Episode 105 – Rory Adams

Rory Adams is the Content Manager for American Pets Alive! a Texas-based organization with a mission to end animal shelter related killing across the United States. His journey in the animal welfare industry started at just 15 years and he’s worked with some of the best in the industry! Rory’s areas of expertise and interest include systems learning for animal welfare, achieving live outcomes for animals with medical and behavioral challenges and the intersection between social justice and animal welfare. Listen in and learn his journey and see what American Pets Alive! has in store in the near future!

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Rory Adams is the executive director of Tucson Pets Alive, a nonprofit organization that helped to bring Tucson to know kill status in 2018. Previously, he served as the director of a small animal shelter that helps save pets at risk of being killed in the minuscule shelter. Rory also worked for Maddie’s Fund for several years in roles that include dog program coordinator and education specialist. He also developed the Maddie’s Apprenticeship and Fellowship programs to train shelter professionals on no-kill best practices.

 Hey, Rory. Thanks for coming on. Thanks so much for having me. Chris. I’m really excited to have you. I mean, you’ve got just such an interesting background. Why don’t you, why don’t you share with everybody kind of like what your story is and how you got into this? I was 15 and  I hounded my, uh, family veterinarian. So let me volunteer at her clinic, her private clinic. At first, she was really hesitant. She said, you know, we don’t have any, you know, any volunteers, we’re a private vet clinic. Sure. But after sort of, ah, hounding her even more, she let me volunteer. She finally said, Rory, stop, please. I know she was like, come in, you can clean some cages. So, I started cleaning cages and, you know, taking all the pets out for breaks and ended up having a full-time job there. And I started in classes at a community college so that I could have a full-time job at this vet clinic. So I worked 40 hours a week there, for a couple of years. And then when I went off to college, I majored in literature and community organizing. Still really missed the animal world, but got really into Social Justice. And, um, found a local animal sanctuary to volunteer at, where I took care of llamas and pigs and emus, which was incredible. Um, yeah, and then moved from there to getting really interested in food justice and, um, food systems and farmers markets and just the local food movement, in California. And reached the point with it, where it just wasn’t, it just wasn’t feeding me anymore, you know, in terms of like, yeah, it just wasn’t challenging me in the ways that I wanted to be challenged. I just felt like my heart wasn’t in it. And after doing some digging, just sort of realized like, I need to get back with animals in some way. So I applied for a job in a dog daycare. Really? Yeah, and I started working. I went from managing, you know, these farmers markets to working at a dog day. I just started out as a handler and eventually became the staff trainer, and, um, realized that we had all of these open kennels during different times, at this dog daycare, that house up to 150 animals. And during the day, sometimes we had 300 in daycare, for dog daycare. Wow, that’s a lot! Yeah. And so I started doing playgroups there and, you know, it was all playgroups and just learning about dog behavior and just getting really into it and thinking maybe I want to be a dog trainer. And then reached out to some local rescue organizations. This was in the Bay Area. Um, and started, and just asked them, do you need housing space? We have kennels and, you know, we’d love to house your animals. So of course, everybody was thrilled by this, and I started working closely with a couple of organizations, in particular. And we house anywhere from 15 to 20. We called them foster dogs at the time, um, in this program. And it was really cool because I just started seeing all of these dogs, you know, they were going home so quickly, because I would put things out in the lobby, like, you know, about the dogs and who they were bonded with. And people would adopt them if they were bonding with their pet or find a friend to adopt them. Kind of like a dating service almost. Rory’s, matching up with, with shelter animals. It was, and I didn’t realize that what I was doing was anything out of the ordinary, you know, just seemed really obvious to me. And we moved, you know, probably 150 animals through that program in eight months or something. Wow! Yeah, it seemed like a lot to me. And it also just brought this joy to the staff, you know, and it was just this great thing. I really want to encourage dog takers to sort of taking this on if they have space. Because it’s such an easy way to get your employees interested in rescue as well. And many of them went on, actually, if you go work at animal shelters as a kennel technician and different things. So that was exciting too, and we were socializing these pets in a way that they wouldn’t get socialized at most shelters. So that was great.

