Here comes the judge
Life’s changing circumstances and a visit to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary prompted a family court judge to make an about-face in her career path. She became a dog caregiver.That was nearly five years ago, and Colleen McMullen hasn’t looked back.
Once a tribal court magistrate for the Western Shoshone-Paiute tribe and later a family court magistrate in the rural northeastern Nevada community of Elko, today she’s executive assistant to Patty Hegwood, director of Best Friends’ Animal Care Division.
In October 2004, McMullen, with her basset hound Hillary and terrier mix Grizz in tow, relocated to Kanab, Utah, where she started out as a caregiver at Old Friends, home for the older dogs at Best Friends’ Dogtown. She also worked at the Best Friends clinic, then, when Hegwood became executive director of Animal Care, she went to work as her assistant.
McMullen’s roots in Elko run deep. Her ancestors homesteaded in the area shortly after the railroad arrived in the late 1860s. "The McMullens were an old family who lived in that area for generations," she says, "so it was a big deal to move away from there."
She did leave Elko for college at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in theater. Then she looked for work.
"I didn’t plan on going to law school right out of college," McMullen says. "I pursued a theatrical career. [But] I found I wanted more stability in my life. There are lawyers in my family, so it seemed like a natural fit." She got her legal degree from the University of Notre Dame, then returned to Nevada to work as a staff attorney at Elko District Court.
Still, a different kind of service beckoned; for a long time she’d wanted to volunteer at Best Friends. "I was a member for several years, and circumstances in my personal life and professional life changed, so I could finally volunteer."
She was transitioning out of the courtroom, so she took that long-awaited trip to the sanctuary. "I had this in my head to work for Best Friends," she says, "so whatever I could do to help me be of service or have what it takes to come to Best Friends, that was important," she says.
To get experience, she went to work for an Elko veterinarian—an old friend she’d grown up with—and also worked at a kennel that did rescue work. "Having your own dog isn’t the same thing," McMullen says. "I wanted to get some hands-on, serious experience."
Elko residents used to seeing McMullen on the bench were caught off guard when they’d see her working at the vet clinic or at the local kennel. "People were surprised to see me there," she says. "I didn’t really care what anybody thought. I knew it was the right thing."
Two years later, she applied for a job at Best Friends—and got it. Her goal with each of the jobs she’s had at the sanctuary has been to stay connected to the animals. In her current position, "We help all the animal departments. It’s a great way to touch all species who live here and help them. My progression wasn’t planned this way, but it’s worked out."
In 2007, she adopted Bootie, another basset. "I have three dogs, and I take care of lots of office animals here," she says.
McMullen describes herself as "kind of like the ‘girl Friday’ for all the departments within Animal Care, which includes the clinic, Adoptions, the animal care areas and the Learning Experience.
For Patty Hegwood, having a former judge as her executive assistant has been refreshing. "Colleen is the glue that holds animal care together," she says. "Being a judge, she reminds us to be fair and impartial in the sweetest, most delicate way.
"I can speak for all of the folks who work in Animal Care that Colleen is so very loved and relied upon for her knowledge and support of all we do for the animals."
And McMullen is just as pleased with them. "I made the right move," she says, "and I’ve never regretted it."
Written by Cathy Scott
Photos by Sarah Ause
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