Since its creation merely a few months ago, the Animal Cruelty Task Force of Ohio has gained a lot of momentum. Steffen Baldwin with Skinny MinnieThe organization, which provides free Humane Agent support in rural Ohio, is run by New Jersey native Steffen Baldwin. Baldwin moved to Ohio from California in 2008, to serve as director of the Union County Humane Society, and soon found his outreach stretching beyond the shelter walls. I caught up with the nonprofit administrator this past month, and found him to be a warm and engaging person, full of passion for his cause. Baldwin lets us in on the ins and outs of running ACT Ohio, the inspiration behind the organization and why it’s okay to be a “foster failure.”

You were a shelter director before starting ACT Ohio. Did you always know you wanted to work with animals?

SB: I can’t say I always knew I wanted to work with animals as a career, but I have always been an animal lover. Growing up in the projects, we weren’t allowed to own pets. I always managed to bring home injured strays, however, and I would convince my mom to let me nurse them back to health. Since my mom was in nursing school, it wasn’t a tough sell. I’ve spent the past 12 years in nonprofit administration: the first half of my career I worked primarily with homeless people in Southern California, and the last half I’ve been working with homeless animals here in Ohio.

Do you share your home with any pets?

SB: I share my home with 5 dogs currently. Rocky and Bullwinkle are two red Doberman rescues, and Chesty was a stray pit bull from Dayton. Chesty was shot in the chest and rescued by the Miami Valley Pit Crew- I’m a proud foster failure! We are currently fostering two ACT Ohio dogs: DaVinci is a 9 month old Aussie/Corgi-mix and Zoe is a 3yr old German Shepherd.

How did you become aware of the need for rural cruelty agents and how did you know you were the person to take it on?

SB: I had always lived in more urban areas, so I never imagined I would live in rural Ohio until 2008, when I was hired to run the Union County Humane Society. In 2010 there was a case of animal cruelty on a Union County dairy farm. The Conklin Dairy Farm case involved some of the most heinous acts of cruelty I have ever seen with my own two eyes. That event really sparked something inside of me, and afterwards I volunteered to join the ASPCA’s National Field Investigation and Response Team. I have been involved with two large scale cases with the ASPCA: One involving over 400 dogs from Clark County, Ohio (One More Chance Rescue) and the other involving over 700 cats from Jacksonville, Florida (Caboodle Ranch).

In 2012 I volunteered to take on the additional responsibility of running UCHS’s cruelty calls at no extra cost to the society. I immediately fell in love with the field work and can’t imagine doing anything else with my time. I found out that Marion did not currently have a Humane Agent when a starved coonhound, Jewels, wandered into Union County from Marion County. I started to research and call other humane societies in rural Ohio, and was shocked to find that 17 of the 27 rural counties I called were unable to find or fund a Humane Agent in their county. Four months later, I filed the paperwork for the Animal Cruelty Task Force of Ohio and the organization went live shortly after that.

What does a typical day at ACT Ohio look like?

SB: There isn’t really a typical day. My morning generally starts around 6 a.m., when I respond to emails and Facebook messages from all over Ohio. Pending cruelty calls are typically handled next, with the afternoons set aside for organizational development, meetings, and drive time to speaking engagements that usually occur in the evenings. The calls we receive vary, from general questions about humane treatment laws to immediate cries for help. The calls are all prioritized and responded to, based on the severity of the animal’s suffering. ACT Ohio is contracted to provide services to Union, Champaign, Hardin and Marion Counties. Handling calls for help in those areas takes precedence, but as time allows we assist in other counties in any way possible. There are only two full time employees- myself and my Office Manager, Shelby Grabor- so 15 hour work days are pretty standard.

How is ACT Ohio funded? How can people get involved?

SB: ACT Ohio is 100% donor funded! I formed this organization with the belief that competent Humane Agents should be funded to do their job. You get what you pay for, and the Ohio Revised Code only advises counties to pay one Humane Agent $25 per month to enforce animal cruelty laws with police powers. I don’t have the deep pockets to fight for legislative changes to pay Humane Agents a living wage, so I’m taking my 12 years of fundraising and nonprofit administration experience and applying it to the unfunded and underrepresented position of the rural Humane Agent in Ohio. I believe in this enough to have recently resigned from my paid position running the Union County Humane Society. ACT Ohio has created monthly giving options as low as $5 a month and as high as $5,000 a year for donors to help fund Humane Agents in the four counties in which we’re contracted. All of those options are listed under “donate” at www.actoh.org.

Does your organization accept volunteers?

SB: Yes, definitely! Right now we could really use foster families to help us rehabilitate starved, abused and sometimes shy or backward animals in their homes. We also need volunteers to help us with our upcoming fundraisers, such as Paddle with Your Pups (Saturday, June 21-Sunday, June 22), and the 5 County Poker Run (Saturday, Sep 21). Folks who can assist with large scale rescues on short notice are also needed. To learn more, volunteers can email me at Director@actoh.org.

I’m sure you’ve seen some very extreme cases of cruelty. How do you push through on those days when it’s possible to feel overwhelmed?

SB: I always try to focus on what the animal needs and not how I feel. Even though I’ve had animals die in my arms before, you have to be able to put your own feelings on hold and handle the situation in front of you. A Humane Agent has to enforce the law, not their opinions or their feelings, so it’s beneficial to take a first responder mentality and to stay professional. To avoid burnout, however, you have to be able to process the emotions in a healthy way. I think laughter is one of the best possible medicines, and I listen to stand-up comedy on a regular basis while driving around on calls. I enjoy spending time outside playing with my own dogs and taking them on long vigorous hikes in the woods- that can fix just about any bad day.

Jewels’ story is both saddening and inspirational. How is she doing with her new mama Kim?

SB: Jewels is of course the dog that sparked everything for me. I’ve stayed in touch with Jewels and Kim, her adopted mother and fellow foster failure. Jewels is such a sweetheart, and has more than doubled in weight from the walking skeleton she was when I first saw her. Kim, Jewels and I will all be at the Columbus Pet Expo together in April.

Thank you Steffen for sharing your story with us!

If you would like to donate to ACT Ohio, please visit www.actoh.org. For more information on volunteering, email Steffen Baldwin at Director@actoh.org. To meet Steffen, Kim and Jewels, visit the Columbus Pet Expo, happening April 25-27 at the Ohio Expo Center and State Fair. – Interview by Erin Fisher Kenny

Erin Fisher Kenny lives in Columbus with her husband and their three very fluffy cats. An animal lover and rescue advocate, she enjoys coffee, a good book and listening to the crows sing away in her yard.