“It is important when you're doing advocacy work to go to the place where policy is made and speak on behalf of the constituents that you represent." - Britney Wallesch
Britney Wallesch is the Founder and Executive Director of Black Dog Animal Rescue, Wyoming’s largest nonprofit companion animal rescue and advocacy organization.
She grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming and continues to live and work there today.
She is an active contributor to the work of the Wyoming Nonprofit Network and gave a TEDxCheyenne talk on the phrase 'no-kill'.
She was raised primarily by women and is dedicated to increasing women's leadership in Wyoming's legislature.
She talks about her journey to opening an animal rescue and what she finds so intriguing about living in Wyoming.
"I was brought up by a very strong network of female characters. All of the great people of my youth are women." - Britney Wallesch
Welcome to "First, But Last," brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. I am your host Emy diGrappa.
Wyoming is called the Equality State because we were the first to give women the
right to vote. 150 yer later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the
progress toward equality now. Let's find out and thank you for listening.
Today we are talking to Britney Wallesch. Britney is the founder and executive
director of Black Dog Animal Rescue. She brings 20 years of experience in the
animal welfare industry, including work with wild life rehabilitation and sanctuaries.
Thank you so much.
Where did you get the name Black Dog Animal Rescue?
When I was in college, I adopted my first dog from the animal shelter and that dog
became one of the great loves of my life. But she had a sort of hard to say and hard
to spell name, uh, her name was Causia, and I ... When I started the organization, I
knew that I wanted to name it after her and I wanted her to have some kind of
legacy in it. And at, at our house, I don't ... you know, most people have silly
nicknames for their pets, and at the time we had three dogs, and we often called
them the black dog, the brown dog, and the white dog.
Oh, that's cute.
And she was the black dog in the group.
Oh, she was the black dog.
And so ... yeah, yeah. So that's how, that's how the organization came to be named
after her. She's also ... you can see her likeness in the logo, the organization's logo.
And I think we're on the third version of the logo since our inception and she has
been in it in all three versions.
Oh, so she's your poster child?
She is, yeah.
What was your passion to start Black Dog Animal Rescue and you know, your
journey, uh, in that direction?
You know, it, it was kind of, um, a journey of chance in a lot of ways. I, I didn't have
a dog growing up, but it was sort of a lifelong aspiration to, to get one and so after
my freshman year of college, my, my only mission the summer after my freshman
year was to find an apartment I can rent that would allow me to have a dog. And I
was, uh, like singularly focused on this mission of, of getting a living situation that
would allow me to have a dog and then adopting my first dog.
And I had this image in my mind of what kind of person I would become having this
dog. And I really wanted a border collie and I was obsessed with dog sports like
frisbee and agility and I had this image of myself that I was going to become this
kind of dog owner and I was going to get the right dog and I was going to spend all
my time training it and learn to do these very cool things that I saw other people
doing with their dog. So I did. I adopted, I adopted Causia and she, I thought she
was a border collie mix, and through that sort of journey with her, like learning to
live with her, to train with her, starting to see the world in a different way, having a
relationship with an animal like that, I got deeper and deeper into other
organizations that were involved in, in creating better outcomes from animals and
one of those was a wolf sanctuary in La Porte, Colorado.
And the entire time that I was a student at UW, which was six years, I spent nearly
every weekend and vacation volunteering at that wolf sanctuary and learned, you
know, how to organize volunteers and how to fundraise and how to tell the story of
a mission. And also, developed really profound relationships with some very, very
special and unique animals. And so my world view really started to change. When I,
when I first adopted Causia, when I, when I went looking for a dog, it was very much
about me and I what I thought I was going to get out of adopting a dog and what
being a dig owner or a champion frisbee person, I don't even know what they call
these people that do frisbee work with their dog, what that would say about me.
And like a lot of young people I was kind of trying to craft an identity in that way.
But what happened instead was that work at the wolf sanctuary and then taking
that work home to this very personal relationship that I had with this dog as I
started to see like how much that story was also about her. And what that, what it
was like for her to live in this world and to have wound up in the situation that she
was in. And really, you know, her outcome could have been much different and
certainly outcomes for lots of animals in her situation are much different. And so, I
just continued to explore that and eventually we ended up here. This is a very long
No, it's a great story. I, I love that there is this ... you have a whole story and journey
that follows your adoption. And I saw in your bio that you gave a TEDxCheyenne
... called "No Kill, A phrase that inspired change that continues to divide."
So what is the phrase that inspired change yet continues to divide? Is it "no kill"?
It is no kill. Yeah.
What does that mean?
