As a child, Rachel Mairose didn’t just suffer from dog allergies. She also got ringworm from a pregnant cat her family was fostering. “I was that kid who would go to school all patchy and gross,” she said, laughing. So she did exactly what you would not expect of her. She found countless ways to be around animals as a kid. Dogs. Cats. Turtles. Horses. After earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Washington University in St. Louis, Mairose considered law school. Instead, she returned to Minnesota and her love of animals, founding Secondhand Hounds in 2009. In just under a decade, the nonprofit has saved nearly 17,000 at-risk dogs and cats. The operation recently took over a 14,000-square-foot building in Minnetonka and plans to house a veterinary treatment center there. Earlier this month, Mairose was honored with a Twin Cities Film Fest Changemaker Award for her work. Married, the mother of two children and dog-mom to three hounds, she shares her thoughts on why animals tend to bring out the best in humans.
Q: I bet you were that kid who always brought home the stray dog, cat, wounded bird. Yes?
A: I was. I grew up in Edina. There were not a lot of strays, but I’d say, “Mom, stop the car.” And I’d get out and get the dog and find its tags. I spent my summers building custom rafts with friends. We’d catch turtles and paint numbers on their backs with nail polish to track their migration. As a kid, I fostered dogs and pregnant cats and volunteered at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
Q: Were your parents on board?
A: My parents were always supportive. They taught me that animals were as important as we were. They bought a dog before they had me. They always say the dog was their firstborn. It’s kind of silly, but true. When I developed a dog allergy, they never considered giving the dog away. They got me allergy shots, which took care of it.
Q: You were recently honored for your work promoting “animal humanity.” How do you define that?
A: It’s animals’ capacity to help us find those things that make us human through our connection to them. It’s sharing their love. It’s when you see hope in a dog’s eyes.
Q: Sometimes I think we’re kinder to our animals than we are to each other.
A: People want to fulfill a caretaker role. With animals, we get the opportunity to do that. They fully release themselves to you. People don’t always do that with each other.
Q: What are some reasons animals end up at your rescue?
A: A lot of people bring their dog or cat to us due to an acute medical issue that they cannot afford to take care of. Sometimes, a parent dies and leaves the animal behind. I have a couple who is homeless. It’s heartbreaking. Their surrender was a perfect dog who got adopted by a loving family. But the couple was sobbing.
Q: Some pet owners, though, don’t have the animal’s best interest at heart.
A: They’ve decided their animal is an inconvenience. “I don’t want it anymore. It’s old and peeing on the furniture.” It’s easy to get jaded, but we always assume people are doing the selfless thing until proven wrong.
Q: What is one change that each of us might make to help animals?
A: First, get your pets spayed or neutered. Overpopulation is the root of the problem for dogs and cats. Get them vaccinated. Avoid puppy mills. Seek out reputable breeders or find your pet through Pet Finder, which is a great resource, as is the Animal Humane Society. Do your research and donate to organizations doing good work. Most important, start a conversation with your parents, your kids, your friends about the intrinsic value of animals.
Q: One of the featured films in the Changemaker Series was “Saving Flora,” the story of a 14-year-old girl who runs away from the circus with an elephant to save the majestic animal from being euthanized. What’s your thinking about animals featured in circuses, on racetracks, in rings?
A: People are becoming more aware of what’s behind the scenes. But it’s complicated. Take bullfighting. It’s an ingrained cultural performance, yet I believe the treatment of the bulls is incredibly inhumane. But people argue: How can you come in now and say that? Where’s the fine line between entertainment and mistreatment? I come from a family of hunters and I love red meat, although we avoid factory farms. People sometimes are surprised to hear that about me. We all need to ask ourselves, should we keep doing the things we’re doing?
Q: What endangered creature do you worry about most?
A: Bees. People don’t love bees, in general. But they are such a telling part of how healthy our ecosystem is. I also love bats. Just because it’s not cute and cuddly doesn’t mean it’s not an important contributor to our community.
Q: As a changemaker, what change do you want most to be known for?
A: Animal rescues have, for a long time, not been very business-oriented. It’s almost taboo to be so, as if you’re in it for the wrong reasons. I’ve always fought against that. If I could change the face of what rescue looks like, it would be to have more rescues follow a business model. We operate on a more than $2 million annual budget. We pay people. The sky’s the limit in terms of rescuing animals.
Q: You’d also like to change laws around puppy mills.
A: Yes, but it’s hard to get laws passed when some view this effort as anti-business. I’m not anti-breeder or anti-business. I’m anti-puppy mill.
Q: You do great work. But, ultimately, would you like to go out of business?
A: (Laughs.) One-hundred percent. We all feel that way. It would be sad to not be in this business, but any animal rescuer wants to be put out of business in a perfect world.