The Keys to the Kingdom

Chippewa County is located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It isn’t a wealthy community: the average per capita income is only $19,334. And it is cold. It gets an average of 99 inches of snow every year. In January, the average temperature is six degrees. But what it makes up for in big dollars and warmth is something worth much more: big hearts and a burning desire to save lives. In 2011, Chippewa County had a 95% rate of lifesaving. The year before it was 93%.

It was not always like that. Cats were often killed on intake. There were very limited times that the “pound” was open to the public. The facility had no outside area for dogs. The dogs rarely if ever left the building. Volunteers were not allowed or welcome even though many tried to help. Despite promises of change, including the building of a new facility, things did not improve and in some cases, worsened. According Deborah Green, one of the leaders of the No Kill initiative, “A wonderful new facility was built in 2003 but unfortunately the old employees and their philosophy came with it.” As many as eight out of 10 animals were killed.

After members of the public agreed to find a foster home for a pregnant dog and committed to saving all of her puppies, staff killed the dog instead. That is when everything changed. The old regime left and Holly Henderson was hired. Deborah Green calls Holly’s hiring the “best decision the County ever made.”

According to Green,

She has had the interest of the animals as the first priority from day one. I have seen what having the wrong people in charge can result in. The goal has to be that “every animal that is savable must be saved”. You have to be dedicated and strong, unwaiverable, to make that happen and that is Holly. Holly has always found a way to make it work no matter how much effort or work it entails. The continued success of : the Chippewa County Animal Control Shelter is due to Holly and all her hard work and determination.

Meet Holly Henderson.

Holly came to the U.P. from Santa Monica, California. Although she did not bring sunny weather with her, she did bring a refreshing “can do” attitude, and a dedication to saving lives. She also brought a new mindset: she embraced the community. In fact, Holly is a self-admitted “broken record.” Whenever she needs help, whenever things look tough, regardless of the challenges, her answer is always the same: she reaches out to her community. Holly attributes all of Chippewa’s success to the support of her staff, the willingness of the volunteers, and the kindness of her community.*

When I took over the animal shelter in Tompkins County, the then-shelter manager once told me that volunteers “were more trouble than they are worth.” Needless to say, she was replaced. And a dozen or so regular volunteers quickly became hundreds. They were key to our success. In Reno, the Nevada Humane Society has grown their volunteer program from a small handful to nearly 8,000. They are key to their success. But Holly goes one step further: she doesn’t just embrace volunteers, she gives them the keys to the kingdom. Literally. She literally gives the keys to the shelter to a dedicated core of volunteers so that they can come and go as they please. “These are professional people,” Holly explains, “[When they take a] genuine interest in the shelter and the needs of our pets I make sure they have access to the facility at their convenience.”

According to Holly,

It allows key volunteers to come into the shelter when it best suits their schedule. For example, Don and Sharon, a husband and wife team, come in after hours to ‘interview’ cats for their Petfinder posting as well as writing a personality description for their cage. Don also keeps a long path mowed through the grass for volunteers who walk dogs.


We also have another team, sisters Kristin and Tammi, who come in Sunday evenings, a day we are closed to the public, to let our dogs out for their potty break. Kristin also does our incredible pet pictures for our Petfinder site.

Prior to coming to Chippewa, Holly’s only previous shelter experience was as a volunteer for a kill shelter in California. When she found herself in charge of the shelter in Chippewa County and having to make the decision of who lives and who dies, she did not fall back on excuses. As she has done over and over again, she reached out to her community for help.  No matter what the topic and what area of shelter operations, Holly never takes credit for her success. She is always pointing at others:

I know most of my answers are now beginning to sound like a broken record but I so often hear the complaint of ‘it’s not possible to be no-kill being a municipal organization, we don’t have the budget, we don’t have the staff:’ There is such an easy answer to this question, Volunteers! I absolutely cannot do this job without their help, plain and simple. You can’t and you won’t get to no-kill without them.

In fact, I asked her if she had one piece of advice for other shelter directors, especially those who continue to kill healthy and treatable animals, it was—you guessed it—volunteers:

There are so many incredibly talented, kind, professional people out there willing to put their time and money into your organization.


What I came to realize after reading ‘Redemption‘ is that it wasn’t enough to not [kill] adoptable animals; we owe it to them to provide more than just shelter. We need to make sure they stay with us the shortest amount of time possible as well as providing the best care possible, physical and emotional. As long as I am at the shelter we will always work, strive to become better; and in a municipal organization such as ours I can’t get there without volunteers.

Directors may claim volunteers are welcome in their shelter. Holly is willing to give them the keys to it.


* Holly mentioned and thanked so many people in the interview that, unfortunately in the interest of length, I could not include them all. But a special thanks from Holly to Dr. Christopher Hall, Dr. Mandie Wehr, Marilyn Carter, Don and Sharon Brunner, Kristin Green and Tammi Proulx, and many, many others.


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