For nearly eight years, former shelter director and D.C. native Sára Varsa has served on the Humane Society of the United States’ Animal Rescue Team, currently as Senior Director. In this role, she manages the HSUS’ field response for man-made and natural disasters, which includes the oversight of a fully equipped response team of more than a dozen staff members. Together, they’ve rescued thousands of animals from puppy mills, large-scale neglect cases, extreme weather events, and animal fighting operations.
Considering the nature of her work (and her clear dedication to it), it’s no surprise that her love for animals is boundless — or that it began when she was very young.
“I grew up around horses,” says Sára, now a Maryland resident and mother of two. “At a young age, I was mucking stalls and cleaning buckets at a horse center. I gained an appreciation for the power of nonverbal communication and learned to understand animals based on their eyes and movements. Growing up in this environment, I centered my self-esteem around my relationship with the horses. So I’ve always been drawn to animals, but I never knew I could make a career out of it.”
Even so, Sára worked at a veterinary clinic while in college and throughout her educational career. “I actually went to school and got my master’s to become a teacher. I taught for about two years, realized how much I loved the connection between people and animals, and found my way back. I became a director of operations at a shelter for several years, then joined The HSUS’ Animal Rescue Team.”
How does the Animal Rescue Team operate?
In my department, there are three arms: an animal care branch, a cruelty investigations branch, and an operational branch. With animal cruelty cases, we support local agencies and law enforcement as they take animals from crisis and rehabilitate them. In natural disasters, we create safe havens for animals whose families have been displaced. In nearly all instances, we work with local shelters or build temporary ones, creating infrastructure where there is none.
Tell us about your teammates.
They’re highly specialized animal care professionals and species experts. We are like a SWAT team, and we deploy throughout the country. In natural disasters that have lead time (like hurricanes), our entire staff is on call. We are a family, bonded not only by our work but also by our shared respect for one another and the skill sets we bring to the table. We put our lives in danger, and we have to rely on each another to be okay.
Do you mind describing some of your most memorable deployments?
There was a gentleman in Montana, basically a recluse, whose wife had passed away. He had 91 dogs on his property. Only four had been allowed outside in their lifetime, and all were the original descendants of the four dogs his wife had given him. He had no running water or electricity, no bed or pillows, and he had scars all over his face from where he’d been bitten. He slept on planks and kept his limited food supply — peanut butter and bread — in his toilet tank, the only place the dogs couldn’t reach it.
As we took the dogs out of the house, I talked with him and tried to keep him calm during what was obviously a very difficult day. He lost his wife, and now he was losing some of the animals who meant a lot to him, despite his inability to provide all of them with adequate care. Before we left, we unloaded our supplies from the truck. Gatorade, water, pillows. I told him we didn’t have room for these things and asked if he would keep them safe for us. He was very proud; I don’t think he would have accepted them otherwise. (Ultimately, he was able to keep four of his dogs that he was able to care for appropriately after we spayed/neutered them and got them veterinary care.)
Another memory dear to me comes from a case in West Virginia, where there were about 50 horses on five acres. It was really just a dirt lot, and a mare had impaled herself on a fence post while trying to reach grass on the other side. She had a huge wound in her chest. She was put on a trailer and immediately taken to a veterinary specialist. I wasn’t sure if she’d make it. Two months later, she walked off the same trailer to live her forever life.
The last one is a puppy mill case. There was a Great Pyrenees, a super old man I named Titus. He was milling about the property while we were there, not neutered, arthritic, a little draggy in the back legs. I was just like, “Man, I wish you could talk. What have you lived through?” I fell hard in love with him. We took him back to the shelter, and he had some significant health issues. Three days after we rescued him, he passed away. It felt like he held on until he didn’t have to fight anymore; and when he had a comfortable bed and a person showering him with love, he decided it was time to let go. That kind of stuff just sticks with me.
How do you deal with the emotional toll of your work?
It can be emotional, but I have found ways to cope. As much suffering as we see, I see far more good. We meet amazing people all over the country who fight for animals and justice every day. And something that still surprises me is the resiliency of animals — their capacity to fight for their health, and to forgive.
What advice do you have for others who want to help animals?
Most of all, lead with compassion. Be kind in all things you do, regardless of the species or being. If you want to pursue a career in animal protection, there’s no substitute for volunteering at a local shelter to gain hands-on experience. And for anyone who feels discouraged: Don’t be. Nothing is helpless. We cannot give up — the animals are counting on us.