 And then Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days came along. And Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days from Maddie’s Fund, was a program where they worked with Bay Area rescues and it happened in a few different states. Um, and it was a 1 or 2-day event, where, um, Maddie’s Fund would compensate rescues and shelters per pet that were adopted out during that time. So people would just be scrambling to get involved and get all their pets bedded and ready. Um, and I had never heard about Maddie’s Fund before. I had started reading about animal rescue and all of this, and had found out about Austin Pets alive and Dr Ellen Jefferson and was sort of, like, enamored in this whole life-saving movement and just learning about no-kill and everything. And went to Maddie’s Pet Adoption Days and was just blown away by, it just felt right to me. And I was like, I need to figure out how to get… this needs to be my job. I needed to work. You found your people? Yeah, I found it, you know. And it was through this sort of strange, strange way, but… So I saw that Maddie’s Fund was hiring for a dog program coordinator, at that time. They had a rescue program that was taking medical and behavioral pets from the local shelter and putting them into foster homes. And we were collecting numbers and just doing, like a whole research project, around that and offering people resources and things. And so I applied. And I applied for a couple of other jobs. Wasn’t sure what Maddie’s Fund really even was at that point, you know, which seems so kind of funny to me now. And I remember going to the interview and just being like these are, these are my people, like, this is, this is where I wanna be. Started in that program, worked for Dr Sheila Ferguson. Who’s a veterinarian behaviorist and was able to get my dog training certification and just all of these amazing professional development opportunities through Maddie’s Fund. They just really let me grow. And I feel so thankful for the time that I spent there.

 So I was there for three years and my job changed and I moved over the education program. And we kept asking ourselves, how do we get more people learning best practices like, you know, that these lifesaving programs are out there. We know that people are having success in ending shelter killing their communities. You know. How do we teach people these? I had gone to this college where you do internships. You do five internships while you’re there. We need to get people into these shelters. They need to go to these high performing shelters and work. And I remember receiving sort of some pushback or like, shouldn’t the high performing leaders go to the shelters Right. Right. In reverse. The other way around. You know? And I was like, I don’t know. I think this is gonna work. We can maximize how many people can go. You know what I mean? They get to see the whole picture. They get to see Austin Pets Alive. Um, and so Maddie’s Fund said yes, let’s do it. You know, build a program. Pick some shelters, pick some classes. Um, and so I started traveling around the country and, um, talking to all of these people. And that’s when I personally took Austin Pets Alive and stayed there for a week and got to meet Dr. Jefferson and I was just enamored. And I remember being there and being like, this is I need to at some point, was happy at Maddie’s Fund, but I was like, I need to at some point work with these people. This is just so amazing and firing. So now that program has had, they’re working with seven shelters now. Over 1000 students have gone through, uh, still movin. All kinds of your idea. I mean, partially, you know, like we were all brainstorming and but it was like my baby, you know, just I put so much effort into it. We were only working with shelters that had a, you know, live release rate of 90%. So that people were going to shelters where they were just doing some of the best work in the country. So it’s really exciting, and I got to meet so many amazing people and learned so much. So there’s that program. And then I was also working on developing the fellowship program, which is in its second year.. And that’s a leadership program for people to be in, uh, in a shelter for a year with strong leaders learning how to, how to take what they are learning, on. Good. The idea is that they leave that program and go run a shelter. So they learn everything that they need to know to go run a shelter, at the end of a yes. That’s the thing about the Maddie’s Fellowship program. Pretty cool.

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 So now you’re with Maddie’s for how long? I was there for three years. Okay. It sounds like you accomplished a lot and really bonded with that team there and then decided that there is still something more for you. Yeah, I loved it. And I, you know, I really considered, I just, I respect and look up to everybody that Maddie’s Fund.  Just that experience was just so amazing for me, and I’m so thankful for it. They really let me grow there. Then you know, I started just feeling like I need to be more hands-on with animals. I really missed that piece of it. So I started working as a shelter Director at a small shelter here in Tucson. Okay. And I was there for a year and then started Tucson Pets Alive. Um, where we were pulling medical, pulling just from, um, animals with medical challenges and diseases, injuries and all this kind of thing. I’m into foster. And then, unfortunately, my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so I went and spent time with her. Um, and now I’m at American Pets Alive. Interesting.

