Introducing our readers to organizations doing outstanding work in the field of animal welfare is one of our priorities. The more we educate ourselves on the topic, the better we can all play a role in helping animals and their human parents. We recently had the unique opportunity to interview Matt Pepper, President and CEO of Michigan Humane.
Having served in the position for over eight years, Matt has led the organization to be a leading voice in animal welfare across the country. Matt looks at animal welfare from the holistic point of view of a community and reveals the tremendous opportunity to engage people in being part of the solution. We’re so excited to share this inspiring chat with you!
In this article, you’ll get to watch and read the interview to learn about the amazing work of Michigan Humane. You’ll also find out how you can engage your community in some of their successful tactics.
What Is Michigan Humane?
Michigan Humane is a nonprofit organization serving Metro Detroit. It’s the oldest and largest animal welfare organization in the state of Michigan. It started in 1877, as a Humane Society focused on workhorses as well as helping women and children get out of domestic violence. At that time, they helped remove children from dangerous situations and helped women find safe spaces. It wasn’t until 1925 that Michigan Humane opened its first animal shelter.
The history of Michigan Humane connects deeply with its mission today. As you’ll learn in the interview with Matt Pepper, he talks about how the organization focuses on both ends of the leash. An animal on one end and a human on the other. This philosophy brings together and builds diverse, inclusive, and humane communities.
Today, Michigan Humane has multiple locations throughout Metro Detroit. They’re the highest-volume animal shelter in Michigan and one of the largest in the Midwest.
MI Humane Shelters and Veterinary Centers
The organization’s flagship shelter is the Mackey Center for Animal Care in Detroit, Michigan. They also have one in nearby Westland and Wayne County. And they run four veterinary centers in the cites of Westland, Detroit, Rochester Hills, and Howell.
You can adopt pets from Michigan Humane’s shelters. And they also have a center for farm animal care at Abraham Ranch, which often has farm animals in need of a forever home.
Pet Food Pantry
Michigan Humane has a pet food pantry warehouse in Detroit, which they run with a food bank organization called Gleaners. It’s in a 26,000-square-foot warehouse where they distributed 1.7 million pounds of dog food to more than 10,000 families in 2022. People can also get human food here, and Michigan Humane has social workers on staff to work with families in need. Since a pet is only as healthy and safe as the family it lives with, the organization ensures both ends of the leash are addressed.
Investment in Future Veterinarians
Providing veterinary education in an effort to introduce more students to the career is very important to Michigan Humane. They partner with three area high schools to give internship opportunities to students. And they have a summer jobs program for pre-vet students to work with the organization for eight to ten weeks. In addition, they welcome between 15 and 20 fourth-year surgical externs from veterinary schools around the country.
Advocacy and Law Enforcement
Michigan Humane is invested in advocacy work and has a lawyer on staff to oversee these efforts. The attorney engages in lobbying to ensure laws and policies reflect how much our pets mean to us.
They also have a law enforcement team that handles animal cruelty calls. You may recognize them from Animal Planet’s TV show Animal Cops Detroit which aired in the early 2000s.
Michigan Humane also has a nationwide disaster response team. It’s one of three teams in the U.S. with Type 1 animal search and rescue responders, meaning they’re equipped to help with the worst situations. They’ve helped with hurricane response and more across the country.
Why Did Michigan Humane Rebrand from ‘Michigan Humane Society’?
Before getting to the entire interview, knowing why Michigan Humane dropped the word society from its name is important within the context of our conversation. I asked Matt about the rebranding during our interview. He told me they were the Humane Society until 1924. Then they were the Michigan Humane Society until 2021. Finally, they rebranded to Michigan Humane in 2021. He told me that there were three reasons for that.
Number one is the term “humane society,” which is a generic term. It doesn’t mean any interrelationship with another organization. It’s just a word for an animal welfare organization. The reason they were the Michigan Humane Society is it was the first and only one in the early 1900s. So, by rebranding to Michigan Humane, no other humane societies had the chance to confuse their name anymore.
The other two reasons why they got rid of “society” were more philosophical. One was the word society in and of itself. Matt Pepper told me that based on the conversations in the world recently about equity and inclusion, the word “society” just didn’t have the right mentality anymore. It felt exclusive, and that wasn’t what they were about. So, they dropped society from the name.
