Susanne Kogut, Executive Director of Petco Foundation, has the kind of deep, personal affection for animals you’d expect of any leading figure in the animal welfare movement. What’s less expected, however, is how she actually got involved in animal welfare to begin with.
“Everyone I work with has stories about how they’ve been around animals their entire lives,” says Susanne, who has a background in law and finance. “So it’s interesting when I tell them that my first significant relationship with an animal was when I was an adult, and I purchased — yes, purchased — an American Staffordshire Terrier from a breeder over 25 years ago.”
When that dog eventually passed away, she began searching to get another one. It wasn’t until she came across sites for rescue groups that she realized how many animals needed homes. “The truth is that some people just don’t have an awareness of the need,” she explains. “I didn’t. But after that, I became totally engaged in the cause and dedicated the rest of my career to it.”
She adopted two pit bulls from a rescue group in Connecticut, where she started started volunteering her administrative and corporate expertise. Soon, she became the group’s Virginia-based nonprofit arm. And that was just the beginning.
Around that time, Susanne had been working as the Director of Community Reinvestment at Capital One Financial Corporation, where she oversaw all of the company’s corporate philanthropy. But shortly after her rescue experience, she left. “I’d always wanted to work in public service, and I thought I could do something to help homeless people or homeless animals — or perhaps both. So I took my two rescue pit bulls, bought a trailer, and hit the road.”
Susanne spent a year exploring the U.S., stopping often to visit successful animal shelters (though she notes there were few in those days). At the end of her journey, she decided to apply for Executive Director positions at shelters where she thought she could help the most animals possible. This goal led her to the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA in Virginia.
“At the time, they were having serious issues with staff, volunteers, funding, and PR. They also had a high euthanasia rate. I took a job there with the goal of transforming it into one of the first mid-sized shelters — which also operated as an animal control shelter — that saved more than 90% of its animals. And within a year, we did just that.”
She stayed in that role for seven years, and says each year turned out better than the one before it. “The entire community became a part of our mission. We became an example for others, and what we accomplished in Charlottesville is now being done by many communities throughout the country.”
To date, transforming Charlottesville-Albemarle into a lifesaving community is one of her proudest career accomplishments. It solidified her passion for helping animals and also equipped her with an understanding of how it felt to have their lives depend on her — every day.
Today, Susanne serves as President and Executive Director of Petco Foundation, a public nonprofit that raises funds for more than 4,000 lifesaving animal welfare organizations across the country. These welfare partners include many of the largest animal shelters in cities throughout the country, as well as an array of smaller shelters and rescue groups, along with national organizations like K9s For Warriors, Search Dog Foundation, and ShelterMe TV. Since its inception in 1999 (Susanne joined in 2013), Petco Foundation has invested more than $200 million in its partners, and has facilitated the adoption of 5.5 million animals.
We recently sat down with Susanne — who now shares her home with six adopted animals, and fosters others from time to time — to chat about her current role at Petco Foundation and about the organization’s annual Love Changes Everything campaign, which kicked off this weekend and features artwork and appearances by MUTTS creator Patrick McDonnell.
Petco Foundation helps a lot of animal welfare organizations. How do you choose which ones to support?
We’re dedicated to helping those organizations that have the biggest hearts, that are doing everything possible to save lives. We find that there is a huge disparity in the funding of organizations out there; for example, some have very little funding for the number of animals they’re working with, but they’re trying their best and doing a lot with a little. We have developed a proprietary evaluation model to assess what we call their “lifesaving rate of return” and invest where we see the greatest lifesaving impact. In these cases, we know that if we give them more, they can save a lot more lives, and that’s something we’re really proud of.
And in addition to supporting individual organizations, we also look at new technologies and innovations that can potentially help save lives on a nationwide scale.
What are some examples of technologies or innovations you’ve invested in?
Adopt-a-Pet is one example. They’re already an adoption search engine, but they wanted to create an additional rehoming platform, which would allow people who needed to rehome their pets to do so without taking them to a shelter. We invested in that idea and worked with Adopt-a-Pet to make it happen.
Another example is Finding Rover, which is an online database for lost and found pets. Traditionally, if your pet goes missing, you put up flyers and check around at local shelters, and that’s just not an efficient system. We do believe in microchipping, but we also believe in the importance of a national database. Finding Rover uses facial recognition technology, so if you found an animal, you could take a picture and post it — and if the guardian who lost the animal also posted a picture, it would connect the two of you. And you’d never have to drive to a shelter.
Since you work closely with so many people from so many different organizations, can you tell us about one who has personally stood out to you?
In Atlanta, there’s a group called Lifeline Animal Project. Once when I was there visiting, I met a gentleman named Karl Booker whose job is to work with animals who have had reports of aggression. He works one-on-one with these animals, spends all his time with them, to improve their behavior and help them become adoptable. His commitment and dedication is what caused us to create the Lifesaving Hero Award at our annual awards gala, and he also inspired our new Unsung Heroes video series with Victoria Stilwell.
I feel like I have the best job in the world because I get to be around people all the time who are dedicated to helping animals. I admire anyone who works with a relentless determination and commitment to save lives.
Petco Foundation hosts multiple events throughout the year. The next one is “Love Changes Everything.” What is the mission of this event, and what makes it unique?
Each of our campaigns has a different theme, and Love Changes Everything is focused on how the love of our pets changes everything in our lives. Adopting a pet from a shelter makes that animal’s life better, but it also — so often — becomes about how much better it makes your life, too. Love Changes Everything is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate pet adoption and encourage support so we can get more pets adopted.
How does the campaign work?
The campaign kicks off on March 3 and March 4 with our Adoption Event Weekend, held at Petco and Unleashed by Petco stores nationwide. Throughout the rest of the campaign, which runs through April 1, we’ll also be gathering photos from animal guardians in order to create the world’s largest mosaic mural of adopted pets and their people. (Adopters can submit photos and enter to win daily prizes at petcofoundation.org/snaplove.)
On Sunday, March 25, the mosaic will come to life in New York City’s Union Square Park at our All for Love Adoption Rally, which will feature adoptable pets from more than 20 animal welfare organizations. Patrick will be there too, along with the MUTTS characters Mooch and Earl.
During the month-long campaign, we’ll also be raising funds in-store and online. Anyone who donates $10 or more will get a wonderful tote bag featuring Patrick McDonnell’s MUTTS artwork.
Why did you choose one of Patrick’s MUTTS images to represent the campaign?
Patrick has been a champion of pet adoption for years. The artwork he created for our Love Changes Everything campaign perfectly captures that emotional moment when you adopt a shelter animal. The image is just beautiful. The first time I saw it, it brought a tear to my eye. You can see the joy in both sets of hands, and how the love of a pet will change everything. Visually, I think that says it all.
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