It is a Tuesday afternoon and Samantha Spinelle sits crossed-legged on the cool, concrete floor of her office. A small, tan dog named Finn is folded into her arms. She strokes her hand over an angular body that is comprised of little more than skin stretched taut over bones. The warm cocoon of her embrace and soft caress is pure torture. In his world humans are not good. If only he could crawl back under her desk and make himself one with the hot-pink dog bed where he was safe just moments ago. Eyes fixed at some point beyond the gray wall, he is frozen, save for the slight, involuntary shudder that comes with each touch.
“It’s not the end of the world, is it?” Spinelle coos softly to Finn. She answers her own rhetorical question, “No sir it isn’t.”
Since 2009, Spinelle’s official job title has been community outreach supervisor for Maricopa County Animal Care and Control. She spends her days writing emails, fundraising and answering a barrage of questions from the 300 or so volunteers she manages. A ceaseless stream of heads pop over the top half of her wooden, barn-style office door. Young female heads with pretty, silky hair. Gruff, manly heads. Silver heads. All seeking Spinelle’s advice. Her door is always open.
Spinelle’s positive attitude has a way of inspiring others, and her office bubbles over with laughter and life. Still, dark shadows are cast in every corner of the shelter — the third largest in the United States. Between July 2009 and June 2010, 50,696 cats and dogs arrived. Around 32,000 walked out the door alive. Intakes are down. Euthanasia is down. It even seems that the shelter’s no-kill goal of healthy or treatable animals in 2012 could be attainable. But it is by no means a perfect world.
Animals who are suffering physically and psychologically are abundant in most county shelters. They are often facing death. For the employees who call this their place of work, a day at the office can bring crushing sorrow. Optimism only goes so far. Without courage, it would cause a heart to burst or turn to stone. Spinelle refuses to allow either to happen, instead choosing to confront the realities of her job with compassion and composure. She lives for the days she can save a dog who might otherwise have died. A dog like Finn.
Small dogs with big issues seem to routinely find their paths diverted off the euthanasia list and into Spinelle’s office. She admits to being a total geek when it comes to animal behavior. Understanding the problem can mean difference between life and death in here.
“There’s usually someone that’s a pipsqueak and that’s why they find themselves in there,” says volunteer Taylor O’Shea, who adds that Spinelle has an affinity for the problem kids.
“She makes their problems sound like a gift,” O’Shea laughs.
Spinelle confirms this assertion by fondly telling a story of one recent doggie guest, “There was this little guy and he had this little pee pee problem.”
Suddenly the problem becomes irresistibly adorable. As does the canine who has “stranger danger.” The incontinent old-man-dog takes on the air of an aristocrat when his belly band to help solve his issue is relabeled a “cummerbund.”
How it all began
Spinelle calls her arrival at a career in animal welfare a natural progression, but like many people, her path to destiny was a windy road.
Her bond with animals dates back to 1969, the year she was born. She was brought home from Carson Peck Memorial hospital in Brooklyn to a Silky Terrier that shared her name. Sammy was the first pet that her parents, Marilyn and John Spinelle, ever owned.
It was the tradition of John Spinelle’s Italian family to pass down the paternal grandfather’s name. There was no son, so a girl and a dog were as close as it was going to get. A system was devised to avoid any confusion.
“We called him Sammy and her Sam, so that resolved that,” John Spinelle, a retired engineer, explains.
Within a few years the family of four had more than doubled in size and relocated to Eatons Neck, N.Y. With only one road leading in or out, the tranquil water-bound community on the shores of Long Island was an idyllic place for Spinelle and her younger sister, Melissa, to spend their childhood. Sammy’s offspring would also find it a happy place.
This was a time long before the animal rescue world had promoted the benefits of spaying and neutering to reducing pet populations. A time when well-meaning veterinarians encouraged dog owners to breed them at least once before altering.
As doting animal lovers, the Spinelles followed the expert’s advice. Sammy soon had a family of his own. He and his mate, Gypsy, produced two puppies, Corky and Playdough.
“Corky was one of those poor souls,” says John Spinelle, adding, they didn’t think he was going to make it, but “by golly that guy lived to be 19 years old.”
The shrimpy Corky arrived two hours after the rest of the litter. He was a sick pup and Spinelle took it upon herself to look after him.
“We always had an animal in the house — cat, bird, chinchilla,” John Spinelle says. “Sam just naturally took to them.”
She brought home her own, too. Birds with broken wings. Beloved classroom mascots that found themselves abandoned with the end of each school year.
“I always had pets. I was always bringing home the injured animal, and gosh my parents were good about it,” Spinelle says.
She was an above average student, according to her dad, but in high school her grades dropped a bit. Too much fun and not enough work. She graduated in 1987 and stayed in New York to attend college at Mount St. Mary’s while the rest of the family relocated to Houston, Texas.
Spinelle calls her first attempt at a higher education a “false start.” Her youth combined with a lack of direction weren’t conducive to academics.
In 1988 her parents left Texas and landed in Georgia. Spinelle soon joined them. By 1989 she was enrolled at Kennesaw State College and working at a Cracker Barrel. Her life, though, was about to be defined by an experience that had nothing to do with either of these.
Woodstock, Ga., had a rather simple policy for animal control: capture and kill. Spinelle’s mom and a group of concerned citizens intervened with an impromptu rescue. Soon Spinelle was spending weekends in front of a local Wal-Mart. Animal Control officers would drop dogs off in the morning and the group would spend the day trying to find them homes. Sometimes wistful eyes and wagging tails were not enough and the day ended with reluctant officers reclaiming the dogs. No one wanted that.