And the third reason is that while they do a lot of work with animals, they also significantly impact people’s lives. They work toward elevating human lives and connecting them to resources. So, the word humane and humanity isn’t limited to working with pets. It’s a word that extends into the lives of people as well. That’s why they’re now Michigan Humane. And their new logo is supposed to be abstract enough that you can see anything. You can see your pet or yourself in it.
An Interview with Matt Pepper, President and CEO of Michigan Humane
I sat down with Matt Pepper, President and CEO of Michigan Humane, for a virtual interview on April 3, 2023, to dig deeper into the organization’s mission and work. Hearing from Matt was inspirational and motivating. Let’s jump in!
Beginnings: What led you to Michigan Humane, and why did you get into the field of animal welfare?
Julie Slagter, Content Manager of Petrics: Matt, it’s good to see you, and thank you for doing this interview. What led you to Michigan Humane, and why did you get into the field of animal welfare?
Matt Pepper, President and CEO of Michigan Humane: I graduated from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, with a degree in wildlife biology. And I actually started by pursuing a degree in advertising and public relations but realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’ve always been passionate about working with pets and the bond we share with them. So, I switched my degree to wildlife biology. And I’ve never left the field.
I started my career in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during summers when I worked for the Humane Society of Kenosha County in college. After that, I was an animal cruelty investigator for the Humane Society of Kent County in Michigan, which is now called the Humane Society of West Michigan. Actually, I was their last cruelty investigator. I think that program has since been discontinued. I was also an officer supervisor for Kent County Animal Control for a while.
While in Michigan, I got married and three of our four children were born. We decided that I had a vision for animal welfare and what it could mean in a community. And the first place that would take me up on that vision we would move to. So, we moved to Shreveport, Louisiana for about three years. From there, I worked as the Director of Animal Services in Memphis, Tennessee. Then, we moved over to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we were for three years before this opportunity came up as the President and CEO at Michigan Humane. And you don’t turn this opportunity down.
It’s a really unique opportunity. It’s a well-supported organization. Anything you can dream, it’s possible. And when you think about people, like yourself, who want to be service-based on what they do with their life there’s no better opportunity than in Metro Detroit to change people’s lives.
Julie Slagter: That’s a well-established career based on compassion and passion. Before we move on, how many pets do you have, and what are their names and ages?
Matt Pepper: I always tell people I have four wild animals and two beautiful pets. [Laughter] I have four children between nine and 20 years old. And I have two dogs right now.
Rocky is about six years old. He’s a rat terrier mix. He’s missing his front leg. He was hit by an 18-wheeler on I-75 near our Detroit shelter, the Mackey Center for Animal Care. The team nursed him back to health. And what I love about these stories is we didn’t nurse him back to health because “the CEO wanted him.” We did it anyway, and that’s what we do every single day. We see horrendous cases. I have 20 veterinarians on staff who are some of the most compassionate, qualified, and experienced veterinarians that you’ll ever meet. As a matter of fact, the shelter veterinarian of the year in 2021 is on our team, Dr. Shirene Cece.
I also have Tucker, who’s a pit bull. At two months old, he was found tied in an abandoned home with a wire around his leg. He was emaciated, and his leg was dead, so we amputated his leg. Then he got a tetanus infection from the wire, and that caused him to not be able to move for three months. He could only swallow and use the bathroom.
So our team fed him with a spoon and syringe, and they put a tablet in front of him to let him walk through the woods by watching the tablet. And after three months of me watching him in our shelter, I sort of fell in love with him, and he ended up coming home with me. So, those are my dogs, Rocky and Tucker.
Pro Tip: Learn tips for caring for a dog who may have mobility challenges.
I can’t guarantee I won’t add another one. In addition to our shelters, Michigan Humane also operates a farm in conjunction with Abraham Ranch. Right now, we’ve got three cows, seven horses, five pigs, a ram, and two sheep. There’s one pig there named Penelope. It was purchased as a micro mini pig, and then when it got to be several hundred pounds, the owners realized they couldn’t keep it.
Just between you, me, and your readers, there’s no such thing as a micro mini pig! They bought a piglet, and piglets turn into big pigs when they grow up. So, about 500 pounds later, Penelope lives on the farm. If you pet her on her back, she rolls over and makes you rub her stomach. She’s great, and maybe that’ll be my next pet.
Question: What does a typical day look like for you as President and CEO of Michigan Humane?
