I Know a Gal: Heidi Wills of PAWS

When animals around the Northwest need help - whether it's a puppy looking for a loving home or a bald eagle in need of surgery and rehabilitation to return to the wild - Heidi Wills, CEO of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), is there to help lead those efforts.
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Heidi always had a passion for enjoying nature, preserving the environment and helping animals. When she’s not outdoors exploring the trails of the nearby national forests, Heidi can be found at home with her family in Edmonds, which includes two cats and a dog.

CWM has partnered with PAWS for several years, most recently to support fundraising efforts for the organization’s new campus in Snohomish, in memory of CWM’s beloved team member, Linda McCormack. Like so many non-profit organizations affected by the pandemic, PAWS has had to reevaluate its original capital campaign project.  Heidi has worked tirelessly with her team to maintain momentum throughout 2020 - the group is committed to meeting the needs of the animals PAWS serves, even if the scope and timelines for the capital project need to be adjusted.  As you'll read about below, Heidi and her leadership team are now in discussion with PAWS' board of directors about a phased approach to the project.

Learn more about how Heidi channels her passion for animals into her day-to-day work at PAWS, while using her leadership and organizational skills to steer the nonprofit through the choppy waters of a global pandemic.

Have you always worked in the animal welfare sector?

While the answer to that is technically no, I could say that every path I’ve taken in my life has been centered around my concern for biodiversity and animal welfare.

My focus on environmental protection began when I was a student at the University of Washington and learned that the university had no public recycling facilities. I was truly surprised because recycling was so common throughout the city of Seattle. So, I met with administration members who shared that they thought students were not responsible enough to recycle without contaminating the waste bins.

My response was to run for student body president on my platform of bringing recycling to campus—and I won. From there, I helped push through the recycling program at the University of Washington, and later the U-PASS program, which provides a transit pass to every student.

I learned from that process how important it is to have a platform upon which to advocate. Having the title of student body president enabled me to have a say in major decisions made by the administration, in a way that a typical student wouldn’t.

I then forged ahead with a career in politics, supporting legislative and regulatory advances in environmental policy.


How did your career in politics eventually lead you to your current role as PAWS CEO?

While I was on the Seattle City Council, I was a sponsor for a piece of legislation called the Circus Ban, which proposed banning any circus from using public buildings in the city of Seattle due to their inhumane treatment of animals. That was when I had my first opportunity to meet many people who are champions for the humane treatment of animals, including staff members at PAWS.

The ban ended up not passing in Seattle, but I considered it a success because it picked up steam in other cities across the country, which helped to spread public awareness about how wild animals should not be a part of entertainment acts for the public. Similar to the documentary on SeaWorld, Blackfish, it really opened people’s eyes to the treatment these animals suffered, and ultimately impacted the industry as a whole.

After my career in politics, I worked for 13 years as an executive director for a nonprofit supporting youth development. And now I have a wonderful opportunity to utilize those skillsets for PAWS.

It’s clear you have a passion for animals. Do you have your own pets?

Yes, I’ve had pets throughout my whole life. As they are for so many, animals are incredibly important in my life. I currently have a Lab-German Shepherd mix, Letti, who's my best hiking buddy. I also have two cats, both adopted from PAWS.

How has PAWS had to pivot in light of COVID-19?

To set the scene, I started my role at PAWS at the end of February 2020. So, the need to pivot came pretty quickly!

Navigating COVID-19 has certainly been challenging for every industry, especially those that are centered on customer service. The public’s involvement is a critical component of everything we do at PAWS, from adopting dogs and cats, to finding injured and orphaned wildlife that require care in our Wildlife Center.

We had to make changes very quickly in order to protect the health and safety of our staff, as well as the community we serve. First, we shifted our Companion Animal Shelter to an appointment-only model. Normally, our facilities are highly accessible and enable visitors to personally meet all of our available dogs and cats to determine which one is the best fit. Now, we ask that potential adopters make an appointment to visit the animal that piqued their interest based on the detailed biographies, photos and videos of each animal we share online.

When we talk to the person, we gather a lot of information in advance so we can offer insight into which pet might be a good match for them. For example, do they already have a pet in the home? Do they have a fenced yard? Do they have children? Our staff members have really become experts in matchmaking, finding a match for animals who need homes and for people who need animals and the comfort that they bring to their lives, especially now during a pandemic. So, our waiting lists are really long. There's more demand for animals than there are animals available, which is great.


It sounds like you’ve made the appointment-only model work well for you. What areas have been more challenging?

