A face of Lake Tahoe Humane Society for two decades, Dawn Armstrong remembers her first ride in the animal control truck. They were picking up a dog that got hit by a car to take it to a veterinarian.
The run was to help an injured animal and Armstrong was stunned when she saw a guy on the corner flipping them off.
Back then, Lake Tahoe Humane Society ran the animal shelter and did animal control work for the city of South Lake Tahoe and this part of El Dorado County, and the “dog-catchers” were not popular people.
Armstrong retired at the end of December after leading Lake Tahoe Humane Society for 22 of its 46 years. The new director, Niki Congero, took over Jan. 1. The organization plans to welcome her aboard with an open house.
Board member Sue Pritchett praised Armstrong’s leadership and dedication.
“She has given her blood and guts to this organization, weathered through some really tough times and pulled it through and created some very sound approaches to animal welfare.”
A small group of Nevada residents who started taking in abandoned dogs and offering them for adoption at Round Hill on weekends eventually formed the Lake Tahoe Humane Society in 1967.
The job grew to include animal control and the animal shelter after South Lake Tahoe incorporated with no one else to do it. That work dominated its mission for years but ended shortly after Armstrong joined in the early 1990s.
Caught between the city and county and their different ordinances and money disagreements, the organization simply couldn’t keep up financially with limited local resources.
“They wanted to change direction, to emphasize education and the broader view of the whole humane movement,” Armstrong said of the then-difficult decision.
After a stint on the organization’s board, Armstrong had agreed to be interim-director for six months. She had no idea she would retire 22 years later as its longest-serving director.
“All I tell people is it kind of grabs you. The main thing for me is that there is a solution, and education is it,” Armstrong said. “You would see something that was abuse that was really a lack of education. That’s not an excuse for it. But there is a way to correct that. That person can be educated.”
Free from its costly shelter and animal control duties, the organization could focus on an assortment of educational programs and pet care services.
“Even when we had a shelter, it always bothered me. It felt like it was a finger in the dike. We were almost enabling people,” Armstrong said.
People would come to the shelter with litters of puppies and kittens to “donate,” seemingly not realizing there wasn’t a shortage of animals as much as there was a shortage of people to care for them.
“I’d say, ‘Do you know how much that’s going to cost us?’ To spay and neuter them, to vaccinate them, to house them,” Armstrong said. “There was just no concept. So I was really happy when we expanded the education and focused on that.”
Armstrong hopes the work has made her more tolerant.
Many people say they want to help animals but don’t want to work with people. “You’re going to have to deal with people. It’s all caught up with people,” she said.
One of her proudest moments was South Lake Tahoe’s adoption of a ban on the retail sale of dogs and cats in a move to combat animal mills.
“It was just magic. It was the council members, the city manager, the community,” Armstrong said. “When that passed I told my friends I could die now.”
Having retired, Armstrong’s not planning on slowing down. A creative director before she started working with Lake Tahoe Humane Society, she has a couple book projects that were put on hold to get back to.
Armstrong plans to spend some quality time with her adopted border collie, Lexi, and to keep spreading the message to try to make South Lake Tahoe a more humane place:
“Pick up the poop. Think about the local economy. Spay and neuter. That’s the answer,” she said.
“Keep Tahoe Kind. That’s our signature, and basically it’s kind to animals and kind to each other. That’s what we have to remember. And the wildlife. It’s not just your pet.”