“It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s an old adage often used to demonstrate how children are not only raised by their parents and guardians, but by the influence of their surroundings.
Here at North Shore Animal League America, the world’s largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption organization, we feel the same can be said about all of the shelter pets that wind up in our care. At any given time, the Animal League’s Port Washington campus can be the temporary home of up to 350 animals who need a special kind of love and support before finally finding their permanent homes. With that many dogs and cats to rescue, nurture and hopefully get adopted, there’s no question that a little piece of each of the dedicated employees and volunteers will be instilled in every one of the animals in some way, shape or form.
Although everyone at the Animal League has a way of touching the lives of these shelter pets, whether it be directly or indirectly, there is one group who has the distinct opportunity to make an impact on a deeper level. The Pet Behavior Training team here at the Animal League is made up of a group of six dog trainers and two cat trainers. The main focus of this specialized unit is to assess the animals when they come in, evaluate them for certain behavioral traits, and then work closely with them to enhance their lives to prepare them for the fateful day when they can shine on the adoption floor.
For Erica Knors, Assistant Pet Behavior Manager at the Animal League, a life of animal rescue is something that comes as naturally as breathing. “Rescue, Nurture, Adopt,” isn’t just a slogan to her, it’s been a lifestyle since she was a young grade school student growing up in Marietta, Georgia. It was at that time when Erica said she began helping her mom, Jill, a big proponent of Trap-Neuter-Return, in controlling the population of cats in her neighborhood and in the heavily wooded area behind her family home. Since the age of five, Erica said the act of rescuing and caring for animals was deeply ingrained in her by her mother, as well as other members of her family including her dad, Eric. So, when it came time to decide what she wanted to do with her life, continuing to embrace her passion for animals was the only logical choice.
“My mom has been the biggest influence on my life, and was the one who gave me my introduction to rescue,” said Erica. “Even after moving to New York when I was 12 years old we did the same thing. I remember there’d be times when we’d rescue 15-20 cats at once, get them spay/neutered and try to place them. We’ve always just been a family with a house full of pets with everything from dogs and cats to snakes and bearded dragons. Animals are just part of who I am.”
Animals may be part of who Erica is, but there’s no question she has meant a great deal to the countless animals she has worked with during her four years as part of the team here at the Animal League. Erica started out as a volunteer and eventually worked her way up the ladder as her work ethic and knowledge of the organization’s ultimate mission became too apparent to ignore. She worked as a shelter associate for close to a year before finally earning the chance to join the highly knowledgeable and heavily relied upon staff of the Pet Behavior team. The eight-person cast of trainers and behavior specialists, which Erica refers to as “a very tightly knit group,” consists of Manager, Vincent Buscemi, Feline Behaviorists, Dorit Shani and Matthew Stephens, and trainers Michelle Knapp, Sonia Rodriguez, Sonia Saakian and Tracy Pendergast-Mesisca. Erica said working alongside a group of such talented and caring people every day makes the job so much more rewarding.
“One of the great things about this job is that it takes me in so many different directions and allows me to work with so many amazing people,” said Erica. “I could be working with the kennel managers in the shelter. I could be assisting the doctors and the vet techs in the medical center. I might be over in the Ark with Chris Miller, giving baths and helping out in grooming, or going out with off-site team on rescues. The best part about working in Pet Behavior is having the ability to have your hands in every single department. That’s what keeps it exciting and alive.”
The life of a Pet Behavior Trainer at the Animal League is certainly not your typical nine to five job where your daily schedule is mapped out before the week even begins. Many days the only time Erica is in her tiny office above the Cat Habitat is when she first arrives for her shift in the morning and when she closes up shop at night. It’s the hours sandwiched between where the real magic happens with her and the animals she works with. On any given day, Erica and the other dog trainers can work with up to 20 dogs, each having their own behavioral issues that need to be mended before they can be considered highly adoptable. Her day usually begins when she feeds, walks, and medicates her dogs before working with them on behavior protocols and other training techniques. She and the rest of the behavior trainers go through this process three times during the day to ensure each dog is getting adequate attention in all areas. In between that, Erica can be found doing evaluations, admitting new dogs, assisting the kennel staff with adoptions, and interacting with potential adopters to provide the answers to any questions they may have about a specific animal. She also finds time to give training advice and teach obedience classes and orientation classes for first-time adopter.
Even with a jam-packed schedule, Erica even found the time to develop a special bond with one of the staff’s favorite dogs. Pippen, who came to the Animal League by way of Virginia, is a beautiful, young Boxer mix, who has become a mainstay in the Behavior Trainer office. Because she is still a bit too shy and introverted to be shown on the adoption floor, Pippen has become the team’s official mascot of sorts, hanging out in the office and getting some alone time with her Animal League family. When you have the opportunity to witness how loving, playful and cuddly Pippen is when she is comfortable with her surroundings, you realize why Erica has the motivation to do even more work in order improve the dog’s chances of finding a loving home.
“Erica brings an extreme amount of knowledge to the position. She excels at dealing with the dogs who have behavioral issues, especially fearful or anxious dogs that require more attention and care, said Pet Behavior Manager, Vincent Buscemi. “The best compliment I can give her is that she’s an all-around team player with a well-rounded skill set. She goes above and beyond and is really a vital member of the team.”
Each day can bring a variety of challenges that not only leaves Erica mentally and physically exhausted, but proudly sporting a layer of cat and dog hair on her standard black Animal League Trainer shirt. Smelling like a mixture of cat and dog and being covered in hair when she leaves for the night is just another day at the office for Erica, but she said she wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of all she’s accomplished that day.
I don’t think mentally I ever leave this place. When I go home at night I may not physically be here, but my mind is still completely entrenched in everything that’s going on here,” Erica said. “There’s a constant reminder that I’ve got to get back because there’s still so much more work to do. There are many more lives to improve and ultimately many more to save.”
For people who don’t live it every day it might not be the easiest thing to understand. How can someone like Erica, or any of the other employees or volunteers here at the Animal League, dedicate such a big portion of their lives to one organization’s mission statement? You don’t have to look much further than the visitor’s parking lot to find that answer to that question. Notice the smiling faces of overjoyed adopters who just found their new best friend, or the non-stop wagging of the tail of a dog who realized they’re leaving with his forever family. When you see the happiness that these animals bring to their new families and vice versa, it all suddenly makes sense.
Like the old proverb says; “It takes a village to raise a child.” Even if that child has four legs and has an affinity for chew toys.