Britney Wallesch: On The Forefront Of Animal Advocacy And Working To Support Women In Leadership


Britney Wallesch is the Founder and Executive Director of Black Dog Animal Rescue, Wyoming’s largest nonprofit companion animal rescue and advocacy organization.

She grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming and continues to live and work there today.

She is an active contributor to the work of the Wyoming Nonprofit Network and gave a TEDxCheyenne talk on the phrase 'no-kill'.

She was raised primarily by women and is dedicated to increasing women's leadership in Wyoming's legislature.

She talks about her journey to opening an animal rescue and what she finds so intriguing about living in Wyoming.

"I was brought up by a very strong network of female characters. All of the great people of my youth are women." - Britney Wallesch

Emy diGrappa:

Welcome to "First, But Last," brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. I am your host Emy diGrappa.

Emy diGrappa:

Wyoming is called the Equality State because we were the first to give women the

right to vote. 150 yer later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the

progress toward equality now. Let's find out and thank you for listening.

Emy diGrappa:

Today we are talking to Britney Wallesch. Britney is the founder and executive

director of Black Dog Animal Rescue. She brings 20 years of experience in the

animal welfare industry, including work with wild life rehabilitation and sanctuaries.

Welcome, Britney.

Britney Wallesch:

Thank you so much.

Emy diGrappa:

Where did you get the name Black Dog Animal Rescue?

Britney Wallesch:

When I was in college, I adopted my first dog from the animal shelter and that dog

became one of the great loves of my life. But she had a sort of hard to say and hard

to spell name, uh, her name was Causia, and I ... When I started the organization, I

knew that I wanted to name it after her and I wanted her to have some kind of

legacy in it. And at, at our house, I don't ... you know, most people have silly

nicknames for their pets, and at the time we had three dogs, and we often called

them the black dog, the brown dog, and the white dog.

Emy diGrappa:

Oh, that's cute.

Britney Wallesch:

And she was the black dog in the group.

Emy diGrappa:

Oh, she was the black dog.

Britney Wallesch:

And so ... yeah, yeah. So that's how, that's how the organization came to be named

after her. She's also ... you can see her likeness in the logo, the organization's logo.

And I think we're on the third version of the logo since our inception and she has

been in it in all three versions.

Emy diGrappa:

Oh, so she's your poster child?

Britney Wallesch:

She is, yeah.

Emy diGrappa:

What was your passion to start Black Dog Animal Rescue and you know, your

journey, uh, in that direction?

Britney Wallesch:

You know, it, it was kind of, um, a journey of chance in a lot of ways. I, I didn't have

a dog growing up, but it was sort of a lifelong aspiration to, to get one and so after

my freshman year of college, my, my only mission the summer after my freshman

year was to find an apartment I can rent that would allow me to have a dog. And I

was, uh, like singularly focused on this mission of, of getting a living situation that

would allow me to have a dog and then adopting my first dog.

Britney Wallesch:

And I had this image in my mind of what kind of person I would become having this

dog. And I really wanted a border collie and I was obsessed with dog sports like

frisbee and agility and I had this image of myself that I was going to become this

kind of dog owner and I was going to get the right dog and I was going to spend all

my time training it and learn to do these very cool things that I saw other people

doing with their dog. So I did. I adopted, I adopted Causia and she, I thought she

was a border collie mix, and through that sort of journey with her, like learning to

live with her, to train with her, starting to see the world in a different way, having a

relationship with an animal like that, I got deeper and deeper into other

organizations that were involved in, in creating better outcomes from animals and

one of those was a wolf sanctuary in La Porte, Colorado.

Britney Wallesch:

And the entire time that I was a student at UW, which was six years, I spent nearly

every weekend and vacation volunteering at that wolf sanctuary and learned, you

know, how to organize volunteers and how to fundraise and how to tell the story of

a mission. And also, developed really profound relationships with some very, very

special and unique animals. And so my world view really started to change. When I,

when I first adopted Causia, when I, when I went looking for a dog, it was very much

about me and I what I thought I was going to get out of adopting a dog and what

being a dig owner or a champion frisbee person, I don't even know what they call

these people that do frisbee work with their dog, what that would say about me.

