After more than two years of the pandemic testing our patience and resolve, forcing us to find new ways of working and socializing, and making us long for normal life, there are finally signs of spring—among them, our return to holding Animal Care Expo in person this year.

We’re so excited to be able to bring people together again, especially those working on the front lines of animal welfare, who have certainly felt the pandemic’s pain as well as its continuing fallout. Whether it’s animal care and control officers answering public complaints, rescue group volunteers trapping community cats so they can be spayed or neutered, or shelter staff matching adoptable animals with potential new families, they’ve all faced unique challenges during the past two-plus years of COVID protocols. The pandemic forced the field to adapt: Veterinary consultations, behavior training and humane education sessions went virtual, shelters devised ways for volunteers to assist from home, foster families stepped up to help empty shelter kennels, and on and on.

Now, with nearly 70% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated and case numbers dropping, we’re ready to take our own step forward in the return to normal. After being held virtually for the past two years, our Animal Care Expo will make its triumphant return to an in-person conference in celebration of its 30th anniversary. The event is set for April 19-22 in Orlando, Florida.

Animal Care Expo is the largest international educational conference and trade show for animal welfare professionals and volunteers. Over 1,500 attendees are expected to join us in Orlando. Participants from all aspects of animal welfare will come together from across the globe to learn about the latest programs, share best practices, gain inspiration and build lasting connections. As always, the conference features an international trade show promoting the latest animal care products and services from a wide range of exhibitors.

I’ll be joining the festivities and look forward to the chance to meet and chat with people who are doing the often underappreciated but crucial ground-level work in animal welfare. Expo attendees include shelter staffers, veterinarians and veterinary technicians, animal care and control officers, dog trainers, rescue group volunteers, humane educators, wildlife rehabilitators and emergency responders. Together, these largely unsung heroes help form the backbone of our movement, all working to keep animals and communities safe, healthy and happy.

I’m especially excited to welcome our keynote speaker, the “Mother of Shelter Medicine,” Dr. Lila Miller. A veterinarian and shelter medicine expert, Dr. Miller will share her perspectives on diversity in the field and the value of embracing change to improve the welfare of both animals and people.

Animal Care Expo succeeds largely because it addresses both big-picture topics and the more routine details of everyday animal welfare work, offering something for everyone on a vast range of issues. Looking for tips on collecting evidence in an animal cruelty case? Keeping people and their pets together during a housing crisis? Developing a treatment protocol for canine distemper? Staying positive in the face of negative social media? Combating puppy mills? Writing better grant applications? All these topics, and many more, are on the schedule for our 30th anniversary Expo.

Like many other organizations, the HSUS is placing greater focus on diversity, equity and inclusion as we work to make our field broader minded and more welcoming. I’m pleased that Animal Care Expo’s 2022 session lineup reflects these concerns. Two members of our HSUS family will present on creating a more inclusive animal welfare movement, and other sessions will bring attendees together to explore how we can better serve all the people who make up our communities, and learn from those who are doing amazing work in places we don’t always hear about. Amplifying voices that may have been dismissed in the past, and understanding how differing access to care, resources and information impact our movement will help us do better for both animals and the people who love them.

Beyond all the educational opportunities, our first in-person Expo in three years offers something just as important: the chance for personal connection and face-to-face (or at least mask-to-mask) interactions. I look forward to meeting old friends and making new ones at this year’s event. But if you find that you are unable to attend in person, please know that Animal Care Expo 2022 is a hybrid event, with select sessions and the general (main stage) sessions livestreamed to a virtual audience. Our entire Humane Society International track focused on global issues will be virtual.

Working on behalf of animals can be a lonely, even painful endeavor. You see families separated from their pets because they can’t find pet friendly housing or access veterinary care, cope with budgets that could always be bigger and deal with a public that sometimes doesn’t understand or value your work. The pandemic may have left you feeling even more isolated—but meeting and conferring with your peers at Animal Care Expo can help remind you that you’re not alone.