Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles in the Humans of Wausau series, which is funded in part through a grant from the B. A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation. Follow the Humans of Wausau Facebook page here.
By Kelli Oligney for Wausau Pilot and Review
Lisa Leitermann, 31
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I’m from Wausau. Now, technically, I live in the village of Rothschild.
What do you do for a living and how did you decide that profession?
I’m the Executive Director for the Humane Society of Marathon County. I started working with the shelter in 2007. I have always loved animals, but didn’t necessarily have a plan to have a career with them. I felt like any other college student where you didn’t know what you wanted to do, but then the opportunity came for me and I started volunteering here because I had community service to do. I was hired on after community service and came through the ringer to get to the top.
So, you’ve been here that whole time?
I had a period of six months where I wasn’t employed here at all; I had left. I was getting married and had to change focus on things in my life. The workload and other factors made me see it was best for me to focus on myself at that time and where my life was going. Six months later, I was back here in this position.
What would you say a typical day for you is at the Humane Society?
I know how to do everything. It depends on if we are short staffed and if I need to fill in cleaning cages or doing intakes. I wear a lot of different hats here. There’s times I might be at the front desk or back in my office working on accounting or contracts. No two days are ever the same. From managing staff to managing the animals coming in and coming out, fundraisers; there’s a lot of multitasking. There’s a lot of things that take me in a lot of directions at one time, but I’ve worked here for so long that I thrive on that.
On average, how many animals would you say you intake on most days?
Our annual number is about 1,400; it can be different from day to day. Today, we had a stray dog when we got here, three newborn kittens, and an adult cat came in. Whether or not that will be all that happens today, I don’t know. Sometimes, people show up with animals they need to re-home and other times it’s strays coming in. It’s pretty rare that we have a day where we have nothing new coming in.
What are positive and negative aspects of working with animals?
Positives are making a difference. It is work you do where you actually feel you are making a difference. That was always something that was important to me. To be able to feel that I am having an impact and what I am doing matters – not that other jobs don’t, but I have really found that here. Negatives are the ugly sides that many people may not be aware of such as how much neglect and cruelty exists. Examples are someone surrendering their pet they haven’t taken to the groomer in three years and has really overgrown hair and nails all the way to cases with law enforcement of starving, injured animals. When you dedicate your life to taking care of animals and you’re in a situation where you can see the good and bad, that can be a negative in having to learn how to deal with it. It’s a part of the job, you know?
What has been one of the most memorable moments of your career?
There’s so many including the people I have been able to meet here. You think that it’s all about the animals and it is, but you have to be a people person and build connections with the people around you. I’ve met some of the best people in the entire world because of being here at the same time they were. This includes volunteers, adopters, employees; whoever it is I’ve met so many wonderful people that I’ve realized have the same passions and drives. One of my most memorable moments though, was a dog named Pearl. She was a Pit Bull/American Bull Dog mix that had come in as a stray; I believe in 2013. I was here when the guy came in with the dog and said he found her as a stray. You could tell she had puppies and had really bad mastitis. Her mammary glands were infected and she was bleeding; they were all swollen. She had cropped ears like your quintessential Pit Bull mix. I remember the guy saying, “Oh, I just found her walking down the street and I let her jump in my car.” I was thinking, “Who would do that? Who would see this dog at night and let them hop in their car when this is the dog that a lot of people are terrified of and not want to go near.” I mean, I would! He kept saying, “No, no, it’s not my dog. I found it as a stray.” It was very clear she had puppies, so I had asked if he had seen any puppies because she would have still been nursing and the puppies wouldn’t make it without her. We found out it was the owner and lied about it because he couldn’t afford medical care. That’s the tough part too because he did what he thought was best to do by bringing her here, but he wasn’t honest about it. We can’t have that judgement of, “Why would you do that? Why would you lie?” I’m going to think of it differently than he is. He couldn’t afford it so he brought her here so she could get help. We did find out there were other puppies and some of them had died. There were three that were still alive and we had law enforcement involved and he surrendered them over to us a couple days later. Pearl was getting treatment for mastitis so she couldn’t nurse the puppies because she was so infected. We found someone up north and we posted on Facebook, “We need help! We have puppies that need a mom.” To bottle feed puppies is a full time job in itself and we needed a dog. As much as I’d want to be a dog, I can’t be. We drove up north and handed the puppies over hoping it would go well. The mom dog was there; she sniffed them and was excited. We still had Pearl at that time and you know when