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Meet the CEO of the Wisconsin Humane Society, Anne Reed

Apr. 12, 2022 at 1:03PM

[Editor’s note: This article was original published Sep 23, 2019]

Anne Reed doesn’t drink coffee. I find this out as she greets me at her front door and offers me tea with her apologies for not having the caffeinated elixir in the house. She invites me into her living room, on a rainy, cold June morning. I decline the tea and we take our places on two overstuffed chairs next to a large window and glass-doored, built-in book cases. Reed expresses her discontent with the weather in no uncertain terms. Then we settle in for a little chitchat.

While talking with Reed, especially with a recording device running, one thing becomes clear: she chooses her words carefully. And rightly so. Reed understands that words have power and meaning, and she wields her words with great thought. She considers how the thoughts in her head will eventually come out on paper or screen once they pass her lips. This comes from growing up with a father who, for much of his career was a lawyer, and a mother who taught English. For years, Reed worked as a litigation attorney herself. Now, as the CEO of the Wisconsin Humane Society, an organization that is looked at as a model by not just other animal welfare organizations but nonprofits in general, Reed understands the extent to which her thoughts and words hold sway with an audience.

Reed took over as CEO of WHS in January 2010, less than a year after Victoria Wellens, her predecessor, passed away in March 2009. Reed gives much credit to Wellens for where the Wisconsin Humane Society is today. When I asked how Reed worked to develop and change the culture at WHS when she stepped in, she deflected most of the conversation to the trail Wellens blazed, rather than in her own part in bringing WHS to the point it is today.

“[Wellens] and a few other visionaries in the industry at the time understood that euthanasia for space, which was happening everywhere could end anywhere if you changed to a people-positive approach,” Reed explained.

Wisconsin Humane Society under Reed’s leadership definitely has more space but also more responsibility for more animals in their care. Before 2000, Wisconsin Humane Society had nothing more than a single, ramshackle location on Humboldt Avenue near Capitol Drive. Now, along with the main Wisconsin Avenue location, WHS has facilities in Ozaukee, Racine, Brown, and Door counties, plus a dedicated spay and neuter clinic in West Allis. WHS also offers advice and support to other animal welfare organizations when needed.

Some may wonder why one nonprofit would choose to help another nonprofit competing for the same limited dollars and resources. In the corporate world, that would be like Coke helping Pepsi if it was in a bind. Reed is concerned about what she calls “the fragmentation” of the animal welfare industry and it’s a problem that weighs heavily on her mind. She sees fragmentation as a major issue that limits the chances of reaching the goal of eliminating the need for animal euthanasia simply for lack of space and other resources.

“Every single [animal welfare organization] is unconnected to every single other one,” Reed explained. This industry fragmentation is largely because of the longevity of the humane movement, not only here in Wisconsin but across the U.S. and Europe which gained traction in the 1800s. “There was no reason to think about forming any kind of national organization,” Reed said. “How would you get to the meetings? How would you look at the minutes?”

The humane movement started in Wisconsin when Captain Frederick Pabst and other prominent members of the Milwaukee Fortnightly Club created the state’s first humane society in 1879. Pabst, an animal lover, was known for maintaining impeccable stables for the horses who pulled his beer wagons and was intolerant of drivers who were cruel to the horses. WHS’s original mission was for the welfare of animals, children and women who were victims of abuse.

Since that time, a plethora of animal welfare organizations have sprung up in communities across the country and here in Wisconsin, all working separately from each other toward the same basic goal of finding homes for homeless animals and saving animals’ lives. Some organizations have survived. Others have crashed and burned and when that happens it is often the animals within those shelters that ultimately suffer.

“Small organizations struggle,” said Reed, “and there’s a lot about the 21st century that is causing them to struggle so much more.” Reed says that she is focused on entering into conversations with other animal welfare organizations that want to be stronger and to do better for the animals in their care. “It’s irresponsible for us to just be us with [other organizations] struggling around us,” said Reed.

For example, earlier this year six humane organizations from Wisconsin, including Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha and Elmbrook Humane Society needed assistance in containing a brucellosis outbreak in dogs that were transferred to them from Korea. Brucellosis is a disease that is highly contagious to other dogs and in some instances to people. While WHS wasn’t part of the initial Korean transfer, it made room in its Door County facility to hold a large number of the dogs until they were cleared for release. This was serious and even though it put much strain on WHS’s resources, it responded with less than 24-hours notice.

In another more structural and visionary effort, WHS and Oshkosh Area Humane Society are searching to hire a veterinarian that will work between the OAHS and the WHS Door County locations. Each organization will maintain their autonomy, but will share the services of a veterinarian, as well as resources and expertise in animal medical care. “This is an example of how we can help fight fragmentation without saying, you’ve got to merge with us,” Reed said.

At the time of the interview, Reed’s house was graced by three cats and one dog, although the dog was at daycare and the cats were like ghosts, tucked away in their own spaces. Shortly thereafter, Reed lost Toby, the “old man” cat of the house. Even the CEO of the Wisconsin Humane Society has to wrestle with the inevitable loss that comes to those who love an animal. Reed said that she has learned a lot about people and about animals in the last nine years. She says that the love that people feel for animals, especially companion animals, goes deep, but we often bring it to the surface in the stories we tell about our pets.

