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January 3, 2011

She's Come Full Circle: Laura Maloney Returns to the Front Lines

From animal fighters to hurricanes, The HSUS’s new chief of staff takes on the biggest threats to animals

All Animals magazine, January/February 2011

  • Laura

    Laura Maloney with her dog. Michelle Riley/The HSUS.

  • Lousiana

    An inspiration to Laura Maloney, the staff of the Louisiana SPCA suffered personal losses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina but soldiered on for the animals’ sake. Chad Sisneros/The HSUS

Laura Maloney has seen a whole lot of things you just don’t want to know about.

“Hog-dogging, for instance,” says Maloney. “That’s when a pig is released in an arena and a pit bull takes it down. It’s very common in the rural South.”

Then there’s dogfighting and cockfighting. One hopes you’ve seen neither. They were once new to Maloney, too. But after moving to New Orleans in 1997, she found herself immersed in an unfamiliar culture where animal fighting was sanctioned by the state and cruelty was largely ignored.

There was more. The city had an enormous stray population. Dog packs roamed the streets. Euthanasia rates were off the charts, adoption numbers low. Within 10 years, several directors had come and gone at the Louisiana SPCA. Given the city’s inherent problems, running a shelter seemed a no-win job.

In other words, for a woman like Maloney, it was perfect. “I found out the job was open,” she remembers, “and I said, ‘That’s my cue!’ ”

Some of us take measured steps into the unknown. Maloney moves at breakneck speed. Before joining the Louisiana SPCA as executive director in 2001, she’d focused on wildlife welfare and education, working along with her husband, Dan, at some of the country’s best-known zoos.

Quickly and quite unexpectedly, she decided to change course.

“I was blown away by the problems the shelter faced. One thousand unwanted animals coming in each month. Suddenly, it hit me like a hammer. This was the work I wanted to do.”

She focused on reducing euthanasia; increasing adoptions; achieving financial stability; galvanizing resources for more spay/neuter campaigns, humane education, and feral cat initiatives; and investigating dogfighting and other forms of broad-scale, institutionalized cruelty across the state.

That’s all.

Inevitably,with some blood sports still legal in Louisiana, lasting change would depend on changing laws. Never mind that Maloney had no prior dealings with a state legislature. She was, and remains, a woman who thrives on building consensus and bringing disparate groups to the table. A few years into her new job, the culturally entrenched sport of hog-dog fighting was banned. “People were stunned that we took that on and won.”

While the Louisiana SPCA aggressively enforced laws against dogfighting, cockfighting was still a legal form of entertainment in the Bayou State. Maloney’s organization joined forces with The HSUS and pulled off another stunning victory in 2007, when state legislators voted to outlaw the blood sport.

It’s no surprise that caring and advocating for animals is overwhelmingly demanding work. Crisis is an everyday thing. Catastrophe, though, is quite another.

Even in fair-weather times at the shelter, animal suffering was a constant presence. Lives invariably hung in the balance, and Maloney faced that awareness every day on the job. “I used to think to myself, ‘If I’m not effective, animals will die.’”

In 2005, that feeling took on even greater urgency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But effectiveness was in short supply in the ensuing chaos. All of Maloney’s rescue staff suffered personal losses, the SPCA facility was gone, and rescue groups from around the country were at each other’s throats. Everyone from FEMA to city and state politicians vied for her attention.

As months passed and catastrophe gave way to bone-wearying crisis, Maloney and her staff stayed in emergency mode for two years. While restoring operations, she led a $10 million fundraising campaign to build the SPCA’s new home. Perhaps closest to her heart, she lobbied successfully for a law that requires parishes to have an evacuation plan for pets and service animals.

Maloney did none of this alone. “From the moment I met them, the staff did wonders with the resources available to them,” she says. “During Katrina, they put their lives on hold and focused on the animals and community.”

Never once during the ordeal did she think of leaving New Orleans. But Fortune, writes Shakespeare, “brings in some boats that are not steered.” When her husband was offered a job in Australia, Maloney chose to go.

And so began an odyssey with altogether new challenges: as a consultant for Zoos Victoria, senior vice president of anti-cruelty initiatives at the ASPCA in Manhattan, and until August, senior vice president of strategic initiatives and communications at the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA. Life was a whirlwind and time flew by; and yet, there was always Katrina.

“I felt guilty I wasn’t there,” she says now about leaving New Orleans. “It was like a death I wasn’t prepared for. I’d lost the city I loved, the life I loved, the job I loved. I really hadn’t dealt with the loss.”

Like a combat soldier confronted with the ordinariness of civilian life, Maloney missed the front lines. And though the San Diego Humane Society was one of the country’s most outstanding organizations, she wanted to drive change at a national level. Always a leader, ever a soldier, she hankered to lead the charge.

This past summer, Maloney was offered the chance to join an organization with serious muscle, one that affects animal welfare on a world stage. The position would draw on her expertise with a range of species, capitalize on her ability to build consensus, and continue her commitment to change laws and advocate for those who have no voice.

The HSUS was a perfect fit. Calling Maloney “a remarkable leader,” HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle says he’s thrilled to have her on staff. “I’ve worked alongside Laura in Louisiana during the effort to rescue animals following Hurricane Katrina, and in the battle to outlaw cockfighting in the state,” he says, “and I have seen her excel in all the areas where’s she focused her attentions.”

Joining The HSUS is the culmination of Maloney’s post-Katrina journey, she says: “I view this as coming full circle.” You can hear the smile in her voice as she considers where she’s landed.

“I’ve thrown myself back in the fray.”

 

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