When the Clock Strikes Twelve

Picture of Petfinder Betsy Saul with dog Tucker
When the Clock Strikes Twelve
PetFinder.com’s Betsy Saul on a New Year’s resolution that changed the world

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Fifteen New Year’s Eves ago, while Dick Clark hosted a crowd of streamer-throwing yahoos in Times Square, I was buzzed on a cheap combination of Bartles and James wine coolers and Kwong’s Chinese food. (The only thing worse than a Bartles and James hangover is a Kwong’s hangover.) As 1996 crept towards the 23-year-old me through a haze of overconsumption, I blathered on about a lengthy list of life-altering resolutions. You know—the ones that would make the world a better place, or failing that, grant me admission into size 6 jeans. Endlessly battling my own ridiculous, distorted sense of self, that New Year’s Eve was eerily similar to many previous. Yes, I lied to myself, this would be the year I finally ditched that obnoxious 10 pounds psychologically plaguing me since my high school prom, when I danced a robotic number called the gut-suck-in. Blissfully oblivious to my narcissism, it would be a decade-and-a-half before my chat with a woman who—the polar opposite of my younger, superficial self—was making a slightly more admirable resolution that night.

On a drive to a holiday dinner party, Betsy Saul found herself in a lighthearted back-and-forth with her then-husband about the potential that existed in this relatively new phenomenon called the World Wide Web.

“We were playing a really geeky game, trying to determine what would make the perfect website,” she explains to me over the phone from her North Carolina acreage, where pets like a dog, two cows, two goats, two horses, five chickens, one sheep, two turtles, and two cats make it something of an ark. “At the time, many people weren’t using the Internet to its fullest potential. You really couldn’t sort through information in a relevant way.”

As the admittedly geeky conversation progressed, the couple continued to banter about the kind of organization that would most benefit from a fully optimized online presence. Suddenly, in a moment that would require special effects like lightening bolts and booms of thunder were it a Hollywood production, there came a flash of inspiration.

“We were both like: ‘Oh my gosh, animal shelters!’ We actually got goosebumps!” she conveys excitedly.

And so it was that the concept of PetFinder.com beamed down on Betsy from the ether, transforming her from a simple animal lover to a virtual visionary. Knowing that approximately 20,000,000 animals were euthanized annually, Betsy’s hoped-for measure of success was to facilitate one adoption each month, thereby doing her part to at least marginally reduce the number of needless deaths.

“The funniest part of all? At the time, I was planting trees for urban forestry services so it’s not like I had any business creating a website!”

While a self-professed animal nut, she admits that neither she nor her husband knew where their local shelter was.

“Shelters back then were typically out of sight, hidden behind the water treatment plant, like the red-headed stepchild. The idea that we could get these pets in the forefront of the public’s attention felt like an ethical imperative.”

A volunteer through much of her teen years, Betsy had seen the weary plight of rescue crusaders firsthand and felt optimistic her little idea might be able to help.

Fifteen years later, at the risk of sounding dramatic, it could be said her one-animal-rescued-per-month prediction may be the single biggest understatement in the history of animal welfare.

With nearly two billion page views in 2009 alone, Betsy’s venture has enjoyed dizzying success. PetFinder.com boasts approximately five million visitors monthly, earning it a coveted place on Forbes’ list of the 300 best websites. Most crucially, given its role in facilitating the rehoming of well over 17,000,000 pets since its inception, PetFinder.com hasn’t just surpassed Betsy’s initial goal, it has blown the socks off of it. With the site updated daily, approximately 13,500 welfare groups across the United States, Canada, and Mexico upload their pets’ relevant information resulting in the approximately 350,000 available animals at any given time.

Yet Betsy is quick to recall her humble start.

“In the beginning, people in the rescue community would send me faxes, and I would post the pets myself when I got home from my day job. I remember laughing with my mom, saying wouldn’t it be great if one day I could actually do all this PetFinder.com work officially, as a part-time job?!”

Devoid of a crystal ball, that version of Betsy had no way of knowing her brainchild would be acquired by Discovery Communications in 2006, for a sum rumoured to have included an awful lot of zeroes and a couple of commas.

Accolades and cash value aside, for Betsy, it’s always been about one thing: lives saved. While it’s indisputable that PetFinder.com is what one would refer to as a handsdown (or paws-down) success story, it’s not all high-fives and cartwheels. With so many animals in need of homes, Betsy recognizes there is work to be done.

“Sure, we’re down to euthanization rates of about four million annually, but that’s still four million too many.” In fact, the calculator on my iPhone confirms that a staggering 11,000 animals a day are dying due to homelessness. In more shocking terms, 457 will lose their life in this hour alone. In its ongoing battle to lower this statistic, PetFinder.com continues to redefine the ease, efficiency, and effectiveness of the rescue process, while evolving in other ways. Today it includes a more holistic approach to our relationships with pets, including information about pet care, pet health, and training, which, as Betsy explains, are all features designed to help establish a closer connection with our animals, so that fewer end up in the shelter system. The site’s Fur Keeps initiative aims to promote deeper bonds between pets and owners by advocating, for example, pet health insurance and microchipping.

Although, overall, Betsy acknowledges that she sees great strides in the dog community, she admits cats have yet to be quite so fortunate.

“My challenge is for people who already have a dog. I urge them to consider adding a cat to the family. My belief is that every dog needs a cat. We need to become more, as I call it, bi-petual.”

With an estimated 65 percent of US households owning a pet, Betsy surmises that if one in every eight of these would adopt one more animal, her country would be in the blessed position of not having to euthanize a single homeless animal this year.

“If we can’t convince more people to adopt pets, then we need to convince the people who are already adopting them to adopt more.”

It’s paradigm-questioning like this that confirms Betsy’s status as entrepreneurial visionary. Rightfully named by Woman’s Day magazine as one of the 50 women changing the world, Betsy laughs that what she is most proud of is that her initial concept has become, as far as she’s concerned, “the biggest collaborative project on the planet.”

“A programmer can make a small tweak and it can literally change the way someone sees an animal. The fact that there are so many people living this fantasy of being able to do their part to help rescue 2.3 million animals this year alone is everything to me.”

Fifteen years ago, while Betsy invited the world to join her as she changed the face of rescue, I was busy inviting the world to join me as I ate another egg roll. You can deduce which of us ultimately contributed more positively to the planet. (Hint: It was the one who didn’t have a Kwong’s hangover in the morning.) Thankfully, however, as the wise words on a narrow slip of paper from my long-ago fortune cookie still remind me: It is never too late to be who you might have been. In 2011, I take tremendous comfort in this. And it has nothing to do with losing that obnoxious 10 pounds.

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