Ray John never imagined when he accepted the position as Haven Humane Society’s director this summer that within the first few months he’d nearly die from a staph infection after a supposedly routine shoulder surgery in June.
The infection resulted in a near-death experience, an emergency second surgery and months of pain that he rated as more horrific and traumatic than even what he endured as a combat Marine in Vietnam.
John now says that in some ways, his dire health situation turned the tables on his Haven job, a position for which he was hired to restore Haven to its former beloved status. But what began as his challenge to breathe new life into the troubled animal shelter became a daily job that gave him a crucial focal point when he needed one most.
“I sucked it up for four months,” John said from inside his animal shelter office, a military-tidy space decorated with Marine Corps, Harley Davidson and 49ers objects.
“I almost died. I lost 35 pounds. I was losing hope. But I made Haven a promise that I’d give them four years. I had a place that needed me. I had a commitment to them.”
John, 62, said he sometimes came to work so weak he literally had to brace himself to keep from falling. He sat behind his desk with tubes that drained infection from his shoulder and yet other tubes that infused medication into his body.
In all, he missed three days’ work.
The rest of the days, John, who admits he knows very little about animals, set out to right a series of organizational wrong turns that nearly wrecked more than 50 years of Haven’s public goodwill, affection and trust in less than two years.
(See below for the recaps.)
John – known affectionately as “Rayjohn” to many at Haven, said he’s had to convince some that he’s the right person for the job, despite his lack of animal-shelter experience. He readily admits he’s still learning dog breeds.
“People have said, ‘What’s an educator doing here?’ And a board member said, ‘I don’t feel your passion for animals.’ Here’s what I say to them: ‘My passion’s organization.’ Our staff already has people who are educated about animals. I don’t think you need to be an animal lover to lead an animal shelter.”
Accomplishments John said he’s directed in the last four months include:
– He extended the olive branch to animal rescue organizations that had previously left Haven in disgust.
“I called them and said, ‘Come visit.’ There are almost 60 animal rescue groups that could take many of our animals. It’s really important we get along.”
– He speaks regularly to service clubs to get the message out that Haven Humane is trustworthy and growing stronger every day.
“I tell them, ‘I don’t expect you to trust me, because I haven’t earned your trust yet.””
– He implemented a practice where he visits each of his 34 employee between three and four times a day.
“If employees feel valued and accountable, they’ll perform at a higher rate,” he said. “It’s not about Ray John. It’s about the 34 people who work here.”
– He mended fences with Shasta County Animal Regulation.
“My feeling is let’s get together and help each other,” John said. “We’re more educational, and they’re more regulation, but I say let’s stop talking about jurisdiction and start talking about joint pastures.”
– He’s working with Monty Hight, the shelter’s newest board member, to implement background checks on employees and regular volunteers, in part, he said, so he can reinstate the Junior Haven program for youth.
“It’s not just about finances,” John said. “I want kids to be safe here. If someone doesn’t want to be fingerprinted, then I don’t want them to work here.” (Asked whether board members would also undergo background investigation, John didn’t say, but he did say he’d never had to undergo a background check.)
– He communicated to board members that he works best sans micromanaging.
“When they asked me to consider this job, they knew my style. I would hope people know I’m a big boy and I know what I’m doing. If I’m getting 10 calls a day from board members, then I can’t do my job. I think they know that.”
– He’s enacted a policy of being as transparent as is legal for the organization regarding its workings, finances and decisions.
“I want everything to be aboveboard so people will trust us again,” he said. “Are there things that should be confidential? Yes, usually personnel. But the other things . . . let’s make those other documents more transparent.”
– He developed an aggressive budget designed so Haven can finish in the black in 2009, something that will not happen in 2008.
“I ask for staff to justify every expense,” John said.
Even so, John said he dreams of a complete remodel of the shelter that would more than double the kennel space.
Part of the remodel would include a new quarantine area to replace the one seen here, and a new air conditioning system to properly vent the work spaces. Plus, he’d like a full-time animal cruelty investigator.
In the meantime, John said, there are things Haven can do now that don’t require great sums of money.
• “We can get this place immaculate,” he said. “We can paint inside. We can get a new sign out front. We can have customer service that’s five times better — because we’re still learning. We’re into service, and if we can’t give good service, then we’re not doing our job.”
• “We need more public support, and so I’m out telling our story. I tell people that once we start meeting our goals, we’ll be a totally different place in one year.”
• “We can rein in the finances,” he said. “Every expenditure needs an accounting. There are simple things we can do, like buying in bulk.”
A few days before Thanksgiving, John and I met at his office and he gave me a tour of the animal shelter and the nearby clinic. We later went to lunch at his “private club – without initiation fees” – The Snack Shack on Eastside Road.
What do I know about animal shelters? Not much. But the spaces I toured appeared clean. The cat room — a place I’d heard had suffered recent overcrowding and feline respiratory infections — even had some cages without any cats or kittens, and to my eye, no overt signs of sick animals.
The veterinary clinic was spotless and odorless. (On the other hand, inside the older animal shelter, odors reached even John’s office.)
As John walked through the buildings, he engaged in friendly, jovial conversations with employees, and many returned the banter.
Even so, one source reports that because of heavy turnover at the animal shelter, some volunteers who once felt comfortable no longer feel welcome, and have left permanently.
Also, some former donors are still reluctant to contribute money to Haven until they know for certain their financial gifts will be spent in good faith, as intended: in ways that help the animals.
Full Speed Ahead
John said the good news is he’s made an almost complete recovery from his nearly fatal medical trauma. He said the bad news is his staff might like him better the way he was when he was sick, once they see him when he’s well.
“I feel sorry for the employees,” John said with a laugh. “They haven’t seen me at my triple-Type-A personality, going 100 miles an hour.”
Clearly, John’s health and vitality is restored. Now, what John said he wants most is health and vitality for Haven. He knows it won’t be easy.
“I don’t want to talk about what happened before I got here,” he said. “What’s success? It’s what I’ve done my whole career. The day I’ve woken up and everything’s that I’ve said I’d do, then I know I’ve kept my commitment.”
Click on the links to read previous stories about Haven Humane Society
• Something Stinks at Haven Humane
• Haven Humane Society: Hell in a Hand Basket
• Norm Ryan and Wife Insist He’s Innocent
• Police Case Summary Re: Norm Ryan
• Norm Ryan Goes to Court
• Preston Wormed into Haven’s Heart with $1,000
Related: Check back this week for reports on Norm Ryan’s court sessions. Update: 12.11.08 – Former CEO Norm Ryan’s preliminary hearing in Shasta Superior Court has been rescheduled to Jan. 29-30, 2009.