And like a lot of young people I was kind of trying to craft an identity in that way.

Britney Wallesch:

But what happened instead was that work at the wolf sanctuary and then taking

that work home to this very personal relationship that I had with this dog as I

started to see like how much that story was also about her. And what that, what it

was like for her to live in this world and to have wound up in the situation that she

was in. And really, you know, her outcome could have been much different and

certainly outcomes for lots of animals in her situation are much different. And so, I

just continued to explore that and eventually we ended up here. This is a very long


Emy diGrappa:

No, it's a great story. I, I love that there is this ... you have a whole story and journey

that follows your adoption. And I saw in your bio that you gave a TEDxCheyenne


Britney Wallesch:


Emy diGrappa:

... called "No Kill, A phrase that inspired change that continues to divide."

Britney Wallesch:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa:

So what is the phrase that inspired change yet continues to divide? Is it "no kill"?

Britney Wallesch:

It is no kill. Yeah.

Emy diGrappa:

What does that mean?

Britney Wallesch:

When I, when I first started working in the animal shelter industry, it was with

groups who were, who were adamantly no kill and arguably some who were on the

forefront of the no kill movement. And when I started Black Dog, which, well, you

know, we first started having conversations about the organization in 2006, 2007, it

was very much we wanted to be like leading the no kill charge in the state of

Wyoming. And some of our early messaging was very aggressively no kill

messaging. And I hadn't done enough work in the, in the industry to realize what

kind of, um, what kind of challenges I was going to be putting myself and the

organization and even our community into by having this very like anti-euthanasia


Britney Wallesch:

And so, you know, that, that TED talk is really sort of an evolution of thought for me.

Now someone who cares very deeply for animals and who, you know, I really

believe that one of the most profound experiences that we can have as human

beings on this earth is to have a relationship with an animal like I had with her, like

many of us have with our pets at home. But those relationships can be deeply

damaging to us, to our emotional and psychological health, and, and I think as

animal welfare professionals, we have a responsibility to try to protect people from

the damage that can be done and to do work in such a way that we are enhancing

and promoting that human-animal bond in a healthy way for people.

Britney Wallesch:

And so, overtime and over some really pretty dramatic experiences, I started to

rethink what it meant to be a no kill shelter. And, ah, also what it means when I

movement like that takes hold of the hearts and minds of people to the determent

of things that make sense and are safe in our logical. And, and I really had to think

through what that, what was happening in our industry and what is happening

across the country in the, in the face of an overly aggressive movement. And so

that's kind of what that TED talk is about, sort of, sort of reasoning through that and

telling, you know, at least one story of, of how we came to sort of question that.

Emy diGrappa:

Well, who's against no kill? I mean what, what are the proponents and opponents for

no kill?

Britney Wallesch:

Sure. And I would say, you know, many people would say in light of that talk and

writings that I have subsequently done that, that I am against no kill. And I think the

point needs to be made that no kill came along at a time when our industry and our

country needed it to and really did fundamentally shape the way that we have been

doing animal sheltering work for decades. And that is a very good thing. It was, it

brought a lot of, uh, good, progressive, life-saving change to the animal sheltering


Britney Wallesch:

But the problem that we've run into now with no kill is we've had such wild success

that now we're trying to have successes with animals who arguably shouldn't be put

back into our communities because they are unsafe, because they can't form a

normal bond with people or other animals. But we made it, we've, we've developed

this intense psychological pressure for people working within our industry to avoid

euthanasia at all cost. That, that animals ought to be adopted regardless of their

problems, that there are enumerable resources and solutions for these very

complicated animals. And I would argue that that is not true.

Britney Wallesch:

And when we are sinking all of those resources into individual animals, when we

have lots and lots of other ones to safe, we're doing a disservice to our communities

and we're not using our limited resources well. And sometimes as an industry, we're

putting the public at risk with animals that should not be put back into our

communities. And these are things that we really need to carefully consider and are

things that the no kill movement has not allowed us to consider. So, yeah.