In 1995 the Spinelle troop, minus Sam, headed to Sterling, Va. Spinelle stayed behind and held sundry jobs: a stint in an auto parts store, a waitress, a restaurant manager. She quit school again. One day her parents got a call.
“She said, ‘Is it alright if I come back? Because I just don’t like it here anymore?’” John Spinelle says.
He isn’t sure precisely what precipitated the call, but Spinelle was welcome at home. When the decision was made to migrate west to Arizona, she tagged along.
“I think she just didn’t have anything better to do and wanted to start over,” Spinelle’s father says, adding with a hint of pride, “it worked out very well for her.”
Spinelle went back to college and in 2004 earned a degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis on psychology from Arizona State University. She had plans to become a teacher, but life was taking her in a different direction.
In retrospect, a quick trip into a local PetsMart in 1998 seems like serendipity.
While at the store, she fell in love with a Queensland Heeler named Harry. He was up for adoption, but turned out not to be a good fit with her other dogs. However, the encounter stirred latent feelings that she had left on the stoop of Wal-Mart all those years ago.
“Through that I thought, hey I think I’d like to volunteer again,” Spinelle says.
She helped with several Phoenix-area organizations, including Pet Behavior Solutions and RESCUE, before landing a paid position at the Arizona Animal Welfare League in 2004.
With her foot in the door of the animal welfare world, Spinelle pushed hard. Starting as a programs assistant, she soon worked her way up to director of outreach programs, then director of behavior. Here she was able to marry her skills as a teacher with her passion for animals by doing presentations at local schools. She also began to devour information on animal behavior science.
“Sam cares a lot for the animals and is very forgiving and understanding of those with behavior challenges,” says Jennifer Berry, president of RESCUE.
Weathering the storm
The love of animals could lead to some rough days at Arizona Animal Welfare League.
“She had one of the toughest jobs here. She was going and pulling dogs off the euthanasia list. She was making life or death decisions every day,” says former coworker Michelle Ramos.
John Spinelle remembers the time well. If Spinelle was allotted space to take three dogs off the euthanasia list, a fourth often found its way to their home.
When Ramos had to make the decision to put one of her own dogs to sleep, Spinelle was with her for every difficult step.
“She was willing to go the extra mile to help animals and people that she worked with,” Ramos says.
Spinelle made the move to the county shelter in 2009. She arrives early and stays late; routinely logging nine-hour days. After work, she picks up her boyfriend, Bert, and together they make the hour-long trek to their home in Queen Creek. Waiting for them are 11 dogs, four cats and three horses, most with special needs.
Standing 4 feet, 11 inches in her jeans and tennis shoes, Spinelle is an unmistakable figure. She is quick with a wide smile under her dark, blunt cut bangs. According to many of her employees she has the patience of Job. Her job often requires her to break-down complex, scientific concepts about animal behavior while simultaneously dispelling the myths and folklore clouding the subject. Her diplomacy, she says, is learned.
Spinelle is a progressive thinker, Ramos says. If she has one fault, it is a short fuse when something gets in the way of accomplishing a goal, but years in the service industry taught her to stay calm and finish the job.
“She’s small, but she’s mighty; a fiery, little thing,” Ramos says.
Perhaps it is experience, maturity, or the challenges of a new workplace, but Spinelle seems to have learned how to control that flame and let it burn just enough to get her through the day. She has come to terms with doing the best she can in an imperfect world.
“I’m idealistic enough to think I can have a positive impact on our society,” she says.
Spinelle is not a superhuman. Sometimes she cries; occasionally she is horrified; at times she’s angry. But she has a job to do.
“What I do to maintain my sanity, is I focus on what I can do to help this animal right now? And then I focus on all the good people that come in and adopt and volunteer.”
Today, a new batch of volunteers has arrived. It is Sunday and Spinelle has been here since 6 a.m. She rubs her eyes and relaxes — but only for a moment. Too much to do.
It is this drive, this energy, that landed Spinelle the job. Her current boss, Nancy Harris, had seen her at work with other rescues and knew she would be a good fit.
“She knows what she is doing and how she’s going to get there,” Harris says.
She admires Spinelle’s ability to be everywhere at once and somehow maintain control of both unpredictable animals and people.
Today’s volunteers are a special. A recent seminar at the shelter featured photographer Seth Casteel, from Second Chance Photos. A group of five were inspired by his use of photography to utilize the Internet to increase adoptions. They approached Spinelle with the idea of implementing such a program and she cleared the way.
“When we told her our vision,” says new volunteer and photographer Maria Vassett, “she was all about it.”
“She always has time for us. If we need something, she shows us,” Vassett says.
Spinelle is in the employee break room now. She reaches over Maria to help with uploading pictures of bright-eyed dogs onto petfinder.com. A voice echos down the hall.
“Where is Sam?”
“Here I am,” she glides to the door.
In a flash she returns and picks up where she left off. Vassett sits with Spinelle standing over her. They both scrutinize the computer. With eyebrows wrinkled above pondering brown eyes, little Finn peeks out from under Vassett’s blue, plastic chair. He tiptoes out, looking around inquisitively as people bustle in and out of the room. Slowly, he makes eye contact. Cautiously, he approaches each one and allows himself to be touched. Finn is beginning to learn that not all people are bad.
Spinelle catches sight of him.
“Finn, you’re such a handsome fella,” she proclaims. “He’s coming out of his shell. He was statue dog two weeks ago.”
• Morgan Sailor is a senior at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.