they’ve been through so much and you think, “She should hate me. She should be terrified. She shouldn’t want anything to do with people after being treated the way you can only assume she’s been treated.” It sounded like she had gone from home to home, bred to bred, puppy to puppy, and now she’s in a shelter and everyone thinks it’s scary and horrible, but it was probably the best she ever had. I’m always about the underdog so I loved her in that time she was here. I figured she would be with us for a long time based on her looks. We had to get her healthy before putting her up for adoption. It was Valentine’s Day that her puppies were able to come back and be with her. The mom dog came, the family came, the puppies came, and that was the first time we saw them since they left. I remember the day we took the puppies up north; we didn’t show them to Pearl because we thought that wasn’t fair since she couldn’t have them and didn’t want to expose her with it and get her out right away. I came back into her kennel after having held them after getting them dropped off and she was all over me like she knew they were safe. It was amazing to be a part of when they came back. Pearl got along with the mom dog and the puppies were all happy. Pearl then got put up for adoption and it’s hard because obviously the goal is for them to not stay here, but when they are here, they feel as if they’re yours. It’s fun for me because I got to say selfishly, “I get to come to work everyday and see Pearl! She loves me!” The first day she came up for adoption, someone was visiting with her and I was like, “I didn’t think it was going to happen that quick.” It was a gentleman and his wife and I could see she was scared so I had gone in the visiting room they were in and I said, “She’s really sweet. I don’t want you to take this first impression by looking at her ears and her condition.” When she saw me, she lit up. The man said, “I probably wouldn’t be interested in her had you not come in here and see what she could be.” She was scared and withdrawn when she was in the room with strangers compared to who she could be when she was comfortable and loves you; it was a whole other side. He was crying because of a dog he had to put to sleep recently and then I was crying because they ended up adopting Pearl; this dog that I loved. I was balling and it was ridiculous, but he has brought her to visit me every year since then. It was six years, this year.
How old was she when she was here?
I think she is about eight now. We say all the time, “I really love this one! Bring them to visit and send updates!” People get busy and I don’t know if they think they’re going to be a burden, but it doesn’t cross their mind as much as we are sitting here wondering, “I wonder if Pearl is going to come in or get a picture or video of her.” One thing I’ll never forget he said was, “I’ve read somewhere that it takes a dog a year to forget someone so I will never let that amount of time pass between when you can see her.” I have all these pictures of when she comes in when we go outside and take a picture. When I wasn’t working here for six months, I was going to walk her because he moved to Wausau. They are such great people and he knows how important she was to me; they’re like family. There’s a handful of people like this. Anytime a dog comes in and you see how resilient they are, it makes you wish people could be like dogs. There’s so much they have gone through before they get here and to be a part of that journey of getting them adopted and know that things are going well for them is amazing. You see them through their hard time and then see them after they are through it. There’s not many others like Pearl. I have a picture of her in my office.
Have you ever adopted any animals from the Humane Society while working there?
My two cats and my dog are from here. One of my cats is 10, the other is 6, and my dog is 9 ½. He was my most recent adoption; I believe I’ve had him for four years now. He had been surrendered as a result of a divorce. He’s a little chihuahua/poodle kind of jerk, but super great. I never thought I’d be this little dog person, but I totally am.
Do you have quite a few people that come in ready to adopt each day?
Yes, we are lucky. We do fairly well with dogs. Our adoption room for dogs changes pretty frequently. Right now, we are low as far as numbers for dogs. Cats, we do push a lot of them out and get many adopted, but there’s just as many coming in. It’s hard to see the difference we are making sometimes. “Oh, that’s great! We had 10 go home last week, but now 10 more are in their place.” You see posts of shelters that are completely empty, but we don’t ever get that.
What was one of your hardest ages growing up?
I was super awkward in junior high and high school. I’d say junior high more than anything else. I had a weird haircut and weird clothes. Sometimes, I look back on it and wonder, “How did I have friends? Mom! Why did you let me do that? Why Would I think that was something good for me to do?” It’s funny because I’m always super weird about my eyebrows and I think eyebrows are very important for people to have. I plucked the shit out of them in junior high so I see these pictures and it’s the first thing I see. I always did my own thing.
What did you learn about yourself from that time in junior high?
I think about it and realize, “Oh, I did have friends.” I was in sports and people liked me. I wasn’t a bad person. You can look back at it now, but those things don’t matter. I realized that you can be who you are and you shouldn’t have to change or think you should change because you’re not like someone else. I stay true to myself and people that are going to be there for me are going to be there for me regardless of what my eyebrows look like, the clothes I’m wearing, or anything else.
What are hobbies you enjoy?
