April is an important month in the history of the ASPCA—April 10 is our 155th anniversary. April 2 is also the 20th work anniversary of the ASPCA’s President and CEO, Matt Bershadker.
For the next four weeks, we’ll check in with Matt to hear how he got involved in animal welfare and his thoughts on where the field is headed.
Animal Control Officer Appreciation Week: April 11-17
In ASPCA President and CEO Matt Bershadker’s check-in, he discusses how animal control agencies and animal shelters are becoming more proactive to help pets and people stay together.
ASPCApro: What’s changed in animal control in the last 20 years, and what does the future of that work look like to you?
Matt: I see local animal control agencies moving toward a model that prioritizes helping owners responsibly care for the animals they have and working collaboratively with social services and shelters to support keeping pets at home with their families. More and more animal control agencies understand and embrace the idea that keeping pets safely at home and out of shelters is a primary goal. When everyone in the community is working together and focused on keeping people and pets together, most animals will hopefully never need a shelter, and those animals who do need sheltering can get targeted help and resources, including medical care and behavioral rehabilitation.
ASPCApro: Have you seen similar changes in animal shelters?
Matt: I’ve been very impressed to see shelters and rescue organizations looking outside the four walls of their facilities and exploring new and innovative ways to meet pet welfare needs in their communities, including making resources and veterinary care more accessible and affordable, pet behavior modification and rehabilitation services, and providing free pet food and supplies for families facing severe financial challenges. These services also help pet owners keep their pets at home, which is typically the safest place they can be.
Thinking “beyond the shelter” doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for sheltering animals in communities, especially when you consider animals seized by law enforcement, lost pets, pets belonging to victims of domestic violence, animals with owners facing illness or housing crises, and animals who need medical or behavioral rehabilitation before they can be adopted. But it’s clear that modern shelters need to look broadly at the needs of people and pets in their communities versus just the needs of animals in their facilities, focusing more on the causes of animal homelessness—like financial strain and barriers to resources—versus the consequences of animal homelessness—namely, ending up in a shelter or worse.
I also see a sustained commitment to relocating animals by ground and by air. By moving homeless animals from places of low demand to locations with high demand, we reduce the overcrowding that can lead to tragic and unnecessary outcomes. Source and destination shelters are collaborating with each other and with a wide range of logistical and animal welfare partners more than ever to make these lifesaving transfers happen, and I look forward to continuing that momentum with even more determination after the pandemic.
ASPCApro: How did you develop an interest in animal welfare?
Matt: The animals I’ve known throughout my life have played an influential role in who I am, how I view the world, and how I lead the ASPCA.
When I was a little kid, my life was filled with a range of pets, including newts, lizards, birds, gerbils, and turtles. I’ve had several adopted dogs since, including my current pair: five-year-old Tarzan from a rescue in Texas, and three-year-old Loki, a service dog “dropout” from Missouri. They have all meant so much to me and my family.
After college, I was a pet-sitter for some of my friends, and when one of them wanted to adopt a second dog, I went with him to a local Washington, DC shelter. I was surprised to find the shelter overburdened by the challenges of caring for so many animals. The staff was dedicated, but they simply didn’t have the resources they needed to place more of their dogs and cats into loving homes. Those images stayed with me.
Early on, I worked at two nonprofits in DC; one of those was Share Our Strength—known today as No Kid Hungry—which works to end childhood poverty and hunger. That’s where I became truly inspired to commit to the social sector. I wanted to make the world a gentler, kinder place, and soon realized I could combine that drive with my love for animals.
After I earned my MBA in 2001, I applied for a job at the ASPCA. I didn’t get it, but 10 days later, I was offered a business development position at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. I immediately accepted and eventually moved on to other roles. In 2009, I was asked to oversee our anti-cruelty field work, including responding to dogfights and other scenes of unconscionable animal neglect and cruelty around the country. That was an enormous new challenge, and it opened my eyes to the plight of animals in a way I could never have experienced otherwise. In 2013, I was honored to be named president and CEO.
ASPCApro: What inspires and motivates you as an animal welfare leader?
Matt: My inspiration comes from the animals and the dedicated animal welfare professionals and volunteers who work tirelessly to protect them. I think I speak for all of us when I say our work is primarily inspired and grounded by our drive to help animals in need, a principle that has guided me both personally and professionally over the past two decades.
A major source of inspiration for me has been witnessing the growing understanding and application of behavior sciences in animal welfare and the lifesaving impact behavior rehabilitation has on shelter animals, specifically on victims of cruelty and neglect. Our research and studies on behavior—as well as our direct care work across New York City and at our Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Weaverville, North Carolina—have produced innovative programs and processes proven to save lives. To see this knowledge then shared widely with the field through in-person and online mentoring, webinars, and online resources has been incredibly inspiring because of the enormous positive impact it can have on dogs and cats across the country.
This work has emotional value—we’re changing and saving lives. What all of us do every day matters, and it will continue to matter until we live in a world where animals are thoroughly respected and cherished in our communities, our laws, our systems, and our values. Together we’re building the road to a more humane future for both pets and people.