Dog Gone

After 36 years, Steve McNall is stepping down from his leadership of the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA.

BY: Cuyler Gibbons



I’ve never seen the inside of a “country club prison,” and I don’t know if these supposed comfortably, pleasant structures even truly exist. I do know, having recently visited, that were I a stray dog on the lam, getting picked up by the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA would be akin to the mythical country club lock up. While there is no getting around the need to sometimes cage animals for their own protection and that of the public, getting locked up by the Pasadena Humane Society is more hotel than hoosegow. Complete with amenities.

After 36 years, Steve McNall is stepping down as president and CEO of the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA. He leaves behind one of the premier humane facilities in the state. Having led this nonprofit through a period of revitalization and significant growth, McNall’s legacy is one of new facilities, expanded programs and thousands of successfully rescued and adopted animals.

Though partially still housed in the building the Pasadena Humane Society occupied in 1903, the organization has come a long way from those beginnings. In those days, the Humane Society oversaw the welfare of animals, abused women and orphans. Draft animals, mostly horses, made up the bulk of their work, and were often brought in directly from the adjacent train station through the still standing archway, below what was the original director’s residence.

It wasn’t until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt that the wisdom of uncoupling the welfare of women and children from that of animals became evident, and protective services were spun off from the Humane Society, which continued focusing on their animal welfare mission.

The Pasadena Humane Society had been around for over 80 years when McNall became executive director in 1985, and he has since taken it well beyond its centennial celebration. He attributes much of his success to the perspective he gained beginning his career as an animal control officer, or dogcatcher as they were once more prosaically known. When McNall took the reins as executive director, he says they had 20 employees and 20 volunteers. That number has grown to 104 employees and 600 plus volunteers today, along with a $10 million budget, 20 times what it was when McNall took over.


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He’s justifiably proud of the growth accomplished under his watch but what he really likes is the fact that “it’s all designed for the animals.” As he says, “Back in the ‘80s or ‘90s you know a dog pound was a dog pound. Ugly smelling concrete you couldn’t maintain or manage, no plant life. It just looked terrible. It wasn’t particularly comfortable for the animals and it was unpleasant for the public and therefore people didn’t want to visit or engage.”

That is certainly not the case at the Pasadena facility now. The rows of pens where dogs are housed are surrounded and shaded by ample foliage, and, the day I was there, several contained volunteers as well as dogs, interacting with the canine occupants. Ricky Whitman, the Humane Society VP of Communications, explains that the pens contain temperature-controlled misters for hot days, and that the covered “den” in the back of each pen contains a heated slab for when colder temperatures prevail.

No doubt the facilities are posh but, what about the activities? Whitman explains the intake procedure saying, “There is a five to seven day hold period required by the state in the hope of reuniting the animal with its owner. After that point, it becomes our property and we can bath it, etc. We get to work, to show the animal off to its best advantage so that it is ultimately adoptable. Dogs, cats, rabbits are sterilized before they go home or go to rescue.’

The process, explains Whitman, always begins with an assessment. “We test all animals when they come to see if they are exhibiting behaviors that need to be adapted. Sometimes the animal is aggressive and not currently adoptable. Safety is first,” she says.

It’s not all about remediation, but also about enrichment. Even the best animals, by the time they get to a Humane Society shelter, are considerably stressed. The novel and noisy environment, coupled with the separation from what the animal has known, creates enormous stress, often to the detriment of their health, and sometimes creating aberrant behavior patterns. It’s important to provide some emotional relief so that the animal’s true nature can be better understood. At the Pasadena Humane Society, there are a variety of enrichment programs designed to reduce stress levels and even provide specific training to make the animals more desirable as adoptees. From teaching the dogs to stay, sit or come on command, to nose (scent identification) or agility training for certain breeds, a stay at the Pasadena Humane Society is designed to transition a dog from fearful stray to loving companion.

While the adoption programs are integral, McNall says he might be proudest of the advances the facility has made in providing spay and neuter services, not just for the animals they take in, but for the public as well. The Pasadena facilities contain two gleaming, full surgical centers, one providing spay, neuter and vaccination services to the public, and the other capable of supplying not only sterilization, but whatever surgery intake animals require. With a full time veterinarian on staff, the “snipping” proceeds like a well-oiled machine, with animals constantly cycling through from prep, to surgery to recovery. According to the annual report, the Pasadena Humane Society performed nearly 4,000 sterilizations in 2015, an increase of 45 percent.

No successor to McNall has been named as a national search is underway. His final day is not yet established and, as Ricky Whitman says, they “might not let him go.” McNall however, assures me he will in fact be retiring, but he’s leaving the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA well positioned for the future, and for his successor, whomever that might be. I wonder what he sees for that future when he looks forward now. “With the purchase of the corner property we’ve maxed out our building space. One thing we’ve been looking at is a satellite facility to handle more wildlife rehab…but really what’s most important is continuing to do positive community outreach where we can make a lot of good friends and invite them into the organization while educating them about animal welfare work,” he says. “It’s no longer about being a dogcatcher, it’s more about lifesaving.”

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