Missy McCullough, lifelong animal advocate, speaks with Austin Woman.
By Julie Tereshchuk
Boo-Boo came as soon as his name was called, tiny paws sliding on the concrete floor as he strained against his leash, tail wagging, eager nose twitching. Outside, the dirt parking lots on either side of the building were packed and a constant stream of people swirled in and out of the building, dogs on leashes and cats in cardboard carrying cases. It’s a typical day at Animal Trustees of Austin.
For 20 years, this little nonprofit that could has been a mainstay of the animal-welfare infrastructure, specializing in veterinarian medicine to serve the animals of Austin and the people who love them.
“We are the community clinic for animals,” says Missy McCullough, the energetic executive director who is one of the original co-founders.
Today, she manages Animal Trustees’ $2.6 million annual budget and heads a full-time staff of 27, who provide care with compassion. Daily, they perform the near impossible, serving a rising tide of demand out of a cramped yet spotless 3,200-square-foot building. (Spotless, truth be told, apart from the requisite quota of cat and dog hair, which McCullough deems “an occupational hazard.”) The clinic is open six days a week, and closes only for the major holidays.
In a nutshell, Animal Trustees provides high quality yet affordable spay and neuter services, wellness care, treatment for heartworm disease and upwards of 900 special surgical procedures (mainly fractures) annually.
The majority of the clientele is domestic companion animals, however, there have been instances of treating the odd ferret (brought to the door during a Petcasso painting session. Petcasso? More on that shortly.), a few rabbits and recently there were two kids—the ones with cloven feet, not the human kind. Last year, Animal Trustee’s veterinarian, Dr. Kirk Lewis, even fixed a duck’s gimpy leg after seeing the hindered bird on a television news report. No one is turned away, whether they arrive during a staff holiday party (as one rabbit did) or two days before Christmas. The pregnant festive season guest ended up with a litter of 12 puppies, born at 1 a.m. Christmas eve.
“I had Handel’s Messiah playing, and it was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever spent,” recalls then Operations Director Hyden Johnson.
“Everybody that works here loves animals,” McCullough says.
Missy McCullough is as dedicated as her staff, and universally loved, says former Animal Trustees Board President Carol Smith Adams.
“Missy is the most selfless person I know,” she says. “Not only does she care for every animal that comes her way, she does the same for people. She is always going out of her way to help others.”
Two million dollars of the Animal Trustees budget comes from fees for service, leaving an annual $600,000 shortfall. That fundraising challenge is largely met by the Petcasso Animal Art from the Heart event. The format varies somewhat each year but the essential premise is that “celebrity artists” (aka, the pets, mainly dogs) create a painting. Human artists donate one of their own paintings, inspired by a celebrity artist. The artworks are auctioned off during Petcasso, with the celebrity artists walking the runway while a video of their own creative process is shown to the audience.
“The videos are funny and heartwarming, and show how much the animals and their human companions love each other,” says Smith Adams, who this year, chairs her fourth Petcasso.
KXAN meteorologist Jim Spencer is the longtime host. His dog, Kaxan, a rescue dog who also serves as the TV station’s mascot, is one of the 2014 celebrity artists.
“I’m looking forward to helping ATA even more this year by enlisting Kaxan’s artistic skills,” Spencer says. “I am a huge fan of this unbelievable organization. Missy has operated it with such skill and passion that it has become an indispensable part of Austin’s animal community. What they accomplish on a daily basis is remarkable, and has changed the lives of countless pets and their parents.”
The whole family is encouraged to come to the creative artist’s painting session, says McCullough.
“One year, we had two boys who were literally covered in paint,” she says. “We had to repaint the room, even though we tape paper half way up the wall.”
Laughing her wonderful no-holds-barred laugh, McCullough recalls trying to get Sheryl Crow’s horse to paint their first Petcasso canvas back in 1997. That painting now hangs in the clinic’s lobby, the buyer generously donating their auction purchase back to the organization.
“Petcasso is fun and different, and you never know what’s going to happen,” McCullough says.
She is quick to emphasize that the entire event is respectful of the animals, and if any of them feel uncomfortable during the event, the show is halted. There’s a green room set up for the celebrity artists, where each animal has their own personal assistant who stays with them throughout the evening.
