Best known for long tenures with the National Animal Control Association & ASPCA
Darlene Wohler Larson, 78, died on October 17, 2022.
“She had entered hospice after extended hospital care following surgery,” longtime friend Bob Marotto announced via Facebook.
“Darlene was an extraordinary and beloved person of great professional accomplishment,” Marotto said, but “never forgot her roots in community animal care and control in Billings, Montana. She was always committed to empowering and improving the field of animal care and control, just as she was always committed to the welfare of the sentient creatures in our custody and care.
“I counted Dar among my friends and colleagues,” Marotto added, “ever since I met her after she moved from Montana to Minnesota,” shortly before his own arrival.
Marotto entered the animal care and control field in 1994 as a Minneapolis animal control officer. Marotto had spent the previous 20 years studying and teaching sociology at institutions including the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Dayton in Ohio.
This was not exactly the typical resumé of a street-level animal control officer, but with Darlene Larson’s frequent mentoring, Marotto became assistant manager of Minneapolis Animal Care & Control in 1999, was promoted to head the agency in 2000, and remained in that capacity until 2005, when he left to become founding director of Orange County Animal Services in Rougemont, North Carolina.
Darlene Larson “was always supportive, caring, and wise, and over the years we maintained our friendship. I know her passing will leave a void for many others and I shall greatly miss her,” Marotto testified.
Father was clothier
Darlene and her twin brother Dave were born in 1944 in Billings, Montana, to Ann M. and Leo Wohler.
Leo Wohler had managed the Vaughn & Ragsdale clothing store in Billings since May 1934. He continued in that position until June 23, 1950.
Having attended a buyers event in New York City, Leo Wohler, then 43, boarded Northwest Airlines flight 2501 bound for Seattle, with Vaughn-Ragsdale director W.C. Kelty, 54, and Jo Longfield, 39, who owned a Billings dress shop.
The Douglas DC-4, a converted military C-54 converted to civilian use after World War II, built in 1943, was then the biggest civilian airliner in use.
The flight was to make a stopover in Minneapolis.
Reaching the edge of Lake Michigan, pilot Robert C. Lind, 35, radioed for permission to drop from his cruising altitude of 3,500 feet to 2,500, due to approaching thunderstorms and turbulence. His request was denied because another flight was already in the area.
The storm had knocked out the electricity serving a restaurant and gas station in Glenn, Michigan. Owner William Bowie and his wife, along with two customers, testified at an inquest in Chicago that they saw the DC-4 descending with apparently malfunctioning engines, then a bright flash of light.
Six months of extensive searching by the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, and volunteers failed to discover any but palm-sized fragments of the DC-4 and the 58 occupants, whose remains were buried in at least two separate mass graves.
Two nonprofit organizations, the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association and the National Underwater Marine Agency, have searched repeatedly with sidescan sonar since 2004 for the wings, engine, and fuselage, without success––but have found 11 previously uncharted shipwrecks during the effort.
The searches and everything else known about the case were detailed in Fatal Crossing, a 2013 book by Valerie van Heest, and “The Vanished Airliner,” a 2019 two-hour special episode of the television series Expedition Unknown.
Then the deadliest ever crash of a U.S. civilian airliner, Northwest Airlines flight 2501 remains the biggest ever U.S. civilian crash from which the wings, engine, and fuselage have never been discovered.
Darlene Larson recalled to Karla Hult of KARE television news in 2014 that, “I was awakened by my mother crying. She did her best to try and tell me what happened, that my father was gone and would not be coming back.”
Twin brother Dave Wohler, a now retired longtime Billings high school science teacher, has also recalled in Facebook postings the impact the loss of their father had on the family of seven.
Active in student government at Eastern Montana College in Billings, where as a junior she organized the 1964 Wassail party, the then-Darlene Wohler apparently left her studies for several years before returning twelve years later to earn academic honors and a bachelor of science degree in biology in 1976.
