When you walk around the Marin Humane campus in Novato today with its fine buildings, wide lawns, trees, paddocks, animal care facilities and landscaping, it is hard to realize that our shelter’s first premises were old and cramped horse stables on the outskirts of San Rafael.  They were so nondescript that you would have paid little attention to the place on the dirt road that is now Lincoln Avenue.

After its founding in 1907 by a group of Marin volunteers while San Francisco was rebuilding after the devastating earthquake and fires the previous year, the fledgling humane society struggled to survive with little income and with competing demands for financial aid.  It moved into the stables in 1912 – with room for a few horses only.  Cats and dogs had to be kept in cages at the San Anselmo home of Ethel Tompkins, the driving force behind the establishment of MH.

Much has happened since those tough days.  Conditions improved a bit in 1927 when the society rented a run-down shop on Third Street in San Rafael for $15 a month but with nothing left in the kitty for improvements.  Things were never easy. With the Great Depression and other hardships affecting everybody, Marin Humane faced many challenges before today’s state-of the-art campus was dedicated in November, 1968 – an event, incidentally, attended by the sculptor Benny Bufano who donated that super granite mama bear with her cubs who greets visitors to the shelter in the forecourt.

From its humble beginning when 16 volunteers, sickened by animal cruelty and neglect in Marin, met in a Sausalito office to launch the Marin County Humane Society, MH has become a strong and influential leader in animal care and protection and one of the top organizations of its kind in the United States.  And it has been able to achieve this status with the support of legions of volunteers, people who have given countless hours down the years to the welfare of the animals and the shelter that takes care of them.

The shelter is emerging now from another tough challenge – the coronavirus pandemic.  Last year and for the first part of this one, many things changed.  Big adjustments had to be made so that the shelter could continue its work.  And, as in the past, volunteers remained on the job helping full-time staff every day.

It all started with just 16 volunteers and today there are many hundreds supporting the shelter with its streamlined name – both “County” and “Society” have been dropped.  So we thought that with a new chapter opening it would be a good idea for this blog to look again at the reliable volunteers who have always been there.  Who are they?  Where are they from?  What have they done with their lives?  What do they do when they are not volunteering?

A few years ago, we carried out an informal survey to answer some of those questions and to nobody’s surprise we found that the MH volunteer community is made up of high-energy, go-for-it individuals who have traveled widely and lived life at full gallop – people do things for themselves rather than read about it.  Many are retired but are still very vigorous and eager to do what they enjoy most.   They differ in many ways, but they are bound together by one overwhelming factor – a love of animals.

You will find every kind of profession and occupation in their ranks.  As expected, many are in the area of public service – physicians, teachers, physical and mental-health therapists, registered nurses, librarians, drug abuse counselors.  They entered the lives of strangers and made things better.  We have had attorneys, advertising executives, artists, realtors, tax specialists, marine biologists – and two retired Playboy bunnies.   We have home-makers and, since we operate in the Bay Area, wine producers.

Hilary gets it done!

Many have enjoyed successful careers and achieved top professional and business positions with heavy responsibilities to staff and shareholders.   This has not stopped them from helping out with what outsiders might consider menial tasks.  During a recent wildfire emergency when the shelter took in animals from the fire zones, Dog Pet Pal Hilary Black was down on her knees cleaning the glass doors in the kennels, helping to get things ready for the arrivals.  Hilary has been a very senior executive in one of America’s biggest retail operations.  The kennels had to be cleaned – so the boss did it herself.

Our beloved Katie Ai

Our volunteers have been everywhere on the planet – to the jungles, deserts and plains of Africa, the stunning wastelands of Patagonia, polar regions both north and south, forgotten islands in remote seas, to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft) and to Everest’s base camp at 18,200 ft.  They have seen for themselves how some of the poorest villagers in forsaken places have been able to survive with very little – eye-opening experiences.  Katie Ai told the story of how she was chased from a public market in Saudi Arabia by the religious police because she dared to show her ankles. 

Kim with actor pal Buddy on the set of Speed 2: Cruise Control

The entertainment industry has seen input from our people.  Kim Bromley, a volunteer for more than quarter century (and a fellow B&T blogger), is very active as a theater director and actor in Marin and has crewed on major motion pictures as a visual effects producer.  Kim spent two weeks cruising the Caribbean on an oil tanker while working on the Sandra Bullock and Willem Dafoe movie Speed 2.  Most of us have seen Kim’s movies – including Saving Private Ryan, Galaxy Quest and episodes 2 and 3 of the marvelous Back to the Future series.  If you were dazzled by the visuals in the theater, blame Kim.

Janice Gioseffi was also in movies as an extra with Julia Roberts in Dying Young and Brigitte Coutu rubbed shoulders with many entertainment celebrities as the business manager for Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead band.  Brigitte was the road manager when Bob Weir went to Washington DC to perform at Bill Clinton’s inauguration ball.  Sadly, my own show biz career was a flop.  I was an extra (a lawyer) in a comedy – Intolerable Cruelty – with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones.  My bit ended on the cutting room floor but I did get to have a great breakfast on the set and I sometimes talk about the time George and I made a movie together.  He doesn’t mention it.

The life journeys of our volunteers have not always been surrounded by laughter and fun.  Some have faced challenges that would test anyone.  Take Kathy Keating, a long-term volunteer who kept up her DPP duties well into her very senior years.  Kathy was the young daughter of a Japanese-American family when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.  Her family, like others in the Japanese-American community, was rounded up and interned during the war that followed.  They were treated like dangerous aliens by the country they loved and only recently has the US tried to make amends.

Many would have been embittered by such treatment – but not our Kathy.  After the war, she lived a full life, served as an airline spokesperson, had a family and, in due course, turned up at Marin Humane to walk dogs, always with a cheerful greeting for her fellow volunteers.  Kathy became a familiar figure on campus in all kinds of weather.  Petite in stature, she stood out in her bright yellow slicks and boots when the rain was pelting down but the dogs needed to go out for a pee.

Among our volunteers are some who have served their country in war.  Dog Pet Pal Hank Miller, currently a digital photography instructor at a community college, was a US Navy combat pilot in Vietnam, flying some of the most dangerous of all missions.  He flew a Douglas Skyraider on ground attack missions, exposing his aircraft to intense defensive artillery and rocket fire.

Naval combat aviation is in Hank’s DNA.  His father, Lt. Henry L. Miller, played a key role in one of World War II’s most secret military operations – the Jimmy Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April 1942, a reprisal for the Pearl Harbor attack.  Miller Senior trained the bomber pilots to do what they had never done before – to fly their heavy B-25 airplanes off the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier.  The Tokyo raiders who survived formed their own band of brothers after the war and Lieutenant Miller was an honored member of this elite group – to the immense pride of our DPP Hank.

Sal Citarella, another shelter DPP – and a long-distance runner and stained glass artist in his spare time – also served in Vietnam as an officer with the US Naval Construction Battalion (the Seabees).  His wartime experiences led to a career in engineering and construction that took him around the world – and, after his retirement, brought him to Marin Humane where he volunteered in maintenance as well as dog-walking.  Sal is, of course, the shelter’s Pet Poet – our very own answer to Robert Frost.

Marin Humane volunteers are as varied and diverse as any large community would be.  Why do they come to the shelter?  Joann Pittelli spoke for all of us when she said: “It fills my soul with pure joy”.  Debbie Pashnik felt the same way: “There is NOTHING like the love of an animal.”

Joann and friend, filled with joy.