So tell me, tell me more about you know, American Pets Alive and how that differs, I guess from the different cities, like I’ve heard of, you know, Dallas and Austin. And as you said, Tucson. So American Pets Alive is actually the educational arm of Austin Pets Alive. Austin has the, and Austin’s, the largest no-kill city in the nation, and has just been led by Austin Pets Alive and Dr. Owen Jefferson and Ryan Clinton are picks for Austin. Um and they have been doing this, you know, amazing life-saving work, working with advocates and just really making this a community effort in Austin. I mean, it’s such a huge part of the landscape. When you go there, it’s, it’s just so evident that everybody that you talk to, feels connected or has some connection with the animal shelter and life-saving, and it’s incredible. So American Pets Alive is the educational arm of that. So we offer resources and we host over 10 apprenticeship and masterclasses. Some have been led by people like Monica Frenden, who has just changed the landscape for, for cats in animal shelters. And, from San Antonio Pets Alive created one of the largest transport programs for large and medium dogs in the nation. And Dr. Owen Jefferson. And so you can go to Austin and learn directly from them and create these relationships. But, you know, continue after the courses are over. That’s really cool. So now it sounds like you’ve really found your sweet spot, right? So after Maddie’s Fund and now you kind of went, I can, I can stay in this community forever. Absolutely. I, I can’t imagine doing anything else and working for this organization that I believe in, just 100%, has been amazing.

 Um, and you know, we have our conference every year and planning the content for that. And working on what resources do people need? What do people still need to have access to? Yeah, well, I asked you that. Like, what do you see from your perspective? Meaning, you guys work with and talk with a lot of organizations and people. Are you noticing anything’ out there right now? Absolutely. I think data is a big one on, and that’s something else that I have been super interested in personally over the last few years. And it’s great to be able to do this in my work now. I think people are really struggling with understanding their data. There’re so many different, if you, you know if you just start trying to search on the internet, it’s so confusing to know which software systems to choose. Which report to pull and what statistics to make public. And, you know, we really encourage people to be transparent with all of their animal statistics. But I also encourage advocates to pull this information. Sure. Sometimes really hard to get just by asking, you know, what is the life saving, what is… what’s dying in your shelter? Uh, it’s really hard to get this information, but, you know, through public information or class, really digging, I’ve been able to just gather a lot of data that way and start looking at data trends. You know where are people sort of not like, where’s the disconnect, you know?

 So there’s two different ways that I think about how data can be useful. You know, there’s two different sort of types of data that I think are really, if you’re gonna dig into that at all, are sort of the most useful. And I think of them as macro and microdata. The macro data, you know, is the big picture, the live release rate. In order to get that you need all outcomes. It’s good to have intake, but it’s great to have all the outcomes. But you have to have all outcomes, and then you can compare your outcomes. You can get your life release rate through looking at this, you know, which tells you sort of where you are nationally, how close are you to being too any sort of benchmark that you’ve set for yourself. And then you can compare your outcomes to best practices and look at should we increase our adoption? Should we increase our transfer? And this is all coming from a method that Dr Jefferson has been using in Austin. Just digging into data and making decisions based off of what’s actually happening in your shelter. Yeah, sometimes I think there’s perceptions as to what’s happening, but the data doesn’t mind, right? It’s always gonna be objective. Right. And I think what’s so awesome about Dr. Jefferson’s Gap analysis is not only does it like, take the guessing out, but it gives you truly tangible places to start. And I think people are really overwhelmed you know, we pulled.

 So the other kind of data is microdata. We pull animal by animal and we suggest Dr. Jefferson suggests looking at January and June. And looking for, literally going through animal by animal, all of the reasons our animals died and what you can find there, are the solutions that you need. You know, you look and you see okay, ringworm cats are all dying, so we need a ringworm program. And then you can start looking into, how do I build a ringworm program? What do I need for that? You know, you didn’t come to APA and take a class, or you can find information online about how to start a ringworm program. And it’s all about setting goals and then continuously looking at this to see okay, what’s next? You know what is the next lowest hanging fruit? And you can move through all of these different programs and start implementing them. So I think data is really this thing. I think it’s quite scary for people. But I think if we could sort of like, switch how we’re thinking about this and, like, this is where the answers are. You know, every organization that is beating lifesaving is looking at their data to guide them to what’s next? No, you’re right. I think it is something that’s very scary. And oftentimes people are not sure how to collect it and, more importantly, what to do with it. And I really like the fact that which you guys are trying to do is to tie the data to here’s what your date is telling you, and here you go. Here’s the course. Here’s the solution. Here is the, you know, here’s the program that will help you to fix that. Exactly. And I think that people, I think there’s like two challenges that we see with people. You know, it’s like it’s really scary to look at just because it’s upsetting. I mean, it’s upsetting going through this data for me every time that I go through it. You know these are animal lives lost, but I’m looking at it. Looking through these records can be, it’s really upsetting, you know, it’s sad. We’re in a crisis and animals are dying that we have solutions for. So I think that’s really hard for folks.

