There’s always a positive outcome for an animal that comes through our doors.




Erin Olsen

Director of Operations, Kaua‘i Humane Society


This was definitely not the career path that I had planned or knew that I would be taking. I had graduated from college with a bachelor of arts, emphasis in marketing, minor in French. Out of college I got involved in study abroad programs; I was going to different campuses and talking to students about going abroad and in 2008 when the economy tanked, I got laid off. I had some free time and decided to start volunteering with my local nonprofit organization in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I’m from. That organization is Best Friends Animal Society. They had a small program in Salt Lake City and they have a large animal sanctuary in southern Utah – 22,000 acres of land with horses and pigs and dogs and cats and parrots and bunnies. I got involved with them in Salt Lake and basically volunteered full time. I was on a fundraising committee, I was at a kennel space they had for dogs that didn’t have foster homes. I had three shifts a week cleaning, medicating, exercising the animals. I was at every adoption event every weekend at the local PetSmarts. After about eight months of that, a position opened for employment with them and they said, “You’re a shoo-in, you know exactly what we’re doing here,” so I took the job. Twelve years later, my entire world is in a place I would not have imagined!


I recognized that nonprofit work, especially doing things to better the lives of animals, is so incredibly rewarding that I just got hooked. And I happened to get hooked with an organization that had a lot of opportunity for growth. I was in Salt Lake City for five years and then I moved to Los Angeles with Best Friends and had a couple different amazing opportunities. They started me in an LA city shelter as sort of a consultation-type role. I wasn’t employed with LA Animal Services, I was just there as a Best Friends representative to help where they needed me. Maybe build the volunteer program or help boost adoptions, whatever I could do that would be helpful for life saving. That was really incredible to plop down in a giant city in a giant shelter and start to learn how those types of facilities are run. The LA Animal Services system has six different shelters; that city is so gigantic.


My first month alone in that shelter, the adoptions went up 15%. I was there for about eight months and they started to expand the idea of that program and they had me hire a couple of other employees to embed in other city shelters. We started to build that and then I had an opportunity to step into an interim manager role with the No-Kill Los Angeles Pet Adoption Center. It was run by Best Friends so it sort of tied in to what I’d been doing, but in a whole new format in an adoption center that I got to be in charge of. That really skyrocketed this manager/operations system that I had been starting to learn. Those were some big opportunities and I learned a lot and I had incredible mentors.


LA was really where I did a lot of my growing. I was there for about four years when I heard about an opportunity for a fellowship. Another big name in animal welfare is Maddie’s Fund. Maddie’s Fund does a lot of funding and scholarship and internship and fellowship opportunities for people who want to learn more and grow more in animal welfare roles. This fellowship was an opportunity to go train and work under an animal services director of a big shelter in Tucson, Arizona. It was a nationwide application process; I think there were about 130 applicants and I was one of three that were chosen. I moved to Tucson and I worked under Kristen Hassen who is a pretty well-known name in animal welfare. They take in about 20,000 animals a year and they save about 95% to 97%: what we call a no-kill shelter, so they’re able to find positive outcomes for almost every animal that comes through their doors. That was an amazing learning opportunity; it kind of feels like going back to school in a way, but you’re still part of the workforce and you’re learning about how a municipal government shelter runs their budget and works with the city council. The entire time Kristen would tell us, the fellows, “You should already be running a shelter and you need to already be looking for jobs.”


About eight months into the fellowship I went to another training, a masterclass in life saving in Austin and I met the Executive Director of Kaua‘i Humane Society. You’re in this crash course training with other animal welfare professionals and we go around the room explaining what we do, who we are, so I was kind of pitching myself, “Hey, I’m actually on the market for a job so keep that in mind!” Three days into this workshop, this Executive Director and I get put together in a group for an activity and she says, “I’m going to be looking for a Director of Operations for the Kaua‘i Humane Society, would you be interested?” And I said, “Kaua‘i sounds great… I’ve never been there but I’m open to going anywhere so keep me in mind, let’s talk.” I went back to Tucson and things got busy and I didn’t really keep an eye out for that job posting and so she reached out to me and said, “The job is posted, here’s the description, let me know if you want to talk.” We started taking in January of 2020 and I had them fly me out here in late February so I could see this little island that I was thinking about moving to. I was out here visiting the weekend that COVID-19 became a thing and we started seeing stories on the news. I realized that as I was considering different roles across the country things were rapidly changing and wherever I did move I wasn’t going to be able to do a whole lot outside of work for a while. So Kaua‘i sounded pretty exciting! I accepted the job and started making the plans to move here and airlines were still allowing emotional support animals to fly on the plane so I got all of the ducks in a row to move my dog with me and May 1, 2020, we landed on Kaua‘i and did our 14-day quarantine and it’s been almost two years now.


