Passing the torch

Hot Off the Collar | Volume 22
 

When I first met Christie Haaima, the Kingston Humane Society’s Animal Programs Manager, I wasn’t sure what to think. “Hey, I saw you pull into the driveway in that red SUV,” she said. “I was sure you’d be driving an old man car.”

Admittedly, I’m significantly older than her. In fact, she’s the same age as my daughter, but that initial greeting caught me off guard. It took me a moment to realize that Christie was sizing me up. Many of us who work in animal welfare employ humour as a coping mechanism. It helps us face the soul-crushing reality of the damage and pain we witness. Christie was taking that concept and adding another dimension; she was using humour as measuring stick. In this particular situation, I think she wanted to see how I handled myself. My response went a long way toward quelling any concern she might have had about the new E.D., “Yeah, the station wagon is in the shop today,” I answered.

We both smiled; me knowing I’d passed that first test and her knowing that I could handle a friendly jibe.
In mid-November of this year, Christie came into my office and closed the door behind her. I offered up a typical sarcastic greeting and when she didn’t respond in kind I knew something was up. It turned out she’d been offered a new and challenging role in animal welfare and asked if she could take a leave of absence to pursue it.

I thought back to that first meeting and her comment about my age. It was a fair observation but in all honesty, I embrace each of my 58 years. The majority of the KHS team is significantly younger than me – some in their first full-time jobs – and even though that means my Seinfeld references fall flat, it affords me an opportunity to share my experience and to provide advice when called upon. I didn’t have that same support in my previous animal welfare position so I recognize the inherent value of a co-worker who’s “been there, done that” and is willing to share. However, here’s the interesting thing; I think I’ve learned far more from the staff than they may have learned from me and no one has taught me more than Christie. I’ve watched her wander into the office after little to no sleep because she’s been tube-feeding kittens every few hours. I’ve seen her reschedule her entire day in order to help remove dozens of terrified, starving animals from an abandoned garage. We’ve detailed her exploits to save abandoned rats on these very pages and I’ve shared an office with her as she came to a decision to end the suffering of a creature whose death was imminent. In each of these situations and hundreds more, I’ve witnessed the compassion, dedication and unwavering commitment required to successfully lead a team of animal welfare experts.

Christie began her relationship with the KHS as a volunteer 13 years ago. On December 8, 2009 she became a staff member. Over the next 12 years she worked her way from kennel attendant through a variety of animal care positions to her current role as Animal Programs Manager. Along that journey she has directly and indirectly treated, cared for and saved thousands of animals. That in itself is worthy of note but perhaps what truly defines her is a single, faded piece of 8.5 x 11 paper, pinned to the wall next to her computer. At the end of my first year with the KHS I sent an email to Christie looking for our 2019 statistics. She asked me to come to her office. My first thought was, wow, she’s so prepared. As I walked through the door, she pulled this sheet off the wall and handed it to me with tears in her eyes. I was a bit confused by Christie’s reaction but as I looked at this handwritten sheet with four columns and nine rows, I realized it was a simple chart of outcomes for animals entrusted to our care. From 2011 to 2019, she had carefully written in the number of positive outcomes either via adoption or transfer to a rescue partner. The newest row charting 2019 showed a 28% increase from 2011. We’d saved more animals than at any other time in the history of the KHS.

“That’s why I do this job,” she said in a voice still breaking with emotion. “Each year, we get better at saving animals and better at finding forever homes.”

For me, this was a critical moment of insight. This woman who so often used humour as a shield or as a tool was opening up to me and revealing the motivating force behind her relentless nature.

At the end of our November conversation, when I approved her request to take a leave of absence, she handed me that dog-eared, handwritten chart. I stopped for a moment, realizing the gravity of the situation. Christie was handing me a torch of sorts and I was overwhelmed by my own emotions.

“I’ll keep it here on my bulletin board, right beside the computer until you get back,” I said.
She nodded, opened the door and returned to her office.

That handwritten chart is staring back at me as I write these words. It’s been updated since 2019 with even better numbers and it will remain in its new location as a constant reminder of the reason we’re all here.

I think it’s fair to say that the KHS will not be the same without Christie but we’ll keep moving forward and keep saving animals each and every day.

To Christie from all of us at the KHS, we wish you the best in your new role. We’ll keep your office chair warm, your desk slightly disorganized and those numbers in plain view until you get back.

And to all of you who, like Christie, have never wavered in your commitment to us – thank you so much. Happy Holidays and here’s to a safe and happy 2022.

– Gord Hunter, Executive Director

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