 And I think there’s this other piece about transparency that we talk about a lot. People are really sort of maybe, I don’t know, scared about community reaction. But what we’re finding over and over, you know, and what Dr. Jefferson and Kristen Auerbach talk about is really, change is only gonna happen with groundswell and community outrage. And how do we take that and turn it into saying yes, the help, you know? And allowing for the community to see what’s going on so that they know what is going on and how they can help and where they can help and that this is a community issue Right. You know? So it’s I understand, but it’s scary, but I very much encourage people to make all of the information that they know about their animal shelter available because people have wonderful ideas and they want to help. We keep seeing that time and time again. People will step up from communities and help make these life-saving changes. No, I absolutely agree with you. I think it’s, It’s always interesting when people start looking around. There are lots of resources, there’s lots of people ready to help, and they just need to know how and what the, what the focus is. So having that data and having done a little of that analysis is a great place to start because you can say, look, hey, we’re really suffering, as you pointed out, like from ringworm. Well, let’s implement a program to solve that. Um, that’s a great thing that a volunteer could take on and lead the charge. Absolutely. You know, I mean, I think people respond so well to be these foster programs because it’s something that they can do themselves, you know, it’s you know, three years ago you look at where foster care was and we were in a place where only puppies and kittens were going to foster care. Now and you are, you rarely see foster programs at municipal shelters. Now, this has become a best practice, you know, and it’s part of this transparency piece. It’s part of telling your community, we need help and giving them away to help. And if you don’t yet know the way to help, asking them, we need help. We need solutions, you know, step up and people want to help animals. You know, I think there’s a lot of pride that comes from living in a community where your animals are treated well, where homeless animals are treated well. And I think that we’re starting to see a lot of connection between this and human services and pushing for intersections for these things and, it’s really incredible to see how animal sheltering is, really. It’s improving the quality of life, not just for pets, but for people. Yeah, definitely. They’re, those two are related.

 So, what does, what does the future look like for you? Where do you see yourself going on this? I am completely dedicated to American Pets Alive and figuring out how to continue to share all of the information that we know and have from Austin. And from all of Dr. Jefferson’s work and her team’s. So I’ll be at  American, I’ll be at American Pets Alive for a while. You know, right now, I’m really just focused. I’m focused on, um, figuring out how to get these resources in a place, where people can find them really easily and have all the answers to questions that they have. Yeah, I was gonna say that’s not a small, uh, that’s not a small task. There’s lots of information. And how do you, as you talked about, understand the trends and what are people looking for and then organize it so they can easily get it. Yeah, we have our conference, which is in February, and I think that’s a really great place to come if you wanna learn how to do it. Uh, we really focus on giving tools there, answering a lot of questions on, helping people figure out how to get through the roadblocks. And it’s a really inspiring conference, but it’s also very practical. Everything that we do at APA has a practical component on. It’s part of what I love about it. We don’t just say, Oh, yeah, This is, you know, this is how many ringworm cats were saved and, um, you know, it’s great. Like, this is how you do it. This is how the program started. These are the things that were hard. You know, these are the things we’ve learned, and this is how you do it cheaply. You know what I mean? Like, we’re very, very practical. So, um, this year at the conference, I’m really excited. Our conference theme is Redefining Animal Sheltering. We’re really focused on talking about fixing a broken system. About how the animal sheltering system is broken and was built on a foundation that was for killing stray dogs. So we’re trying to figure out, how do we heal her? How do we heal her movement? How do we get to a place where what we’re doing is a lifesaving and caring for every single animal that comes through your door? That’s where we’re at now. And the conference is in late February. You can find information on our website. Very cool. It sounds like you got a lot of things on your plate. Oh, yeah. That’s how I like it. That’s good. That’s good.

 You’ve come such a long way in a year and your journey has been so interesting and fascinating to hear, kind of how you got into this. I mean, Rory, was there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? I would encourage you all to go to our blog, um, and check out what we’re doing on there. We have a leadership group. Sort of came up with our new definition of, of no-kill. And I encourage people to look at that because there’s been a lot of confusion about what no-kill means and American Pets Alive defines that as, the belief that every pet who enters a shelter should receive urgent, individualized treatment and care with the goal of the live outcome. And I encourage people to dig into that and think about how that could be translated to lifesaving in your community. And we’re here to help you. You guys have a wealth of resources, and I know the conference will be another great opportunity for people to come, and I say learn more. So it’s been really fascinating just hearing your journey and all the wonderful things you’re doing. I really appreciate you coming on today Rory to talk to us. Thank you so much, Chris. I really appreciate the opportunity, and I hope that it’s helpful.

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