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Member Spotlight: Get To Know Kathleen M. Olson, CAWA
The first shelter Kathleen M. Olson worked at reached 90% positive outcomes for dogs within 3 years under her leadership. As ED of Purrfect Pals Cat Sanctuary and Adoption Center, she just overhauled their business model to appointment-only adoptions in response to the pandemic. Oh, and she makes great brownies, too.
Name: Kathleen M. Olson, CAWA
Organization: Purrfect Pals Cat Sanctuary and Adoption Center
Title: Executive Director
Member of The Association Since: 2008
CAWA Since: 2012
Q&A with Kathleen M. Olson, CAWA
The Association: What do you want other members to know about your organization?
Kathleen M. Olson: Purrfect Pals Cat Sanctuary and Adoption Center was founded in 1988 by Kathy Centala, who knew there could be an alternative to euthanasia for the special needs and older kitties facing a bleak outcome at shelters in Washington State. Purrfect Pals, located on 5.5 acres in Snohomish County north of Seattle, partners with regional shelters and rescue groups to transfer in the special needs kitties that they and members of the community may not have the resources or space to help. Cats are housed in community rooms and pods with catios. A robust foster program for kitten litters and medically fragile adults expands capacity to 350 kitties. While all cats are available for adoption, they have a home with Purrfect Pals for as long as needed.
The Association: What do you think is the most important part of your job?
KMO: As Executive Director, my role is to ensure that Purrfect Pals has the resources needed to provide positive outcomes for special needs cats, and kittens and that my team has the tools and training they need.
The Association: What’s the biggest challenge you are facing right now?
KMO: Capacity for care limits the number of cats we can serve. The biggest challenge is the lack of resources for low-income pet owners to keep their cats with medical needs.
The Association: Share a success your team has had this year.
KMO: When the pandemic forced the closure of four offsite adoption centers at partner pet stores, Purrfect Pals has been successful in adapting its business model to complete adoptions on an appointment-only basis at the main shelter. Potential adopters now fill out a profile online and are interviewed by phone to help them find a match. By the time they arrive for their appointment, they have selected one or two cats to meet. They have the undivided attention of the Adoption Manager or Counselor, and this has reduced the number of returns. Our offsite adoption locations are staffed by volunteers, and when we open them back up, we will follow the same concierge-level adoption service by appointment at all locations.
The Association: What is keeping you healthy and resilient these days?
KMO: Chocolate on hand at all times, supportive spouse and a great work team. Team camaraderie, and willingness of the management team to pitch in to clean and feed the cats when other staff became quarantined or took vacation days for the several months when we didn’t have volunteer help kept me from burning out. It’s amazing how cathartic changing litter pans and mopping floors can be, especially when there are cats to cuddle in between chores.
The Association: What’s one thing—industry-related or not—you learned in the past month?
KMO: I learned that it is okay to ask your donors, board, volunteers, and staff for help, even during a pandemic. And it really works to be transparent about your needs. They are loyal to your mission when it is their passion. Who knew that you could raise the funds you needed in less than 24 hours to pump septic tanks and replace your commercial washer, and even have several thousand dollars above your immediate costs donated to establish a maintenance fund—with just an email blast and one social media posting?
The Association: What’s your hidden talent?
KMO: Getting people in the right seat on the bus; matching their passion and skills to the positions needed on the team. I also make great brownies.
The Association: As chair of the conference committee, you are a total rockstar! What’s in store for the Fall Conference—what are you most excited about?
KMO: The Fall Conference is going to give Association members, supporters, and guests a great virtual venue to explore how we are adapting animal welfare practices to meet the needs of the communities we serve, and share what we have learned from the pandemic, natural disasters, and the desire to bring diversity and inclusion to our field.
The Association: How have you benefited from your involvement with The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement?
KMO: My background was journalism, advertising and nonprofit management in the social services sector. I was recruited to lead the Point Defiance Zoological Society after chairing a safari-themed auction for my Rotary club in 1998 that included a Fund-a-Need for the Zoo. Eight years raising money for conservation of endangered species and their habitats gave me experience in wild animal welfare.
When I was tapped to lead the Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County, I needed to learn how to eliminate breed restrictions, be nonjudgmental towards people surrendering pets, establish a community cat program, expand a foster program, promote volunteerism, and open adoption policies, while continuing to promote spay/neuter.
Attending conferences, joining a study group for the CAWA test and having access to other members with expertise in these areas were the key factors to my success. The shelter reached the national standard of at least 90% positive outcomes for dogs in my third year as Director, and for cats in my eighth year.
The Association: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to who you were ten years ago?
KMO: Patience and perseverance pay off. Find your allies and shut out the “noise” from your adversaries. Be transparent. You have to tell your story truthfully so you can change the story you have to tell. Realize that not everyone is going to agree with you. But the ones who do will help you address pet overpopulation through prevention and placement programs and provide resources so that all pet lovers, regardless of income or circumstances, can be successful pet owners.
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