How the Humane Society Combats Animal Cruelty with Technology

Mobile command centers, global positioning systems, handhelds and software as a service aid the animal protection agency's efforts to rescue and protect neglected and at-risk animals.

On July 3, when oil-contaminated floodwaters reached disaster proportions in Coffeyville, Kansas, the city turned to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to shelter its furry and feathered refugees. By end of the next day, one bird along with 53 dogs and cats had been dropped off at the temporary shelter set up by the Humane Society’s Disaster Animal Response Team (NDART-1), the Humane Society’s disaster arm. NDART-1 serves as a resource for numerous animal-related organizations, government agencies and other groups without the resources to tackle the urgent needs of animals at risk. And regardless of whether those risks are natural, such as fire and flood, or man-made, such as cruelty and neglect, technology lies at every level in the rescue process.

Technology, however, hasn’t always been a core piece of HSUS. Director of Disaster Services Randy Covey says that disasters such as 9/11 and Katrina have brought technology to the fore for nonprofits in new ways. For the Humane Society, Katrina was a real turning point, he notes. For one thing, the organization realized that it needed to expand its rescue capabilities. (By September 10, 2005—Katrina hit late August—the HSUS had rescued 1,392 dogs, 457 cats, 121 horses and 965 other animals in Louisiana and Mississippi.) For another, it was during that disaster that the organization fully appreciated the power of technology. In the early aftermath of Katrina, “our Treos were the only thing that worked to connect with our staff,” says Humane Society CIO Beverly Magda. Staffers were able to reunite pets and their owners, by snapping photos of lost pets and wirelessly sending the pictures back to headquarters. The events prompted HSUS’s initiative to implement Palm Treo Smartphones organizationwide.

After Katrina the Humane Society, along with other animal groups such as the ASPCA, formed the National Animal Rescue and Sheltering Coalition. The coalition of nine national animal welfare organizations meets regularly to share best technological information, among other things. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that technology has greatly improved the ability to manage and respond to emergencies,” says Covey. For one thing, “technology has greatly improved communication,” he says. Covey points to the disaster team’s satellite capabilities, which are controlled remotely thousands of miles away from a disaster zone. The Humane Society has a satellite-equipped command vehicle, which functions as a movable office and communication station, enabling Internet, videoconferencing and communication that are not dependent on local infrastructure being up and running.

The Humane Society’s highly mobile workforce also receives Treo's Smartphones to enable real-time sharing of information with each other, constituents, the press and so on. In addition, the disaster group also receives Nextel phones with a two-way and group conversation feature that works nationwide, and which the team tests every Wednesday. The Treos and Nextel phones serve a primary purpose (for example, the Treos for e-mail), but they also serve as backup communication for one another, should one device not work in a particular area.

In addition, all response vehicles have access to GPS navigation through laptops enabled with GPS receivers. The national headquarters of the Humane Society and its disaster group are headquartered in Washington, D.C., but response teams may go anywhere in the country, depending on the situation, so having quick access to the best routes is both time-saving and life-saving.

In addition to its disaster response, the Humane Society does much work on the prevention and education front. And in that area as well, technology plays a crucial supporting role. For example, the Humane Society’s Web focus is strong. The Humane Society’s website covers the gamut of animal-advocacy topics, including information on caring for animals, online workshops and some cartoons for the kids. The Humane Society has even embraced Web 2.0—HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle has his own blog— and the organization has accounts in MySpace. Various channels (MySpace, YouTube and the HSUS website) feature a range of videos, including the lighthearted, “HSUS Brings Dogs to Work,” the serious, “Seals Habitat Being Destroyed,” and video reports on work such as “Saving Florida’s Gopher Tortoises.” In addition, HSUS is a participant in Microsoft’s “i’m Initiative,” which gives users of Windows Live Messenger the ability to donate to a participating charity of their choice (Microsoft donates a portion of its advertising revenue).

Technology also plays an increasingly crucial role in supporting business growth and ensuring donor security, says Humane Society CIO Beverly Magda. Back at the office, the Humane Society relies on the software-as-a-service model. It uses an on-demand service called QualysGuard to protect online donors against identify theft and to ensure compliance with the PCI (payment card industry) Data Security Standard. Both requirements are top priorities for the Society, says Madga, and using an on-demand service provides easier access to vulnerability scans, automates tasks that were once manual and time-consuming, and saves time and money for the organization.

As for the role of IT, “I only see IT growing and getting more strategic,” says Magda, particularly as the organization grows through mergers with other animal welfare organizations such as the Doris Day Animal League and the Fund for Animals. And with growth comes the desire for innovation. Unlike the “Here, get that running” attitude she saw in years past, IT is increasingly involved in strategic planning, Magda claims.

Magda says that she believes IT must be focused on customer service first, technology second. She also believes that IT must be empowered to support the organization’s mission. “Animal welfare and animal advocacy is our job and I think we have to be part of the strategic planning to do it.”

But, of course, all this tech talk is behind the scenes. To those who join in the Humane Society’s mission to rescue and protect the mistreated and enforce care for those who cannot speak for themselves, what matters most is the animals.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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