When I, when I first started working in the animal shelter industry, it was with
groups who were, who were adamantly no kill and arguably some who were on the
forefront of the no kill movement. And when I started Black Dog, which, well, you
know, we first started having conversations about the organization in 2006, 2007, it
was very much we wanted to be like leading the no kill charge in the state of
Wyoming. And some of our early messaging was very aggressively no kill
messaging. And I hadn't done enough work in the, in the industry to realize what
kind of, um, what kind of challenges I was going to be putting myself and the
organization and even our community into by having this very like anti-euthanasia
And so, you know, that, that TED talk is really sort of an evolution of thought for me.
Now someone who cares very deeply for animals and who, you know, I really
believe that one of the most profound experiences that we can have as human
beings on this earth is to have a relationship with an animal like I had with her, like
many of us have with our pets at home. But those relationships can be deeply
damaging to us, to our emotional and psychological health, and, and I think as
animal welfare professionals, we have a responsibility to try to protect people from
the damage that can be done and to do work in such a way that we are enhancing
and promoting that human-animal bond in a healthy way for people.
And so, overtime and over some really pretty dramatic experiences, I started to
rethink what it meant to be a no kill shelter. And, ah, also what it means when I
movement like that takes hold of the hearts and minds of people to the determent
of things that make sense and are safe in our logical. And, and I really had to think
through what that, what was happening in our industry and what is happening
across the country in the, in the face of an overly aggressive movement. And so
that's kind of what that TED talk is about, sort of, sort of reasoning through that and
telling, you know, at least one story of, of how we came to sort of question that.
Well, who's against no kill? I mean what, what are the proponents and opponents for
Sure. And I would say, you know, many people would say in light of that talk and
writings that I have subsequently done that, that I am against no kill. And I think the
point needs to be made that no kill came along at a time when our industry and our
country needed it to and really did fundamentally shape the way that we have been
doing animal sheltering work for decades. And that is a very good thing. It was, it
brought a lot of, uh, good, progressive, life-saving change to the animal sheltering
But the problem that we've run into now with no kill is we've had such wild success
that now we're trying to have successes with animals who arguably shouldn't be put
back into our communities because they are unsafe, because they can't form a
normal bond with people or other animals. But we made it, we've, we've developed
this intense psychological pressure for people working within our industry to avoid
euthanasia at all cost. That, that animals ought to be adopted regardless of their
problems, that there are enumerable resources and solutions for these very
complicated animals. And I would argue that that is not true.
And when we are sinking all of those resources into individual animals, when we
have lots and lots of other ones to safe, we're doing a disservice to our communities
and we're not using our limited resources well. And sometimes as an industry, we're
putting the public at risk with animals that should not be put back into our
communities. And these are things that we really need to carefully consider and are
things that the no kill movement has not allowed us to consider. So, yeah.
So, I would say many people would accuse me of being anti no kill, and I don't
believe that that's true. But I am, you know, anti no euthanasia for any reason. And I
think that there is a place for euthanasia in the work that we do and that we owe it
to, to the people working in the industry to allow that, because it is so, so hard to
make that decision any way and far harder when other people accuse us of making
it out of cruelty or laziness or whatever reasons they like to use for those decisions.
But also because we have to keep people safe and we have to protect the great
thing that is pet ownership. And the wrong adoption placement can tear that down
in a hurry and can cause a really, really traumatic experiences for people and we
need to avoid that.
Do you have to be active in the Wyoming legislature to have a voice to protect
Do you mean you in a general sense or me specifically?
Well, I mean you in, in terms of how you work with your nonprofit in advancing the
initiatives that are important for animals?
Well, in, in Black Dog in particular, it is a key component of our mission statement
that we also provide advocacy work for animals. So in that case I would say yes. It is
important when you are doing advocacy work to go to the place where policy is
made and speak on behalf of the, you know, the constituents that you represent,
and in our case that is companion animals. And when I say companion animals, I'm
speaking largely about animals that we keep as pets in our homes, so mostly dogs
and cats, but maybe not exclusively.
But it doesn't mean everybody that's working in animal welfare needs to do that. It
doesn't mean that anybody who wants to make a difference for homeless pets
needs to do that. It's not a universal truth. But it is an important part of the work
that our organization does.
So tell me a little bit, 'cause I'm just trying to picture Black Dog Animal Rescue, so it
is an animal shelter in an of itself?
That's correct. Yeah. It's almost like a hybrid organization, and so the traditional
view of an animal shelter is, you know, a facility that has rows and rows of kennels
with animals lined up in it and people can wander through and find them for
adoption. And that is not our organization. Our organization does have animals for
adoption, but they are almost exclusively housed with volunteer foster homes that
we support. And that allows them to live a much more normal life while they're
under our care. But there are lots and lots of organizations that are foster home
based that do not have a facility like Black Dog has. So while we use the foster
homes, we also have a fairly sizable facility and we use that for a lot of things. And
so that's why I say it's a little bit of a hybrid organization. It kind of walks the line
back and forth between a traditional animal shelter and something that's entirely
decentralized and foster home based. And we have kind of a middle ground going
Okay. You grew up in Cheyenne, right?