A lot of times when I give people my title, they think I’m the head honcho, which is not true! We have an Executive Director, and then we have the Director of Operations. My role is to oversee everything going on, on the ground here at the shelter. I have a manager over customer service, a manager over animal care and the humane officers – field services. The medical team, the vet and all of our vet techs. The direct release department that does the incoming pets to the islands. Animal programs, who’s over the foster program, behavior and enrichment for the animals. The transfer of animals to the different rescue groups. All of those managers report to me and I’m overseeing all of those daily operations, medical, animal care, customer service, foster, all of those programs that help give our animals all of those positive outcomes. That’s why I’m grateful for all of the other experiences that I’ve had because it’s not something that you can learn in a couple of weeks. And I’ll be asked to wear other hats: I’ve had to do some HR/hiring stuff, I’ve had to learn our new IT phone system, right now I’m leading our changeover to a different shelter software... I didn’t learn any of this in college. But it’s exciting, I get to keep learning new things.

 

There isn’t a typical day. An animal shelter in general has so many different moving parts that you just have to be ready for anything. Adaptability is the number one trait to have because your day might start with a really horrific emergency or something really strange that you’ve never experienced that you have to try and solve. It’s such a variety of different scenarios. We take in strays that are coming from a variety of situations. We provide some end-of-life services, so sometimes people’s pets are coming in in pretty rough shape and we have to help the family say goodbye. We’ve got visitors – we’re such a tourist destination, so we’ve got expectations from visitors from all over the world to balance on top of that stressed out stray that’s coming in or that emotionally drained family that’s making a really tough decision and there’s all three of those things in the lobby your first day back from your weekend. All of these different levels of emotions and situations and trying to decide how to prioritize those things. You’ve also got somebody who’s here to volunteer but they showed up in flip flops… yes, we live on Kaua‘i and people wear those shoes but when you volunteer you’ve got to wear closed-toe shoes. The smallest details to some of the biggest emergencies on any given day and in any particular order… and balancing it day in and day out. But I think the beauty is that you can turn around and you’ve got a little baby kitten that you can hold and comfort or a big goofy puppy that you can go out in the yard and play with and that helps keep everything in perspective.


We do take in owner-surrendered pets as well so if someone is facing a situation where they can no longer keep their pet, we will take those. We try to help find other resources before it comes to that point, so we have a pet food bank for people who just need some assistance, something as simple as that. Some emergency boarding funds if they have an emergency and need a place for their pet for a week or two.


Sometimes they’ll bring us an animal that they saw get hit by a car and if it’s to the point where the spine is severed and it cannot be repaired, the most humane thing we can do is end the animal’s suffering. That’s why when you hear a term like “no-kill” and that 90% number that’s associated with it, that is to account for that other 10% that are those cases, and it’s usually less than 10%. But there are going to be those cases where an animal has been battling cancer to the point where it’s time. So owner-requested euthanasia is something that we provide if it is indeed appropriate. Every now and again – and it’s very, very rare – a dangerous behavior situation is necessary but I can count maybe two cases in my almost two years where it was truly a danger-to-the-public type situation. It’s almost always a really intense medical situation. But otherwise, there’s always a positive outcome for an animal that comes through our doors. People want to adopt. People foster and find adopters on their own, we have those rescues on the mainland who have really successful programs and people who want to adopt that cute unique hound from Kaua‘i.