Britney Wallesch:

So, I would say many people would accuse me of being anti no kill, and I don't

believe that that's true. But I am, you know, anti no euthanasia for any reason. And I

think that there is a place for euthanasia in the work that we do and that we owe it

to, to the people working in the industry to allow that, because it is so, so hard to

make that decision any way and far harder when other people accuse us of making

it out of cruelty or laziness or whatever reasons they like to use for those decisions.

But also because we have to keep people safe and we have to protect the great

thing that is pet ownership. And the wrong adoption placement can tear that down

in a hurry and can cause a really, really traumatic experiences for people and we

need to avoid that.

Emy diGrappa:

Do you have to be active in the Wyoming legislature to have a voice to protect


Britney Wallesch:

Do you mean you in a general sense or me specifically?

Emy diGrappa:

Well, I mean you in, in terms of how you work with your nonprofit in advancing the

initiatives that are important for animals?

Britney Wallesch:

Well, in, in Black Dog in particular, it is a key component of our mission statement

that we also provide advocacy work for animals. So in that case I would say yes. It is

important when you are doing advocacy work to go to the place where policy is

made and speak on behalf of the, you know, the constituents that you represent,

and in our case that is companion animals. And when I say companion animals, I'm

speaking largely about animals that we keep as pets in our homes, so mostly dogs

and cats, but maybe not exclusively.

Britney Wallesch:

But it doesn't mean everybody that's working in animal welfare needs to do that. It

doesn't mean that anybody who wants to make a difference for homeless pets

needs to do that. It's not a universal truth. But it is an important part of the work

that our organization does.

Emy diGrappa:

So tell me a little bit, 'cause I'm just trying to picture Black Dog Animal Rescue, so it

is an animal shelter in an of itself?

Britney Wallesch:

That's correct. Yeah. It's almost like a hybrid organization, and so the traditional

view of an animal shelter is, you know, a facility that has rows and rows of kennels

with animals lined up in it and people can wander through and find them for

adoption. And that is not our organization. Our organization does have animals for

adoption, but they are almost exclusively housed with volunteer foster homes that

we support. And that allows them to live a much more normal life while they're

under our care. But there are lots and lots of organizations that are foster home

based that do not have a facility like Black Dog has. So while we use the foster

homes, we also have a fairly sizable facility and we use that for a lot of things. And

so that's why I say it's a little bit of a hybrid organization. It kind of walks the line

back and forth between a traditional animal shelter and something that's entirely

decentralized and foster home based. And we have kind of a middle ground going


Emy diGrappa:

Okay. You grew up in Cheyenne, right?

Britney Wallesch:

I did, yeah.

Emy diGrappa:

And one of my questions was to really ask you about growing up as a woman in

Wyoming, what you find intriguing about living in Wyoming and how you view

yourself as a woman in the political realm, either as, you know, as a voter-

Britney Wallesch:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa:

... or as someone who's working for a nonprofit like Black Dog?

Britney Wallesch:

Okay. Should we tackle those one at a time?

Emy diGrappa:

Okay, yes. So tell me about growing up in, in Cheyenne.

Britney Wallesch:

So I grew up with a single mom and, and a sister, and I think what stands out to me

most about my childhood is really that I was brought up by a very strong network of

female characters. All of the great people in my youth are women, maybe with the

exception of my maternal grandfather. But I have this sense of like kind of female

tribalism that I f-, that I feel very deeply as a result of the, of having, you know,

been in a situation where we were, we were in a position of poverty. We were relying

on, you know, some subsidized programs. We were relying on friends and neighbors

and colleagues. And in, in a lot of ways, when you have to build a community of

support, I think that women are the ones who do that the best. And many of my

memories from childhood are of, you know, small coalitions of women getting

together to meal planning or sharing or getting ready for holidays together or, you

know, organizing the carpool for the children. And, uh, I just feel, uh, a very strong

network of, of women around me when I was growing up.

