Monday, August 01, 2011

Accountant follows her passion for animals

Hometown hero Sue James, president of the Tri-Valley Animal RescueLike many people who love animals, Sue James' childhood dream was to become a veterinarian.

"I looked into going to vet school but my parents, they wanted me to pursue a more traditional career," said James, a Danville resident who grew up in a house in New York state where the family pets included dogs, rabbits -- even a monkey.

After a long stint in the corporate world at accounting giant Ernst & Young, working with some of Silicon Valley's leading high-tech companies, James found an outlet for her lifelong love of animals at Tri-Valley Animal Rescue, an all-volunteer group founded in 1992 whose mission is to prevent the unnecessary euthanasia of shelter animals.

The group finds foster homes for adoptable dogs and cats at the East County Animal Shelter in Dublin and other area shelters until permanent homes can be found at adoption events. Last year, the group found homes for 980 cats and dogs through its foster programs.

Besides her love for animals, James found she had a penchant for numbers. After teaching math and science in New York, she decided to make a career change and moved to California in 1969.

"Accounting is a natural adjunct to math, so I went back to school and got my degree in accounting, and then I went into public accounting," she said.
She started volunteering in 2005 as she was winding down a long and successful career as a partner at Ernst & Young.

Working at the firm, she learned the importance of teamwork to meet the needs of clients. That focus also carries over to her volunteer work. "It's about the cats and dogs," she said. "But also, for me, it's how can we work effectively as a team."

Tony Owens, animal control supervisor at the East County shelter, which is run by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, praised James. "She's here all the time, almost every day, doing anything from helping to facilitate adoptions to coordinating fostering. She's definitely an instrumental volunteer and a great coordinator between us and Tri-Valley Animal Rescue."

Aside from her volunteer work, she also serves on the boards of Yahoo (YHOO), Applied Materials and Coherent.

"For a corporate board, our goal obviously is to represent the shareholders and to get the returns for the shareholders. With a nonprofit board, it's to further the mission, which in our case is rescuing adoptable animals," she said. "Most of the people on the TVAR board are actively involved in managing TVAR operations. On a corporate board, that's not the case, you are not managing, you're there for oversight."

While some nonprofit boards are more advisory in nature, TVAR is a hands-on board, she said.

James' first assignment as a volunteer with the rescue group was to walk dogs at the East County shelter.

While a few volunteers such as herself were providing a needed service to get the restless shelter dogs out for walks, James decided she wanted to do more. So, she started the shelter dog program. The idea was to encourage more adoptions of shelter dogs by providing incentives such as free dog training lessons and pet supplies with each paid adoption fee.

"The dog walkers were dedicated people, but it was not an organized endeavor," she said.

After the program was launched, the rescue group began hosting occasional adoption fairs for the dogs at the shelter and brought in dog trainers to work with volunteers.

"We thought if we hook a trainer up with the new adopters, it would help the dogs and help the adopters. We found that adoption returns went way down," James said. "So the dogs learned, and the volunteers learned to be better handlers. I used to tell volunteers that while correcting them or trying to get them to behave sounds like tough love, euthanasia is a lot tougher."

Of course, not all of the animals can be saved, she said.

"One of the things about volunteering that is critical is that you need to be realistic. There are some you will save, and without that effort none would be saved," said James, who became president of the group's board of directors this year. "Without the volunteers, we can't save any animals. It's just that simple."

It's always hard to find enough people who will provide foster homes.

"It is a big commitment," said James, who has taken in several foster dogs. "That dog or cat is in your home 24 hours a day, and we ask the fosterer to show the dog or cat at adoption events. We supply everything a fosterer needs, including telephone help, but it is still opening your house to a new animal. But it's how we save lives."

Cindy Churchill is a fellow volunteer and rescue board member who runs the shelter dog program that James helped launch.

"Sue does not ask any volunteer to do anything she wouldn't do. She takes the time to let them know how much their work helps the animals," Churchill said.
While James is fond of cats, she is allergic to them. When she met the man she later married, he happened to have a cat. So James ended up getting allergy shots.

The couple now have a dog named Ozzie, an 18-month-old Spaniel-pit bull mix adopted from the East County Animal Shelter last year.

"He's very, very cute but he's a handful," she said.

By Eve Mitchell
Contra Costa Times