 

To transfer an animal from Hawai‘i, there’s a lot less required than to come in [to Hawai‘i]. Because we don’t actually have to vaccinate for rabies on the island since it doesn’t exist here. Of course, flying an animal to the mainland, they want a rabies vaccine for the animal so we’ll give them that. Really they just need a health certificate that gives them an overall health guarantee and a form that their vaccines are up to date and flea treatment. If the rescue partner would like them to be already spayed and neutered, we’ll have that done. Then it’s just the logistics of the flight: which airline will let us fly our animals, how many animals will they let us put in a crate. If we have a litter of three or four kittens, they’re very comfortable in a crate; some airlines won’t let you put four kittens in a crate, they’ll let you put one kitten in a crate. It’s getting through those different rules for the different airlines and then booking the flights and competing with people that might be flying their own pets because airlines would much rather prioritize people who have a human booking a ticket versus us just booking an animal in a crate. They do fly in cargo and it is safe and pressure controlled and all of those things. We’ve done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of transfers.


I think a lot of people don’t realize how unique and special it is that Hawai‘i does not have any recorded instances of rabies disease. Because of that, to bring an animal from any other part of the world, Hawai‘i has a very large list of requirements to ensure that your animal is not bringing rabies to these islands. It is very complicated: I have an employee that handles all of it, she’s a wealth of knowledge. Your pet has to go through a rabies titer test, which tests to see if there’s any level of rabies in their blood. You have to provide proof of two prior vaccinations of rabies. This is all to avoid your pet having to be quarantined. In years past, you simply had to have your pet sit in quarantine – for several months, sometimes. And now, this is how you would hopefully avoid that quarantine if your pet’s old enough to have been vaccinated twice for rabies, if that rabies titer test has the right level of nondetection of rabies, the forms that the animal quarantine station requires and the fee, the permit to fly your animal here with the right paperwork. You’re paying to have Hawai‘i process all of this and basically permit you to bring an animal in that has proven that it’s not bringing rabies with it. It’s quite an ordeal. These days you now have to battle with airlines on, “Will you fly my animal” and “Can it fly with me on the plane” and most of the time, that’s now “No.” Had it been even a year later, I would not have taken this job because my dog is blind and elderly and there’s no way I would put her in cargo on an airplane. We lucked out that she could be at my feet on the plane so we could come here. I joke that I moved here for her retirement! And now it’s true – she will retire here. She loves it.

 

For people in this community, there’s still a lot of historical belief that I love to help correct when I’m out there and I meet somebody who hasn’t been to the shelter in seven or eight years and doesn’t realize that we don’t euthanize the way they knew us to in the past. Helping to correct that history is important for the island – helping people understand what we do now, that we are that no-kill shelter that is able to have positive outcomes for animals. Understanding that you can bring an animal here to be helped and also that we’re going to ask you to be part of the solution: can you foster? Can you hang on to this animal if we’re full? Can we give you supplies to keep your pet? How can we help you keep the animal, if that’s the positive outcome? Or yes, that’s an animal that’s appropriate for us to take and help, but know that rarely is this animal going to be euthanized.


For people who don’t live in Hawai‘i – we actually have a lot of relationships with people who don’t live here. We have a lot of off-island adoptions. People who come and visit and take a dog on a field trip and then decide that they don’t want to leave that dog at the end of the day. We have opportunities to fly animals to homes in other states. Those people become lifelong donors, lifelong visitors, they come back on vacation and take more animals on field trips and tell their friends and family to go to Kaua‘i and take a dog on a field trip. It’s starting to pick up some national attention; we had an article in National Geographic within the past three or four months, and somebody who’s got a lot of followers on TikTok made a video about her experience taking a dog on a field trip and how you can do that, too. People are starting to realize it’s a thing. There are a lot of hiking trails that are dog-friendly, there are certain beaches that are dog-friendly, restaurants that are dog-friendly, so there are a lot of things that you can experience with the dog. It’s great, they get to get out of their kennel for the whole day and come back exhausted and happy.


Everyone I’m close to was actually worried about whether I would be happy living on Kaua‘i because it’s so small. It’s quite rural. I loved living in LA. I’m very much a big city person and an extrovert and I love live music so LA was a lot of fun for me. Tucson was an opportunity to downsize just a little bit and I think that was a good preparation. I have really come to love Kaua‘i and that slower pace and a better work-life balance. Learning to embrace a new culture and understand what this island’s history has been has been fascinating and fun for me and I am happy here. I’m proud of the work I’m doing here and I love the community that I’m in. I’m 100% happy representing Kaua‘i Humane Society and being a part of this island. Being present, that’s what I’m doing and I’m enjoying it.


Visit Kaua‘i Humane Society at:

https://kauaihumane.org/