Matt Pepper: We’re a large nonprofit and we have to raise a lot of money, so a lot of my work is not only setting the strategy and the vision but also selling that vision and fundraising.
But this morning, for example, we’re moving into our new pet food pantry warehouse, and I went to visit the team there to see how everything’s going. It’s a big move for us. We have a vision of touching the lives of a million people and pets by 2030, and much of that work comes out of that food pantry.
After that, I attended a donor lunch to discuss our work and how they might best support it. I find myself connecting our work and talking about it often. For example, this Wednesday, I’m speaking at a summit called For the Paws, an international fundraising summit on human-centered fundraising in the non-human-centered world of animal welfare.
I’m also the current chair of the board of directors for the Association for Animal Welfare Administrators, which is the largest trade association for animal welfare. I do a lot of speaking through that as well. So, a lot of my work is public speaking, raising awareness, and fundraising for what we do.
In addition, I remove obstacles for my team so they can get their job done. I have an incredible leadership team, and they’re all from non-traditional backgrounds. Only two people on the team have backgrounds in animal welfare, the VP of Medicine, Dr. Crystal Sapp, and the VP of Animal Welfare, Meghan Ortmannn. The rest of the leadership team comes from various professions, including public television, the insurance industry, business, and our COO is a clinical social worker.
My job is to make sure we all have the vision and inspire people to follow it, and strategize how we get there. We have a powerful vision at Michigan Humane that even though we’re traditionally thought of as an animal welfare organization, we can be the most impactful social organization in the city of Detroit by the connectivity we help provide people through their pets.
What are Humane Communities?
Julie Slagter: You’ve led me right into my next question. Before this interview, you shared your website, MI Humane Communities, with me. I read it multiple times, and it inspired me. Michigan Humane aims to transform Metro Detroit into the most humane community in America by 2030. And from everything I’ve seen and read, this isn’t just lip service. Your organization is actually taking action and equipping others. It’s very exciting. You’re doing everything from providing pet owners equitable access to veterinary care to providing education and pet food to families in need and much more.
Will you share what it looks like exactly to be a humane community? And why are you and your team passionate about the impact and outcomes you’re striving for by 2030?
Matt Pepper: First of all, there are two things you said there that are critical to this conversation. One is you talked about impacts and outcomes. As an industry, we sometimes confuse numbers with outcomes and impact. We focus on how many adoptions we did. Or our live release rate or how many animals are in foster. All of which are critical components of a program. But at the end of the day, the number of adoptions I do is simply a number.
In our industry, we tell the story like this, a dog comes to us broken. And we fix it. And we do this amazing care for it, and then a family walks in the door and falls in love. Then, they walk into the sunset. We historically end the story there and say that’s a happy ending.
At Michigan Humane, we’re saying that’s not the ending, but the beginning of the story. Because studies show, a family is now 35% more likely to be active and 31% less likely to die of heart attack or stroke when they own a dog. You’re more emotionally supported with a pet in the home. Those things are outcomes. Real health and safety factors. And when people have a safe space to walk their dog, they have a chance to get together and learn who their neighbors are. They have a chance to become a more connected community.
In a city like Detroit, connected, safer communities are important. So you know what’s happening with people out walking their dog and connecting with others? They’re not committing crimes because people are active and engaged in a community.
We feel like the word humane is about everyone. When we say the most humane community, there’s a reason we didn’t call it the most animal-friendly community. What we mean is through our work, can we create a better environment for everyone?
The Link Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence
Matt Pepper: (continued) Also, I do a lot of teaching with law enforcement. I teach a class on human violence and animal cruelty, which covers horrible things like school shooters, sociopaths, and psychopaths’ transition from animal abuse into human violence. That has been proven. We know that’s true. But what if we could turn that around?
What if, through safe spaces for pets, equitable access to pet ownership, and access to resources we can encourage pet ownership? What if businesses were more inclusive of pets, which would then attract and retain young talent? Could we create a healthier, safer, and more economically vibrant community through that work?
It all comes down to seeing your community not as the problem but as part of the solution. I know that seems easy to do but a lot of us think of animal cruelty as a result of somebody not caring.