I did, yeah.
And one of my questions was to really ask you about growing up as a woman in
Wyoming, what you find intriguing about living in Wyoming and how you view
yourself as a woman in the political realm, either as, you know, as a voter-
... or as someone who's working for a nonprofit like Black Dog?
Okay. Should we tackle those one at a time?
Okay, yes. So tell me about growing up in, in Cheyenne.
So I grew up with a single mom and, and a sister, and I think what stands out to me
most about my childhood is really that I was brought up by a very strong network of
female characters. All of the great people in my youth are women, maybe with the
exception of my maternal grandfather. But I have this sense of like kind of female
tribalism that I f-, that I feel very deeply as a result of the, of having, you know,
been in a situation where we were, we were in a position of poverty. We were relying
on, you know, some subsidized programs. We were relying on friends and neighbors
and colleagues. And in, in a lot of ways, when you have to build a community of
support, I think that women are the ones who do that the best. And many of my
memories from childhood are of, you know, small coalitions of women getting
together to meal planning or sharing or getting ready for holidays together or, you
know, organizing the carpool for the children. And, uh, I just feel, uh, a very strong
network of, of women around me when I was growing up.
And, even, even though we had some of those, those challenges associated with
poverty, that we, you know, see so often in, in single parent homes, I don't feel like I
was aware of it until I was much older. And I think my mom did a tremendous job of
supporting my sister and I in a way where we did not feel the pressure of the things
that we were going without. And I think that she probably went without a lot of
things so that we would not feel that. But always, always I have felt safe and maybe
that's because my family is law enforcement and a lot of our tribe were law
enforcement professionals. But I don't think that's entirely it, you know. I was a kid
that ran around the neighborhood streets, and, you know, we played kickball and
softball in the, in the cul de sac. And we ran up and down the road to the
elementary school and back. And I just remember feeling safe and surrounded by
people who loved me and I feel like I had a really blessed childhood in a lot of ways
because of those things.
Well, when you call it a women's, a women's tribe, I thought that was, uh, very, very
interesting and in your perception, do you think that men understand that
I think there's a risk in using terminology like that. I think that when we start talking
about differences in gender, there's some of the conversation has been made very
polarizing. And so, I would say that I hope that men hear that in the way that I
intend it to be heard, which is not that they were excluded from or, or did not even
intend to participate in something like, you know, helping a family like mine provide
when we needed help.
My intention only in saying it is that that is how I remember it, I remember the
women in that period of my life.
Okay. I think that's, that's a great story, and, and very true. I find that very true for a
lot of single women who have to surround themselves with people who will support
them and understand kind of that like-minded struggle that they're going through.
And so, that leads me to my next question which is that Wyoming is celebrating the
first state to give women the right to vote, but this podcast is called "First, But Last"
because we're last-
... in a lot of other areas. And why do you think we're last? Why, why do you think
there's less women in the leg- legislature than in other places?
You know, I have, I have a lot of perspective on this question. I think I have a good
technical understanding of why this is if we're talking solely about the legislature for
example. And the reality of that I think is that the legislature is inaccessible to a lot
of women. And we've heard these things said over and over and over again that
things like it's a very long way to travel for a very long period of time when you are
a woman with a family. We often, women are working lower wage jobs with less
autonomy than our male counterparts, so having a job that allows you to serve in
the legislature, there are fewer women who have that kind of, kind of job or support
from their employer that would allow them to do that.
The reality is that women are still the primary family caretakers for most, most
families. And it is still not socially acceptable for a woman to leave her home and
her children in the way that it is socially acceptable for men to do the same. And it's
not just the social acceptance either, it's that, that sense of responsibility and I think
that that is just different. It's perceived differently by women than it is for men. So
not only are we sort of socially frowned upon for being willing to leave our families,
but also personally I think women have a much harder time in their own personal
sense of responsibility to their families to take that time away from them.
Uh, so there are real technical challenges for women when it comes to serving in
the legislature. But I don't think either that it's fair to say that those are the only
reasons that we have low, low numbers of women. I think that, you know, it's, it's a
hard thing to say without risking people feeling like you're, you know, like you're
saying bad things about the state of Wyoming, and, and that's not true, because it's
been my home forever and I love it [inaudible 00:18:54]. But we have, we have a
problem here with our willingness to elect women, and the way that we talk about
women who are elected officials and the way that we listen to women in positions of
power. And I think that has played out in sort of graphic detail even in this
legislative session. And it has made it very hard for women to want to put
themselves out there in that way.