“All the volunteers want to work in the green room,” Johnson says.
Why should we raise money to take care of pets for people who cannot afford them? For just that very reason, says Pebbles Wadsworth, former director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Performing Arts Center and longtime ATA supporter.
“People who are in hardship of any kind need the unconditional love that a pet gives,” she says. “As a society, we owe it to give back not just to these people, but also their beloved pets. To think that only the more well-to-do should have the beauty of having a pet is not acceptable on any level.”
Animal Trustees’ For People and Animals Without Shelter program—4PAWS—provides free treatment and more for the homeless community, and is believed to be unmatched in the nation.
“It is whatever you need: collars, leashes, surgery, heartworm, flea prevention, food. If you are a homeless person and you have an animal, we are here for you,” McCullough explains.
There’s also the Emergency Rescue Fund that allows ATA to provide heavily (sometimes fully) subsidized veterinarian medicine for low-income clients.
“Many desperate clients think they might have to give up their pets because they do not have the money for treatment,” Smith Adams explains. “Animal Trustees provides the vital services that enable these animals to stay where they belong, with their human companions.”
McCullough says the ever-growing demand for ATA’s affordable care services can be attributed in part to Austin’s rising human population, combined with some unintended consequences of the resolution signed by the Austin City Council in 2010 confirming Austin’s commitment to being a no-kill city. Taking home a free older animal from the city’s now overflowing shelter, for example, seems like a bargain until the veterinarian bills hit.
“Our organization is critical to this community now,” McCullough says. “If we go away, there is nobody to handle those people with animals who cannot afford private veterinary care.”
The challenge is clear.
“How do we serve more people who can’t afford to pay for veterinary medicine, and still survive ourselves?” she says.
Undaunted, McCullough’s aim is to build a sustainable philanthropic model of a modern, well-equipped community clinic for people who cannot afford private veterinarian care. Her vision is to see that model be replicated by other organizations throughout the country. Hindering the philanthropic model currently is the popular misconception that Animal Trustees will only treat the animals of low-income owners. Quite the opposite. Having fee-paying customers helps the organization’s fragile bottom line. And fragile it is. Ever the optimist, McCullough has learned to trust that the money will keep arriving, however close to zero the bank accounts get.
“We’re broke every month,” she says with a shrug of her shoulders.
With such precarious financials, how has Animal Trustees been able to survive for 20 years?
“Because nobody ever told us we couldn’t do it,” McCullough says. “Every step of the way with this organization, when somebody has questioned us, the answer has been, ‘Yes we can.’ ”
It’s almost arrogance, says the former special ed teacher and passionate animal lover. She retired when she was 42, “exhausted,” she says with her signature candor, from 14 years teaching emotionally disturbed children. It took her a year to get up the energy to start volunteering.
Where do you volunteer when you’re a person of Missy McCullough’s sensibilities, a person who rescues the bugs in the swimming pool, a person who still recalls how the death of her adored childhood pet, Timmy, shattered her world?
“He was my soul brother and I was devastated.” Yet, despite her bond with animals, she never anticipated working with them. “When I grew up, girls weren’t vets,” the now 67-year-old explains. “You didn’t have that as an option.”
Working with children became her second passion. Going to volunteer at the Humane Society’s animal shelter, and becoming one of 10 women who believed things could and should be done better, allowed her to return to her first passion. And what a passion it has turned out to be.
“Many people have ideas, visions and plans that will change their environment and make a better world, but sadly, very few execute them,” says her longtime friend Wadsworth. “Missy had a vision and she ran with it against all the odds.”
Today, McCullough lives on two acres, just minutes away from her son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons. Queen Sasha is one of the lucky dogs that shares her home. It’s Sasha, a snow-white beauty, who rules the roost, though. The American Eskimo pup was left in the clinic’s lobby five years ago. Diagnosed with a severe heart murmur, she was rescued from euthanasia by McCullough, who led the fundraising efforts to pay for her heart surgery.
“This organization is never going to be about anything other than the animals,” says McCullough, the former teacher who has unflinchingly stewarded Animal Trustees of Austin for 20 years. She’s full of plans for the future. It’s too soon to reveal them here, yet rest assured, they are plans that warrant Missy McCullough’s fierce energy, passion and vision.