A Conversation Between ARF’s New CEO Susan Lee Vick and Former Executive Director Elena Bicker
ELENA BICKER: Time flies. It feels like just yesterday I was attending an ARF event and somebody said, “Hey, we need volunteers — especially fosters.” And I decided that I would throw my hat in the ring as a foster volunteer. And then I was asked to be part of fundraising. And then, in a blink of an eye, 30 years have gone by.
SUSAN LEE VICK: My journey to animal welfare was by way of the human-animal bond. Before joining ARF, I asked myself, “What professional role have I loved above all others?” The answer was my years with Canine Companions, an organization dedicated to matching service dogs with children and adults with disabilities, including wounded Veterans. So when I learned about ARF’s CEO search and did some research on the organization, it quickly became clear that ARF would offer me that same incredible sense of fulfillment. It definitely has! As we say at ARF, we’re People Rescuing Animals … Animals Rescuing People®.
EB: I remember describing ARF’s mission to a supporter early on and those words just tumbled out. It makes for a beautiful tagline, doesn’t it?
SLV: I love it! It’s truly magical to witness what happens to the pets and people when they’re united. We talk about our work as “animal welfare” but it’s every bit as much “human welfare.”
EB: Every animal makes an impact. My childhood dog was a black lab / poodle mix from a neighbor — back then we didn’t call them “labradoodles,” they were just called “mutts.” But she was epileptic. Throughout her life she had seizures and that instituted in me the need to care for her, if only to pay her back for everything she did for me. It’s a two-way relationship!
SLV: I’ve always had pets, too — dogs, cats, rats, birds, snakes. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few species, because my house was a zoo when my kids were little. Dogs and cats are the pets I loved most, though, and every one of them was uniquely special. I once had the privilege of raising a service dog named Ethan. As we see in ARF’s Pets and Vets program, a service dog’s soulfulness and gentleness and intelligence, control and spontaneity — and especially their intuition — is almost uncanny . So often they sense what is needed even before their person does.
EB: Animal welfare has traditionally been focused on the animals. But it has evolved to the human-animal bond, where it’s not only important to rescue the animals that you are pulling from the shelters, but it’s important to implement programs that keep those animals in their homes.
SLV: Like ARF’s many Community Solutions.
EB: Exactly. Back when I started there were very few pet assistance options; some spay neuter assistance, but no impound fee compensation, no veterinary care support, not even repairing somebody’s fence to keep their dog in the yard — that wasn’t really a thing. And now we’re doing all that and more to actually save lives and keep the animals out of shelters, and in the homes of people who love them.
SLV: Even while we focus on the animals in the shelters — our own and our partner shelters around the state.
EB: Oh, of course!
SLV: I was able to join one of ARF’s all day rescue runs down to Fresno. You hear about what these shelters are going through. You see the data, read the reports, see the pictures. But until you experience it in person, until you see hundreds of dogs — litters and litters of puppies and small dogs, multiples in cages, all of them at risk of euthanasia — you just can’t really get your head around it.
EB: And Fresno is by no means a poorly-run facility.
SLV: By no means! It’s is an excellent facility, run by huge-hearted people doing yeoman’s work. They just can’t possibly keep ahead of the tsunami of surrendered dogs and cats. So it’s quite sobering to stand alongside our rescue team as they make the heartbreaking choices: who goes home with us and who has to stay and face an uncertain future. Just imagine that 14-hour day. It’s well into night by the time the team gets back to ARF. Everyone is exhausted, physically and emotionally. But the windows glow with welcoming light and we’re greeted by volunteers with huge smiles and clean scrubs. They weigh each and every one of our new shelter guests, record their vital data, carry or escort the guest to an immaculate kennel, serve a first welcome meal and plenty of fresh, clean water. The love and care and attention from everyone involved is palpable and absolutely unforgettable.
EB: I feel that same way. When the vehicles would pull in, my first thought was always, “Now these animals get a chance to live out their natural life.” Being blessed to do this lifesaving work has been a game changer.
SLV: Absolutely. And every animal we rescue is also rescuing the human who takes it home. The happy resonance of that is huge.
EB: That’s why it’s never been a job to me. It’s always been a lifestyle.
SLV: The first time I stepped foot on ARF’s campus, I was wowed by the energy. The pictures online are gorgeous, but being here is magical. It’s all those happy feelings floating between ARF’s dogs, cats, volunteers, adopters, and staff. I was blown away the first time I felt that shared love. Now every time I give a tour to a friend or new donor or even a longtime supporter who hasn’t been here for a while, I get to enjoy seeing the feeling illuminate their faces.
EB: You know, initially when we were building this, what we thought we were building was an animal shelter. But really what we built was a community center. The laughter of children in the halls, the expressions of people seeing a dog or a cat for the first time and falling in love. If we could bottle that, we would never have to fundraise again.
SLV: Totally true!
EB: ARF can do anything we want, but ARF can’t do everything we want.
SLV: That’s a famous and true Elena-ism.
EB: Yeah, that and, “watch where we step.” Literally.
SLV: Too true! We have been very successful in living into our slogan of People Rescuing Animals … Animals Rescuing People®. But I see even more flowing of the second part of that tagline in our future. We can more fully realize our potential as an animal-centric community center. And we’ll be getting out in the community more, too, serving in all the ways ARF can.
EB: The brand new mobile adoption vehicle is going to be really exciting for taking ARF off-campus and out into the community like you’re talking about.
SLV: It will! And ARF is at an exciting inflection point as we emerge as an independent organization. A new chapter with so much potential is beginning.
EB: It’s going to be exciting to watch!
SLV: We’ll begin to bring Pets and Vets to other cities around the country, with other programs potentially following in its footsteps. We envision a pet grooming academy offering vocational training. We dream of building a full-service community veterinary clinic. These are services our community needs, and we want to answer the call. All in all, ARF’s future is bright!
EB: So bright that I’m going to have to wear shades! In the meantime, I’m looking forward to a little bit of relaxation, a little golf, and maybe a little fostering. I know that the Pets and Vets department is looking for foster volunteers for future psychiatric service dogs. Although, come to think of it, it’s been about 30 years since my first ARF foster dog. I might be a little out of practice.
SLV: I doubt that! You’re incredible, Elena. Once an animal-saver, always an animal-saver.