Surprised By Love


“Charity begins at home.”

I don’t remember who first came up with the line. Maybe it was me. Maybe it was Kelly, our project visionary and manager. Maybe it was our graphic designer, Nate. But somewhere along the way, in one of our scribble sessions for the Adopt Local campaign, the phrase was tossed out.

I liked it and noted it down for possible use. It was the perfect tie-in for a PSA campaign about the need to adopt from shelters, rescues and pet organizations that offer primarily local animals.

What I didn’t realize, however, was how much more meaning the phrase would soon have for me personally.

Adopt Local started out as a line item on my task sheet at Derse, where I work by day as a face-to-face marketing experience designer. Most of the time I serve big brands with strict regulations and non-disclosure agreements. This time, however, I was being asked to provide campaign themes and copywriting for Milwaukee Animal Alliance, an animal adoption charity run by one of my coworkers, Kelly Herbold.

I was game for the project, of course. But I also found it ironic. This, from a girl whose highly animal-allergic parents had allowed only birds and fish in the house! Dogs, and in particular cats, were a whole new world for me.

Still, I took the task on with gusto, and as the months passed I learned quite a lot about the adoption scene. I learned that hundreds, if not thousands, of Wisconsin-born domesticated animals are looking for good homes. I learned that many will end up being euthanized instead, while would-be adopters unknowingly choose animals shipped in from out of state. And I learned that, fortunately, there are dozens of Wisconsin shelters and rescues that do their best to adopt in-state animals first instead.

“Charity begins at home” quickly made the final cut of one-liners for the campaign. Ask before you adopt. Choose a “made in Wisconsin” pet.

In the mean time, my husband independently had a revolutionary idea. He had heard that animals are therapeutic for people with autism, so he said to me, “We should get you an animal companion.” He had grown up with dogs and was not a huge fan, so he suggested a cat.

Me? The girl from the highly-allergic home, who might be allergic herself, get a cat?

But I was already primed. Kelly put us in touch with a wonderful cat foster mom who in turn made a few phone calls. A week later, a squirming, amber-eyed tabby named Fritz came into our lives . . . and turned it upside down.

As the “Adopt Local” campaign moved into its final stages, I was unprepared for how much I would be personally affected by having an animal in the home. For one thing, I found it much easier to relate to Fritz than to people. Aside from debunking the myth that all shelter or rescue animals have “problems,” Fritz’s sociability and sweet temper was a great gift in a time of considerable stress in my life–much of it induced by the natural social challenges of autism in a highly-social work environment.

Suddenly I was fussing over his choices of pet food. Buying him a kitty jacket and leash for outdoor play. Spending a lot of my nights playing “catch the string.”

In June, the “Adopt Local” campaign wrapped and prepared for its July launch. A few weeks later, we welcomed Fritz’s “little brother,” a fire-and-snow furball named Jack, whose larger-than-life kitten attitude more than complimented Fritz’s unflagging inner zen.

And that’s when I realized something. Charity may begin at home, but animal adoption is about so much more than charity. It’s about love and companionship and the wonderful—if mysterious—bond that humans and animals can share despite the communication gulf.

I had thought a lot about how much my cats needed me. I was stunned to find how much I needed them.

This past weekend, CBS58 featured “Adopt Local” on its regular news segment “Making Milwaukee Great.” Seeing my hard work, inspired by Kelly’s vision and Peggy Morsch’s photography, and beautifully interpreted by Nate Van Dyke’s colorful designs, on TV was more than I could ever have hoped for. Not to mention that it got the message out in a fresh new way to the wider community.

I told Fritz and Jack about it, of course. Funny though. All I got were a lot of meows for more food.

Typical cats!

* * *

How about you? Have you adopted a pet? Are a person with autism who has benefitted from companionship or therapy with animals? Share your story below!

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