After spending nearly two decades in the retail shopping business, Jim Lilli made a career-altering decision to make a difference in the lives of homeless cats and dogs.
Lilli (pronounced "Lill," the second "i" is silent due to his Italian descent) began shifting gears seven years ago by volunteering with a cat rescue group and helping out with pet adoptions. He then became executive director of the Dunn County Humane Society in Menomonie, Wis., a no-kill animal shelter.
That experience put the Frankfort, N.Y., native in position for yet another step upward. Last June, after a nationwide search, he took charge as executive director of PAWS Humane in Columbus. The no-kill shelter on Milgen Road found homes for more than 1,600 pets in 2012 alone, with more than 7,000 furry creatures taken in since 2009. About 16,000 animals have been sterilized since then as well in an effort to get the local pet population under control.
It's that impact -- finding caring families for the homeless felines and canines among us, while also working to reduce euthanasia rates -- that Lilli hopes to make in the Columbus-area community in the coming years.
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"I have the best job in the world," he says. "When things get tough, I walk five feet and hundreds of animals are excited to see me."
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Lilli, 51, recently to discuss his job, but more importantly his mission in the animal world. The 22,000-square-foot PAWS Humane facility opened in 2009, along with the city's animal control operation next door. It has a staff of 31 full- and part-timers.
This interview has been edited somewhat for length and clarity:
How did it come about that you landed in Columbus?
I had been working at a smaller humane society up in Wisconsin, and I was looking to progress in the animal welfare field where I could get out and make a difference to more animals in the community.
I came down and visited here and saw the beautiful facility. I saw what it offers to the community. I saw that the community is really engaged as far as animal welfare, and accepting of animals. You walk anywhere and somebody's walking a dog. The marketplace downtown is full of people walking dogs, and there are lots of cats around.
I was also very excited about the fact that the community was embracing a no-kill (program), really stepping up to find homes for all of the animals coming into animal control and all of the abandoned and surrendered animals.
Are there lots of no-kill shelters around the country?
It's more of a movement now. People are more aware. People want to live in a community where you know what's happening to stray or abandoned animals. You don't want these animals to go into a shelter and just be put down because there's no home. What does it say about where you live if they're killing the animals after five days because they can't find a home?
What prompted your switch from retail to animal welfare?
Retail was fine and working for a business is good and all. But you get to that point in your life when you want to make a difference. Certainly, I'm not changing the world. But I am changing the world for that one animal that gets adopted.
When you boil it down, I felt good about finding homes for animals and saving lives. At the end of the day, you can go home and say, I saved some lives today. And I changed the lives of the people adopting and that animal.
With retail, you go home and you're like, gee, I did good today. I sold X amount of items. But it's not the same inside. Sure it was a good living and fun. But did I impact the world?
Tell us about the PAWS Humane facility.
This facility was built in 2009. It's got a lot of programs in place. We do spay and neuter. Since 2009, they've done 16,000 spay and neuters in the community, and that's low cost and no cost. That's important. That's going to
help reduce the population of unwanted animals.
We've also taken in over 7,000 animals since 2009 and found homes for them. So this facility has got a lot of room where it can help the community out. We've got an education room where we host education things.
Kids nowadays are having birthday parties and saying, I don't want presents, but bring dog food and cat food so I can give it to the shelter. We host birthday parties here and kids can come in, play with the animals, get a little education, and they can make that donation.
How many animals do you host at any given time?
We're probably up to 150 to 200. We do a couple of things. We have cat rooms where we can put four or five cats together so they can enjoy themselves. And the dogs, we're starting to buddy them up. Dogs are very social, too. They're pack animals. They want to be with another dog, or with a family. So where we find dogs that can stay together 24-7, we'll buddy them up. They're roommates. We also do play groups where during the day we get five or six dogs out at a time in our back yard and they just run around and play.
The flow of cats and dogs through here is pretty constant?
We're full pretty much all the time. Sixty percent of the animals coming in come from the public. The other 40 percent we take from animal control.
What we'll do is if there is a day when we're full and somebody needs to surrender (their animal), we'll make an appointment. We'll say, listen, I can't do anything today, but can you wait a week or a couple of days? Or we try to work with them. We ask what's the reason? Do you need food? We can help you out. Is it a behavior problem? We've got a behaviorist on staff that can help you with a little bit of training ... If we can keep the animal in the home, that's the best solution for everybody.
What percentage of your clientele, so to speak, is dogs versus cats?
It's probably 60 to 40, 60 percent cats, because you can put more cats in a room. Right now we've got a room with five kittens. With your dogs, you're limited to one or two in a room.
Did your retail business skills translate well to this?
I think whenever you have a management skill, it helps you. Even though we're in the animal business, you still deal with people. And on the other side, we are a business per se. We have to make sure the doors stay open so we can help them. If you're not taking care of the financial end of it, you're not going to be able to help on the other end.
We've got to be good stewards of the money that people donate to us. That means watching the budget and planning out. We plan out what we're going to do for Christmas time and what are we going to do next year.
During the holidays do you get a warm and fuzzy feeling about shopping?
I don't. (laughs) At Thanksgiving, when it got to where I was getting up at 2 o'clock in the morning to get to work at 3, it stopped being as much fun as when you were opening at 6. Thank God I got out before the midnight openings now.
How is PAWS Humane funded?
We are funded solely by donations. We get no government funding, nothing from the city or state, nothing from the big organizations, like the ASPCA or Humane Society. All of our funding comes locally from donors. We have revenue coming in from adoptions and from our clinic, but it really just offsets the (operations) side.
I saw out front you're doing no-charge spaying and neutering in ZIP code 31903 (south Columbus). Tell us about that.