Britney Wallesch:

And, even, even though we had some of those, those challenges associated with

poverty, that we, you know, see so often in, in single parent homes, I don't feel like I

was aware of it until I was much older. And I think my mom did a tremendous job of

supporting my sister and I in a way where we did not feel the pressure of the things

that we were going without. And I think that she probably went without a lot of

things so that we would not feel that. But always, always I have felt safe and maybe

that's because my family is law enforcement and a lot of our tribe were law

enforcement professionals. But I don't think that's entirely it, you know. I was a kid

that ran around the neighborhood streets, and, you know, we played kickball and

softball in the, in the cul de sac. And we ran up and down the road to the

elementary school and back. And I just remember feeling safe and surrounded by

people who loved me and I feel like I had a really blessed childhood in a lot of ways

because of those things.

Emy diGrappa:

Well, when you call it a women's, a women's tribe, I thought that was, uh, very, very

interesting and in your perception, do you think that men understand that


Britney Wallesch:

I think there's a risk in using terminology like that. I think that when we start talking

about differences in gender, there's some of the conversation has been made very

polarizing. And so, I would say that I hope that men hear that in the way that I

intend it to be heard, which is not that they were excluded from or, or did not even

intend to participate in something like, you know, helping a family like mine provide

when we needed help.

Emy diGrappa:


Britney Wallesch:

My intention only in saying it is that that is how I remember it, I remember the

women in that period of my life.

Emy diGrappa:

Okay. I think that's, that's a great story, and, and very true. I find that very true for a

lot of single women who have to surround themselves with people who will support

them and understand kind of that like-minded struggle that they're going through.

And so, that leads me to my next question which is that Wyoming is celebrating the

first state to give women the right to vote, but this podcast is called "First, But Last"

because we're last-

Britney Wallesch:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa:

... in a lot of other areas. And why do you think we're last? Why, why do you think

there's less women in the leg- legislature than in other places?

Britney Wallesch:

You know, I have, I have a lot of perspective on this question. I think I have a good

technical understanding of why this is if we're talking solely about the legislature for

example. And the reality of that I think is that the legislature is inaccessible to a lot

of women. And we've heard these things said over and over and over again that

things like it's a very long way to travel for a very long period of time when you are

a woman with a family. We often, women are working lower wage jobs with less

autonomy than our male counterparts, so having a job that allows you to serve in

the legislature, there are fewer women who have that kind of, kind of job or support

from their employer that would allow them to do that.

Britney Wallesch:

The reality is that women are still the primary family caretakers for most, most

families. And it is still not socially acceptable for a woman to leave her home and

her children in the way that it is socially acceptable for men to do the same. And it's

not just the social acceptance either, it's that, that sense of responsibility and I think

that that is just different. It's perceived differently by women than it is for men. So

not only are we sort of socially frowned upon for being willing to leave our families,

but also personally I think women have a much harder time in their own personal

sense of responsibility to their families to take that time away from them.

Britney Wallesch:

Uh, so there are real technical challenges for women when it comes to serving in

the legislature. But I don't think either that it's fair to say that those are the only

reasons that we have low, low numbers of women. I think that, you know, it's, it's a

hard thing to say without risking people feeling like you're, you know, like you're

saying bad things about the state of Wyoming, and, and that's not true, because it's

been my home forever and I love it [inaudible 00:18:54]. But we have, we have a

problem here with our willingness to elect women, and the way that we talk about

women who are elected officials and the way that we listen to women in positions of

power. And I think that has played out in sort of graphic detail even in this

legislative session. And it has made it very hard for women to want to put

themselves out there in that way.

Emy diGrappa:

And what, what would you change? What do you think the change needs to be? And

how do you influence younger women to run for office and have that kind of

understanding and encouragement?

Britney Wallesch:

Well, I don't know that I know the answer to this question.

Emy diGrappa:

(laughs). It's a hard question because-

Britney Wallesch:

It is a hard question.

Emy diGrappa:

... you named everything just right and I have found that-

Britney Wallesch:


Emy diGrappa:

... while I've interviewed a lot of women across the state that we are the caregivers

and it's just in our nature, it's in our blood. We, that's what we do, and-

Britney Wallesch:

Mm. I think women are very often expected to be all things to all people. And in a

way where men are often allowed to be singularly focused on the one particular

important thing. And then we make, we make it okay for them to let other things

slide in the meantime. And, and women, you know, not only do we sort of

collectively put this pressure on them, but we do it, you know, to ourself too. So my

first thought in answer to your question like how do we fix this problem, the obvious

answer to how do we fix this problem is we elect more women in the first place. Um,

but that is so much ... it's a circuitous line of reasoning.

