Human-Animal Interaction on the New York City Subway (Long Before Pizza Rat)

Maya Gupta

Maya Gupta, PhD, is the Senior Director of Research for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty' to Animals, where she leads a team focused on research and program evaluation efforts in the areas of cruelty'/ disaster response, public policy, community engagement, animal behavior, and equine and farm animal welfare. She is also an adjunct faculty' member for the University of Florida Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program and the masters program in anthrozoology at Canisius College, and a guest lecturer/ supervisor for the Veterinary' Social Work Program at the University of Tennessee.

Myr career in the field of HAI began one June afternoon inside a hot, sweaty #1 train below Broadway, as my eyes lit on an ad for a domestic violence crisis hotline: “Has your partner ever threatened or hurt your pet?” As a recent college graduate who planned to apply to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology but hadn’t yet identified her intended area of focus (an existential crisis one must resolve before writing a successful application), I was lucky to have my lightbulb moment there in that train. I loved animals, and even fostered cats in my miniscule Manhattan apartment—but never realized I could fuse that extracurricular passion with my professional path. I wish this book had been around back then!

Before I committed to devoting the next however-many years of my life to studying the connection between animal cruelty and domestic violence, I wanted to be sure that my efforts would have potential value for both human service and animal protection agencies. A few phone calls led me to Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist at the American Society' for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who confirmed that the issue needed more attention from researchers and the field as a whole.

Focus on research that could be applied “in the trenches” guided me through my master’s and doctoral work at the University' of Georgia. I craved a home in the nonprofit sector, where I could design real-life solutions to problems illuminated by' my' studies. I became a volunteer, Board member, Board President, and ultimately the first Executive Director of Ahimsa

122 Maya Gupta

House, an organization that helps human and animal victims of domestic violence across Georgia reach safety together.

It often felt lonely during graduate school as the only person doing “animal stuff,” and at Ahimsa House as the only program of its kind in the state. Yet, when I looked further afield, I found more and more psychologists, psychology students, and others who were interested in human-animal interaction (HAI). Pursuing these connections gave me a support network and introduced me to fellow psychologists who would be instrumental in my career path. These included Dr. Mary Lou Randour, then at Humane Society of the United States and now at the Animal Welfare Institute, who enlisted me in her quest to form a section on HAI in the American Psychological Association. We made the dream a reality in 2008: the field now has a dedicated forum within APA.

My next stop was the Animals & Society Institute: founded by a psychologist, and right up my alley in having developed the first intervention programs for animal cruelty. As Executive Director, I had the opportunity to explore a broader range of HAI topics, and to get back to my scientific roots through producing two academic journals and a variety of student-focused programs. As I had at Ahimsa House, I also launched an internship program to draw more students into HAI and offer them exposure to the nonprofit sector.

In the last few years, my path has brought me back to where it all began: I currently serve as Senior Director of Research for the ASPCA, where I had that first chat with a psychologist over 20 years ago. As part of a 14-person Strategy' & Research team, my projects cover everything from veterinary forensics to animal behavior to equine welfare. Our task is to use data to guide organizational direction and decision-making, as well as to drive change and action in animal welfare. My experience designing and evaluating nonprofit service programs comes in just as handy as my formal research training, since we produce both internally focused program evaluations and externally focused research. Even as a big organization, we can’t do it all—so, like any nonprofit, we must constantly prioritize our work and remain vigilant against mission drift. But doing so helps ensure that we’re producing the most impactful research we can with the resources we have, which brings me to the most rewarding part of my job: targeting our work toward systemic change that can make a difference on a big scale.

If you’re considering a future where you can make a difference in HAI, perhaps specifically in the nonprofit sector, here’s my advice:

  • 1. Please do! Some truly exciting work is happening at nonprofits, and your skills—whether inclined toward clinical work, research, or both— can be a great contribution.
  • 2. Embrace the non-linear path—or forge paths of your own. Your dream job at your favorite nonprofit doesn’t exist yet? Getting involved in a different role, as a means of building your familiarity with (and to)

HAI on the Neu> York City Subway 123 the organization, may pay dividends down the road—and, meanwhile, you’re still contributing to the same mission. If circumstances allow, you might also see if you can start by volunteering or externing there (even if the organization has no formal program of this type). You may be able to turn it into official employment down the road, even if you wind up writing the job description for your own position (as I did at Ahimsa House).

  • 3. Similarly, don’t be daunted if you don’t have a degree in nonprofit administration, law, fundraising, marketing, or any of the other fields that might seem like prerequisites. There’s much to be said for learning via osmosis and resources like The Foundation Center and BoardSource.
  • 4. Don’t go it alone. There are great networks and resources to support you. And I’m always delighted to hear from colleagues at any stage in their careers, so please reach out if I can ever be helpful to you in your journey!
 
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