It’s time we have a conversation about pay

Best Friends caregiver hugging a boxer dog
Personal sacrifice and passion cannot be the price of admission into nonprofit animal welfare.

It’s time we have a conversation about pay inequity for animal caregivers across our field.

When I first moved to Kanab, Utah, and started at Best Friends, I had $20 in my pocket, lived in the back of a van and showered at the local gym. My first paycheck was $183. At that point, the founders of Best Friends weren’t even getting paid, so I thought to myself: “I guess this kind of pay is a rite of passage and I have to put in my dues.”

Each morning, I would show up at the Sanctuary for my daily assignments and basically do whatever work was needed to keep the place afloat: fixing fences, installing irrigation systems, taking care of the animals ― you name it. I had the mentality that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t being paid a living wage, because I was passionate about the cause and that would be enough to carry me through. It was worth the sacrifice of life’s niceties which, when I think about it, probably included a few necessities as well.

Since then, I’ve carried the mindset that making these types of sacrifices is how it works in our field, especially for “front line caregivers” or “kennel workers” ― two titles for our critical animal care staff that I’ve used in the past but now really rub me the wrong way. My rationale, which isn’t uncommon in a lot of sectors of our society, was that I had sacrificed and paid my dues, so other people should, too. The saying has always been that “You’ll never get rich working in animal care,” but the reality was that you weren’t even making a decent wage.

Animal welfare, like many social causes, was once regarded as charitable work, mostly done by affluent volunteers in their spare time with the virtue of good works being the reward for people who didn’t need the money anyway. The importance and the value of animal welfare to society were undervalued and underfunded, and its workers underpaid. That value equation had a long tail and has been difficult to dislodge.

That’s just how it was ― until now. We have spent decades elevating the value of our animal companions in the public’s mindset, and it’s long overdue that we elevate the value of those individuals who do the important work of caring for those animals and saving their lives.

Personally, I’ve done a complete 180 on the topic of animal care pay and it comes down to one simple notion: Our animal caregivers are at the heart of our mission, our organization and what we do every day. They’re taking care of what we love the most: our animals. What they get paid should reflect this value and we shouldn’t, as I once did, think that personal sacrifice is the price of admission into this field.

This work is tough and requires keen skills. Caregivers go from comforting a scared dog one minute, to managing a volunteer the next, to engaging with a potential adopter, donor or even member of the media. They work through difficult, emotionally charged situations, often in dirty conditions, in order to show homeless and lost pets that they are loved. These roles require not just love and care for animals, but an incredible amount of emotional intelligence and stability, interpersonal skills and determination to keep going despite the daily hardships.

Ultimately, this is a career ― a profession with a unique skill set. And it’s our charge to provide the tools, the support and, yes, the appropriate wages to fully develop this as a career path. Our core employees shouldn’t be struggling. They shouldn’t be living paycheck to paycheck, worrying how to make rent or facing food insecurity, especially when we can prevent it. These incredibly skilled, passionate employees shouldn’t be leaving animal welfare to work someplace that’s below their skill set or their passion, simply because they need to receive a living wage.

In the early days of Best Friends, the founders didn’t draw any salaries at all. They shared common meals, lived on-site and received a $30 per week stipend for personal needs. It was all very noble, but when they started building out programs in other cities, they realized that they had been living under a proverbial rock and had no idea of the actual value of money. Turned out $30 was not a small fortune after all!

The founders wanted to grow and do more for the animals, but if they thought they couldn’t afford to pay themselves, they certainly couldn’t afford to hire any staff, right? Wrong. It’s an example of a belief the founders identified as “the poverty mentality,” which stifles growth and ultimately winds up costing more. Take dog food, for example. In those days, the founders thought they could only afford to buy small quantities of food from the local grocer or the big box pet store. Of course, that wound up costing more per pound and more per dog than if they purchased it by the truckload. So, in essence, the way the founders looked at affordability put them in the position of not being able to save money.

The same thing applied to salaries and staffing. The founders realized that the poverty mentality of believing that they couldn’t pay themselves or anyone else was ensuring small thinking and preventing growth. Quite the opposite was true: If they wanted to grow and save more animals, they couldn’t afford not to hire staff or draw salaries. It wasn’t until they got over their poverty mentality that Best Friends began to grow. And while they obviously weren’t breaking the bank on my $183 paycheck, they had broken out of a defeatist way of thinking and made a huge step forward.

That thinking is just as applicable today as it was 25 years ago. Last year Best Friends moved forward with a new compensation program to both bring our entire organization more in line with the outside market, and to also reflect the fact that animal care is a highly skilled position that is at the very heart of our organization. As a result of this revisioning, the entry-level pay for animal care staff at our Los Angeles and New York lifesaving centers is now $18.70 per hour. At the Sanctuary it’s $21.63 per hour, and at our other lifesaving centers, it is $17 per hour. After the first year of training, wages go up significantly, and our most seasoned animal care staff can make up to $32 per hour at our Sanctuary, $30 per hour in Los Angeles and New York, and $28 per hour at our other lifesaving centers.

Best Friends is a national organization with a significantly larger budget than most, but that doesn’t make this new policy any easier to implement. It required rounds and rounds of internal discussions on the budget, and yeah, the old we-can’t-afford-this mentality crept in. But the fact is that to recruit and retain the best possible care staff, to implement novel programs and receive meaningful feedback and, ultimately, to save more lives, again, we couldn’t afford not to. We had to make some tough decisions in order to make it work, but I promise you this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky idea. It is doable in our field for many organizations that absolutely have the budget and it’s doable right now. Leadership teams can work together, make thoughtful budget adjustments that won’t interrupt overall programming and truly demonstrate that employees are the greatest assets of their organization. I’ll just say it: If you have the money, you should be doing this.

Organizations with tighter budgets can look at making more gradual salary adjustments and start mapping out a plan to redesign compensation for caregivers. Every organization can start having discussions about kennel worker/caregiver wage inequity and can make a commitment to look beyond wages toward ramping up benefit packages to support mental, physical and emotional health. Municipal shelters can further engage their communities to make it very clear to their local governments that paying their shelter workers and animal control officers what they deserve should be priority one.

Some view it as taboo in our industry to say that people come first. But they do. Without people no animals get saved, and without well-supported animal care staff we, as an industry, will never live up to our lifesaving potential. This is especially important now, as our industry faces unprecedented staffing shortages due to COVID-19-related absences and people leaving the industry for higher-paying jobs, as well as an estimated 100,000 more pets in shelters compared to last year.

As many shelters, rescue groups and humane societies struggle with losing employees to companies paying more, the staffing shortage won’t be ending anytime soon. We must create a path to fair compensation for our animal caregivers. It will lift our entire field and strengthen our employee base by attracting and retaining the talent the animals deserve.

Each of us is committed to this cause because we love animals and believe that their lives have value. It only follows that there can be nothing of greater value to our organizations than the people who care for those animals. We should be recognizing their essential contribution and compensating our animal caregivers at the highest levels that we can. It’s simply the right thing to do.