And what, what would you change? What do you think the change needs to be? And
how do you influence younger women to run for office and have that kind of
understanding and encouragement?
Well, I don't know that I know the answer to this question.
(laughs). It's a hard question because-
It is a hard question.
... you named everything just right and I have found that-
... while I've interviewed a lot of women across the state that we are the caregivers
and it's just in our nature, it's in our blood. We, that's what we do, and-
Mm. I think women are very often expected to be all things to all people. And in a
way where men are often allowed to be singularly focused on the one particular
important thing. And then we make, we make it okay for them to let other things
slide in the meantime. And, and women, you know, not only do we sort of
collectively put this pressure on them, but we do it, you know, to ourself too. So my
first thought in answer to your question like how do we fix this problem, the obvious
answer to how do we fix this problem is we elect more women in the first place. Um,
but that is so much ... it's a circuitous line of reasoning.
If we had more women in elected offices, I truly believe that some of the barriers to
women being able to run and serve would be removed because they would be
better represented and people would understand what those are and would make
the effort to change them. But until the things are changed, it's very difficult for
women to run for office and very difficult for them to get elected. You know, if I, if I
have to answer the question, and I don't know if this is a good answer, but I would
say we need to, we to invest in mentor relationships with, with younger women. We
need to intentionally pull them in to the political process in a way that they are
cared for and made to feel safe for as long as they need to feel safe until they can
find their own voice and challenge a thing.
And I think that there are many, many women in the state who are capable of doing
that and I think there is effort underway. I fact I know there's effort underway to
create more formal mentor programs all over the state so that women can connect
with women closer to them, themselves in their own communities. And I think that
that has the potential to make a tremendous difference.
I think that's a great answer. That is a great answer. And absolutely it has to start at
a grassroots level where just one person takes one young woman under their wing
and says, "You can do this and I will help you on this road."
And I would, I would say the other thing that, you know, I'm not a young woman
anymore, somewhere in the middle I think of the spectrum, but I have seen young
women ask and I remember being the young woman asking hard questions of
women who have run or have been elected, asking questions like, "What have you
done when you've been faced with sexism or prejudice of some kind?" And I think
that it is hard for women to admit that they've faced these things. And sometimes
because it's hard to admit it, we pretend that it doesn't happen. And I would like to
challenge that we should stop pretending that that hasn't happened. And until we
do, we can't answer young women's questions in a way that makes them feel like
their experiences are, are not unique to them, because they're experiencing those
things too and they're looking for people in positions of authority and success to
validate that yes they did have those experiences as well and they still broke
through and they still are there and they're still in the fight and they're still wanting
to make a difference.
And when we, when we say, "No, that's never happened to me," but in fact, it
actually has, I think that we are diminishing the potential of those women and we
need to stop that. We need to, we need to say the truth in a way that those women
hear it and understand that it can, it can happen and it can be overcome and we
can make progress despite it and we have to continue fighting that fight.
And you are right. You are right. We have to, we have to say it out loud so that we're
not, you know, we're not holding it back and, and we're not making things seem like
they don't happen when they really do happen. And just being able to acknowledge
that, I think you're right, that is hard for a lot of reasons. B
ut I think it's been great talking to you. Tell me how people can learn more about
Black Dog Animal Rescue. What's your website? How can they get in touch with
Yeah. So they can visit our website at BDAR.org. The, the best way to keep in touch
with the organization is really through our electronic newsletter. We have a very
small staff and so the website is not dynamic website. We don't, we don't change
the content in it, you know, on a, on a frequent enough basis to keep you coming
back to the website. But if you sign up to get our newsletter, which we send out
twice a month, that's really where the best of the work that we're doing can be
seen. And a lot of people sign up, but because it's a bulk newsletter, it ends up in
their spam, so I really encourage you once you've signed up, to also add the email
address to your white list or safe list so that you can actually get those
communication. And then we also have really great social media channels, so if you
find us on Facebook or Instagram those are really fun places to keep up with just
kind of the day-to-day great work that our team is doing.
And I will say we have the best team out there. Our volunteers and our staff are just
so compassionate and so resourceful and so creative. I just can't sing their praises
enough and I think that people would be really impressed if they really knew, you
know, the volume of work that goes on behind the scenes. It's really good stuff. I'm
very proud of those people.
Well, it's been great talking to you, Britney. Thank you so much.
Yeah, it's great to talk to you. Yeah, thank you.
Thank you for listening to "First, But Last" brought to you by the Wyoming
Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with
women form around the state. You can also find us at ThinkWy.org where we
continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey, and the
challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the Equality State. And if you
enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes.
Thank you for listening.
"We have a problem with our willingness to elect women." - Britney Wallesch