In recognition of the ASPCA®'s 155th anniversary and the 20th work anniversary of our President and CEO, Matt Bershadker, we checked in with Matt to hear how he got involved in animal welfare and his thoughts on where the field is headed.
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.
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: Tell us about the role of veterinarians at the ASPCA and in the larger animal welfare field.
Matt: Veterinarians play an enormous role in the health of animals in their communities—not just with their traditional clientele, but also with homeless animals, animal victims of cruelty, and animals whose owners are experiencing financial challenges. This puts tremendous stress on veterinarians who must balance their commitment to help a wide range of pets with their need to sustain their professional practices, which is why supporting them—and their commitment—is critical.
The ASPCA employs dozens of full-time veterinarians and veterinary technicians at stationary and mobile facilities in New York City and Los Angeles, at our Community Veterinary Center in Miami, at our Behavioral Rehabilitation Center and ASPCA Spay/Neuter Alliance (ASNA) in North Carolina, and at temporary shelters for animals seized in cruelty cases and rescued from natural disasters and major emergencies. ASNA, in particular, has been a national leader in high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter surgery since 2004, with training programs available for veterinary students, licensed veterinarians, and medical teams.
In fact, one out of every 10 staff members at the ASPCA is a licensed veterinarian—and we often have open veterinary positions.
In 2020, our ASPCA Shelter Medicine Services (SMS) team established the Julie Morris Shelter Medicine Residency Program, a New York City-based training program designed to provide intensive clinical training for licensed veterinarians interested in developing deep expertise in Shelter Medicine Practice, a very important and influential discipline we’ve supported for many years. We named it after Julie Morris, a longtime ASPCA leader and iconic figure in animal sheltering who passed away in 2019.
The importance of shelter medicine can’t be understated, having played a prominent role in significant animal welfare advances such as developing widespread animal shelter standards, supporting critical operational protocols, and generating new strategies to combat infectious disease and illness, which reduces the need for euthanasia.
Shelter Medicine has also driven critical shelter strategy innovations, including expanded pet retention efforts, increased access to veterinary care, and new approaches to foster care, kitten nurseries, and community cat programs.
Working to support existing and future veterinarians is an exciting prospect that will help animal shelters immeasurably. In our view, local veterinarians and local animal shelters and rescues are ideally working hand-in-hand, and we want to do everything we can to strengthen that relationship to benefit animals, families, and communities
The importance of shelter medicine can’t be understated.
ASPCApro: Do you think the challenges we’ve seen from the pandemic will affect the future practice of animal sheltering?
The pandemic has profoundly affected animal sheltering across the country—severely impacting staff, operations, client procedures, and fundraising—and will continue to influence the efforts and tactics of animal sheltering in the future. Those of you who work in shelters know first-hand the immense challenges this crisis created for your work and, in many cases, your very existence. This is why we provided $5 million in grant funding to help shelter and rescue organizations cover operating and program expenses and receive capacity support.
The pandemic also intensified the consequences of poverty for pet owners and vulnerable animals, exacerbating their challenges on an unprecedented scale. Data we released last August showed that more than 4.2 million pets were at risk of entering poverty as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, with the total number of pets living in poverty with their owners potentially rising to more than 24.4 million dogs, cats, and other pets.
A housing crisis resulting from the pandemic is also a significant threat to animals. Data we released in December 2020 revealed that approximately 19.2 million dogs and cats live in households that are not presently current with their rent or mortgage payments. This staggering number includes over 9.8 million dogs and cats living in rental homes and 9.4 million dogs and cats living in owned homes.
...the animal welfare community is very resilient—perhaps taking our cue from irrepressible animals themselves.
As many of you know well, the consequences of poverty’s impact on dogs, cats, and horses are felt very intensely by community shelters and rescues,
The good news is that the animal welfare community is very resilient—perhaps taking our cue from irrepressible animals themselves. I see shelters adapting to the challenges of COVID-19 by making standard procedures virtual—including online meet-and-greets and digital paperwork—and by enabling foster caregivers to transfer pets directly to new owners, avoiding a shelter visit. They’re also looking at new ways to help financially challenged pet owners in their communities care for and keep their animals.
Fostering has been particularly impactful during this anxious period. Foster families across the country opened their homes and their hearts to provide temporary care and attention to tens of thousands of dogs, cats, and horses to help their local shelters and rescues cope with reductions in staffing and volunteer levels. These efforts relieved stress on shelters and provided important opportunities for animals to socialize in new environments.
Since March, we’ve seen a nearly 70% increase in dogs and cats going into foster care through our New York City and Los Angeles foster programs, as well as a 400% increase in completed online foster applications in those locations. We’ve also seen a 65% increase in equine fosters across the country. That increase in interest and activity is very good news for shelters, animals, and communities.