Thousands of pups and their people will converge on Julia Davis Park on Saturday, Oct. 1, for the 24th annual See Spot Walk — the popular community dog walk and Idaho Humane Society fundraiser. It’s a fall ritual that draws pet lovers of all ilks and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars to help IHS care for the area’s stray, homeless, lost and at-risk dogs, cats, bunnies, guinea pigs and more. Its care even extends to pet owners in need by providing food and low-cost veterinarian services.
But IHS does more than feed and shelter dogs and cats. Through its advocacy and programs, it offers hope for a more compassionate world and touches on our collective identity as a community that loves its pets.
Today, Jeff Rosenthal is the man at the helm of it all.
In his 16 total years at IHS as a veterinarian and as its leader, Rosenthal has overseen a sea change in people’s attitudes toward animals and an evolution of care that helped elevate the shelter into one of the Treasure Valley’s most loved institutions.
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In 2002, IHS had 48 employees; today, there are 102. The numbers of animals treated, sheltered and adopted have also increased. In the past fiscal year, IHS took in 12,573 lost and surrendered pets from the Treasure Valley and from other states. Of those, 6,448 were adopted, and 1,787 lost pets found their owners.
“People expect me to tell stories of gloom and doom and how awful thing are, but my experience is that things just keep getting better and better,” Rosenthal says. “This year we’ve had the lowest number of euthanasias in our history. There was a time after I became ED that every few months we were dealing with a massive hoarding case, involving hundreds of animals living in squalor and episodes of malicious cruelty. They’re not gone but they rarely happen now. And every year, you see this amazing growth in the human/animal bond that is now accepted in society, and that continues to get better.”
Rosenthal never intended to head Idaho’s largest animal-welfare organization. It was pure happenstance.
A graduate of Boise High, Rosenthal went to The College of Idaho before heading to veterinary school at Washington State University in Pullman. After graduating, he worked as a veterinarian for seven years in Talent, Ore., a community outside Ashland in southeast Oregon, before returning to his home state in 2000 to become the chief of staff at IHS’ veterinary hospital.
“My real plan was to grab this job and then look for a place I really wanted to work,” he says, laughing. “Turned out, this was it.”
In 2002, Executive Director Rich Donovan stepped down and Rosenthal stepped in as interim. The next year, the board appointed Rosenthal to the position, though he continues to clock many hours in his vet capacity.
“I really came into this world at the right time,” Rosenthal says. “It was still pretty grim and hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel — but you could see it. Then, the next decade saw a dramatic improvement in animal welfare in this country. I think that’s a direct effect of things like ‘Animal Planet’ on a generation of kids. There’s also a near universal acceptance of spay-neuter policy now. The paradigm has really shifted.”
Early on, there were obvious things to improve, what Rosenthal calls “low-hanging fruit.”
“Technology in the industry was moving to computerized records. I remember getting the first server in the building and pitching to the board that we really needed computers so we can track each animal, all its medical care, its disposition, adoptions, etc. That all happened during that time.”
He leaned on his training as a veterinarian to rethink the way IHS operated.
“As a vet, I think I have the right diagnosis, but I could be wrong,” he says. “So I continually try to question myself as to whether I have the right approach; if not, then I change it. Creating a culture of change is really important.”
That’s helped lead to new programs that address animal behaviors in a shelter situation, making for more adoptable pets.
Now, Rosenthal again finds himself on the cusp of more change, as IHS is running a capital campaign to build a new 40,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art shelter complex that includes larger animal housing and medical facilities, classrooms and an open park for shelter and community use.
IHS would like to break ground in spring 2017 if it gets the funds. So far, $10.5 million has been raised toward the $14 million goal.
What’s your biggest challenge?
The success for dogs is indisputable here. You no longer see adoptable dogs euthanized here. Our definition of adoptable is a lot “less adoptable” than other shelters simply because we have the medical capability to deal with a lot of issues. We have behavioral programs that deal with behavioral problems.
Traditional sheltering for cats is less successful. You still see a lot of paradigms being challenged around the country in terms of looking at the cat situation. Sheltering for a cats is different.
It’s clear that every single stray dog needs to be scooped up in our community. Does every single cat that’s roaming free need to be scooped up? Probably not. They often live in a world all their own, disconnected from human beings. We can argue about what they do to wildlife, but the cow got out of the barn a long time ago on that one. We’re struggling with what success looks like for cats.
What drives you each day?
Keeping everything moving toward success. Every day is like the tide coming in.
On the micro level, each animal that comes in is a project, whether it’s medical or behavioral or even if they’re just cute and totally adoptable. We have to keep each animal moving toward success.
On the macro level, we have these programs that work and in fact are getting better and better, and that’s reaffirming, but you have to keep moving forward.
What’s made the biggest difference over the years?
What I’ve learned is that if you hire young, idealistic people, they come up with great ideas, they work hard and put their heart and soul into them. A lot of the early programs we did had a lot to do with me and the hospital — the prison dog program and stuff like that.
The things we’re doing lately, all this behavior modification, came from these kids and their ideas. We didn’t use to think you could change a dog’s behavior in a shelter; you had to adopt them out. Now we keep dogs for a long time here, and we do a lot of behavioral intervention, and it works.
I try to stay out of their way, and then manage the budget and the big picture.
What makes you the right guy for this job?
