Pam McCloud Smith: Reshaping Reality

Photo by Dane County Humane Society

The heart of Madison beats a sustained arrhythmia whose hiccups only strengthen its core. Each uplifting offbeat is echoed through the efforts of those individuals who define the kindness and tenacity of our community. For many, past experiences and professions enable them to take on roles they wouldve once felt unprepared to assume. For Pam McCloud Smith, the role she stepped into at Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) in 1989 shook and shaped her constitution until she found herself in a position to reimagine the organization, interlacing her story with that of DCHS to the point where discussing one is inherently discussing the other.

Living through how things were [at DCHS] in the late 80s and 90s and seeing a lot of loss and missed opportunities because there just werent the resources … there wasnt a lot of collaboration. It felt like we were just pretty much alone taking care of getting animals off the streets.

After being a volunteer for two years, Pam became 1 of 10 employees at DCHS in 1991. But her background in accounting only accounted for a fraction of her job. I was hired to do all the recordkeeping, Pam says, but I also assisted the front desk, admitted animals, cleaned cages, and did adoptions. Then she worked to get certified as an on-call humane officer. So once a month, for a week, I would carry a pager. And if there were emergencies in the night, I would get paged. … I had one where a raccoon fell through someones skylight in the night onto their bed, and it was running loose in their house. Not every night was like this, but it makes for an amusing storycertainly a welcome distraction considering the day to day.

Photograph provided by Dane County Humane Society

At noon, when we opened, there would be people lined up down the street with boxes of puppies and kittens. Theyd be loose in the backs of pickup trucks and, basically, one right after the other. … About 50 percent of the animals didnt make it out of the building. This was Pams traumawhen animal shelters were commonly referred to as the pound and lived up to their reputations. All we could do was try to keep up with the onslaught of animals coming in on a daily basis and just provide basic care. … We had animals in cages in the bathrooms and closets just to do what we could. Throughout the 90s, DCHS had 14,000 animals coming in a year.

Then there was the parvo outbreak. Every day, our kennel manager would have to select which dogs would be euthanized because there were never open cages. And we always needed to have at least 10 open. I dont know why they picked 10, but we had to have 10 open at noon every day to put some of the incoming in. And some that came in would just automatically be euthanized. I remember this dog came in that just had all this bloody stool, and none of us knew. We just thought oh no, shes dying or somethings physically wrong with her. So she had to be euthanized. They cleaned it up, and then they kept putting more dogs in. By the morning, there were three dogs with the bloody stool, and the next day there were more. Were like, Somethings going on here. We reached out to a veterinarian, and they did some tests and said, You have parvo. And then we consulted with some others. The only way we were told to treat it back then was to depopulate the entire kennel.

For two weeks, in order to fulfill their contract with the county, DCHS had to use the Dane County Fairgrounds while the facility was cleaned. The dogs would show up at our front door. We had to drive them over, get them set up in this building that didnt have heat or air, and it was winter because I remember having to carry space heaters over there. Pams voice falters on occasion as she relives her story.

Photograph provided by Dane County Humane Society

In July 2000, DCHS moved to their current location with just 36 staff. Then, in 2002, Pam became the director and established a leadership team. Her belief in the importance of connection and her dedication to saving animals helped change everything.

One of the strongest examples of her dedication manifested in 2004, after years of having to put down injured and orphaned wildlife. We had a barn out to the side here. I said, Why dont we try on a small scale and see what we can do. It started with one stall, then two, then half the barn. Soon, the horses were being boarded. A couple years ago, we remodeled the entire barn and expanded. Now we have a wildlife center out here that services about 4,000 animals a year.

Fast forward to today, where, thanks in large part to spay/neuter initiatives, DCHS sees 6,000 companion animals a year and has a save rate up to 91 percent. Its not perfect, says Pam, but theyre saving all healthy and treatable animals that come in, and those animals can stay as long as they want. In addition, they accept all animals, regardless of age, health, and temperament, making DCHS a nationwide top-tier shelter. Screening and vaccination protocols are in place as well, preventing anything like the past parvo outbreak. The momentum built up by Pams efforts to advance and grow DCHS is sustained by every one of her 80 staff and 1,200 volunteers.

Pam never really takes off her DCHS hat. Its where she works and spends a lot of her time. Im grateful to have this opportunity to be able to share my passion. To be able to have a job where its also my passion. Without reservation, all of the successful DCHS initiatives are shared, serving as models for other shelters to adapt. When Pam says, I love to share things. I like change, I think shes really saying she has seen firsthand how positive change can be and wants to personally encourage everyone to embrace taking their first steps. The big heart Pam wears on her sleeve is her resiliencea lesson she says the animals teach her every day. Its simple. Be patient. Be kind. Be forgiving. Our community is stronger for it.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.