Shelterluv Stories: Mike Warner, Regional Center for Animal Care & Protection (RCACP)

Every day, our customers display incredible acts of compassion that impact the lives of animals and humans alike. Mike Warner is the Executive Director at Regional Center for Animal Care & Protection (RCACP).

Mike and a Boxer puppy

After over 34 years of service with the Roanoke County Police Department, including running Roanoke County Animal Control and the county jail, Mike Warner was looking forward to enjoying his retirement. That is, until he got a call from the county human resources department.

“They asked me if I’d be interested in serving as the interim director for the Regional Center for Animal Care & Protection for six months. I figured it’d be a nice way to pick up some extra money, so I said, ‘Why not?’”

Two and a half years later, Warner remains at RCACP, where he has relied on his diverse career background to help him navigate the unique challenges of, and opportunities with, working in animal welfare. “I managed a jail with 150 inmates, making sure that they got their medications and managing the dietician on staff, among other things. In that sense, it’s almost the same as running a shelter because you’re taking care of so many beings who are counting on you for their care. But inmates have voices, and they can write notes and complain when they’re unhappy with something. Dogs can’t do that. So you have to be one step ahead and make sure that the dogs are happy and their conditions are well-maintained.”

Staying One Step Ahead

Mike in front of the RCACP shelter building

In order to ensure the wellbeing of the animals at RCACP, Warner first called on his experience with budgeting, facility maintenance, and working with county human resources to set his staff up for success. He negotiated for pay raises early on. “Money doesn’t answer everything, but this is a thankless job, and when you’re paid less and not being thanked on top of everything else, it’s not the best feeling,” he says. 

Warner also used shelter data, which revealed an intake flow of 4,000 animals per year, to make a case to the county that RCACP needed a full-time veterinarian. In the one year since the shelter’s veterinarian joined the staff, RCACP has experienced a marked improvement in its medical operations.

The next critical step for Warner was rebuilding RCACP’s partnerships, which include Angels of Assisi, Roanoke Valley SPCA, and Franklin County Humane Society. “Once they started seeing some of the improvements at the shelter that proved that we were all about the animals, we’ve been able to build those partnerships up. It’s helped save some of our most at-risk animals.”

Resonating with Roanoke

Mike offering a treat to one of the RCACP dogs

Warner acknowledges that engaging with the greater Roanoke community hasn’t been without its challenges, especially given the location of the shelter. “We’re not centrally located or in an attractive mall-type area. We’re on a side road that nobody ever travels. People have lived here all their lives and still have no clue where we’re at. But it’s not easy to go to the county and request that we get a new building entirely, so we have to work with what we got.”

Being an open-intake shelter adds another layer of complexity to the issue. “We have evidence dogs, vicious dogs, and parts we can’t necessarily show to the community, which makes it hard sometimes. But with the places that we can show, we’ve done a lot to make it more user-friendly and encourage people to move through the space,” says Warner.

To further overcome these obstacles, Warner and his staff first identified the key issues affecting their animals, which were exercise and training. They then built out the shelter’s foster program among other successful initiatives to address their animals’ needs. These initiatives include the Roanoke Adventure Dogs program, through which community members can take a shelter dog out for a day-long field trip, and the Pillows and Paws sleepover program, which allows shelter dogs to spend a night at participants’ homes and decompress in a quiet environment. The shelter also holds a monthly reading program at the local library where children can read to, and play with, adoptable cats. 

When it comes to brainstorming new programs, Warner notes that he and his staff not only gauge the animals’ needs, but also the community’s needs. “We go with what really fits our needs here in Roanoke. What works for us may not work in other communities, and vice versa. We’re very mindful of that.”

Warner recently implemented RCACP’s inmate dog training program, which lets two inmates from the county jail come to the shelter to help train dogs four days a week. “This has helped with our adoption rate because people would come in and see that these dogs have been trained and already know their commands. It’s also amazing to have adopters come in and see the inmates actually working with the dogs out in the yard.”

The staff is also looking into rebranding RCACP, which includes giving the shelter a new name. The goal, Warner says, is to further heighten the community’s awareness of the shelter and its services. “We want people to come in and adopt some of our good dogs so that we don’t have to euthanize them.”

Supporting the Staff

According to Warner, one of the secrets to RCACP’s rapid success is having the right staff in place to meet the unique demands of working in animal welfare. “You need to be sincere about this job because it is not just a job. It’s a job of compassion and the care of the animals depends on you. You can’t just save a part of your tasks for another person. The animals depend on you to feed them, give them water, clean up after them, and walk them. My staff does a superb job, and I can’t say enough about them. They make my job as a leader easy.”

That unwavering dedication, however, can oftentimes be a double-edged sword. “It’s a struggle sometimes. We used to get a lot of negative comments on social media, which tears down our employees more than it tears down the building,” Warner explains. “The building is brick and mortar, but these employees invest their hearts and souls in these animals. They come in every day to clean, feed them, transport them, and then you have people who are spewing negative comments and have never even stepped foot in our building. I tell my staff to stay focused on the animals in the kennels because that’s the main reason why we’re here.”

To combat compassion fatigue and burnout, Warner encourages his staff members to openly acknowledge their emotions, both good and bad. “As a director, you have to recognize that there will be down days where we have to pick up and keep moving. We can’t just be ‘rah rah rah’ all the time—that’s not the right approach. There are days that someone will come in and drop off multiple dogs. For us, it’s very traumatic to take in that many animals at once. I always tell our staff that everyone has feelings and opinions, but when someone walks through that door, this is a no judgment zone. We don’t know what’s going on in their life, but we do know when the animal is here with us, it’s safe. So we just get together, recognize our frustration, and pull up our boots and move on. We don’t want negative feelings to ruin the rest of the day.”

RCACP has also found support through its robust volunteer program. Since forming last year, the shelter’s volunteer group, Friends of RCACP, has raised $12,000 for the shelter’s medical and dental programs. 

Breaking Down Barriers, One Dog at a Time

Although Warner was approached for the interim director job based on his three decades of service to his community, he also believes that it was simply fate. Right before county human resources reached out to him, Warner had just put down his beloved 15-year-old boxer, Lucy. “I grew up with boxers and have had seven in my lifetime. I thought it was a great opportunity—almost as if the Lord was speaking to me—to help out other dogs of all breeds after having just lost Lucy. It felt meant to be,” he says.

Lucy, right, relaxing with Mike’s daughter’s dog

Among the different dog breeds that Warner has had a chance to work with are bully breeds. “Pit bulls, in particular, get a really bad name, and unfairly so. I’ve been bitten three times during my time in animal control, and none of those bites ever even came from a pit bull. But we’ve been able to adopt out so many wonderful ones to families in our area, which is a great feeling.”

He adds, “It has been so much fun working here and implementing new things at the shelter. I love it. This work teaches you the importance of being compassionate towards animals and people.”