“The time has come,” Humane Society of the U.S. cat program manager Nancy Peterson announced in a July 6, 2015 e-mail to friends, colleagues, and ANIMALS 24-7. “I will be retiring on July 31, 2015,” Peterson said, “after seventeen and a half years with HSUS.”
The first and to date only HSUS cat program manager, Peterson brought to the organization a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, an associate’s degree in animal health technology, clinical experience as a registered vet tech, additional experience as a trainer of service dogs, and longtime membership in the Cat Writers’ Association. An author of numerous award-winning magazine articles about various aspects of cat behavior and health, Peterson later served for several years as Cat Writers’ Association president.
The pre-Peterson era
Before Peterson arrived at HSUS in 1998, the organization had no one go-to spokesperson on cat-related topics. Most media inquiries pertaining to cats were routed to the Companion Animal Welfare department, but were answered by a variety of people whose backgrounds were actually in dog handling or shelter management.
Calls about cat health were frequently referred to longtime vice president Michael Fox, DVM, author of a syndicated veterinary advice column, who retired several years prior to Peterson’s hiring.
Calls about feral cats were sometimes routed to the Wildlife department, or to vice president Andrew Rowan, who earlier, as founding director of the Tufts University Center for Animals & Public Policy, was among the first people prominent in U.S. humane work to encourage the trap/neuter/return approach to feral cat population control (TNR), in direct contradiction to longtime HSUS Companion Animal Welfare department policy.
HSUS cat herder
While Peterson was not hired to rewrite HSUS policy, her first task as HSUS “cat herder” was to coherently reconcile the various past, present, and at that time frequently changing positions of the policymakers in publications and public statements. That required facilitating a great deal of often heated discussion, both internally and with outside experts, including the leaders of other animal advocacy organizations that had taken an interest in cat issues, especially involving feral cats.
Peterson took essentially the same quiet approach to “cat herding” people that she took to handling cats, managing to be simultaneously one of the most often quoted of all HSUS spokespersons, past or present, and one of the least controversial, even when addressing explosively controversial topics. A quick search of the ANIMALS 24-7 archives turned up Peterson statements on subjects including cats-versus-wildlife, cats-versus-birds, vaccinations, euthanasia decisions, and declawing, but none of the sort of personal vitriol directed at her that has often been directed at other spokespersons for HSUS policy.
Perhaps the most awkward episode of Peterson’s HSUS tenure came in 2007, when HSUS president Wayne Pacelle accepted an invitation to be keynote speaker at the Cat Writers’ Association annual conference. Having promoted legislation to restrain commercial breeding of both cats and dogs, Pacelle was an unpopular choice among CWA members who participate in fancy-breeding and with the Dog Writers Association of America, whose membership overlaps with that of the Cat Writers’ Association.
The conflict was resolved when Peterson, in her capacity as CWA president, announced that Pacelle had withdrawn, and that there would be no speaker at all at the 2007 CWA banquet.
Adopted cats on the job
Despite her emphasis on diplomacy, Peterson––who at last report shared her Chevy Chase home with four cats––has not always managed to keep a professional distance in her work.
As a vet tech, recalled Brad Kloza in a 2012 edition of The Daily Cat, “One cat in particular got to her.”
Recounted Peterson, “Some students found a cat who was hit by a car. He had a broken jaw, cuts all over his body, and no owner that we knew of. It was so sad. He might have been euthanized had he been brought to another clinic. But we did surgery on him and brought him back to good health.”
Peterson adopted the cat, named him Stu as an abbreviation for “students’ cat,” and made him her ambassador for keeping pet cats indoors.
Later, in January 2006, Peterson met and adopted a cat named Toby while visiting the Humane Society of Pinellas in Clearwater, Florida. Knowing she could not adopt every friendly cat she encountered on the job, she thought about adopting Toby overnight, before taking him home to Maryland.
“Rethinking the Cat”
Peterson’s most prominent project in 2013-2015 was organizing a series of “Rethinking the Cat” symposiums in major cities around the U.S., featuring as keynote speaker Bryan Kortis, founder of the New York City neuter/return organization Neighborhood Cats, now a PetSmart Charities program manager and author of Community TNR: Tactics & Tools, a manual distributed by PetSmart Charities as a free download.
“Nancy will be missed,” Alley Cat Allies cofounder and president Becky Robinson told ANIMALS 24-7. “She has relationships that extend coast to coast and has been a champion for cats and TNR especially in the past decade, which has helped to change communities and the direction of shelters and animal control agencies.”