Well, what if it’s less about people who don’t care? And instead, maybe an animal is tied up outside, for example, because there’s very little access in the city of Detroit to low-income animal-friendly housing. What if the dog lives outside in that situation due to no other opportunity, but they refuse to get rid of their pet because it means something to them? Or what if an animal has a puncture wound or has gotten sick and the owner doesn’t take it anywhere? It’s not because they don’t want to get vet care. It’s because care is unattainable for many people right now.
There are 18 openings for every veterinarian looking for a job. And in Detroit, there are only six or seven vet centers in a city of over 650,000 people. Michigan Humane constitutes the largest, but even if you wanted to go to a vet, where would you go?
The reality is we want to see the best in people and see them as a part of the solution. Once you start realizing there’s some real passion in this community, you can harness that.
Our external-facing team has undergone health and human service navigator training. So, for example, we distribute 1.7 million pounds of food. That allows us to give a bag of pet food to people who need to feed their pets. But there’s a second factor that gets addressed. Studies show that 70% of families with a pet, no matter their socio-economic status, prioritize their pet over their own health. So, the chances are someone coming to our pet food pantry is likely struggling to feed themselves too. Therefore, we connect them with our friends, Gleaners or Forgotten Harvest, to utilize their programs. And we hand out human food at our pet food pantry if you qualify for both.
The reality is asking that second question, “Do the humans in your house also need food?” and realizing that animal welfare isn’t something that’s nice to have. It’s a must-have for families, and providing them with both helps create humane communities.
A great example of asking that second question happened about a month ago in our call center, which handles about 250,000 calls a year for service. It takes calls for appointments, reports of cruelty, and more. A woman called and said her dog hurt its leg, and she needed to make an emergency vet appointment.
Because our team is trained to hear if something just isn’t right or there’s something else going on, she was asked if she was okay. Studies show 82% of battered women will admit the abuse of their pet before they’ll admit the abuse of themselves. And in this case, asking that second question resulted in this person going, “You know what? I’m not okay, I’m in an abusive relationship, and he hurt my dog. I don’t know what to do.”
Michigan Humane then connected that person to the appropriate domestic violence shelter. Only ~12% of domestic violence shelters in the country have the ability to house pets. We have two of them right here in Southeast Michigan. And that’s important since 44% of women in abusive situations will not leave a situation for fear of what will happen to their pet.
What Is the Biggest Problem Facing Shelters Across the Country?
Julie Slagter: Those are incredible statistics. Looking at shelters and organizations across the U.S., what do you see as the biggest problem they’re facing? And how are you helping organizations get to a solution?
Matt Pepper: Logistically, the problem we have is that there are fewer outcomes than there were a little while ago. Animals are sort of bottlenecking in the shelter system. If you think about how everyone got a pet during Covid, and then there was this fear that every one of them was being returned. The reality is the quantity of animals coming in is not nearly as much as it used to be. It’s the outcomes that have slowed down.
I would assess that a lot of people adopted a pet during COVID, so they already added one. And things started to open up in the last nine months or so. You have people like me; for example, my nine-year-old hadn’t been to school normally, so I had to figure out how to handle that. Before people added a pet, they needed to figure out what school or travel would look like. A big issue was figuring out if they were going back to an office or working remotely or hybrid. All these things affect their ability to care for a pet. So, it’s a unique time, and the outcome for pets has slowed down.
I think we need to be creative in how we flow animals through facilities. We have to be more inclined to keep animals in their home. I sometimes think as an industry, we let perfect get in the way of being better. We’d rather have a dog come into the shelter than stay at home where it may not be a perfect situation. But the reality is, the dog is probably better off in a home where it’s loved. As long as it’s loved in an imperfect situation, it isn’t clogging up the shelter system where you are limited in the resources you can provide.
I think the real opportunity right now is to engage the community differently and stop having shelters be something that is merely geographically in a community and instead be more a part of a community. Actually engaging people in a different way.
Historically, in Detroit, animal welfare has done a really good job of swooping in from the suburbs and telling people what they need and how they need it. And people who are struggling with other needs don’t need to be told what to do. They need to be listened to. And what you’ll find then is opportunity.
Then you can help people differentiate between “I need to surrender my pet” or “I feel like I need to surrender my pet.” Because those are two very different things. If you only feel like you do and you think there are opportunities to fix it, it’s half the cost for any animal shelter to work with animals in the community than once it walks through our door.
The Economics of Keeping Pets In Homes
Matt Pepper: (continued) We’ve done some financial studies on animals. Once an animal comes in our door and becomes our property, it costs twice as much as anything we could possibly do for that owner to keep it in the home.
