The heart of Mike Arms – and the brains behind Iams Home 4 the Holidays

Mike Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center

When Mike Arms left the farm of his boyhood and set out for the big city, he imagined life as a businessman. A successful one – his self-described goal was to sit in an office and make money. It’s not exactly the beginnings of your typical rescue advocate, but hearing Arms recount his journey into animal welfare leaves no doubt about the path he was meant to take.

His story is graphic and painful, and when Arms delivered this speech at the BlogPaws conference in September, 2010, attendees sobbed with horror, and ultimately, with gratitude. Prepare to be moved – and changed (Arms’s address begins about 14 minutes in) by his words:

A life devoted to animals

After many years of working with animal welfare organizations on the east coast, including the ASPCA and North Shore Animal League, Arms became president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC) in Southern California. The first item on his agenda? Join forces with the 14 other animal centers around San Diego to create the area’s biggest adoption drive.

The idea was to drive business away from breeders and puppy mills, raise awareness about adoption, and of course, find homes for thousands of animals in need. The operation was christened Iams Home for the Holidays, and in 1999 – its first year – over 2,500 dogs and cats found their adoptive families.

By the second year, the campaign extended across five states and adoptions increased nearly 1000 percent. Today, the program has spread to 21 countries, and 4,641,781 animals in need have found homes world wide. This year’s goal was set high: find homes for an additional 1.5 million pets.

Adopt, donate, or just help spread the word

Even if it isn’t the right time for your family to bring home a new dog or cat, there are still plenty of ways to help animals this season. According to Iams General Manager Maria Beatriz Rodriguez, “We want to empower everyone to get involved and make a difference so we created the Bags 4 Bowls program.”

The Bags 4 Bowls program, launched in 2010, allows everyone – not just potential adopters – to be part of the solution. For example, purchase a specially marked package of Iams dog or cat food now through January 4, 2011, and Iams will donate a bowl of food to a participating shelter.

Or even easier, cost-free way to contribute, simply click the “like” button on the Iams Home 4 the Holidays Facebook page. (More information about becoming involved with all aspects of the campaign can be found here:

From pound to shelter to center

While the annual adoption drive may prove to be his legacy, Arms deserves as much credit for his ideas about changing the way animal facilities are designed as he does for his work saving lives. His Helen Woodward Animal Center is just that: a center.

“Don’t call it a shelter,” he tells me. His facility is not a dog pound or a warehouse. HWAC is a community gathering place where families can adopt animals, students can learn about careers in animal welfare, children can hold their birthday parties. Kids of all ages can attend camp here, pets can board right on the premises while their guardians are away.

This new model – adoption center as gathering place – is catching on. At New Mexico’s Santa Fe Humane Society, a giant enclosed dog park on the property draws dog walkers every day from all over the county. Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) hosts readathons and carnivals on its campus. And the Humane Society of Silicon Valley plans to open a pet-friendly café by 2011.

Adoption in your own community

It makes sense. Adoption will never fully catch on in this country if the perception of the local animal “shelter” – depressing and hopeless – persists. Rather, these facilities must be designed as fun, positive, inviting spaces if we expect the general public to embrace, let alone visit, them. And not only will such an environment attract adopters, but volunteers and donors too.

Sure, transforming the shelter in your community takes resources – human and financial, Arms acknowledges. But HWAC does it without any government funding. Every animal care facility in the country can be doing it too, Arms tells me. If you don’t know how, HWAC will show you – absolutely free.

So in truth, it turns out Arms did become a successful businessman. Enormously successful. And while he leads one of the most thriving animal adoption centers in the country, his earnings aren’t measured in dollar signs. His business is saving animals.