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Search and Rescue

August 28, 2006

Madeline Vann
Michael DeMocker

Laura Maloney says she doesn't believe in fate. Or maybe she never used to. Or maybe it's too overwhelming to see one's own role in unfolding history. In any case, at this moment, Maloney, B '01, the executive director of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is talking like she's been touched by fate's hand.


Laura Maloney, a Tulane MBA, found herself involved in the largest animal rescue in the nation's history.

"Things have really fallen into place over the past four years. I just really feel I am where I was meant to be," she says.

And where she was meant to be was in New Orleans, at ground zero of the nation's worst natural disaster and, subsequently, the largest animal rescue in the country's history. Maloney, her staff and volunteers from all across the country retrieved 8,500 animals from the flooded city, far exceeding any similar recovery effort. It is early March, and Maloney still can hardly talk about the rescues.

She prefers to display a collage of images: desperate dogs stranded on roofs that she and her team could not get to; drowned dogs, still tied to fences or inside their owners' yards; animals that were in floodwater so long their skins peeled off; and the long night at the shelter in the Lamar Dixon Expo-Center in Gonzales, La., where she waited with the 750 rescued animals to be processed. She talks about that time and her voice intones the spectrum of emotion, reflecting the stress, the chaos, the sadness and the palpable respect she has for her staff who worked through those weeks knowing their homes were destroyed, but not knowing where friends and family had landed.

Maloney's husband, Dan, general curator of Audubon Zoo, was still at the zoo caring for the animals. She was not able to talk to him for a couple of weeks.

"I can finally say 'dogs stranded on roofs' without crying," says Maloney, who believes she and her staff all have some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. "It was very warlike but unlike the military, we aren't prepared to see such devastation. But we will be prepared next time. I actually woke up in mid- February and felt normal. And I took a day off on Fat Tuesday. It was great."

Yet Maloney and her team were as prepared as they could be. On Saturday, two days before Katrina hit, they evacuated 263 shelter animals to the Houston SPCA. On Tuesday, after the storm had passed, Maloney met with state officials to plan the opening of the temporary shelter in Gonzales and called the Humane Society of the United States to assist them in managing the disaster. On Wednesday, Maloney and her staff returned to New Orleans to begin rescuing animals, many of whom were left behind when their owners were evacuated.


The top of a vehicle provides respite for animals waiting for rescue.

"It was like the Wild West during that time," says Maloney "There were rules, and not everyone followed them."

Many New Orleanians, believing they would return to the city as soon as the storm had passed, left their animals behind with a supply of food and water. Of those New Orleanians plucked off rooftops or otherwise removed after the flood, only a few were allowed by military and federal representatives to bring their pets. The majority, including handicapped individuals relying on service animals, had to leave their pets behind at the last moment.

A constant state of urgency

In comparison to those days, business has become almost routine. Pet adoptions resumed on Valentine's Day and strays have returned to the city's streets, but not as many as before. As for Maloney, her life is far from normal, however.

The way she does business has changed and she has new staff to train, a temporary warehouse to fit for sheltering animals and a permanent shelter to build. [Editor's note: two months after Maloney was interviewed for this story, the LA/SPCA announced it was purchasing a 10-acre site under the Crescent City Connection bridge. The intention is to have a facility built and ready for occupancy by late 2007.]

"It's a constant state of urgency," says Maloney, who is grateful for the financial and moral support from other animal welfare organizations across the country.

The ASPCA of New York is funding a position for two years to help direct the rebuilding of the shelter. If fate has played a hand in this, it not only placed Maloney in the right place at the right time, but made sure she was qualified for the tasks ahead. In 2001, Maloney graduated with an MBA from Tulane's A. B. Freeman School of Business, conferring to her more than an academic degree.

"The MBA enhances my credibility with corporate and professional contacts," says Maloney. "It boosts confidence in my skill-set beyond being just another animal lover."

These days, few people will write her off that easily. At 44, Maloney is a classically beautiful, willowy blonde who manages an annual budget of $3 million for the nonprofit and has gone toe-to-toe with supporters of rooster fighting, sought arrests for men who run dog-fighting rings and successfully pushed for legislation to outlaw "hogdogging," a sport the pits aggressive dogs against wild boars.