“The depth and the place where we respond to animals as human beings is way deeper than I even, ever understood. And I consider myself to be someone who’s loved animals as long as I can remember. I used to think I could access it verbally. I no longer remotely try to do that because that place is not verbally accessible. I can access it by putting you in eye contact with an animal. I can access it by having you tell me a story, which I rarely have to ask for because people want to tell those stories and I love to listen to them. It is beneath and above our conscious, verbal capacity,” Reed said.

Reed also says that while animals can bring out the very best in people, they can also bring out other less desirable characteristic in their human companions. She sees people try to find a sense of control in a chaotic world through the animal itself, often to the detriment of the animal. This need for control can manifest itself when humans attempt to stop an animal’s natural behavior rather than finding pragmatic ways for pets to appropriately display their behaviors or just live peacefully in a home. Reed also sees shelters try to over-control placement of some homeless animals to not just good homes, but to the “perfect home” while turning away other healthy animals that desperately need that spot in the shelter.

One thing Reed says she is certain about the animals that come through the door of Wisconsin Humane Society is that they have the ability to adjust from adversity and thrive once they are placed in a new home.

“They are way more resilient than we think,” said Reed. “I’d say that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. They’re wonderfully, happily, bouncily resilient. And we don’t give them credit for that.”

She understands the anthropomorphizations that humans often cast upon animals. But in Reed’s experience, animals don’t hold on to the past. They just move fluidly from one situation to the next, something most humans have a hard time understanding, let alone doing themselves.

“I can say, they land just fine in their new digs,” Reed assured me. “They bond just fine with their new families. So that idea that they’re dealing with all of these memories, I think I’m learning that’s mostly us.”

Reed recounted her attempt to adopt a dog from WHS 15 years before she became its CEO when it was located on Humboldt and Capitol. The building itself, built on a landfill, was sloping and cracking under its settling foundation. Dogs and cats were stacked in cramped, vertical enclosures. No one greeted her or other would-be adopters when they entered. Doorways were leaning. Rooms were lit by sad fluorescent lights. There were no windows and it was a dark, depressing place.

Reed said she stepped into the area where the dogs were held. One dog caught her attention and when their eyes met, the dog barked at her. The vocalization startled her into the reality of what she had just walked into and she found the emotions were just too much for her to process, “too close to the surface.” She left the building, got back in her car, had a good cry, and that was the last experience she had with Wisconsin Humane Society for 15 years. Until, that is, she adopted a dog (not from WHS) that needed some positive-reinforcement puppy training.

Sitting in her office as an attorney at 1000 North Water, Reed reviewed the website for the new and improved Wisconsin Humane Society now on Wisconsin Avenue. She found that they offered puppy classes. She also realized that they still had an opening for executive director left vacant by Wellens’ death five months earlier. Within the next few days she submitted her application. Within the next few weeks, she was offered the position.

“That stuff they tell you about visualizing something and that will create the momentum, that was the moment where I actually wasn’t just reading the job description, but actually experiencing it,” Reed said.

Reed and the staff she guides at WHS continue to have visions that create momentum to improve the lives of animals — and people. Each year Wisconsin Humane Society is responsible for about 13,000 cat, dog and other companion animal adoptions, the wildlife area helps about 5,000 injured and orphaned creatures, and the West Allis clinic does between 10,000 and 20,000 low-cost spay and neuter procedures. WHS provides assistance to 8,000 low-income families to care for their pets, whether it be medical care or help from its pet food pantry. They also maintain programs like Safe Haven that provides a safe, temporary space for the pets of victims of domestic violence so everyone can get out of a dangerous situation. There is also the PAL (People and Animals Learning) program that teaches empathy and raises self-esteem in children from Milwaukee’s most underprivileged areas.

“The whole key to everything we do is, you never have to euthanize a healthy animal for space reasons because you’re getting them out faster than they come in,” said Reed.

Reed admits that it’s been an exhilarating process, one with ups and downs and a steep learning curve. But she remains focused on the main mission of, not only her organization, but of similar organizations across the country—saving animals’ lives and making their lives and the lives of people who love animals better.

“When I first started,” Reed recalled, “I wanted to shadow the different work. I walked out with one of our adoption counselors to go greet a guy on the adoption floor...we still know each other today, that guy. The adoption counselor I was with said, ‘How can we help you today?’ And the guy said, ‘I’m gonna cry.’ And then he did. He had a cat and he had been caring for his ill father. And his father had died quite a while earlier, and now the cat had died. And he said through sobs, ‘It’s so quiet.’ And you could tell, it was his dad, it was everything. So, you talk about the place that we interact with animals, it’s deep, but boy is it there.”

And just as that deep space where we love animals is there within each of us, the Wisconsin Humane Society and Anne Reed are there. Saving animals. Listening to people. Making the world a better place, one paw print on our hearts at a time.

For more information on the Wisconsin Humane Society, its programs, volunteer opportunities, to donate or to adopt go to

About the author

Joette Rockow

Joette is a Senior Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee where she teaches advertising, public relations, and common sense. She is a writer, musician, Taoist, animal lover, and enjoys a good hike, a cold beer, and a belly laugh with friends.