Amy Mills takes Emancipet’s animal mission national

New Houston clinic opens, Philadelphia is next, while training more than 50 other groups.


Many years ago, when Amy Mills was volunteering at an animal shelter, she visited a dog that was in pretty bad shape.

“It was the first time I’d seen something like that,” says Mills, now CEO of Emancipet, the fast-growing Austin-based animal welfare charity. “Her name was Rose, and she looked terrible. She smelled terrible. When I went to take her for a walk, she was curled up tight and sleeping on a blanket in her kennel.”

When Mills opened the door, Rose didn’t look up.

“I went into her kennel,” Mills recalls, “sat on the floor with her, petted her and started crying. I just kept saying: I’m so sorry.”

After a few minutes, Mills took a leash out of her bag.

“Her tail started thumping,” Mills says. “I leashed her up, and she practically dragged me down the hall toward the doors. By the time we were outside, her body vibrated with joy. I was still wiping my tears when this amazing spirit turned around, looked me right in the eye, and said in her doggy way — let’s play.”

You see, Rose couldn’t have cared less about Mills’ tears or apologies. She wanted, instead, what most dogs want: a chance out there in the world.

When Mills told this simple story before a large group this winter as Emancipet celebrated its merger with the Animal Trustees of Austin, guests held their breaths.

That’s because Mills — intense, modulated, personal yet practical — is among the most spellbinding public speakers in Austin.

RELATED: HOW AUSTIN REACHED NO-KILL STATUS

She talked about the combined group’s hope to serve 100,000 pets this year with spaying and neutering services, vaccines, other preventive care and low-cost veterinary services.

She told the group how the Emancipet model is being studied and duplicated far and wide. New Emancipet-owned clinics have opened in Philadelphia and Houston, and the Austin crew is training more than 50 groups from aross the country and plans to expand that program.

Mills is poised to give voice to a national movement that includes mobile intervention in needy neighborhoods and ultra-low-cost bricks-and-mortar clinics, all contributing to “humane communities.”

“What makes Amy remarkable to me is that she has every bit of the heart and passion you expect to find in the leader of an organization devoted to animal welfare,” says Jason Rhode, president and CEO of Cirrus Logic in Austin and a longtime supporter of Emancipet. “But in her case, that happens to be packaged with leadership skills, business savvy and an ability to think strategically that I think would be hard to match in any sector, public or private.”

Before all that

Mills, 37, grew up in Adelaide, South Australia, and then Midland. Her father is a retired engineer who built race car engine heads, and her mother is a retired teacher.

“In Midland, nobody could understand a word I said for two years,” she says without a trace of an Australian accent. “I was very worried about taking care of things — creatures, animals, plants, my brothers and sister. Things that didn’t always need care.”

Her parents didn’t allow pets, so her urge to nurture was extended to wildlife.

“I loved horny toads, ” she told the American-Statesman in 2013. “Have you ever seen one? They’re crazy looking. You can catch them, and if you flip them over on their back and you pet the belly of this crazy-looking monster, it’s really soft and they fall asleep.”

RELATED: WHEN EMANCIPET EXPANDED TO PFLUGERVILLE

Mills worked hard in school and in the theater. She performed at the Midland Community Theater and was recruited by St. Edward’s University as an actor before she changed her major to literature and philosophy.

“I’m an introvert by nature,” she says. “Theater training is the only reason I can do public speaking.”

Among her first jobs after college was to raise money for the annual United Way drive. She delivered five-minute speeches about giving back to the community. One of her first assignments was to recruit firefighters for the drive.

“When I was a little kid, I got headaches all the time,” she told the firefighters. “My mom tucked me in and asked: ‘Are you feeling better?’ I’d feel better because I took more of my medicine. She said, ‘That’s terrible; you’ll get Reye’s Syndrome’ (which can affect the brain and the liver). Well, I didn’t know what that was, so I thought I was going to forget everything I knew. I wrote down everything I could remember — names, times tables, everything.”

The firefighters thought that was hilarious. But then she turned the anecdote into a typically inventive pitch.

“I told them: ‘If you have only one night to write down what’s important to you, and everything that you want to remember, it’s clarifying,’” Mills remembers. “’And you have a chance to say what’s important to you through your giving.’ By then, they were thinking as they were laughing.”

10 years at Emancipet

More midlevel nonprofit jobs followed. Before taking the Emancipet job at age 28 in 2006, she volunteered at the Austin Humane Society.

“I honestly had never heard of Emancipet at the time,” Mills says. Back then, the city of Austin let the spay-and-neuter group use a small structure near its new municipal shelter on Levander Loop. The first mobile unit, purchased by Michael McCarthy, had been in service for seven years.

Ellen Jefferson, a veterinarian who now heads Austin Pets Alive, had founded Emancipet in 1999 to cut down on euthanizing through low-cost (later free) spaying and neutering.

