As registration opens for next year’s Humane Society Animal Care Expo 2020, the 2019 keynote speaker, Zach Skow, reflects on how the conference has been a game changer for him. Skow is the Founder and Director of Outreach and Programs at Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue. From attending his first HSUS Animal Care Expo on a scholarship just five years ago, he shares why this conference felt different, and how he still feels like the guy operating out of his dad’s garage.
The 2019 conference was particularly special for him. “It was spectacular on a variety of levels – getting to connect with some people internationally who I’d heard of and followed but didn’t know much about, as well as being surrounded by my heroes in rescue,” he said. “And just getting to be part of the Maddie’s Fund HSUS family. I felt loved, and I was experiencing some radical anxiety.”
As for the conference as a whole, Skow emphasizes the importance of attending. “The thing that really opened my eyes is all of the solutions that lie within the conference. It’s really your one-stop shop for everything from insurance to sheltering software to shelter medicine protocols to building your board to getting in touch with grants.” He continued, “Anybody who’s plugged into the chain of command involving animal sheltering or rescuing needs to go to Expo to understand what options there are out there. Why reinvent the wheel when there’s organizations specifically formulated to help your genre of work and our particular niche community?”
While Skow says he always loves the cross-section of people, a lot has changed conference-wise… for the better. The overarching theme at the 2019 conference was challenging common biases, and Skow believes there was a togetherness that he’s never felt before. Which isn’t a surprise, since the two themes go hand-in-hand.
“The first couple years of going to Expo, I genuinely felt tension, whether it was inter-group or inter-area tension. I feel like now more than ever, people are getting along as opposed to being in competition.”
Skow elaborated with his own experience, “If you’re from L.A. and you’re doing your rescue, we’re seen as competing, so we didn’t want share our secrets. And this year it just felt much more like love. I just really enjoyed the togetherness.”
Part of that togetherness means sharing ideas and solutions for the greater good of the animals. “It feels like we were getting back to the idea that we are lucky to do the job that we do, however difficult it is, and that we were all there to pool our resources and be effective as a whole as opposed to being effective as smaller groups. And I think that’s the thing I noticed the most is it felt like we were more of a unified voice as opposed to thousands of smaller voices.”
Speaking of smaller voices, Skow applauds the small groups that save up to come to these big conferences, like Pack Taiwan.
“You’ve got a small mom and pop shop in the north of Taipei that’s saved up its money to come to Expo, learn a bunch of the tricks of the trade so that they can go back and do a better job, and may just have found what they need to be sustainable. And he did. It was really great to see him and his staff and to know that the Expo helps prop up organizations that I think all of us can relate to.
I still feel like that guy operating out of my dad’s garage sometimes, and I understand and know that anxiety and that terror of wondering if you’re able to support your animals that you have. So seeing those guys here stateside, all working together and feeling supported is pretty rad.”
Another high moment? “Sitting at the table with Dr. Ellen Jefferson and having people come up and talk about my (keynote) speech. That was borderline surreal because I’ve seen her talk probably ten times and I’m always enamored with her. She’s like our Mick Jagger. So being able to sit at her table and have people come up and say they really loved your speech was remarkable.”
If you weren’t able to see Skow’s keynote speech in person, you can watch a raw, smart phone-recorded version on the Marley’s Mutts Facebook page. You’ll hear his personal story of battling and overcoming addiction to alcohol, the need for a liver transplant, and how his dogs saved his life.
“I think rescue and animal sheltering unintentionally recruits more people from addicted and alcoholic backgrounds than probably any other field. So sharing openly and vulnerably is helpful. I think a lot of us are in this line of work to pay it forward to the dogs who helped save all of us but to also try and find meaning and worth in their life,” Skow explained. “And I know that my personal drive in this work is to try and be worth something. My constant inner narrative is that I’m worthless, and so by being of service to others is how I recognize my worth. I think a lot of people feel that way, and therefore my story kind of resonated with people a lot.”
Skow shared that when it comes to looking ahead to save more lives, opening our minds is key.
“I also think that, in order for us as a field to move on and keep making progress, we have to stop becoming victims of our own prejudices, our own subconscious prejudices. There’s a bit of a holier than thou culture running through animal sheltering which is nobody cares for these animals like we do, which I fundamentally get, but animals are dying because of it. We can have a tendency to be judgmental. But there’s a shift happening where people are starting to take a better look at open adoption and not being so judgmental and trying to be more educational as opposed to just saying no, and more lives are being saved.”
As for next year’s conference in San Antonio, TX, Skow is looking forward to being a presenter for the all day learning lab: Marketing in the digital age: How to create swagger for your organization, as well as serving on the panel for Marketing Advice from Top Dogs on any Budget. Register for Expo 2020 today!