Kelly Donithan’s animal welfare journey began long before her 15-year career in animal rescue and disaster response: With support from her animal-loving parents, she started volunteering at the Arizona Humane Society and fostering dogs and cats when she was in elementary school, including bottle-feeding puppies and kittens. “I’ve been on this path since birth,” she says. “My whole world revolved around animals.”

Then, when Hurricane Katrina hit while Donithan was in college, it opened her eyes to the plight of animals in disasters. She was consumed with what was happening there, following the details closely. “I just desperately wanted to help in some way,” she says.

After college, she worked in wildlife care and conservation, shifting to rescue and rehabilitation of animals from the wildlife trade, such as big cats from the pet trade and bears from bear bile farms. As the wildlife rescue program officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, she began her journey as a disaster responder. While responding to a 2015 earthquake in Nepal, she met Adam Parascandola with Humane Society International. She was inspired by HSI’s comprehensive approach to disaster response and, with help from Parascandola, joined his team in 2018 as a senior specialist for disaster operations.

 “I’ve been on this  path since birth. My whole world revolved around animals.”
Donithan, seen here, gently cuddles Sophie at a dog meat farm in Asan, South Korea, in March 2023.
Jean Chung

Today, Donithan serves as the global director of animal disaster response for Humane Society International. From rescuing animals impacted by wildfires in Australia to helping coordinate dog meat farm closures in South Korea, Donithan oversees disaster response around the world.

Disasters have an emotional toll—not just on the people and animals directly impacted, but also those working on the front lines of response efforts. “You absorb a lot of trauma vicariously,” she says, especially because animals can’t always be saved. With Donithan, Humane Society International immediately deployed to Australia during the 2019-2020 wildfires, but the burned animals had already suffered so much. “We didn’t talk about the number of animals we were able to give a peaceful death to, but—to me—that was a big part of what we did.”

 I’ve been on this path since birth. My whole world revolved around animals.

Donithan also works with global partners, communities and governments year-round to address issues in the moment—and to encourage emergency planning that includes animals. “The hope is that when a worst-case scenario does happen, that there is a plan that’s going to be effective and impactful,” she says. She works as much with people as she does with animals, such as in India, where the HSI team runs an early education initiative that helps children prepare for floods and mudslides.

Donithan’s time outside work is also dedicated to animals: She lives with nine dogs, two cats, three lizards, two pigs (who have their own room) and a cockatoo. She’s also planning to pursue a master’s degree in humanitarian response. “It’s all I’ve ever really wanted,” Donithan says. She’s doing everything she hoped for as a kid—and more.

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Cover of All Animals Magazine Summer 2024 Issue showing a dog outside.