APF leader leaves ‘better for the experience’

Photo provided

Photo provided

Deb Balliet is known as a change agent, and her time spent with the Animal Protective Foundation has only solidified that reputation.

At the end of 2020, after six years of leading the nonprofit, the executive director will be passing the baton to Austin Gates.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” Balliet said.

The longtime Capital Region resident has been an animal lover since she was a child and has worked in animal-related nonprofit organizations for most of her career. What attracted her to the executive director role at APF, which was struggling in some ways at the time she applied, was the people.

“I went and spent half a day with the animal care workers. I realized it was a team of animal lovers. They did not have enough support or training, education [or] encouragement, so they were just doing everything they possibly could within what their own means were,” Balliet said.

That sealed the deal for her. Since then, she’s worked to help build up staff and improve everything. from the live release rate to the spay-and-neuter program to APF’s finances.

One of her proudest accomplishments is the completion of the Delack Feline Care Center that opened last year. It added space to APF, and allowed for an evaluation room and a cat adoption room.

“We didn’t actually add space for more cats, but [made] it a better space for the cats, where they have more room and they can act more naturally. They’re happier so they get adopted faster. We actually handle more pets without having to have more cages. The outcome has been wonderful for all,” Balliet said. “It just developed some great relationships with some cat-loving people. That one really makes me smile.”

She also brought on more volunteers, some to foster animals and some to help at APF.

“One of the things Deb did over her tenure was re-strengthen the [volunteer] program,” said Howard Halstead, the outgoing president of APF’s board of directors. “Generally speaking, the love of volunteers was waning, and I found [through] Deb’s leadership and love of animals and love of people that she took and brought back to life the whole volunteer program, as well as getting fosters, training the fosters, making sure that they know that they have a support system behind them to properly take care of the animals.”

Balliet has also worked to clear up misconceptions about animal shelters and about people who surrender their pets.

“People still have a misconception of shelters in the Northeast. For the most part . . . it’s not about overpopulation anymore. Spay-and-neuter has worked well in the Northeast, particularly in cities and suburbs,” Balliet said.

The APF doesn’t necessarily see an abundance of abuse cases. Instead, they most often find that people who surrender their pets do so as a last resort.

“What we see in most cases is they absolutely love their pet, but if they can’t take care of themselves, they struggle taking care of their pets. And sometimes they spend a long time taking better care of their pets than themselves because they’re so committed,” Balliet said.

“People don’t throw away their pets. Sometimes they have to ask for help and it’s really hard.”

With that in mind, APF plans to go into the community more in the coming years to help with medical care, especially in the city of Schenectady, where there are few animal care options.

“The APF is not on a bus line. We don’t even have a sidewalk to get to us off Freemans Bridge. There’s people in Schenectady, Hamilton Hill that need help and don’t even know about us,” Balliet said.

They plan to hold more animal care clinics, as detailed in the organization’s 2020-2025 strategic plan, which Balliet helped create.

“We’re bringing health care into the community where people need it,” Balliet said. “We did one in July. We found most of the issues people had were just basic issues, that because they were not able to tend to them they got worse.”

People walked miles to bring their pets to that clinic. Once they got there, they had a long list of questions for the veterinarian, according to Balliet.

“If anybody had a bad impression of people who are challenged socioeconomically [and] in other ways, it’s just . . . they care and love just as much as the rest of us. They just don’t have the opportunities,” Balliet said.

The community outreach is one thing the incoming APF board president, Otto Zamek, is particularly excited to be part of in the coming years.

“The one thing that we can do is try to get our services available more broadly across the community, especially to areas that are underserved. People can’t afford to bring their animals to a vet or get a shot or have them looked over,” Zamek said.

Balliet will be leaving at the end of the year and Halstead will step down as board president.

“It’s been an extremely humbling experience working with Deb,” said Halstead. “She is an exceptional leader in her ability to strengthen the APF. During her relatively short stay as ED, not only did she complete the Delack [Feline] Care Center but she gained support for this really progressive strategic plan. She initiated new programs . . . and she developed a lot of new collaborative relationships to help further our missions, and to help improve the lives of pets in our community and their families.”

“I’ve met so many wonderful people,” Balliet said. “People who come in and just drop off towels, whatever we need. That part will never leave me, the kindness and the generosity of our community. I’m better for the experience and I hope they are, too.”

A quick word with Austin Gates

Austin Gates has 20 years’ experience working for organizations such as the ASPCA, San Diego Humane Society and the Humane Society of Sedona. The Michigan resident will soon be moving to Glenville to start her role as executive director of the Animal Protective Foundation. The Gazette spoke with her earlier this week regarding what about APF piqued her interest and about some of the challenges of transitioning into a leadership role during the pandemic.

Photo provided
Austin Gates

Q: What got you interested in animal-related nonprofit work?
A: I started as a vet tech. Then I joined a humane society in Denver called the Dumb Friends League, and they’re a nationally known, very well-respected organization. And so I started off running their vet clinic, opened up their spay-neuter clinic and then I worked in adoptions. I did pretty much every position there in seven years and I was hooked. [Since] then I’ve worked in animal welfare. I did do a small stint at the Denver Botanical Gardens in their fundraising department while I was going to college, but other than that my whole career has been about helping animals.

Q: What got you interested in APF?
A: Well, I loved the area of the country . . . so that interested me in the beginning. Then when I met the people — they’re so nice. I was impressed with everybody that I talked to at APF. The administrative assistant, Gina, was so nice on email. Meeting the board . . . even though we all had our masks on and we were 10 feet apart from each other, I could just feel how friendly they were and how excited [they were] about APF and what they’re doing. They had such great energy and I just wanted to be part of it.

Q: Are you anticipating a lot of challenges transitioning into the new role because of COVID-19?
A: The shelter has been so good at pivoting during all this and they have great procedures in place right now. They’ve done such a tremendous job while keeping the shelter open, doing adoptions, fostering and the food bank. They’ve done such a great job that I’m not too worried about that.
My biggest concern is I won’t be able to just go in and shake the hands of my team and meet them, so that’s different. We’ve already got Zoom meetings set up so they know I’ll be able to at least see their faces and they can see mine to get to know each other.

Q: What are you most looking forward to about starting?
A: Meeting the team and seeing how they’re making the magic happen. [And] to give them recognition, to thank them. I’ve been in contact with other shelters around the country that have been struggling during this time, and it seems like APF [has] been so organized that they’re doing a great job.

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One Comment

Michael Bailey

Part of adopting is to meet the pet and interact. Unfortunately APF does not make this easy. You have to fill out paperwork and give them a few days to check references before you can even do this! In the meantime cats are behind glass partitions and you cannot even touch them. The only worse place I have seen is the Saratoga County Animal Shelter where they are even more repressive. Contrast this with Dutchess County SPCA where you are allowed to enter rooms with 8-10 socialized cats and sit with them. Yes DCSPCA screens anyone adopting but encourages you to meet the pets. Same with other local shelters who run mobile adoption events at places such as Tractor Supply and Pet Supplies Plus. I know COVID complicates things for now but I saw this long before the pandemic.

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