You wear a lot of hats, so there is no one background that works. One of the things that happened when I came into the industry is an incredible amount of professionalism came into animal welfare. In the past, the dogcatcher was not something people aspired to.
There is so much to this job ... fundraising, the mechanics of nonprofit management, public relations, animal handling, veterinary medicine. No one comes in with all the right tools.
You have to stay open-minded. The kiss of death is to get locked into rigid paradigms — this is how we’ve always done it, and we always will.
Are you a dog or a cat person? Wine or beer?
Both dogs and cats, and for anyone in my position, there is no other answer. I might have to add bunnies.
On the other, I’m solidly in the beer camp. I really like Newcastle Brown Ale. I used to brew beer as a hobby. I think the amount of hops in beer today is turning me off of American brews. I tend to go in for the British and Irish beers that don’t use so much.
What dog breed best defines you?
German shorthaired pointers. (Rosenthal has two.) They’re friendly, eager to please and energetic. They also have a lot of anxiety issues. They like to run, so they fit my lifestyle. They’re good for fly-fishing on rivers; that’s a hobby that’s lasted a lifetime.
If you weren’t working at the Humane Society, what would you be doing?
When I was thinking about becoming a vet, I dabbled in all other areas of biology and science, even went to a marine institute for a summer, so I’d be doing something with science. I would want to work in the outdoors, as a forest ranger, or working for BLM, and probably working with wildlife.
What do you do for fun? What do you do to relieve stress?
Drink beer and go fishing — just kidding. We do a lot of running. My wife, Melissa Parks, is the athlete, so we do a lot of outdoor stuff. We also like to travel. We’ve been going to Latin and Central America a lot. Last year, we went to Ecuador. We’ve been to Australia.
Where do you like to take out-of-town guests?
When I was growing up, my parents would take people on these epic drives. So, I do that. It’s a daylong “see the mountains of Idaho” drive to Stanley and Sun Valley.
What three movies would you most like to watch on a trans-Atlantic flight?
The movies I tend to want to watch again tend to be comedies. I like old classic comedies — “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” with Buddy Hackett and all those stars. For more contemporary comedies, I tend to like the black comedies, so “Pulp Fiction” and “Fargo.”
Who or what inspires you?
We have young, idealistic people working here in sometimes difficult circumstances, and they’re persevering and putting in a ton of extra effort. We close for the day, and I see them out in the yard still working with the animals. Volunteers come here every day. They’re not paid. They do amazing and hard work. It’s humbling and very inspiring.
Do you / did you have a mentor?
Dale Bush, the first vet I worked for in Oregon. He was one of those guru vets that sets the tone for the whole area. He went beyond the medicine and imparted a lot of people skills to me, and that’s not something they impart in vet school at all. Now, it’s very rare when I think of an animal separate from the owners. They’re linked. We were one of the only clinics in the area that would work with the humane organizations. We participated in early spay/neuter programs, which was controversial at the time. That was a harbinger of what I would experience here.
In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?
Benjamin Franklin. I think he’s an interesting guy. Of all the Founding Fathers, he was less stodgy. He’s the cool Founding Father. He was a genius inventor Renaissance man, humorist and imparter of wisdom.
What motto do you live by?
Something like, adapt and overcome. The biggest mistake you can make, in a lot of different areas in life, is to lock on to the idea that, “This is the way we do things, no matter what.” You have to stay open-minded and keep questioning.
What is on your bedside reading table?
“The Martian” by Andy Weir. I never saw the movie and someone gave it to me, and “In the High Mountains of Portugal” by Yann Martel. I like being in high places.
What’s on your playlist?
I’m not a huge music person. I’ll listen to whatever is on. You know, mainstream rock, Pearl Jam, Coldplay and that stuff. I end up listening to a lot of country music in the hospital. The staff likes it, so I just leave it on.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I don’t have any terrible vices. But if it’s very late at night, and some really terrible sci-fi movie comes on, I’ll watch it into the wee hours, as long as there’s no redeeming intellectual content.
See Spot Walk
9 a.m. to noon (one-mile fun walk starts at 10 a.m.) Saturday, Oct. 1, Julia Davis Park, 700 S. Capitol Blvd., Boise. $30 individual, $25 per person for a team, $5 more on the day of the event. SeeSpotWalk.org.
Idaho Humane Society
Idaho Humane Society, 4775 W. Dorman St., Boise. 342-3508. To learn more about IHS programs and classes, find a lost pet or adopt an animal, volunteer or foster a pet, make an appointment with a veterinarian or make a donation, visit IdahoHumaneSociety.org for information.
Some Idaho Humane Society programs
▪ The Inmate Dog Alliance Project of Idaho pairs dogs with inmates in Idaho Correctional facilities for intensive socialization and training.
▪ The Pet Food Pantry provides food for dogs and cats for home-bound seniors as well as for families and individuals facing economic hardship so they can keep their pets, for shelter animals living in dedicated IHS foster homes and to support other animal welfare groups in need of occasional help.
▪ The shelter offers weekly Family Pet Manners training classes that use positive reinforcement to create well-behaved pets and knowledgeable owners. Classes are open to anyone in the community.
▪ Angel Care Pet Will & Trust Program offers a way to ensure your pet is cared for and placed in an appropriate home in case of your death or incapacitation. Note: You must make a donation to enroll.