An LA/SPCA volunteer rescues a cat.

Maloney, who signed on with the LA/SPCA in 2001, has applied modern business practices to the 118- year old nonprofit, instituting programs that reduced the rate of euthanasia, including foster homes for animals, educational programs to reduce animal abuse, expanded spay/neuter programs and behavior-management services to frustrated pet owners on the verge of giving up.

Her experiences have led her to explore the peculiar interaction between business management practices and the nonprofit world.

"If I am effective in leading this organization, more animals live. If I am not effective, animals die," says Maloney.

Reducing euthanasia over the long term is an important goal. Her bottom-line approach often seems out of place in the highly emotional world of animal rescue and adoption.

"What often motivates people in the for-profit world is cash and compensation," Maloney says. "In the nonprofit world, people are usually motivated by passion and a desire to make a difference."

She says emotional decision-making can lead to disaster, particularly where money is concerned.

"If you make decisions emotionally then one day there is an event like Katrina, and you don't have the resources to handle it."

When Maloney came on board, the LA/SPCA was maxed out on credit and was spending twice what the city provided for animal control. The nonprofit's $2 million endowment was intact, however. Maloney and her board of directors went to the city for increased animal-control funding and began working to make the organization's operation more cost-effective, while increasing donations and memberships.

In the process she has maintained the delicate balance between the two missions. In Orleans Parish, the LA/SPCA holds the contract to provide animal-control services, which means that it has to pick up all stray animals and issue citations for violating local ordinances.

"The animal-control mission is to protect the public, and the LA/SPCA mission is to work toward more humane treatment of animals," says Maloney. "Sometimes those two missions are in conflict, but we choose to keep the animal-control function because someone has to provide that service and we're the only agency in town to do that at the moment."

Maloney credits much of the organization's success to a strong staff, volunteers, board and support both locally and from around the country. Although donations have slowed since March, more than $6 million has been pledged from the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States to build a new permanent shelter. Now that she can look beyond the immediacy of the disaster, Maloney is planning for the future. There are dozens of lessons learned, says Maloney, who disliked the chaotic nature of the rescue efforts.

Among her proposals are advanced planning of jobs for volunteers of all skill levels, a credentialing system for volunteers, a bigger stock of rescue gear and supplies, a centralized database of animals potentially needing rescue, a backup communications system, global positioning systems to help find addresses, professional help with the media, and a strong command structure that all local agencies know and practice.

In the future, Maloney, her staff and all volunteers will be prepared for a similar or worse disaster. She has become popular on the speaking circuit, sharing her lessons learned with others in animal control and protection.

Spreadsheets and accounting

Growing up on a farm in Maryland, Maloney says she always knew she would work with animals. She went to West Virginia University for a degree in wildlife management and found her way to a teacher's certificate in high school science. With that under her belt, she worked on educational programs for the Philadelphia Zoo and the Audubon Institute in New Orleans, and was assistant director of the Central Park Zoo in New York, one of the premier zoos in the country. As her administrative career blossomed, Maloney began to see the rough edges in her training.

"I realized I could tell you anything at all about the biology of, say, the orangutan, but I knew nothing about spreadsheets and accounting." She began to consider returning to school for an MBA. "I was also thinking about what made organizations successful. I worked at the Audubon Institute, which was so creative with limited resources, and then I worked for one of the top zoos in the country, where people were brilliant and well-funded. The two could not have been more different but both are successful in their own ways."

When the Audubon Zoo hired her husband in 1997, they returned to New Orleans. That year, two choices changed her life. The first was the decision, for the first time in her life, to adopt a dog. She says her trip to the Japonica Street shelter, home of the LA/SPCA, was eye-opening.

"I had nothing to compare my adoption experience with, except the zoos I had worked in, where the visitors' experience is a top priority. My experience as a visitor was not terrific. There were so many things that I thought the shelter could do more effectively," says Maloney.

The second decision was to get the MBA. She spent one semester at the University of New Orleans before transferring to Tulane, where one of her professors mentioned a chance to work on a project with the SPCA. She jumped at the chance, only to find out that the project was on hold because the SPCA was looking for an executive director. She applied for the job, and the rest is history. Or, just possibly, fate.


Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000