Kick Ass Director Q&A: Mara Hartsell, Rosenberg Animal Control and Shelter

January 16th, 2020

Mara Hartsell is the kind of leader we all hear about but rarely experience. In short, she’s a sponge– a lifelong learner. She stumbled into the animal sheltering industry less than a year ago and did what anyone should do when learning a new industry. She went seeking innovative education and found the Maddie’s Lifesaving Academy. Dr. Ellen Jefferson sat down for a question and answer session on what got Mara where she is today and how she’s transforming a small but high-kill shelter into a lifesaving one.

Mara Hartsell and Saber (current Rosenberg resident)

Dr. Ellen Jefferson: Mara, thanks for talking with me today. I have to say, I’ve been incredibly impressed with you ever since you crossed our radar and having you in my Maddie's® Lifesaving Leadership Master Class. You’re like an A++ student. The things you’ve done with your shelter in the short time you’ve joined it have been nothing short of inspiring. You’re the kind of leader I hope for every animal shelter in the nation to have.

How did you end up at Rosenberg Animal Control and Shelter and what has it been like for you to join this movement?

Mara: Thank you! This time last year, I was working in higher education and just moved to Houston. While I enjoyed my work with students and colleagues, I was driven to do something different in animal welfare. I felt ecstatic and “on-purpose” so to speak once I moved into this role.

Joining this movement has been incredibly rewarding, because I actively work toward a goal I’m passionate about. Movement leaders and advocates immediately welcomed me and offered their guidance. Nathan Winograd of the No Kill Advocacy Center, for example, has been incredibly generous with his time. Dr. Jefferson and Salise Shuttlesworth from Friends for Life have also been very helpful.

What were some of your fears or challenges in your position? How have you overcome them?

Mara: Once you make a commitment to No Kill, you have to figure out how to craft programs and services that work and serve as effective safety nets. Everything must be deconstructed and creatively re-assembled. Good programs take time to build, and we are still in the “building” stage with quite a few. During all of this, intake doesn’t stop, and you are constantly subjected to things that can throw you off course in such a fast-paced environment. So, in short, I think a major challenge is staying adaptable while tightly focusing on the vision you have for the future.

What has your philosophy been going into transforming this shelter?

Mara: Every animal who comes under our care receives individual consideration, because we believe that each life has value and deserves protection. (I’m also a fan of using “who” as opposed to “it” when referring to an animal.) This doesn’t change depending on how many dogs or cats we take in that day, how thinly spread we are, or how sick, underaged, injured, or unsocialized the individual animal appears. Even in cases where we are truly in over our heads, we convey that with honesty and transparency. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how that vulnerability would be received, but I’ve been surprised many times by an outside party’s willingness to intervene. You must ask for help when you need it.

Not even a month after I started, we had a small puppy who was afflicted with a mysterious illness named Maggie Moo. She crashed on a Saturday evening, at a time when most vet clinics are closed. Another staff member and I drove her to an emergency vet hospital to see what could be done. Her case was complicated, and she needed several days of intensive treatment and hospitalization to really have a chance. If we couldn’t proceed, euthanasia was their recommendation. The price tag was overwhelming. I took to Facebook, explained the situation, and listed the vet office’s direct contact information after they offered to accept donations over the phone once the post was shared. I wasn’t sure if we would get $5, but, boom, we received $2,000 overnight for her, plus multiple foster offers… So, in the end, Maggie Moo got all she needed, thanks to the generosity of strangers, and today she’s a happy, healthy, thriving family companion.

This story sticks with me because it’s a good reminder of how important it is to not allow your personal doubts, fears, or bouts of fatigue to infiltrate the work you’re doing. They came close to winning that night.

Many times, I’ve tried new things, failed, and tried more things to keep reaching a goal. Sometimes programs work and sometimes they don’t but I’ve learned something. What have been some of your failures and how have you used that failure to innovate?

Mara: I’ve learned the hard way that just because it’s a good idea in the abstract, that doesn’t mean it won’t fall apart during execution, or even before then in a later planning stage. Sometimes you get distracted or delayed and then lose crucial momentum. I still experience these moments and don’t expect them to fully stop at any point. You have to learn by doing, because there aren’t many studies out there on the results of Law & Order parody videos and their effects on adoption rates.

I think you’re destined for failure when you start to believe that you’ve hit a pinnacle of understanding or that you’re beyond reproach.

I always try to figure out which topics I’m ignorant of, and then I embark on research in that area to start making up for it. And as difficult as I’ve found it to process some feedback, it has been crucial to my development. Constructive criticism only makes you better if you use it.

What are you most proud of accomplishing since being in this role?

Mara: Since I’ve been in my role, our shelter’s average monthly Live Release Rate, counting all noses in and noses out, has been 94%. I remember hearing arguments that it would be impossible for our shelter to hit even 90% in two years because of x, y, z factor or resource limitation. This kind of performance is possible with principles and dedication, and I think we can do even better as time goes on. Our staff and volunteer team, along with our broader community, want this to happen.

What are three things you hope to accomplish or change in 2020?

Mara: I’m currently putting together a TNR pilot program, a behavior program, and a play yard expansion project. Each of these is very important to me because they all have their roles in life-saving. With the latter two, I hope to crystallize the notion that enrichment is an integral part of this. It is worthwhile to set up conditions in the shelter where animals can experience joy and as much freedom from stress as we can give them so they leave us well-adjusted and ready for positive new chapters in their lives. The TNR pilot and new play yards will hopefully be ready to launch this spring, and the behavior program will continue to be a work in progress given the wealth of information available on behavior rehabilitation and the room we have to grow.

What do you think new leaders need to know going into a job like yours?

Mara: You must become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Change and ambiguity are present at all times - it’s not like a structured academic setting! Challenging convention is what initiated this movement, so you must be the one who asks, “Can we do it this way instead, and then turn that upside down?” quite often. 

With many possibilities in front of you, and knowing the difference you’re capable of making, it’s exciting to be an agent.

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