Unfortunately, due to the effects of the pandemic, we had to reduce the size of our staff earlier this year. That means that the current personnel are taking on more responsibilities. At the same time, we also had to pause our volunteer program, which largely contributes to our ability to care for animals during normal times. For example, in 2019, PAWS had 36,000 hours of volunteer support. This amount of work would equal 18 full-time staff members at PAWS. That’s a substantial contribution, and without it, our staff members are putting in more hours to care for these animals.

Fortunately, we've been able to bring in a limited group of volunteers within the last few months after we implemented additional safety protocols. Although we now have a small fraction of the volunteer hours we normally would, it makes an impact. We wish we could welcome more volunteers back, but our limited space in our current facilities can’t accommodate large groups safely.

All that said, I’m so proud of the way we’ve persevered in the face of really challenging circumstances this year.


Besides helping companion animals find homes, how else does PAWS help care for animals?

PAWS is an incredibly important organization doing critical work that otherwise wouldn't get done, especially with regards to saving wildlife. Our Wildlife Center cares for about 5,000 animals per year, with 70% of our intake being birds. We also receive a lot of mammals, including bears. This year alone, we’ve already rehabilitated and released seven American black bears, and we have three in our care right now.


How can people support PAWS and the animals in need during this time, if there aren’t additional volunteer opportunities available?

We are always searching for foster families for animals waiting to be adopted. In fact, we’ve seen an enormous interest in fostering from the community since the onset of the pandemic. This is an amazing way to help us and care for companion animals in need while remaining safely at home. Beyond providing a comfortable environment for the animal while it waits to find its forever home, fostering helps the cat or dog become more socialized and acclimated around others, making them more likely to be adopted.

Because we have this extensive foster network in our community, we have people who can help animals with medical conditions that require more time and commitment; others are willing to take on moms with their puppies or kittens until they're old enough to be on their own; and some take on animals who might have experienced emotional trauma and work with them to build trust.

To give an example of the tremendous support we’ve received from the community: Last year, we onboarded 123 foster families. In April and May of this year alone, we onboarded that same number. It's wonderful and humbling to see that even during these difficult times, people still want to support us however they can. Foster families play a crucial role in our mission, and we are so thankful for all they do.


If someone isn’t able to foster, can they help support PAWS in other ways?

Of course. Another way in which we’ve had to pivot this year is in regard to our fundraising events. Like many other nonprofits, we were no longer able to host in-person fundraisers, which normally serves as a major source of PAWS’ revenue. So, we've worked together to reinvent our fundraising strategy to accommodate virtual events.

In past years, we’d host two major fundraising events per year. Our largest, PAWS Wild Night, was scheduled for April, and we had already procured several auction items for the in-person event. Instead, we took the event online and shifted to a virtual auction in May. We hosted a similar event in November, as well.

The annual PAWS Walk in September is also typically a very successful fundraiser and community-building event. But since an in-person event was off the table, we pivoted to a three-week long online PAWS Walk. It was amazing because people could participate from any location, without having to live in our community. So, it actually turned out to be really great for us because people outside the state had the chance to be a part of PAWS.

The last in-person event you hosted was the groundbreaking ceremony for the new PAWS campus in Snohomish in early 2020. Have those plans been affected by COVID-19?

We are still planning to move forward with our new campus, but the build may not look as we had originally planned. Instead of constructing everything at once, our board is considering breaking it into phases.

In the meantime, we’ve continued moving forward with site development work—the general contractor has made great progress clearing the site and preparing the terrain for construction. We are just so excited about the opportunity to have more conversations with our board about what the first phase might look like. Stay tuned for more updates!


It certainly sounds like you’ve had quite the ride with PAWS since you assumed the role of CEO. What part of it have you most enjoyed so far?

For me, it's all about the animals. Everyone who can is working from home now to keep our essential personnel safe, but I do visit our campus once per week to check in on our people and animals. It’s incredibly powerful to observe the animals being helped, knowing that they will find families who love them—or for wildlife, return to their natural habitat safely— because of PAWS.

One memory that stands out was when we assisted with the largest air flight transport of animals in history in partnership with Wings of Rescue and GreaterGood. 600 animals were saved from Hawaii, where shelters across the islands have become overcrowded. I don't think people realize that across the country, 1.5 million animals are euthanized every year. Part of the challenge is moving those animals from overcrowded shelters to places like our community, where we have individuals and families looking for animals to adopt.

I had the opportunity to go and stand on the tarmac, and spend hours helping to bring animals out of the plane to go to various animal welfare agencies in our community, including PAWS. It was incredible to see people coming together to help those animals in need. I looked into the crates and saw the dogs’ tails wagging, and I could just sense their joy and gratitude. Despite any difficulties or challenges we may face as a nonprofit organization during a global pandemic, those moments remind me why I do this work.

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