Shawn Smith leads 280-animal pack at Humane Society of Yuma
Many business and civic leaders probably feel the weight of the world on their shoulders as they drive to work each morning. Shawn Smith feels the pressure of 135 dogs and 145 cats whose lives hang in the balance.
That's how many lost and abandoned animals might be found on an average day at the Humane Society of Yuma's animal shelter. As a logical man, Smith knows he can never save eacgh one of those lives, but as the executive director who simply adores animals, he willingly accepts all the pressure anyway.
"When I'm driving to work 90 percent of the time I'm praying to God 'Give me the wisdom. Give me the strength.' When it comes to these animals they are my responsibility - and my passion."
He's one executive director who's not far from the front lines, either. Getting to Smith's office means winding through a maze of stacked cages full of talkative cats. Kitties that find an extra-special spot in the staff's collective heart get to roam around his office. When he gets a bit stressed from administrative woes, Smith often just takes a dog for a very welcome walk.
Smith stays as close as he can to the animals his organization saves and serves. He explains that he never wants to forget the importance of the humane society's work, even if he quickly admits that no staff member there really ever could forget.
"Nothing brings me to my knees faster than seeing a dog being brought out of its cage - 'Oh cool! You're taking me for a walk!' - and he's being taken to his last walk. It's awful to see that. If only the community could see that beautiful pet laying on the table waiting for the injection, then people would really understand why spaying and neutering is so important."
And yes, he has voluntarily watched several animals being put to sleep, choosing to see what other leaders might leave for their staff.
"I need to see it. I need to see the reality of it. I can't expect my fantastic staff to do something if I don't know the full impact of it."
Smith was hired as executive director of Humane Society of Yuma a year ago. He also serves as Yuma County's head of animal control.
But surprisingly, Smith admits that when he began it was the administrative side of things that stirred his heart the most. He cared about animals then, obviously, but the numbers and bottom line excited him more - back then.
"This is a new passion. It happened when the reality of euthanasia struck me. We take in 12,000 animals each year, but only 40 percent go home, get adopted, or are picked up by rescue group. The rest are euthanized,.
"Now I'm definitely a champion of this cause. This is my cause."
He originally planned to only stay in the job for a couple of years. But that was before his passion struck.
"I thought I would just make my mark and move on, kind of like a military tour," Smith said, smiling. "Now I'm not going to leave until we can reduce the animal overpopulation rate. That's my passion now - my calling."
Smith, 44, has always been an animal lover, though, even as a kid. Dogs have always been his favorite.
"They are the most loving companions. It's an old cliche, but dogs are all about unconditional love. How can you turn down someone that just wants to love you?"
Smith grew up in New Orleans, where his musician father played trumpet in Dixieland clubs on Bourbon Street. Two of his siblings pursued careers in music, while Smith himself enjoys playing the harmonica just for fun.
He graduated from high school in 1981 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, following in the footsteps of his father, who played in the Drum and Bugle Corps.
"There was that macho image of the Marine Corps that young American kids see in the movies, all those brave and heroic type things," Smith said, explaining his reason for signing up. "Plus, like kids today, you're patriotic and you want to help your country."
He went on to serve in California, North Carolina, Arizona and Hawaii, with tours to Saudi Arabia and Japan. He came to Yuma in 1989 and worked as a tower supervisor at the air traffic control tower. He chose Yuma over San Diego.
"I love the desert life," Smith said, lauding the area for everything from motorcycle riding to road trips. "Then there's some of the best weather ever here. I just really like this community and the whole area."
Smith retired from the military two years ago as a master sergeant and worked in real estate for about a year.
"I didn't even apply for this job. It just kind of happened. the humane society recruited me, first to be on the board."
One of Smith's biggest goals for the organization is getting the number of euthanized animals down to 15 to 20 percent of those that come to the shelter.
"We're obviously not where we want to be and the only way to get there is through spaying and neutering," he said, adding that the shelter will soon offer free and low-cost spay and neuter services.
Smith is also excited about his goal of getting a new $3 animal shelter open in the next couple years.
Those goals are the happy thoughts that he keeps in mind as he drives home each night.
"You know, there are a lot of ups and downs in this job. A lot of times you feel like you get a lot done, but there's just so much left to be accomplished," he said.
"But I generally leave feeling good and upbeat, knowing that we are one step closer to our ultimate goals. I'm not saying it doesn't weigh on me - it does. But if it didn't I'd honestly be in the wrong job."
Darin Fenger can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6860.
STATS AND FACTS
Name: Shawn Smith
Occupation: Executive director
Marital status: Married to Patti, a great partner!
Children: Shawn Jr., Garret and Ellis
Pets: Our dogs Jon Henry, Meridith, Maggie and Myrna and our cats Boots and Smokey.
Political affiliation: Republican
Favorite thing to eat: My wife's chicken curry.
Favorite midnight snack: Ice cream, any flavor with chocolate in it.
Favorite movie: "Patton"
Favorite TV show: "Survivorman"
Biggest pet peeve: Litterbugs
If the world was ending tomorrow, what I'd do today: Take my dogs to the desert in our golf cart and watch them run one more time.
Most unusual or interesting skill: I can play the harmonica, but my wife and the dogs get tired of "When the Saints Come Marching In."
If my life had a theme song, it would be: Not sure, but it would probably be a Led Zepplin or Van Halen song.
If they make a movie about me, I'll be played by: Al Pacino or Matt Damon. They're both too cool to play me, but I do enjoy their movies.
Favorite vacation spot so far: Back home to New Orleans. The food is unbeatable, and for those who know me, food is kind of a priority in my life!