bit older. She was a Pit bull type dog. So, you know, not the easiest case for us to move out. But she was very, very sweet. And once you took the time to get to know her, she was really incredible.

And we had this man walk in one day who had no idea what he wanted. He just wanted a dog. He’d gone through some pretty significant change in his life and really was looking for a dog to be stable. And in one way or another, we introduced him to Aurora, and right away she was listening to him. She was sitting, she was doing everything he asked, which was not an easy task for Aurora. And he just fell in love with her and he took her home and she is absolutely a different dog. She came to visit a few months ago. She was probably two times her weight in a good way. She’s chunky. She was happy. He sends his pictures all the time, and it’s really changed both of their lives. Whenever I’m like struggling a little bit, I do think about that because those stories are possible. Even with dogs like Aurora, that may not have found that somewhere else. Yeah, that’s awesome. That you mentioned that he still send you pictures of her. Yeah.

Do you have a lot of your adopters send you pictures of the animals? Or is that kind of a unique case where he decided to, you know, keep up? I mean, he took it above and beyond, which we’re really thankful for. He wrote a whole letter to us about her. But we do, we do do a follow-up email with every adopter, asking how things are going and asking for pictures if they’re willing to send them. So that kind of primes them to continue that conversation. Because we love seeing those things. And whenever I get, say, a picture through our Facebook or through you know different channels. I do like to share it with our staff that worked with that animal. And it is a really big morale booster. Yeah, I would say definitely, you know, seeing pictures of the animals that get forever homes must be so rewarding. It is. And yeah, I love to see that, too.

So what does the future look like for your organization? I know you said you have an event coming up. Do you have any other future plans or events that we should know about? Yeah.Yes, so we were planning already for the next Paws, Claws and Corks, which is in March. So that’s gonna take up a lot of my department’s time. But then general things we’re working on. We want to provide even more resources for people in the community that will serve as a way to prevent the animals from being admitted to us. So we’re not quite sure what that looks like yet, but we want to provide options as far as, you know, maybe expanding the Kibble Connection Program or different resources where we can point people so that they don’t feel that they have to surrender their pet and we want to give them more things to try. So we’re trying to create a new position with an organization that will be focused more directly on that aspect to just bring our, you know, admitting and return numbers down.

And then we also were just able to get an adoption trailer, which was sponsored by Pet Supplies Plus, which is a really cool new thing that we haven’t done before. So it’s a trailer with built in kennels and then it’s all climate controlled. Cool. And that means we’ll be able to take animals off site more easily and kind of be more scene in the community with adoptable animals as we do struggle a little bit with doing offsite adoption events because there’s only a few of us that can take animals in our company vehicles. So this trailer gives us a lot more options for us. Like more animals, we can bring dogs that need to be in a kennel, things like that. So it’s really cool. We’re looking forward to that. Yeah, that’s really cool. I think those out of shelter adoption sort is taking the animals out are so important because sometimes people can’t really see the true personality of an animal. Exactly. When it’s in a shelter and taking him out in the community gets more awareness. Let’s people see how they actually interact, you know around other people. And you know, so that’s awesome that you guys have that now.

Yeah, and kind of going off of that. We’re also working on a program where just anyone they don’t have to be a trained volunteer can come in and take some of our dogs out for the day to give them that out of shelter experience and kind of let them decompress a little bit. So that something that’s in the works and it’s gonna be more accessible because you won’t have to go through our volunteer training. You’ll just have to come in and kind of do a quick rundown on safety, and then you’re good to go. Yeah, that’s great.

So will those animals wear like a vest that say I say “adopt me,” or do people in the community know that these animals are for adoption or is it kind of just to get them out of the shelter? So we have bandannas that say, Adopt me with our logo on them. That’s what everybody wears. And then we do ask whoever’s taking them out to, you know, if people do ask about the dog, try and promote them as adoptable, take lots of pictures and share them with us and on their social media cause that’s really helpful. Nice.

So how can people get in touch with your organization? Is it best to contact through your website or email or phone? What’s the best way that they can engage with you guys? So I would always start with the website, which is that will answer most of your basic questions. You can view our adoptable animals, learn about our programs. If you do have questions, the best way to contact us is through our customer service department, and their email is They are pretty prompt in responding. They’re there every day that we’re open. But we also have a pretty active Facebook and Instagram account too, where we can be reached with lower priority needs.

Yeah, I was gonna ask you as well how much you guys use social media, and if that’s something that people can use to get a hold of you as well. We are using it now more than ever. We’re having a lot of fun trying to grow it. Our Facebook is doing really well and our Instagram is starting to take off a little bit, so we’re really, really excited about that. I think that social media for animal organizations is just really beneficial because it does provide that more personal look into the animals, whereas a picture in your website can’t provide that all the time. Yeah. We’ll post videos of animals or just different content that’s more relatable. People can engage with it more. So I definitely think that that’s something that we care a lot about.

Is there anything else that you would like to share before we wrap things up today? I don’t know. I think it’s really great that we were able to do this. I think just bringing general awareness to our organization is something that’s so valuable. If you’re ever interested in learning how you can help, please visit our website once again, that is a We’re always happy to talk to you and answer any questions you might have. Awesome. Well, Parker, thank you so much for joining me today. And I had a great time talking with you, and I learned so much about your organization. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

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