Devon Apodaca always knew he wanted to work with animals as a vocation, he just wasn’t sure what that would look like. Even in his early days with the Humane Society of Imperial Valley, he was still focused on becoming a veterinarian, going away to school and working and volunteering at the animal shelter.

But his education and his experience at the El Centro-based shelter collided to show him how shelters were run in other parts of the country, so when the board came calling for a new executive director, he stepped into the role on an interim basis with a fresh perspective on how he believed things should be done.

“I love my job, I love what I do. I love helping animals,” said the 32-year-old Apodaca. “Being director gives me the opportunity to do bigger and better things and strive to do bigger and better things” at the shelter.

Apodaca has been working with the Humane Society for 12 years. But it wasn’t until five years ago that he became its executive director. And he said he wasted no time in trying to making institutional changes to the organization.

Working with a budget of $450,000 to $500,000 a year made up mostly of private donations and revenue from the cities who use the shelter as a city pound, the nonprofit organization employs a staff of about 13 people. There is also a handful of dedicated volunteers, he said.

Today, there about 135 dogs at the shelter and as many as 170 cats. Those numbers usually skyrocket in the summer during breeding season, when there can be as many as 500 animals on the grounds. The numbers also spike immediately following New Year’s Eve and Independence Day, when fireworks cause untold numbers of runaways that end up at the shelter.

“I was studying to be a vet when I inherited the shelter. I got to see protocols and practices of other shelters and I would try to implement those practices in place as a shelter manager. I was often told no. When the director retired, and I was made interim, all of those things I learned when I was away at school I could try,” he said.

The daily mindset at the shelter was to feed the animals, clean up the facility and usher the animals through the process of being euthanized. He said there was a very high “kill rate” at the shelter before he became director.

That is one thing he is most proud of today, that five years later there is only about a 10 percent euthanasia rate at the shelter.

One of the things he did early on was to build an extensive network and foster relationships with animal rescue organizations, so that animals are constantly going out to rescue groups that can help get them adopted. He said that was a problem that was turned around fairly quickly — in about two years.

Basically, in the last five years, Apodaca believes he has helped raise the community’s awareness of the Humane Society in the Valley through a number of different ways, including more community involvement, more adoption events, more public education, and beyond.

“We’re out there in the community participating in community functions, multiple adoption events each and every week, doing fundraising. These are things we never did in the past,” he said.

Apodaca said a lot of what has been done to help the Humane Society has been to focus on changing the way people perceive their pets in relation to their lives and their families.

“We’ve seen a shift in how the community views its animals. For a long time, we were battling culture in how the community treats its animals,” he said, adding it took a cultural change to show more people how animals should be loved and respected as family members.

“We’re starting to see more and more people who care and love for their pets and who are being good pet parents,” Apodaca added.

It’s been delving into Apodaca’s past that has helped him usher in a new future for the Humane Society. He thinks back on his time as a child who was often bullied and had no friends, and how animals were his lifeline. Animals, he said, taught him unconditional love and gave him companionship when it was in short supply.

“Seeing animals going into good homes and being loved unconditionally,” he said. “That makes the job worth it.”

The future is now where Apodaca finds himself looking, although he’ll admit the present can still be overwhelming. He said sometimes it’s a daily struggle just to pay the bills and get the basic needs met for the animals.

“We’re dealing with lives. … The need for the help is never going to stop and never going to end,” he said. “Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to empty the ocean with a spoon.”

But where the shelter is going is exciting, he said. One thing Apodaca said he is looking forward to is working with Imperial County Behavioral Health Services through the grant-funded Project PET (Positive Engagement Team) in which the Humane Society and the mental health agency will team up to train animals to become certified therapy pets for Behavioral Health clients and others in the community who might need the healing touch and comfort that animals like dogs and cats can provide.

“I’m excited about that because it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time,” he said. “That is the No. 1 thing that I’m most excited about.”

The ultimate goal is to see a new animal shelter built, but it’s not something Apodaca expects will happen in, say, the next five years. He does, however, expect that great strides will have been made in that time frame.

“We’re hoping to sometime within the next couple years have our own mobile spay and neuter clinic to alleviate the pet overpopulation problem in the Valley,” he added.

“Right now, for the time being, we’re maintaining what we already have and that we keep the animals comfortable until they go back to families or are adopted,” Apodaca said.

What the immediate future holds for the Humane Society and for Apodaca is to increase the number of adoption events in the Imperial Valley. He said there are certainly enough dogs and cats to hold them indefinitely.

And he has some advice for would-be forever families. “If you’re looking to make an addition to your family, make adoption your first choice. Even if you come in the first day and you don’t make a connection with an animal, come back in a week. We are literally getting new animals every day. You will eventually find that right companion,” Apodaca said.

Staff Writer Richard Montenegro Brown can be reached at (760) 337-3452 or rbrown@ivpressonline.com

Staff Writer Richard Montenegro Brown can be reached at 760-337-3452 or rbrown@ivpressonline.com

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