Longtime friends and public records consulted by ANIMALS 24-7 offer few hints as to what Darlene Wohler was doing and where during the 12-year gap in her education, but she may have worked for Eastern Montana College in a clerical capacity, and for the Billings municipal transportation department.
After completing her degree, National Animal Control Association cofounder Phil Arkow told ANIMALS 24-7, “She taught clinical pathology to veterinary technician students at North Dakota State University, and taught science classes in junior and senior high schools before becoming the Superintendent of Animal Control in the Billings Police Department.”
Darlene Wohler became Darlene Larson on August 12, 1978 through marriage to Gary Larson, a computer engineer from Minot, North Dakota.
Gary Larson had founded Communication Network Engineering in Fargo the year before, eventually building it into a $1.2 million-a-year business headquartered in New London, Minnesota.
National Animal Control Association
Returning to Billings, Darlene Larson by 1981 was director of the city animal shelter.
In that capacity she became an early and enthusiastic member of the National Animal Control Association, begun in 1979 by Phil Arkow, Mike Burgwin, Warren Cox, Doug Fakkema, Wendall Ford, Doyle Nordyke, Dennis White and others, a year after Burgwin and Cox began floating the idea among colleagues.
“I never learned much about Darlene’s prior history,” Arkow told ANIMALS 24-7. “I first met her when she was at the Billings shelter.”
But Arkow did recall that Darlene Larson “was honored by North Dakota State University in 1992 as Alumni of the Year for exceptional contribution to the community. She had national certification in medical technology and cytotechnology.”
No one remembers when Darlene Larson was not involved with NACA
Neither Arkow nor Cox could remember exactly when Darlene Larson joined the National Animal Control Association [NACA], but neither could remember a time when she was not involved. A 1991 memoir by Mike Burgwin about NACA’s beginnings offered a similar impression.
(See “Animal control: what’s it all about?” asked Mike Burgwin.)
As superintendent of animal control for the Billings Animal Shelter, operated by the Billings police department, and as NACA representative, Darlene Larson on March 2, 1983 testified to the Public Health & Welfare Committee of the Montana State Senate that killing animals by decompression, gassing, gunshot, and the paralytic injectable drug T-61 should be abolished.
She recommended that pentobarbital injection should become the only acceptable animal control killing method.
Teaching & training
Remembered Arkow, “Darlene Larson was a good friend, a multi-talented colleague, and a dedicated professional in the then-emerging field of animal control.
“She edited two editions of the NACA Training Manual,” published in 1990 and 2000. The second edition described her as the public information director for the National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy, an instructor with NACA 100 Level I (an annual 100-hour in-residence training course), and a writer of a pet column in Minnesota. She assisted with making video training tapes for animal care training.
“She co-founded the Montana Animal Control Association,” Arkow continued, “and had presented at the National Dog Wardens’ Association training conference in the United Kingdom,” as well as serving on the American Humane Association advisory board and as a member of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators.”
“Dar was an amazing contributor to the Montana, Minnesota and national animal care and control scene,” remembered longtime Billings-based Humane Society of the U.S. representative Dave Pauli.
“Her brother Dave,” Pauli added, “helped to introduce a lot of his students to humane care of both domestic and wild animals.”
Darlene Larson, Dave Pauli, and Yellowstone County animal control officer John Fleming, who had requested their help, ran into more than seven years of stress together on July 24, 1992 in what became the precedent-setting lawsuit Reisdorff v. County of Yellowstone, finally decided by the Supreme Court of Montana.on November 23, 1999.
Larson, Pauli, and Fleming found 300 animals on the property of Linda K. Reisdorff, including 90 dogs, of whom Fleming impounded, examined, and returned six dogs.
Reisdorff sued Larson, Pauli, and Fleming for alleged conversion, trespass, and violation of her constitutional rights, lost on summary judgment, appealed the verdict, and lost again.
The Montana Supreme Court ruling is often cited to protect animal control personnel from lawsuits filed against them for the performance of their assigned duties.