So, I think we have to be creative and understand that pets add incredible value to our lives. It’s not going to be perfect, but we can do better. And we can do better by listening to people and working with them closely.
Going back to the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) conversation, we also have a lot of barriers in some of our processes that we have to think about. For example, many organizations ask for 10 years of your housing history before adopting a pet. Well, if you’re someone struggling in poverty, you may not have that, even though you might be a great home for a pet.
Another example is many people have had situations in which they’ve had to surrender a pet. Some organizations may prohibit an adoption if someone once surrendered a pet. But sometimes that just happens in life. So, we must revisit how we engage the community and what barriers might exist. We have to be creative.
Julie Slagter: What are the top reasons pet owners surrender an animal?
Matt Pepper: The top reasons are inability to afford medical care, behavioral issues, or housing or job relocation issues. All of them usually tie back to economics. Those are problems we can solve.
One of the things we do that I think is really helpful is intake by appointment. We don’t if there’s an emergency. And we’re not the local animal control. We pick up 2,500 strays, if you will, through cruelty and rescue, but if you have a dog in your backyard, Detroit Animal Care and Control takes that call.
The dogs that we get are when someone calls and says they need to surrender their dog. Assuming there’s no emergency, the dog isn’t in danger, and the person isn’t going to hurt the dog, we’ll say, “Let’s make an appointment for a week and a half or two weeks out.”
During that period, our call center will call the person to ask why they want to surrender the dog. The answer might be an inability to handle its behavior. We then let them know we have an incredible behavior team and ask, “If they could walk through the issue and help you solve this, would you keep your pet?” The answer, most often, is “yes.”
Another reason for surrender could be medical and the inability to afford care. Almost 40% of the veterinary work we do at our Mackey Center in Detroit is discounted or free care for people who can’t afford vet care. So we ask if we provide you with that service would you keep your pet? And the answer, a majority of the time, is absolutely.
There are 1,600 vacant or burned-out lots by our Mackey Center. Let’s say you lost your job and you can’t afford to feed your dog. Well, just down the street, I can feed your dog. Would you keep your pet? And most of the time, the answer is yes.
People want to keep their pets. People love their pets, and provided with the right opportunities, they can provide great homes for them. If we do that for them, they get to obtain the true benefit of pet ownership which is being healthier and more emotionally supported. Those kinds of things have a real impact on our lives.
“Both Ends of the Leash” in Animal Welfare
Julie Slagter: I would say my rescue, whom I adopted when he was seven and is now 15, has rescued me in many ways.
Matt Pepper: Yeah, we often say that if you’re an organization and want to be successful right now, you have to think of both ends of the leash. That there are two ends to every leash.
I’ll tell you; we were looking at our statistics for this presentation I’m giving at the For the Paws Summit. Our numbers show populations in shelters are really plummeting. Now we might have seen a little bit of a spike coming out of COVID, but if you look at it in the broader trend, it’s decreasing.
Our organization took in 27,000 Animals in 2012, and back another 10 years before that, we took in 50,000 plus animals. But in 2019, we were close to 8,800. Our numbers started to decrease when we made that commitment to impacting animals in the community at a higher level and putting our resources there.
Then, our total number of animal impacts was truly providing veterinary care, behavioral support, food, and vaccinations. And the number of animals in the shelter continues to decline. The number of animals and families that we’re touching the lives of is now higher than in 2012. There are over 100,000 animals and families every year that we have contact points with either through our veterinary centers, our clinics, cruelty investigations, rescue community solutions, and adoptions.
Julie Slagter: That’s amazing! I love the analogy of looking at both ends of the leash.
How Technology Has Helped Animal Rescues and Shelters
Julie Slagter: Matt, how do you think technology has changed the way that shelters work or animal welfare in general? Are there hurdles that technology has caused, or are there opportunities that it’s created?
Matt Pepper: There’s a bunch of different answers to that. Number one, technology has obviously helped. The shelter software systems have come a long way since I started my career when I was writing on little pieces of paper for my kennel cards. There are a lot of opportunities for mistakes with paper systems. You used to hear about animals being accidentally euthanized because something was unclear on a note someone wrote. Shelter technology has made it significantly easier to manage populations and treatment plans in the system.
