Encinitas Advocate Lifestyle

Encinitas nonprofit trying to meet the ‘needs of the community, human and animal’

Humane Society
Judi Sanzo — with her dog Stella, a rescue from the Holy fire — is the president and CEO of the Rancho Coastal Humane Society, a local nonprofit that provides for the rescue and care of homeless animals, wildlife rehabilitation and community outreach. John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune

Judi Sanzo served on the board of directors for the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in Encinitas for five years before taking on her current role as president and CEO of the nonprofit organization that rescues and cares for animals. An attorney with a private practice, she was already rescuing animals and an advocate of adoption before joining the organization.

“My husband and I were rescuing dogs long before I was invited to join the board. In my private law practice, I advised nonprofit organizations on governance, compliance and operational issues. I saw working at RCHS to be the perfect opportunity to join my profession with my passion,” she says.

“As an adopted child, I understand the importance of a stable home and loving family. At RCHS, we adopt out more than 1,000 dogs, cats, and rabbits each year. How could I resist a chance to work full-time in an animal welfare organization where our primary goal is to make lifelong relationships?”

Part of the work in helping to build those relationships includes education, community outreach, their Animal Safehouse program and wildlife rehabilitation center. Sanzo — who has four adopted Yorkshire Terriers with her husband, Mitch Dembin — took some time to talk about her work at Rancho Coastal Humane Society and her passion for animals.

Q: Tell us about Rancho Coastal Humane Society.

A: Rancho Coastal Humane Society (RCHS) was founded by Maria K. Lloyd in 1960. Interstate 5 was a dirt road and our property was home to dogs, cats, birds, goats, sheep, and even a burro named Milton.

We are best known for our pet adoption and humane education programs, but we recognize the importance of the human-animal bond, so we created our Animal Safehouse Program, community pet food banks, and outreach programs that offer a “helping paw” to people in crisis who need to keep their beloved pets safe, healthy, and by their sides.

The Animal Safehouse Program was originally developed to help victims of domestic violence flee from their abusers. More than half of domestic violence survivors report that they did not leave a violent household because local shelters would not accept their pets and the survivors would not leave them behind with an abuser. We provide temporary shelter, medical care, food and supplies, and other community resources to pets of domestic violence victims, free of charge. We also work with domestic violence counselors and advocates to reunite pets with their owners as soon as they are safe from harm.

We’ve also recently expanded the program to include pets of veterans who require in-patient care at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, so that veterans can receive treatment in the hospital while we look after their pets.

We’ve also discovered that local seniors, who are encouraged to adopt pets for comfort and companionship, require help when a medical crisis arises. This program also helps seniors who are taken from their homes by ambulance, by coordinating with other agencies to provide temporary care until the senior owner can be released from the hospital.

Recently, we’ve returned to our “wild side,” opening a wildlife center that treats and releases sick, injured or orphaned songbirds, birds of prey, squirrels, rabbits, ducks, and even baby skunks.

Q: What are your goals/vision for the organization?

A: We are desperate to improve our medical facility. We have submitted plans to the City of Encinitas for a new building dedicated to veterinary care, a new education center and several small structures that would complement our little yellow house that we still use for administration. We need to grow to meet the needs of the community, human and animal.

Q: Is it fair to say that you’ve long been someone who loves animals? Where did this love begin?

A: Her name was Becky, and she came to our house unannounced. Dad did not tell mom that a business associate was bringing a Beagle puppy as payment on an outstanding account. Becky ate the arm of a couch while we went shopping for pet supplies! That was nearly 50 years ago.

Q: Rancho Coastal has a number of programs, including humane education, pet assisted therapy, and a wildlife center, among others. Can you tell us about your humane education program?

A: Our education program has several components. For pet owners and wildlife enthusiasts, we have workshops, lectures, and training events. We even have dog yoga and cat yoga classes.

For children, we have Kids Community Service, animal camps for children 6 to 14 years old, scheduled during school breaks, and the Happy Tales Reading Program, where children read aloud to our shelter pets to gain confidence in reading and comfort from furry companions.

Q: What can you tell us about the pet-assisted therapy program? How does it work?

A: Our Pet-Assisted Therapy program currently has 11 dedicated volunteers and 13 certified therapy pets who visit local healthcare facilities on a monthly basis, and college campuses during final exams. ... We are in the process of expanding this program to incorporate empathy lessons for children and increasing the list of hospitals, assisted-living facilities and campuses our volunteers will visit.

We’re also excited to launch a pet loss support program, where pet owners suffering grief from the loss of their companions can find care, assistance and emotional support.

Q: How does pet assisted therapy help people?

A: University of California, Los Angeles researchers have concluded that the “simple act of petting animals releases an automatic relaxation response” and, when humans interact with animals, it promotes “the release of serotonic prolactin and oxytocin, all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods.”

In other words, pet-assisted therapy helps to reduce stress, lower high blood pressure and improve emotional well-being.

Q: How does your wildlife center function?

A: Our San Diego Wildlife Center rehabilitates and releases sick, injured and orphaned wildlife. The center is located in Carlsbad and serves the North County community.

Our patients are brought to us by concerned neighbors and we offer guidance on how to collect and transport injured or abandoned wildlife. ... Our center works as a hospital, providing immediate emergency treatment and prolonged care during recovery.

When our patients are well enough, we transfer them to pre-release cages where they will learn to fend for themselves and become desensitized from human interaction. When ready, we release wildlife back into the community where they were found.

Q: Why is your work with animals important to you?

A: I believe that we have a special responsibility to animals that we have domesticated. We made them dependent on us, and it is on us to provide them with safe, loving homes.

We have encroached upon the natural habitat for our local wildlife which sometime leads to animals becoming sick or injured.

I believe it is our responsibility, as a community, to assist wildlife when we can and participate in conservation efforts.

Q: What has your work at Rancho Coastal taught you about yourself?

A: I have always been a “problem solver.” See a problem, fix it. I am learning to be more patient because human-animal bonding takes time.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: “... Try not! Do. Or do not. There is no try!” — Yoda, of “Star Wars”

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I was the director of social services at the Charles Street Jail in Boston, Mass., one of the oldest jails in the U.S. It is now a luxury hotel.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Attending a gig with my husband’s band (Limited Jurisdiction), followed by dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. And, yes, goofing around with our pets!

What I love about Encinitas ...

I love its pet-friendliness, the laidback attitude, and strolling through downtown Encinitas. The support we receive from the community is overwhelming.

— Denise Davidson is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

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