RELATED: EMANCIPET ALLIES INCLUDE AUSTIN PETS ALIVE

“But Austin needed so much more,” Mills says. “And no one knew high-volume spay-neuter would be needed forever.”

Jefferson stayed on as medical director through 2007 before heading over to Austin Pets Alive.

Two big grants, one from Impact Austin, a women’s giving circle, and one from PetSmart Charities, a project of the pet supplies chain, jump-started the campaign for a new Emancipet clinic, but didn’t pay for expanded staff.

In her determined way, Mills has been able to raise the group’s operating budget from $1 million to $11 million and to increase its staff from 20 or so to 120.

Emancipet partners with city officials to pinpoint areas with high rates of animal homelessness and shelter intakes. In rural areas, it responds to residents’ requests. The operation moved from simple trucks to big gooseneck trailers that test the need for veterinary services in a community.

“In Killeen, we replaced the gooseneck with bricks and mortar right across the street,” Mills says. “In Houston, we targeted the East End along Navigation Street near the original Ninfa’s restaurant. We have identified a brick-and-mortar space and are close to signing a lease.”

The Pets for Life program from the Humane Society of the U.S., based in Washington, D.C., invited Emancipet to partner with it in North Philadelphia.

“They’d go door to door in really underserved neighborhoods and offer free services,” Mills says. “But they didn’t have a clinic. Pets for Life is in more than 30 cities. You have to be really good at serving pets who have never seen a vet before.”

Emancipet has become quite good at that.

Some critics point out that Emancipet doesn’t use an income qualifier, so some folks who could afford regular vet are, in some eyes, “cheating.” Mills’ response is blunt.

“We are here to break down barriers to care,” she says. “No judgment.”

It is still personal

At home in the North Shoal Creek neighborhood — a bike ride from the crisp, airy, pet-friendly central offices of Emancipet, near the Crestview train station — Mills oversees four mixed-breed dogs and a Siamese cat.

Among Mills’ life-changing experiences was her work on relief efforts after the Joplin, Mo., tornado in 2011. After the disaster, she volunteered to help families who showed up at a makeshift shelter that held 1,000 pets.

“People had lost everything, but all they cared about was finding their animals,” Mills says. “We’d listen to them, then look with them. On a great day, we would reunite 70 families. But every day, we also sent people home without their pets, which is awful.”

Mills realized that she had an incomplete picture of her mission.

“There was a guy — cowboy tough — no home, living in car, but he was bringing his dog home,” she says. “‘I’m not willing to live without her anymore,’ he said. It’s easy to get focused on just the animal, but there’s a really profound bond that needs to be protected. I’m not here just to protect animals, but also to protect the bond between people and their pets.”

During her 10 years at Emancipet, Mills has gotten to know many of the personalities and conditions of her human clients as well.

“To be honest, they are people I probably would never have encountered before,” she says. “Homeless people, people with criminal records, veterans with PTSD, and people working two or three jobs and struggling to get by in ways I have never been forced to understand. Our clients come from all walks of life, but they have one thing in common — their lives are better because of their pets. Because of their pets, they have a reason to get up in the morning. To keep smiling. To keep loving. No matter what.”

Expansion mode

So, why did Emancipet merge with Animal Trustees, founded 23 years ago by Missy McCullough?

“In Austin, when a dog or cat came in to one of our clinics and it needed additional care, we’d simply refer them to our friends there,” Mills says. “It has served as the clinic of last resort for Austin’s most vulnerable animals in times of crisis, fixing broken limbs, curing heartworms, surgically removing masses, and saving lives, all for a very low cost.”

Mills cites a new ASPCA national study showing that every year, 1 million households are forced to give up their pets, mostly for financial reasons.

“The most heartbreaking data point was that 40 percent of those lower-income people giving up their pets said that if they had had access to free or low-cost veterinary care, they would have kept them,” Mills says. “We see a future where there is a safe, affordable vet clinic in every underserved neighborhood.”

Now Emancipet has become a national beacon.

“When I first got involved 10 years ago, the idea of high-volume spay and neuter was just beginning, and cities were wondering how to set up their own clinics,” says Suzi Sosa, longtime social entrepreneur in Austin who is co-founder and CEO at Verb Inc., who helped hire Mills. “Now Amy has positioned Emancipet as the No. 1 model in the nation, and she is the expert everyone turns to. She has also realized that she can have so much more impact if she can teach others how to do what Emancipet does. She is the guru.”

Fear itself

Whenever Emancipet expanded, Mills asked, reasonably: What if no one comes? What if we fail? What if we aren’t ready? What if we can’t afford this?

“I experienced a shift after we opened our clinic in Killeen,” she says. “After our first week, my head was full of ways we would do it better next time, but my heart was full of the gratitude the entire community poured onto us for being there. After that week, it became clear that our existence there really changed things for animals and the people who love them in a tangible and powerful way almost overnight”

Driving back to Austin from Killeen one night, a quote from Marianne Williamson popped into her head and has stayed there. It sums up Mills approach to the future of her cause:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”



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