Now, the downfall is that, as an industry, we like to think we’re more unique than we are. And sometimes, I think we try to recreate the wheel instead of trying to integrate ourselves into systems that are already working.
So, I’d like to see the industry working more closely to integrate itself into other software programs. For example, we work with Feeding America and their human food security tracking system. Our social workers need a better case management system to really manage people. It’s not something we have a great handle on within the industry, but if you look outside, it exists. It’s finding a way to tie it together.
Technology, generally, is definitely a help. It’s made it easier to find your pet, find an adoptable pet, and easier to make reports. It’s been an incredible addition to the industry.
I will tell you the downside of it. Social media in our industry has made sharing information and pictures of pets so much easier. But the downside is that sometimes it seems like animal warfare instead of animal welfare. What I mean is people tend to be really emotional. They fill gaps in information with opinions or beliefs portrayed as truths when often it’s just something that’s not out there yet. So, I think we’re often critical of each other and decisions being made when these are complex decisions.
I would love to see social media be a little more understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and be more collaborative in our industry. But the other side of that is social media has also provided countless more opportunities for animals to find homes, get back to their home, and for people to report things and make connections. I mean, the fact that we’re sitting here across the state chatting right now about a shared passion for pets is pretty cool.
Cruelty Investigation and Rescue Agents at MI Humane
Julie Slagter: I watched many videos of your investigation and rescue agents. The ones that come to mind are the puppies found in a garage and a dog rescued on the Southfield freeway, which looked very scary. How frequently is this team deployed? I’d also like to hear more about the homeless animal situation in Metro Detroit and its magnitude.
Matt Pepper: About a decade ago, a Rolling Stone Magazine article quoted someone from an organization called Detroit Dog Rescue, which is still around. They cited 50,000 stray dogs roaming around Detroit. Now, if 50,000 stray dogs were running around the city, you couldn’t walk outside without tripping on one.
There was an issue, and there is an issue. There are still dogs loose and we still have dog bites, but the reality is it’s not nearly what is portrayed. On the news, we’ve had a couple of high-profile issues. A couple of young women, a few years ago, were killed within months of each other in Detroit. So it is an issue and an issue we constantly work on. However, we’re not animal control, but our rescue team picks up animals off the highway all the time, as you’ve seen. It’s a daily occurrence.
Our cruelty investigators and rescue drivers are on duty every day and busy every day. They handle anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 calls every year. And that’s not taking into consideration the number of calls that Detroit Animal Care and Control gets. They struggle a bit with being underfunded, and the city of Detroit’s struggles have been well-documented, so allocating the appropriate amount of resources to the department has been tough. But they’ve done a very good job of elevating their work in conjunction with ours.
So, it really is an issue, but there aren’t packs of wild dogs roaming around mauling people. We get a lot of dog bites. But, as is the trend around the country, 80% of dog bites are in the home of a friend or family member.
The geographic area of Detroit is immense. Geographically you could fit Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco in the geographic area of Detroit. So, it’s difficult to cover. Therefore, there are a lot of issues that by the time we or animal control get there, the dogs have moved on, and we haven’t been able to capture them. But our teams are outside daily.
We have two teams of cruelty investigators and multiple rescue drivers who are out every day. They’re addressing cases like the dogs on the freeway. We do a lot of dogfighting cases, unfortunately. Our teams are really well trained in animal cruelty and do a really good job. As a matter of fact, our cases are now elevated in many instances directly to the Michigan Attorney General, Dana Nessel. She handles many of our cases directly because she understands the correlation between human violence and animal cruelty.
I would say, as a former law enforcement officer myself, about 80% of their work is education, not enforcement. As a law enforcement officer, I would approach it as if you don’t know, then it’s my job to teach you. I can teach you how to access resources better. If you don’t care, then I should put you in jail. That’s how we work.
Our civilian investigators don’t have any true authorization. There are civilian investigators who bring up evidence to the prosecutor’s office, and then the prosecutor’s office eventually takes the case and handles it. And our team provides the evidence.
Matt Pepper on Presumed “Aggressive” Breeds and Finding the Right Dog For You
Julie Slagter: Let’s talk about breeds that are considered aggressive. What would you say to people who are afraid of adopting breeds known as being more aggressive, like a pitbull?
Matt Pepper: When I talk about breeds, I try to tell people to take the labels off dogs. You want the right dog for you, but the reality is many times, we’re guessing anyways. A dog could be mixed with any number of things. The second thing is, work with an organization that wants to understand what your life is like.
