Editor’s note: After this interview was conducted, Dave Pauli accompanied The HSUS’ Animal Rescue Team to Texas to assist with Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. Shortly after that, he led a three-person team via a chartered plane (and then a chartered helicopter) to Vieques, Puerto Rico to deliver supplies and aid for animals and people in the wake of Hurricane Maria. We commend the rescue team for their tireless efforts to help victims of these recent disasters. More info about The HSUS’ response in Puerto Rico is available here.

Dave Pauli grew up raising pigeons in Watertown, Wisconsin. When he was 10, his father bought him a Havahart live trap to humanely catch skunks and raccoons who visited their pigeon pens. His dad also taught him practical ways to live in harmony with so-called “nuisance” wildlife. (What was even better than relocating those animals? Making structural improvements to the pigeon loft. Noticed a strange cat hanging around? If he’s not acting aggressively, just leave him be.)

In his early teens, Dave applied this knowledge to help others in his community. “Instead of a paper route, I had a wildlife route,” he says. “I put a trap on my bike and rode around town and provided humane control of predators.”

After receiving two agricultural degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Dave moved to Montana and took a job as the Superintendent of Animal Control for the local police department. “I thought of it as a stop-gap measure, but I ended up doing it for nearly six years, and I loved it. It seemed destined for me to work with critters.”

Dave Pauli Circa 1987
As the Superintendent of Animal Control, Dave created and led a skunk contraception project as a way to humanely control rabies.

Today, Dave serves as the Senior Advisor of Wildlife Innovation & Response for The Humane Society of the United States, where he’s worked for over 26 years. His work involves an array of proactive and reactive wildlife projects, ranging from animal housing and predator issues to education and disaster response.

Is there such a thing as a “typical” day for you? If so, what does that look like?

I have different types of typical days, depending on the time of year. For three to four months out of the year, for example, I work on the equine contraception team in Vieques, Puerto Rico. So far this year I’ve also responded with the Animal Rescue Team for a 7,000-bird cockfighting case in California, spent a week catching mongooses in Molokai, Hawaii, worked on my “turtle bootcamp” project, and more.

When I’m at home in Montana, though, I always start my day by checking my calendar. Then it’s animal care. Right now, I’m tending to eight baby raccoons, 23 turtles, four tortoises, and some rescue chickens. Throughout the day I respond to emails and phone calls. I get 250-300 emails per day from multiple states and countries, and usually a few calls from people in the community. It’s pretty darn easy to pull me away from the computer. If I’m in town and available, those requests get inserted into my day.

That’s a lot of requests! How do those work, and what are they generally about?

Most of the calls are referrals from people I’ve helped in the past. And the local ones are really only common in the springtime. Some people have snakes in their yard, or injured birds. One woman called me about a bobcat on her deck. She had a couple of cats, and we figured out it was eating her cat food. I advised her to bring the food in at night. With snakes, I’ll usually find out if there are housekeeping issues that can be addressed. (Do you see insects? Is the property mowed? Are there bird feeders in the yard that are attracting mice?)

Most of the things I deal with are not actually animal problems. They’re fixable situations created by people. So I just point out solutions and promote coexistence. I try to figure out why a particular critter is there, and try to see how we can change our behaviors or perspectives so we can all learn to live together safely.

How does your “turtle bootcamp” project work?

Four years ago, Montana banned the sales and ownership of red-eared slider turtles. Unfortunately, they didn’t include a grandfathering provision, so a lot of people found out that if they had a turtle, they were technically supposed to turn it in. So I (along with the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks department) created a rescue program for the turtles. It was supposed to last one year, but this’ll be our fourth and final year. The first year we took in around 200 turtles; this year, we have 26.

We’ve asked some herpetologists in southern states for their help, and together we’ve been able to locate unique, fenced, private properties where the turtles can be released. So this year, I’ll be driving twenty-something red-eared sliders from Montana to a sanctuary in North Carolina.

Dave Pauli Turtle Selfie
Dave poses for a selfie with a spiny softshell turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtle species in North America.

Why is it called a “bootcamp”?

All their lives, these turtles have swum in tanks that are 18, 24, maybe 36 inches long. When I put them in a 6,000-gallon tank, guess what? They swim 18, 24, or 36 inches. They put their little paws up because they expect to hit glass. Finally, when they realize there’s no glass, they dive deep and swim far, and within two or three weeks we have turtles who want nothing to do with people. They’re content to live on their own, and they revert to a state where they can be released. It’s not really “rehab” because we don’t teach them anything; it’s a bootcamp, where they prove what they’re already able to do.

What’s the most fun part of your job?

I have two answers for that. First, I love working on good teams. A good team can be two or 22 people, but when you get a group working in the same direction to help animals — like our equine team in Vieques — that’s pretty rewarding.

Second, I love doing diverse, hands-on stuff. I’m really blessed to have the opportunity to help critters and have The HSUS support me in using my skills. I always say, “I am the job.” I don’t really pay attention to the whole 40-hour workweek thing — never have, never will. My days tend to be long but that’s by choice, and I don’t do it unhealthily. I realize not everyone can have so much variety in their job like I do. I’m living the dream!

Does helping animals in need ever take an emotional toll on you? If so, how do you handle that?

I celebrate the little victories. I realize that not everything I want to happen is going to happen — but if I can get one person to change a little behavior that helps animals, I’m happy. I think of my job in terms of one person and one animal at a time. And you know, if I can talk to a 20-year-old and convince them to coexist with animals, I may have made a difference that lasts three or four decades.

You’ve worked in a lot of places alongside a lot of different people. Can you tell us about one or two people who’ve had a lasting impact on you?

There are so many. There’s Dr. Mark Johnson, an international wildlife expert in Montana. And Dr. Eric Davis, whose field projects have helped thousands of animals. And John Hoyt, who was a true orator and a true animal person. He had a huge impact as President of The HSUS.

Wayne Pacelle is another. I remember being in a meeting with Wayne 12 or 13 years ago, and he was presenting to our regional directors. He said, “Everybody tell me what you did to help animals today or yesterday.” He explained that he wakes up and thinks, “What did I do yesterday or what can I do today?” That had a big impact on me because previously, I didn’t quite think that way. But now I do.

The HSUS’ mission statement is “Celebrating Animals, Confronting Cruelty.” I also have a personal one, which is “Any Critter, Any Crisis.” If I get a call at 8:30 at night and there’s an animal who needs help, I’ll get up out of my chair and into my car. I’ll rescue a white-footed mouse or a grizzly bear. They’re both important. And if they’re in crisis, I’ll be there to help.

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