HOTSEAT- Bless the beasts: Kogut takes SPCA to no kill

In the recent neighborhood cat-shooting case, Susanne Kogut was one of the boldest voices calling for punishment; but as the director of the area's top animal shelter, her main mission has been mercy.

She took the helm of the Charlottesville Albemarle SPCA in March 2005. If some of the initial demands she placed on her staff set tongues wagging, the only wagging going on now is the tails of the animals whose lives she's saved.

"I thought we'd be where we are today in about three years," says Kogut, who recently celebrated achieving a "no kill" policy at the shelter.

After practicing as a lawyer in D.C. for more than a decade, Kogut says she decided two years ago that working with animals is how she wanted to spend the "second half" of her life.

Although Kogut had been offered a job at an  animal shelter in Portland, Maine, she says when she saw the Charlottesville position advertised online, she headed south because Charlottesville had bigger challenges.

There was a new facility, a staff of 40, and dozens of volunteers. But many felt disenfranchised, Kogut says. Perhaps the biggest problem Kogut faced was the hundreds of stray dogs and cats coming in annually, many of which had to be euthanized because there wasn't enough space to house them.

The cat problem was "almost too overwhelming," Kogut says. So she first focused on saving the dogs.

"The answer is just to say no to euthanizing," she says. "You may have to put a dog in an office or in a bathroom with a baby gate until you can figure out what to do."

Kogut says her staff and volunteers worked overtime, trying to increase the base of foster homes that would take animals waiting to be adopted. They shipped dogs to shelters in the northeast, where there are fewer animals available for adoption, and they coordinated their efforts with various animal rescue groups. It worked.

"We were no-kill for dogs by December 2005," says Kogut. (The shelter still euthanizes animals deemed too ill or aggressive for adoption.)

Kogut says the success with dogs was so encouraging that by using the same methods, the SPCA achieved no kill status for cats a few months later. And that's brought some smiles.

"She's demanded only the best for the creatures," says longtime volunteer and SPCA board member Jenny Mead, "and in doing so she's brought out the best in the staff, volunteers, and the board."

Mead, whose mother, Sally Mead, directed the SPCA from the late 1960s until her death in 1989, says Kogut grasps the idea that pets have "evolved from working parts of households to companions.

 "They're not just cute fluffy things that you own," says Mead, "they're parts of families."

It's that recognition that Kogut says keeps her motivated.

"When an animal comes in that door, its life depends on us," she says. "It's a huge sense of responsibility and obligation. To turn your back on that is impossible."

Age: 41

Why here? The job

What's worst about living here? I work more now than ever, with a high stress level, even more than when I was a young lawyer doing investment and securities transactions. 

Favorite hangout?  See above– I've been here slightly over a year, and pretty much go from work to home. I have no hangout in Charlottesville, yet!

Most overrated virtue? Patience– especially when you're trying to accomplish things very quickly.

People would be surprised to know: I was an incredibly shy child.

What would you change about yourself? Lately, my diet and exercise routine.

Proudest accomplishment? Graduating from law school at the top of my class. I was definitely not one of the most intelligent ones there, but I worked hard and studied all the time. It paid off in the end.  

People find most annoying about you: I'm very direct and determined. 

Whom do you admire? Oprah Winfrey, Kweisi Mfume, and Jimmy Carter.  Really any people who overcome life's hurdles to make something of themeselves and then gives back to others. 

Favorite book? Joshua, by Joseph Girzone

Subject that causes you to rant? Gossip– it's unproductive and unkind.

Biggest 21st-century thrill? I bought a trailer, took my two dogs, and hit the road to travel the US and Canada for about a year, no schedule at all.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Brown recluse spiders that live in my house.

What do you drive? Toyota Landcruiser

In your car CD player right now: Casting Crowns, Third Day, and Mercy Me

Next journey? Just came back from Maine– I expect my next journey will be to Maine or Nova Scotia again. 

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Middle school trip– my friends thought airplane seat belts would make good souvenirs. The Federal Aviation department did not see it that way. It sounds pretty stupid now.

Regret: I wish I saved more money when I was younger.

Favorite comfort food: Mashed potatoes or chocolate

Always in your refrigerator: Lean Cuisine and Coke

Must-see TV: I'm too busy to stay home for the cable or satellite man, so I only receive NBC on my antenna.  A friend tapes Grey's Anatomy for me, so I guess that would be my must-see TV.

Favorite cartoon: Dilbert

Describe a perfect day. At home, on my back porch, cooking out with friends, with my dogs running all over.

Walter Mitty fantasy: Having a gift and understanding of difficult dogs, like Cesar Millan. 

Who'd play you in the movie? Sandra Bullock

Most embarrassing moment? Not sure if it's the most embarrassing, but I still remember it today. I was a young lawyer, on an important conference call with senior partners and some State Department attorneys (of course, I was trying to impress them). I messed up with the speaker phone and hung-up on everyone. 

Best advice you ever got? Go with your gut. 

Favorite bumper sticker? No Jesus, No Peace; Know Jesus, Know Peace

Susanne Kogut