My Tucker, for example, is an absolute sweetie. He’s your typical pit bull, and you can play with him, put your hand in his mouth, and give him kisses. He’s the greatest dog, but that’s because we do a good job of looking at what’s my life versus what’s his behavior. I tell people to look for a personality, not a breed, and you’ll find the right dog. Also, work with an organization that’s not just trying to adopt for numbers. But one that’s trying to adopt for a long-term solution.
We don’t even have interviews anymore. We have conversations; we want to know what your life is like. For example, are you a runner? If you are, my two three-legged dogs probably won’t be a good fit because they have mobility issues.
Most dogs that end up in shelters are like any other dog that ends up in a shelter. If you’re thinking about adding a dog to your life, find the one that connects to your heart, and don’t worry about what it looks like. Because if you’re working with a reputable organization, they’re going to make sure the dog you get is the right one for your home.
We also don’t need, for example, an 86-year-old person with mobility issues adopting a one-year-old Australian Shepherd that needs a lot of exercise.
Tucker has been the most loving, caring dog I have ever had. As you can imagine, I’ve had dogs all my life, and he’s been the absolute perfect addition to my team. He’s far less dangerous than my little Rocky. If you feed Rocky and my nine-year-old goes towards him, he’ll tear up your hand. With Tucker, you can do anything you want with him. He’s used to being handled and is a good addition to our home. So, I would say look for a personality rather than a breed.
Julie Slagter: I think what you’re saying about looking for the right fit is so significant.
Reducing Barriers to Adoption
Julie Slagter: You also talked about not doing interviews anymore. About 10 years ago, there was a dog I wanted to adopt through an organization, and I had to go through an interview process. They ended up not letting me adopt the dog because I didn’t have a fenced-in backyard. There was no other reason for me not to give the dog a home.
Matt Pepper: You asked earlier what organizations need to do. If they’re going to keep pace with where the industry is moving, they have to look for reasons to place an animal and not look for reasons why not to place an animal with someone.
Our questions include what your life is like, your activity level, how often you’re home, etc. If you’re not home during the day, two-month-old puppies probably aren’t the right fit because they’re not ready to be crated all day. Those are the kind of things we offer. It’s just having a conversation. Then we may say, we have one that fits your behavioral profile. And we take the person to meet the dog and see what happens.
Transportation’s Role in Animal Rescue
Julie Slagter: What role does rescue transportation play in your organization? And how do you think it can be improved across the country?
Matt Pepper: I’m in many forums around the country on transport. The number of animals in transport has dramatically decreased. There are a couple of reasons for that. Number one, I talked about logistically what’s happening in the communities right now, and shelters aren’t moving anywhere.
Shelters are full at times when they normally aren’t. Years ago, we would take thousands of animals to transport, and this year we might take a couple hundred because we don’t have the space. And we’ve made more of a commitment locally to working differently in the community.
I think there are organizations, for example, Petco Foundation, PetSmart charities, and Best Friends, working on creating a better, more interconnected transport network. Instead of people doing it sort of independently. If we can find a way that becomes much more coordinated throughout the country we’ll see better opportunities.
I also think we have to look at more of a hub and spoke model. For example, we’re a huge organization with two huge shelters. I can’t take 200 dogs right now. I could maybe take 100, but if I took 100 and local partners can transport them then we can save 200 animals. And that makes that transportation worthwhile. Whereas, if I can take 50, you’re sort of wasting your time on some of these trips. Planes can get expensive. I’m seeing people say I can take 10 animals rather than 200, and you lose the economy of scale on some of those things and the opportunity to help as many as you can.
Also, while there are still animals in shelters, particularly in the south that are losing their lives because of space, that’s becoming fewer and farther between. So I think you’re seeing many shelters, even in the south, starting to see an actual reduction in population. This gives organizations more breathing space to support their local community instead of relying on other communities throughout the country to take the overflow.
Where Matt Pepper Finds Inspiration
Julie Slagter: Where do you find the most inspiration working in this field? What gets you up in the morning and keeps you going?
Matt Pepper: I’ve been doing this now for a little over 20 years, and I still feel like every day is the first day. That’s because we, especially our leadership team and the whole organization, constantly challenge ourselves to see what’s next. And this is an ever-changing industry.
