• Barry KuKes

Outgoing CEO Interview with Miguel Abi-hassan

SP- I have often referred to you as the Steve Jobs of animal welfare because you genuinely are a visionary and have taken HHS from a shelter with a 40% live release rate (LRR) to an adoption center that qualifies as a no-kill operation with a 95% LRR as of the end of 2020. Simply, how did you do that?

MA- Around 2012, staff and I presented a three-fold strategy to our Board. Our hope was to increase our impact by providing three main pinnacles of holistic animal care. We aptly named it “Plan Alive.” The plan included increasing access to resources, increasing our programmatic service offerings, and furthering our outreach. In the span of 5 years, we grew our programs from 16 to 38, including our Foster Program, Summer Camps, a new clinic, and many other improvements. These improvements facilitated a shift in the perception of who Halifax Humane Society is and what our role in improving the status quo would become.

SP- What has been the most challenging part of overseeing the operations of HHS, and what has been the most rewarding accomplishment?

MA- The most rewarding yet challenging accomplishment has to be the drastic increase in our live release rate. Ultimately, when I first came to HHS, we were taking more animals into our doors than my former employer, Atlanta Humane Society. Pet homelessness is not a shelter problem. I often find myself reminding critics that “we don’t make them here.” Correcting pet homelessness requires the same multifaceted approach to correcting any other social issue; understanding, collaboration, and resources. However, as an organization, we accepted the added challenge of ensuring that we would raise our live release rate without ever closing our doors to an animal in need. It’s important to note that restricting intake has often been applied as a method to increase live release rates, but our organization felt that restrictive red rope policies do not have a place in shelters. Seeing our live release rate of over 90% today, I am glad the consensus was to maintain the core of our open-admission policy, and I’m equally proud of everyone who helped us get there. We did the unthinkable.

SP- Are there any goals or plans you were unable to attain for HHS?

MA- I think the biggest challenge for my successor will be to ensure that we bounce back from this pandemic, not just as an organization but as a community. Many staffing and resource issues have affected social movements, and I’m afraid we may see a slight rebound in the number of animals entering our shelter. I hope that as a community we can all come together and support HHS to ensure whatever rebounds we see in the number of free-roaming animals,we remain supportive of this organization as an anchor of humanity. I remember being in Animal Welfare through the recession, and though we don’t foresee history repeating itself, we have to increase our support of non-profits when they’re more needed.

SP- You have accepted a position with an international organization. What exactly will you be doing in your new role, and why did you feel it was important to move on from your experience at HHS?

MA- HHS will be held in my heart and memories as one of the best decades of my life. Not many opportunities would entice me to depart from an organization and a second family that I found in my staff and Board. However, this has always been a labor of love that I measure only by the number of animals I can serve today as opposed to yesterday. It is seldom that I have the opportunity to impact as many animals as I will in my new role. I will be operating six sanctuaries and coordinating Global Disaster responses for affected animals. While I still have it in me to run in the direction of a disaster, I want to embrace the challenge of helping animals when the dire need arises at home and abroad.

SP- You have always said that you couldn’t ask for a better board of directors. The Board has always been very supportive of your leadership. Can you expand on how crucial it is to have a supportive board?

MA- Ultimately, a CEO’s job is to execute and help deliver on the vision of the Board. Because this Board brings so much business prowess to the table and has so much passion for the mission of our organization, their vision was always evident; to be an anchor of humanity for our community. In the early days, our President Mel Stack once said to me, “Miguel, we are so much more than a shelter.” It instills compassion by the way in which we foster care of animals. Our entire Board embraces that concept, and every meeting is dedicated to the notion of proliferating that belief.

SP- Lastly, tell our readers a little about your history prior to joining HHS. How did you get into animal welfare, and what is your general vision for the industry?

MA- I always tell the story that while other children were thinking of becoming astronauts or firefighters, I longed to end up working in an animal shelter. I dedicated my entire educational and professional path to ensure that I could be the best person and leader that I could be. When I finally got my first job at a shelter, I cared for the animals directly and witnessed a lack of leadership. I pursued a Master’s in Industrial Psychology so that I could understand social movements and leadership better. Through time I was promoted to several different positions in the Animal Welfare field. Today, I still hold those experiences near and dear. I make every decision in review of what’s become twenty-plus years of sheltering experience and ensure the people I hire bring passion and a fervor for the science of animal sheltering into this organization.

Where I see the industry going - Many leaders in this industry say they are trying to put themselves out of a job. I don’t ever see a future where there won’t be animals that come to our need. Whether it’s behavior issues or physical trauma, I think husbandry is just part of what we do. Another part of what the industry and this organization bring is a reminder of humanity, and I believe this is paramount to our society. During the Capital Campaign for the renovation, we called the build “the anchor of humanity.” This is true for this entire industry. Through animals, we remind people of what it is to be humane.

SP- Is there anything else you would like to say?

Thank you. Thank you for the support, the friendships, the memories, and all the good we did together. A special thanks to our Board, Staff, Volunteers, and Donors. I’ve learned so much from every single one of you. As I walk out of my office one last time, it will be you, and all the animals we cared for that will be on my mind. I know there are even more great things to come in the future of HHS.

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