I’m into photography and spending time with my family. I’m really interested in exploring different parts of Wisconsin; state parks and getting outside to hike with the dog. I’d like to say that I travel, but I usually just travel around the state of Wisconsin. There are a lot of hidden gems in Wisconsin that aren’t far away and have a lot to offer.
What changes would you like to see in the community in the next five years?
I think we’ve changed a lot in the last five years so staying on that same wavelength of not getting stagnant. I think the changes they’re making to the river area is going to bring people in. I’d like to get to a point where we have less animals coming into the shelter; getting better about educating people about spay and neutering, rabies vaccines, and micro chipping. The Humane Society plays a role in that and there’s programs we want to do to make this a better place for pet owners. I think if you look back five years on what Wausau was before to what it is now, it’s a great path to be on and I’m excited to see what else will be here.
What’s your favorite quote?
I read The Velveteen Rabbit growing up and I had a velveteen rabbit stuffed animal. I want to get the quote as a tattoo at some point.
The quote in it about being Real:
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes.” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are real and you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up?” He asked, or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or who have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly. Except to people who don’t understand.”
There were other books I read like, Mr. Bell’s Fix it Shop and you read them now and you realize they’re giving great messages.
What’s a hidden talent of yours?
I’m good at drawing. Whether it’s making signs or drawing little things. Also, taking pictures because I”m a visual person and those things I tend to be better at.
What was one moment that changed you as a person?
When my sister’s daughter was born, she was born with Turner Syndrome. It is a chromosomal issue that is present in females. She knew going into her being born that there was a 50% chance she would need heart surgery after she was born. She ended up needing surgery so my sister had a C-Section and shortly after was told her baby had to go to Madison because she needed to be evaluated. This wasn’t our first rodeo as far as being there as a family, but this was the first experience with things not going perfect or having a scary situation. We came up when she was in the NICU to say goodbye to her before she left in the ambulance and had all these things hooked up to her. You feel like you only see those things on TV, but to have it be your flesh and blood and seeing your family go through that; I could cry thinking about it. She just had a baby and now she’s leaving her. The baby spent six weeks in Madison and did end up having heart surgery. This little tiny baby went through so many things and went through more in her six weeks of life than I have in my whole life. We are lucky though because my niece is great, recovered, and wonderful.
How old is she now?
She’s three. She’s so fantastic. I see it with cats and dogs when they come in here, have been through so much and are so resilient. People are so resilient too and can get through things. The situation changed all of us. I don’t think I ever took for granted our health, but it put things into perspective when it is your family and you also think about what others are going through; you never know. It’s eye-opening and it makes you appreciate things more. She’s always going to be super special because of that.
Is everything okay with her health at this point?
She will always have to see a cardiologist since she had heart surgery as well as other things related to Turner Syndrome. I know there will be some things she will have to deal with as she gets older related to it. She was at the Children’s Hospital in Madison and they were great. I get excited when people bring their dogs back to see me; I went with my sister one of the times when she took my niece to the hospital to visit so the nurses and doctors could see her and seeing the parallel between that and seeing the animals. Obviously, I value human life and animal life, but to see that parallel of seeing this little girl and not knowing if she would make it and now seeing her and how wonderful it is. For me to be on the other side of it, was amazing.
What kept you in the area?
My family. I always thought I wanted to live in Milwaukee because I wanted to work for Animal Control and Milwaukee has a big control program. My husband went to school in Mequon so he was by the Milwaukee area and it was always the plan to live in a big city. As we got older and more things were keeping us here, such as being tied to the shelter and being a part of the community. I also don’t want to miss a part of my nieces and nephews growing up. I don’t ever want to be in a position where I can’t go see my parents if I wanted to. It would be crazy to think we’d have to wait three hours or only see family on holidays. We’ve always been a really close family and I don’t think there would be anything worth to take me from the people I care about.
What’s your favorite memory of living here?
The fair – not as much now that I’m older, but it was always the best time of year for me growing up. It was fun to ride the rides, go to concerts, walk around and look at the animals with my whole family. We’d get the pass for the week and the wristbands so we could go on rides all day. It was always a fun time of year that we looked forward to. Before they redid the Grandstands, it was this Z shape and you felt like cattle when the concerts would let out and you were getting herded in the same direction to get down and outside.
If you had to give advice to anyone, what would it be?
I always tell people to be honest. I feel it’s the best thing you can do in any situation. Whether it’s good, bad, ugly; the truth is the most important thing. I also tell people they should compliment people and tell them how you feel; family, friends, husband, wife, complete strangers. You might not ever get that opportunity again and I don’t think you should live your life that way – by having things you should have said. I say it; I have a lot to say.