A profit-making approach to running an animal shelter

Mike Arms has spent his life saving the lives of animals — and using his business sense.

Arms is responsible for programs that have placed 9.3 million pets in homes in the United States since 1999. He also works with the B.C. SPCA to help increase revenues.

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His key message is that pets have value and people shouldn’t get them for free from shelters, because that devalues the animals.

Arms, president of Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego, will talk about his business approach to saving animals in an address today to 150 undergraduate students at the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, part of the University of Victoria.

He said in an interview that he has always loved animals, and his business sense has earned him good money while finding new homes for lost or abandoned pets.

In the 1960s, he worked with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as a district manager in New York City, and hated that the society was killing 140,000 animals a year. He was about to leave for an insurance job when he was called to the Bronx to rescue a dog hit by a car.

Arms found the dog, horribly broken, dying on the street.

He went to pick him up but gang members intervened. There was a wager on how long the dog would live.

Arms ignored them, scooped up the dog and comforted it.

“Just when I went to reach for the ambulance door handle, that’s when these three guys rushed at me from behind, stabbed and beat me and left me in the street,” Arms said.

The dog licked Arms’s face until he regained consciousness. Then, he said, it died.

Since that day, Arms said, he has helped save 10 million pets.

He has also been teaching SPCA managers across Canada how to run profitable shelters.

His experience will help teach UVic business students to take a fresh look at existing industries and seek opportunities, said Jennifer Gill, experiential learning manager with the Gustavson School of Business.

Students should take their business acumen “and go out into the world and make a difference,” Gill said.

“They’re being asked to find problems in the communities they live in and find agencies or groups that really need the support of business minds.”

Arms said his San Diego shelter has gone from being in debt to having a $9-million endowment fund. He has raised $20 million toward a $50-million expansion project and grown the business to 130 employees from 80.

Every staff member gets a decent wage with regular increases and holiday bonuses, he said.

He said many shelters in North America are run on a shoestring “like mom and pop candy stores.

“We don’t run them as a business. We do more in our culture and society to advertise Coca-Cola or pizza than we do to advertise these beautiful pets that are in our possession.”

Many shelter managers have the heart but don’t have the business sense to move animals out the door quickly, he said.

Shelters need to advertise their adoptable pets, and people will pay good money for them, Arms said.

Low, or no, adoption fees sends the message that these pets have no value, he said.

“I have the highest prices in San Diego — to get a puppy it’s $399 and for dogs, I have variable pricing, whatever the market will bear,” Arms said.

He also runs a veterinary hospital, therapeutic riding program and other services for pet owners.

“This is a business. I’m in the business of saving lives and I only want business-minded people working for me,” Arms said.

He said his biggest problem is getting enough inventory.

About 20 per cent of the animals surrendered to him need veterinary care, Arms said, and people need to know that they can’t surrender their pets without paying a fee.

“You want me to love [a young dog], to feed it, to give it medical attention, that’s going to cost you $200. And if it’s over seven years old, it’s going to cost you $2,000.”

He asks for money but doesn’t always get it. He’ll take the surrendered pet regardless, “but I’m educating that services have a value. Why would you think we’re going to do all these services for you for free?

“We’re not your dumping ground.”

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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