We’re also challenging ourselves to think of what’s more. When I say that, I mean I don’t want us to think about ourselves as an animal welfare organization. I want us to think about ourselves as a human-centered organization that uses animals. And when you do that, your impact becomes broader and stronger with the human element in the work.
I’ll give you a great example. During Covid, there was a woman who was wheelchair-bound. She had one arm and no legs. She threw her wheelchair in public transportation and got herself to our pet food pantry. All because she had seven cats and no family, and no one who could help her. And she needed help. This is in the middle of winter in Detroit. She quite literally wheeled herself across the city to get pet food for her cats.
And when you think about life handing someone a tough hand, you think about someone who literally has one arm, is in a wheelchair, and lives by herself. When you see her face when these cats interact with her, don’t think about our ability to feed them but think about what her life would’ve been without them during Covid while isolated. I would argue that she may not be here.
So, it’s that human element that I get up for every day. And I feel some immense pride. But it’s also the pets and the ability to work with dogs, cats, cows, and horses all day.
Julie Slagter: Again, it comes back to both ends of the leash.
What Makes Matt Pepper Most Proud of MI Humane
Julie Slagter: In terms of concrete accomplishments, what are you the proudest of during your tenure at Michigan Humane?
Matt Pepper: I think you must always have a sense of humility when discussing that. And I think the biggest accomplishment that I’ve done for the organization is two parts.
Surrounding myself with an incredible leadership team and understanding that they’re really good at their job. I think a leader’s job is to surround themselves with good people and let them do their job. And we’ve got an incredible leadership team that inspires me every day through creativity, through drive, through conversations, and laughter. We have a lot of fun at work, too. So, surrounding myself with a leadership team that’s elevated the organization in this vision we’ve created is one.
The other is surrounding myself with a great board of directors. Right now, our board chair, Cindy Pasky, who is one of the most well-connected, powerful people in the city of Detroit, is someone who I can pick up the phone and say, “How would you handle that?” As a matter of fact, I just did it before this call. Having a board that can help you grow as a CEO and a leadership team who can help you see your vision to reality are the two things that I’m most proud of.
But in the context of that, it’s launching this humane communities vision. Launching this vision that Detroit can be more than what we think. That Detroit can be more than crime and poverty. If you think of every utopian picture of a city, you see people walking their dogs everywhere. I want that to be Detroit.
I want people to feel safe, to be healthy, and the economy to be thriving, all because we are the most humane community through a lot of the work that we do with pets. From employers to equitable access to care and pets. Dog parks in the neighborhoods and not just downtown can help create a better world for everyone.
I think that’s what I’m most proud of, the fact that we’re doing that, and people are buying in.
Julie Slagter: That’s motivating, inspiring, and very exciting.
What Is Your Biggest Piece of Advice for New Animal Owners or Adopters?
Matt Pepper: New animal owners and adopters: just have patience. And never think the time is going to be perfect. The time is always right.
Studies show that not only do we think lives are better with pets, science now shows that our lives are actually better with pets in them. Dr. Janet Hoy-Gerlach did work on cortisol and oxytocin in the human body. After pet ownership, it showed people were happier and their stress plummeted. So the reality is, the time is never going to be perfect. The time is always right to add a pet to your life, and if you’re interested and live in Metro Detroit, there’s no better place than Michigan Humane.
Get Involved With MI Humane
Julie Slagter: How can someone help Michigan Humane today?
Matt Pepper: There’s any number of ways. First of all, the biggest one is to advocate for animal welfare for those who don’t have a voice in your community. Whether it’s through another organization or us, ensure that those organizations that address those issues are aware of it.
You can do anything. It can be adopting or fostering animals. Or you can donate. We have to raise $25.6 million this year just to keep our doors open. So, financial contributions are a big part of our needs. Volunteering is also a big part of what we do.
Any way you speak on behalf of what’s important to us and what’s important to the people in the community benefits us.
Go to MichiganHumane.org to adopt a pet in Metro Detroit, volunteer, donate, and find resources about animal welfare and humane communities.
Matt Pepper Reminds Us There Are Two Ends of a Leash
The human on one end of a leash and the animal on the other are what make humane communities. Michigan Humane is at the forefront of transforming Detroit into an inclusive community where humans and animals are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Suggested Reading: Learn about other organizations focused on both ends of the leash like The Street Dog Coalition.
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