Raccoon rabies led to NACA training academy
Meanwhile, Darlene Larson, as a traveling National Animal Control Association training officer, in May 1991 unofficially founded the NACA training academy, which formally debuted two years later. Raccoon rabies had just spread into Connecticut from New York, and few people in Connecticut had any prior experience in responding to a rabies outbreak of any sort.
Darlene Larson organized a one-day crash course in rabies control for then newly founded Connecticut Animal Control Association. Held in New Britain, Connecticut, the course certified about 60 animal control officers and others involved in rabies response as being up-to-date in knowledge about vaccination protocols and appropriate handling of suspected rabid animals.
This course, combined with many others, in May 1993 became the curriculum for the first official NACA training conference, held in Fort Worth, Texas.
Elected NACA president, Darlene Larson and Mike Burgwin arranged for the Law Enforcement Training Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia to host the NACA 100 training program, and later the NACA 200 and 300 certification programs.
On to the ASPCA
Leaving Billings after more than ten years as animal control director, Darlene Larson relocated to New London, Minnesota, served for approximately another decade as public information director for the National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy, founded by a consortium of national animal advocacy groups in 1993.
From there, Darlene Larson moved on to spend 20 years with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, assisting animal shelters in ten states, initially as Midwest region shelter outreach manager, then as shelter outreach director, and finally as senior director of community initiatives.
A Darlene Larson was listed in February 2006 as manager of individual giving for Bide-A-Wee, a major no-kill shelter with facilities in New York City and on Long Island, but she appears to have been a different Darlene Larson, a longtime professional fundraiser for other New York City-area nonprofit organizations, albeit that this Darlene Larson does not list Bide-A-Wee on her LinkedIn resume.
Passed out money
As ASPCA regional representative, Darlene Larson recalled in a Facebook posting after her retirement in 2013, “I was given hundreds of thousands of grant money each year, as were the other reps, to give out to local shelters for various needs.
“I traveled all over the country providing free training, consultation, fundraising activities, planning and even greater funding to communities and their animal welfare organizations. I was part of a large department that did the same, and we all worked together to support local shelters.
“My first task was to work with PetSmart Charities to do a pilot program called the Rescue Waggin’,” actually initiated in 2005, modeled on a North Shore Animal League America program begun 30 years earlier, “which transported animals from overpopulated local shelters to ones in other states that could easily adopt the animals into new homes.
“Since then,” Darlene Larson said, “this concept has mushroomed and the ASPCA has funded facilities which are intermediate stop off places for these animals as they are transported to other local shelters.”
Post-Larson, program came to grief
PetSmart Charities took the original Rescue Waggin’ program off the road in 2016, three years after Darlene Larson retired, coincidental with the retirement of Ed Sayres, ASPCA president from 2004 to 2013.
Taking over the transport program, on a fraction of the former scale, the ASPCA in 2016-2017 promoted a seven-part webinar on safe rescue transport, after which 26 dogs cooked to death aboard an ASPCA transport on May 15, 2019 because the safety guidelines were not followed.
(See Why is the ASPCA stonewalling about the deaths of 20 dogs in transport?, Rescued dogs overheat––and pigs & chickens, as humane oversight fails, and How the ASPCA cooked 26 dogs in a truck: source comes forward.)
“Partner community” programs
Also assisting in disaster relief work, Darlene Larson “spent about 3/4 of my time away from home,” she remembered, during her ASPCA years.
Probably the biggest project Darlene Larson undertook at the ASPCA was arranging multi-million-dollar “partner community” programs in Florida, beginning in 2007, to assist the Humane Society of Greater Miami Adopt-a-Pet and Cat Network and several organizations serving Hillsborough County, including Hillsborough Animal Services and the city of Tampa.
But probably the personal highlight of Darlene Larson’s ASPCA tenure, based on her social media postings, came in 2010 when her dog Daisy was selected to be in the ASPCA calendar.
Following her retirement from the ASPCA, Darlene Larson served for a time as a member of the board of directors for the Humane Society of Kandiyohi & Meeker Counties, in Wilmar, Minnesota, where she was also an adoption program volunteer.