Los Altos resident Carol Novello has loved and cared for animals since childhood. That love led her to her current post as president of Humane Society Silicon Valley (HSSV). But along the way came a nagging question sometimes posed to her: “Why are you helping animals when you could be helping people?”
Novello answers that question emphatically in her new book, “Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too.” The book is the culmination of work with HSSV and her launch of several popular short films depicting “mutual rescue” partnerships between humans and their pets. The book and films are part of the Mutual Rescue initiative led by Novello and HSSV.
The book appeals to the “head and the heart,” Novello said, documenting time and again the positive impact animals have on people who are emotionally and physically suffering. She blends touching personal stories with hard statistics to drive home her point that animals are rescuing people as much as people are rescuing animals.
Novello knew from the beginning the healing – and connecting – power of animals. She and her mother, with whom she did not share a close relationship, bonded over a stray cat Novello brought home. It turned out her mother had a soft spot for cats.
“There’s not much we can talk about, but we can always talk about animals,” she said.
Likewise, her father, who didn’t want the cat, ended up connecting with Chester as well.
“He followed my dad, sat in his lap, totally won him over,” Novello recalled. “Because my father rejected him, he didn’t reject my father out of hand. (The cat said), ‘I’m fabulous and I know you’re fabulous, and you’re going to find out I’m fabulous as well.’”
Novello kept animals close to her heart even as she graduated with an MBA from Harvard University and became an executive at Intuit Inc. in Silicon Valley. After an 11-year career there, she left in 2007 to enjoy time off. An introduction to the board chairman of HSSV led to an invitation to join the board. Six months later, she was asked to serve as president. This year marks her ninth in the role.
Novello has led HSSV’s transformation into a first-rate institution. It was the first shelter in the country to meet the standards set forth by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians.
The association has established guidelines to ensure disease at shelters is properly managed.
It’s an important distinction, she said, because there is virtually no federal or state oversight of animal shelters. Under her watch, HSSV prioritized practices that limit the spread of diseases to ensure a healthy animal population.
“Making sure animals are well cared for in shelters is kind of a basic right as a sentient being,” she said. “It also increases life-saving capacity. There’s been all this pressure on shelters – ‘You can’t euthanize.’ It’s very admirable; obviously you want to be saving lives, but if standards of care are not put in place at the same time, … you have animals dying from disease rather than from euthanasia and, honestly, I think that’s crueler.”
Novello said the shelter is dealing with hundreds of animals at any one time, and takes in approximately 7,000 annually.
She has long sensed that helping animals helps people. But it was an email she described as “astonishing” that set her into action. The email was from Eric O’Grey. Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, O’Grey weighed 340 pounds at one point. A doctor told him he wouldn’t live five years if he didn’t change his lifestyle.
He adopted a border collie mix named Peety from the shelter and the two began exercising together. O’Grey adopted new habits and lost 150 pounds. The two were subjects of her first mutual-rescue film, “Eric and Peety.” Released in February 2016, the film went “crazy viral,” Novello said, generating 35 million views on Facebook. Several more such films followed, garnering a total of 153 million views.
The deeper she dug into statistics, the more inspired Novello became to get her message across. She discovered that of the $410 billion Americans give to charity, only 3 percent goes to animal- and environment-related causes combined.
“There’s this kind of viewpoint that animal welfare is this second-class cause,” she said. “And even people who were giving and volunteering would sometimes say to me, ‘I feel guilty when I give to the animals because there are so many people in need.’ And I said we’ve got to change the conversation – it’s not people or animals, it’s people and animals. I wanted people to understand that caring about animals or giving to animal causes doesn’t detract from solving humanity’s problems, it’s actually part of resolving them or helping to heal them.”
“Mutual Rescue” acknowledges “there’s a lot of pain in the world,” Novello said, with afflictions that range from obesity to post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse and soul-sapping loneliness.
“The fact that animals can play a role in that (healing) is extremely rewarding,” she said. “People’s lives are changed by welcoming these animals into their homes.”
The response from her book thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.
“A lot of people in animal welfare are saying thank you for giving me the answer to the question of why are you helping animals when you could be helping people,” Novello said.
The book “Mutual Rescue” is available at local bookstores and on amazon.com.
For more on the Mutual Rescue initiative, including the short films, visit mutualrescue.org.