Britney Wallesch:

If we had more women in elected offices, I truly believe that some of the barriers to

women being able to run and serve would be removed because they would be

better represented and people would understand what those are and would make

the effort to change them. But until the things are changed, it's very difficult for

women to run for office and very difficult for them to get elected. You know, if I, if I

have to answer the question, and I don't know if this is a good answer, but I would

say we need to, we to invest in mentor relationships with, with younger women. We

need to intentionally pull them in to the political process in a way that they are

cared for and made to feel safe for as long as they need to feel safe until they can

find their own voice and challenge a thing.

Britney Wallesch:

And I think that there are many, many women in the state who are capable of doing

that and I think there is effort underway. I fact I know there's effort underway to

create more formal mentor programs all over the state so that women can connect

with women closer to them, themselves in their own communities. And I think that

that has the potential to make a tremendous difference.

Emy diGrappa:

I think that's a great answer. That is a great answer. And absolutely it has to start at

a grassroots level where just one person takes one young woman under their wing

and says, "You can do this and I will help you on this road."

Britney Wallesch:

And I would, I would say the other thing that, you know, I'm not a young woman

anymore, somewhere in the middle I think of the spectrum, but I have seen young

women ask and I remember being the young woman asking hard questions of

women who have run or have been elected, asking questions like, "What have you

done when you've been faced with sexism or prejudice of some kind?" And I think

that it is hard for women to admit that they've faced these things. And sometimes

because it's hard to admit it, we pretend that it doesn't happen. And I would like to

challenge that we should stop pretending that that hasn't happened. And until we

do, we can't answer young women's questions in a way that makes them feel like

their experiences are, are not unique to them, because they're experiencing those

things too and they're looking for people in positions of authority and success to

validate that yes they did have those experiences as well and they still broke

through and they still are there and they're still in the fight and they're still wanting

to make a difference.

Britney Wallesch:

And when we, when we say, "No, that's never happened to me," but in fact, it

actually has, I think that we are diminishing the potential of those women and we

need to stop that. We need to, we need to say the truth in a way that those women

hear it and understand that it can, it can happen and it can be overcome and we

can make progress despite it and we have to continue fighting that fight.

Emy diGrappa:

And you are right. You are right. We have to, we have to say it out loud so that we're

not, you know, we're not holding it back and, and we're not making things seem like

they don't happen when they really do happen. And just being able to acknowledge

that, I think you're right, that is hard for a lot of reasons. B

Emy diGrappa:

ut I think it's been great talking to you. Tell me how people can learn more about

Black Dog Animal Rescue. What's your website? How can they get in touch with


Britney Wallesch:

Yeah. So they can visit our website at The, the best way to keep in touch

with the organization is really through our electronic newsletter. We have a very

small staff and so the website is not dynamic website. We don't, we don't change

the content in it, you know, on a, on a frequent enough basis to keep you coming

back to the website. But if you sign up to get our newsletter, which we send out

twice a month, that's really where the best of the work that we're doing can be

seen. And a lot of people sign up, but because it's a bulk newsletter, it ends up in

their spam, so I really encourage you once you've signed up, to also add the email

address to your white list or safe list so that you can actually get those

communication. And then we also have really great social media channels, so if you

find us on Facebook or Instagram those are really fun places to keep up with just

kind of the day-to-day great work that our team is doing.

Britney Wallesch:

And I will say we have the best team out there. Our volunteers and our staff are just

so compassionate and so resourceful and so creative. I just can't sing their praises

enough and I think that people would be really impressed if they really knew, you

know, the volume of work that goes on behind the scenes. It's really good stuff. I'm

very proud of those people.

Emy diGrappa:

Well, it's been great talking to you, Britney. Thank you so much.

Britney Wallesch:

Yeah, it's great to talk to you. Yeah, thank you.

Emy diGrappa:

Thank you for listening to "First, But Last" brought to you by the Wyoming

Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with

women form around the state. You can also find us at where we

continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey, and the

challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the Equality State. And if you

enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes.

Thank you for listening.