Blunt Dissection Ep 40: Dr Sara Pizano & Her Mission to Transform Shelter Medicine

On today’s show, I’m joined by Dr Sara Pizano.

Sara is a Cornell Graduate and leading light in shelter medicine who has brought about enormous positive change to shelters across America.

After university, she completed an internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York in 1995 and was subsequently hired by North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, New York where her shelter medicine adventure began.

In 1998 Sarah was recruited as director of the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale and in 2005 she was appointed the Director of Miami-Dade Animal Services in Miami, Florida. During her tenure, she attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding, nearly tripled the adoption rate and pretty much rewrote the Animal Services County Code!

In 2013 she joined 'Target Zero' as program director and was instrumental in creating and developing a new model to transform high euthanasia public shelters. In the course of her work, she visited and mentored multiple shelters around the country resulting in a drop of nearly 50,000 animal euthanasias in just 18 of those shelters alone.

In an effort to offer a wider scope of services to help shelters of all types and sizes she created Team Shelter USA in 2017, where her goal is for all animal welfare organizations to have access to her life saving practices.

Dr. Pizano is the author of The Best Practice Playbook for Animal Shelters and leads the assessment and mentorship program at Maddie’s Shelter Medicine, University of Florida. She has received multiple awards and is a board member of the Companion Animal Advisory Council and the Humane Society of the United States.

Now, just before we jump into the episode, a quick word from today’s show sponsor which today is the VetX:Thrive. If you are working in practice and clients or colleagues are making you miserable then I have good news and bad news. The bad news is you are probably the source of your problems. The good news is that you are also 100% in control of changing things and having a great career. You are missing some skills and they are NOT clinical. Enter VetX:THRIVE. VetX is a RACE accredited non-clinical skills training course where members receive training, toolkits and mentoring support to support development of these skills. Paul, one of the community members says joining was the best decision of his life and went from being miserable to being energised and happy in his work.

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Now back to the show,

In a sector of veterinary medicine which can seem bleak, Dr Pizano’s work offers not just a glimmer of hope, but a well-lit path to a future where animals that can find homes, do find homes. I was engrossed and I learned so much about the incredible and often unsung work Sara and all the heroes in shelter medicine undertake each day. I hope you also enjoy this eye-opening conversation with the inspirational Dr Sara Pizano.

Listen on iTunes here. Listen on Soundcloud here. Listen on Stitcher here. Listen on Spotify here.

The Episode In Detail

On today’s show I’m joined by Dr. Sara Pizano, founder and consultant at Team Shelter USA. She shares over 30 years of experience in animal welfare, which includes speaking on stages and conducting workshops across the country, as well as serving on the Companion Animal Council for the Humane Society of the United States, the Million Cat Challenge, and Best Friends Animal Society. She also wrote The Best Practice Playbook for Animal Shelters in 2019.

The Cornell University graduate shares her love for the veterinary practice. She dreamed about dedicating her life to the field since she was only three years old. While she would say she is living her dream today, she is certainly faced with a number of tough challenges on a regular basis. We talk in particular about the moral and ethical considerations of euthanasia, and the importance of having a framework on which to base decisions in order to keep emotion at bay.

Dr. Pizano also talks about the importance of systems change when it comes to taking a stand against institutional problems. She warns against succumbing to victim mentality, of feeling like a vet needs to simply live with the fact that there are flaws in the system. Systems change means looking beyond symptoms and creating foundational movements that ripple outward. She talks about how she applied this way of thinking as a manager when she turned a dysfunctional shelter into a “fear-free” environment by assembling and nurturing an exceptional team that can handle conflicts of all sorts.

Dr. Pizano and I go on to discuss best practices for maintaining a healthy team culture within a shelter. Fostering this fear-free environment is a matter of good communication. Striving for good communication eliminates confusion and provides a safe space for employees to give each other feedback without worrying about anyone taking things personally.

From addressing shelter overcapacity and euthanasia, to giving advice on staying positive and eradicating fear of death, listen in as Dr. Pizano lends over three decades of practical experience, expertise, and all-around inspiration as a holistic veterinary consultant.

Outline of this episode:

  • [0:28] Introduction to Dr. Sara Pizano

  • [7:45] What led Dr. Pizano to dedicate her life to veterinary medicine?

  • [21:44] How Dr. Pizano navigates moral and ethical considerations as a vet

  • [19:12] The importance of strategy and specializations in veterinary hospitals

  • [29:42] The vice of victim mentality and the virtue of “systems change”

  • [35:02] How Dr. Pizano tapped into “Management 101” to turn a dysfunctional shelter into a “fear-free” environment

  • [40:37] What skills Dr. Pizano looks for in a management team

  • [42:48] Common causes for conflict, and how to manage it

  • [46:30] How to establish a safe environment where feedback can be given without vitriol

  • [51:15] Dr. Pizano’s practical strategies for improving the current state of the animal shelter industry

  • [1:14:35] Dr. Pizano’s take on euthanasia

  • [1:17:57] How Dr. Pizano stays positive

  • [1:21:34] Coming to terms with our mortality

  • [1:29:43] Team Shelter USA’s current goals and upcoming events

  • [11:33:21] Quickfire questions for Dr. Sara Pizano

Find Dr. Sara Pizano at:

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Be safe, be well, be happy.

Dr. D