Shelterluv Stories: Kristen Hassen-Auerbach, Pima Animal Care Center

Every day, the people of animal welfare display incredible acts of compassion that impact the lives of animals and humans alike. Kristen Hassen-Auerbach is the Director of Pima Animal Care Center in Tuscon, AZ.

Kristen Hassen-Auerbach

When Kristen Hassen-Auerbach was 19, she dropped out of college to pursue a career in animal welfare—but it wasn’t at all what she expected. The shelter had euthanized 90% of the animals that came in, totaling around 80 per day. The decision over whether or not to euthanize a particular animal was a simple one, too: if the animal didn’t come up to its kennel to greet you, it would be euthanized. “We were saving them only to end their lives,” she recalls. “Then one day, they killed my favorite dog. That’s when I had a total nervous breakdown and ran away. I didn’t want anything to do with animal welfare after that.”

With her career in animal welfare behind her, Hassen-Auerbach returned to college and graduated, earned her graduate degree, and started a new career in the parks system. “I loved my job and I loved my boss, Tawny Hammond. I remember the day that she called me into her office to tell me that she was leaving to run Fairfax County Animal Shelter and that she wanted me to come with her. She said that together, we’d save animals and I wouldn’t have to kill them anymore,” she says.

Feeling Empowered Again

Although Hassen-Auerbach still had some reservations about returning to animal welfare, Hammond’s refreshing leadership approach gave her a glimmer of hope. “On our first day at Fairfax, the staff brought Tawny the euthanasia list. But instead of just signing off on it, she said, ‘Nope, I’m not signing this. I want to meet every single animal on this list first.’ I was so disempowered up until then, but to see someone stand up for animals like that was life-changing. Tawny stopped treating animals as a herd and saw them as individuals.”

Together, Hassen-Auerbach and Hammond worked to make positive change, learning hard lessons along the way. It was at Fairfax County Animal Shelter where they met Carmela, a pit bull mix who was known for her easygoing and friendly personality. “She was the sweetest, happiest dog. We’d even take her to events because she was so well-behaved, but since she was a bully breed mix, we knew she’d be with us for a while,” says Hassen-Auerbach. 

Despite Carmela’s friendly nature, she and the other dogs at Fairfax County were required to undergo regular temperament testing, which involved moving a rubber hand in a kennel and noting how a dog would react to it as an indicator of its response to human touch. “Carmela always passed her temperament tests, but this one particular time, she just treated the rubber hand as a toy. She didn’t show any aggression towards it, just play behavior. We knew it was play behavior. But the kennel manager insisted that she be euthanized because she didn’t pass the temperament test—and she was. That’s when Tawny and I looked at each other and were like, ‘What on earth are we doing?’ Carmela’s story serves as a reminder that we can never take anything for granted, and that we should always trust our own instincts and speak up. We kept her collar for years. I actually think Tawny still has it,” she says. 

Kristen posing with an adoptable dog

A New Approach to Animal Welfare

Hassen-Auerbach has used her academic background to help her take a data-driven approach to animal welfare. “I studied marginalization, gentrification, and discrimination in housing in graduate school, which really slotted right into my approach to animal welfare,” she says. “In academia, we were taught to make decisions based on research and data, but in animal welfare, there was absolutely no research or data. It was just all thought and speculation on who should live and who should die. It just felt like total nonsense, and it was so subjective that it was actually inhumane. It caused the staff moral harm. That’s why I am committed to trying to understand how to make decisions based on data and encouraging others to do so too.”

As the Director of Pima Animal Care Center, Hassen-Auerbach’s job is to oversee all of the shelter’s field and sheltering services, using data as a compass to guide her approach. “We have 115 staff, 1,500 volunteer and foster caregivers, and countless community and rescue partners, and most of what I do is give our staff the ability to do amazing things,” she says. One of the most critical ways that she does that is by continually encouraging her team to come up with and try new ideas to get their animals into loving homes faster. A couple of recent examples are a popular drive-thru microchip event and a Midnight Muttness adoption event, which included waived adoption fees for all adoptions until midnight along with DJs, food trucks, raffles, and giveaways—and resulted in 93 adoptions. “Out of every five things we try, one of them sticks, and I’m totally okay with that. There’s never a week where we’re not trying something new. It doesn’t need to take a lot of resources to do it, but it does take an encouraging environment that’s open to change.”

Pima Animal Care Center’s Midnight Muttness event

Just this past week, Michele Figueroa, Director of Internal Operations at Pima Animal Care Center, shared a kennel with a long stay dog to experience what it’s really like to be at an animal shelter. The goal is to educate the public about the importance of placing dogs in foster homes to give them proper rest and time to decompress. “If we look at what foster care has done for child welfare in this country, it’s important to think about how we can do the same for animals. A shelter should be a waystation for animals and not a place that they stay in the long-term. We need to get rid of the idea that the shelter is where an animal stays for months or years,” says Hassen-Auerbach. “At Pima, the moment an animal arrives at our shelter, we advertise it. I believe that holding animals should be a thing of the past unless there’s a serious reason to do so, like a medical issue.”

Michele Figueroa with long-stay dog Tessa

Hassen-Auerbach is also passionate about motivating her staff to be productive and excited to come to the shelter by encouraging them to try new self-care practices. “Outside of work, I enjoy yoga, hiking, meditation, and cooking. That grounds me. So one of my goals for this year is to build in a monthly wellness activity for the staff, which I’m so excited about,” she says. 

Speaking About the Future of Animal Welfare

Hassen-Auerbach will be speaking on a variety of topics at the 2020 American Pets Alive! Conference in Austin, Texas (February 28 – March 1), including how organizations can carry the concept of no-kill into the future. “We’re still myopic about no-kill, and I want to expand the definition of it and connect it to other movements that are happening in society today, ” she says, including addressing racism and bias in animal welfare, connecting with homeless populations, and thinking about animal welfare for farmed animals. 

Kristen delivering a presentation on getting large and medium-sized dogs into foster homes

Another topic that Hassen-Auerbach will discuss is the role of shelter software as animal welfare looks toward the future. Along with Shelterluv’s founder and CEO Greg Lucas, Hassen-Auerbach will talk about how animal welfare organizations can keep track of their community outreach efforts through their shelter software, as opposed to simply just using shelter software to record intakes and outcomes. 

“The American Pets Alive Conference is wonderful because it doesn’t just focus on best practices, but next practices,” she says. “It’s a radically different experience, and the topics we cover come about because of a lot of conversations that national leaders are having. We want this to be a practical, meaningful, and aspirational conference—and one that every attendee will walk away from feeling inspired and empowered.”

She adds, “Companion animals are just that—companions. So at the end of the day, the human on the other end of the leash can’t be ignored when we’re looking at lifesaving.”