That was a specific ZIP code that we targeted a couple of years ago because that was the ZIP code that the most animals went into animal control from. We're probably going to end that in November or December, where we will have done 2,000 spay and neuter surgeries to cats or dogs in 31903.
That will make a dramatic difference in that ZIP code for those animals that are unwanted. A cat will have two litters a year minimum. That's six kittens, that's 12 cats. If they go to animal control, that's 12 cats that may not make it out, because whenever one goes in, something's got to go out. So if you can stop them from going in, that's where you make the difference.
We also just had a day last month, Fix Georgia Day. We targeted 31907 (east Columbus). So for that one day, we offered free spay and neuter services for 31907. We did 46 free surgeries that day. So we made just a small dent. But, again, figuring two or three litters a year, it will make a difference down the line.
What is your annual budget?
The annual budget is right around $1.2 million. It's all about people and money. The more money we have, the more programs we can offer the community. With people, it's volunteers. We had 364 volunteers last year do 7,000 hours with us. That's great. The more volunteers we have, the more we can do. We do off-site adoptions, so every weekend we're at two different locations adopting animals out. The more volunteers we have, the more off-site adoption locations we are at.
Where do you go?
We'll be at PetSmart and Petco. We're downtown on Broadway. We go to different businesses and we try to adopt out animals there. Wherever the public goes, we want to be there.
You can't just wait for people to walk through the door?
No. You can't anymore. It used to be that way. But that's when euthanasia rates were so high. You've got to get out there and sell those animals and get them to the public so you can adopt more. The more that go out, the more you can bring in and save a life.
What's a typical day job like for you?
It's like managing any business. You oversee all the resources that are going on. And, certainly, it's getting out into the community and letting them know the functions that we serve. On that end, it's also getting out there and raising money, talking to people and letting them known how important their donation is to us.
We hired another veterinarian this year, so we have two full-time vets. We're hoping to do next year 10,000 spay and neuter surgeries in one year. It would be a record. And, again, in the community that would be huge to help out people that normally would not be able to afford having their animal spayed or neutered.
How many animals are in the city?
(Doesn't really know) We can tell you last year animal control took in 8,000 animals. That's a lot.
Last year they euthanized 52 percent -- and that's public record -- which is a high number. But the year before it was 64 percent. The year before that it was 80 percent.
The mayor came up with her own save-a-pet program, which identifies nine steps to help get animals into homes. Spay and neuter is important, adoption's important, volunteering is important, and education. Those are all important and those are the things we like to partner with the city on.
So it was 52 percent last year and this year it's going to be less, because there's more resources. Certainly, there's Paws Humane, but there are other rescue groups that help out. And that's helped take more animals from animal control next door. They do adoptions there, but there's no way they can adopt out 8,000 animals a year. No one group can do that. So you need the community to embrace and help out.
How do you decide which dogs and cats make it to the safety of your shelter?
We look at what we think will move faster, because if we can get an animal in, spay it, neuter it, and get it out the door within a week, that's another one we can bring in. So we do have to be selective. We also have to understand what we've got, and have a broad selection.
We'll take some senior animals because we know there are opportunities for senior animals to find a home. We can partner with independent living facilities. That's great for places in the community that will allow those residents to have pets.
Puppies move fast; small dogs move fast. We work with the USDA. They love beagles, they love labs to train (for food inspections, etc.). So if we get a lab or beagle in that fits their criteria, we will let them know.
You've only been here a few months, but what have you instituted here?
Some of the things that I've brought to the plate are the behaviorist. We hired a person to help out with the animals. ... Every dog that comes in now gets a test for its behavior to see if it's food aggressive or resource guarding, and how it gets along with other animals. So that allows us to buddy that dog up and it also allows us to make informed decisions as an adopter.
For example, this dog has what we call food aggression. When it eats, it wants to be left alone. So you as an adopter need to know that. It may not be a big deal; I can put the food in this room and the dog can eat and when it comes out there's no issues. But you need to be aware of that. If you've got kids you need to be very aware of it.
The same thing with resource guarding. Sometimes you don't know where these dogs came from. If they get a toy, they may want to hold onto it and don't want anybody near it. They need to know that as a family. Because if your dog is playing with a toy, you don't want your little kid to go over and try to take that toy. It's all about educating the adopter so that when the animal goes into their home, it stays there for life. We don't want it to come back in a month or two months because they didn't know something or they felt that they're not ready to commit.
Could you use more money for your services and operations?
We still owe money on the building, a little over $300,000. So we're constantly trying to raise money for that.
The adoption cost doesn't cover nearly what's into the animal, when you tie in your spay, your neuter, microchip, your rabies, your testing. All of that goes into it. The adoption price never fully is recovered. But we're not looking to make money on adoption. We're looking to find a home for that animal so we can save another one.
What's the No. 1 thing you enjoy about your job?
It's making a difference, knowing that for every animal we adopt out, we can save another one. And it's about eventually getting to a no-kill status, where no adoptable animal is euthanized, so there's no time constraint on how long that animal stays. It's so they'll get a chance to be adopted and find a forever home.
Name: Jim Lilli
Hometown: Frankfort, N.Y.
Current residence: Columbus
Education: 1980 graduate of Frankfort Schuyler High School; earned associate degree in applied science, Morrisville State College, 1982
Previous jobs: Executive director of Dunn County Humane Society in Menomonie, Wis.; general manager of Bergner's Department Store in Illinois; general manager of Hecht's Department Store in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia
Family: "Tankini," a 9-year-old rescue Greyhound, and "Phoebe," a 15-year-old Maine Coon cat from a failed foster care home
Leisure time: Enjoys walking Tankini on the riverwalk, running (but not often enough), and any event downtown on Broadway (one of the many reasons to live downtown). He also is addicted to the Food Network
Of note: Says he's still trying to acclimate to the Southeastern Conference, having spent the last decade in Big 10 country