The pup sitting in Kenn Altine’s lap in his office at the Sacramento SPCA was a mystery wrapped in a scruffy blond package. Surrendered by her family a few days earlier, she had been cowering in her kennel. She seemed spooked at the sight of a water bowl, and quivered in the presence of other animals.
What was Perlita’s story? Altine wondered as he stroked her fur. Had she been bullied by bigger dogs? Neglected? Abused? Was she simply confused and frightened about the sudden change in her living environment?
With a long career as a newspaperman behind him, Altine is accustomed to asking questions and telling stories. Now, as the Sacramento SPCA’s new chief executive officer, he is doing so on behalf of the thousands of dogs and cats that come through the doors of the shelter each year.
Altine’s pivot from journalism to animal welfare has been less jarring than it might seem, he insisted.
“It’s still about stories,” he said, “and passion for what I do.”
Altine, the youngest of seven children, grew up in small towns in the upper Midwest. At various times, his family had pet dogs and cats, along with the occasional turtle or parakeet, but Altine never considered a career centered around animals. His path was newspapers. He wrote stories about student government and Sadie Hawkins dances for his high school paper, studied journalism in college and earned a communications degree from the University of Kentucky.
“It was the early 1980s, a great time to be in journalism,” said Altine, 55. “I learned to question, question, question. I loved it.”
From his first job at a small publication in Kentucky, he rose through the ranks at newspapers across the country. Most of Altine’s career focused on management, budgeting and troubleshooting, and included stints as assistant managing editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal, associate managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and, most recently, director of editorial development for Hearst Newspapers.
In 2005, while based in Houston for Hearst, Altine got a taste of what it might be like to work in animal welfare when a friend persuaded him to volunteer to help pets displaced by Hurricane Katrina. For two weeks, he worked at a flooded shelter in Gulfport, Miss., cleaning cages, feeding animals and trying to find homes for dogs and cats scattered by the epic storm.
Images of those animals haunt him still, he said.
But it wasn’t until six years after the storm, when he and his partner, Glenn Stanton, were living “in a tent in the woods” while building a home in Siskiyou County, that Altine thought about making a career out of saving pets.
He had left the newspaper business in 2009, as the industry dramatically shifted to adapt to a digital world. He and Stanton, a chef, decided that they wanted to “disconnect, unplug” and move to a rural area with their dogs, Max and Zed. About two years later, financial realities set in. Altine began looking for jobs in the nonprofit world, and saw an opening at the Southern Oregon Humane Society in Medford, Ore.
“I had none of the qualifications” listed in the job ad, which called for a background in the nonprofit arena, experience managing a shelter and various animal-welfare certifications, he said. But after further research, he concluded he was a perfect fit.
The local group was in disarray, broke and in danger of closing. “I realized they didn’t need an animal-welfare expert. They had those,” Altine said. “They needed a business expert who could help them with income, expenses, personnel issues. That was me!”
He got the job. Altine dramatically cut the agency’s budget, and filled the void by soliciting donations of essential items like dog food, veterinary supplies and roof repairs from local businesses. He ramped up fundraising and volunteer programs. He appeared at community event after community event, promoting the agency and its animals.
Adoptions crept up, and the organization’s financial situation gradually stabilized. By the time the Sacramento job opened up following the retirement of executive director Rick Johnson earlier this year, the Oregon agency had $2 million in the bank and was completing a record number of adoptions, Altine said.
“Kenn is a man with a heart and a tremendous business acumen,” said Bobbi Helman, who with her husband, Ed, has supported the Southern Oregon Humane Society for three decades. “From the day of his welcoming party he bowled me over, and he continued to exceed every expectation.”
“There was such a huge turnaround,” Helman said. “He boosted confidence and morale. I was very, very sad to see him leave. But this is a wonderful opportunity for him, and Sacramento is very fortunate to have him.”
The Sacramento SPCA is a larger organization, with more than 100 employees compared to Medford’s 20. With an annual budget of more than $7 million, its finances are solid, “although we can always do better,” said Mike Cleary, president of the agency’s board of directors. The SPCA features a spay and neuter clinic that performs 19,000 operations a year, and innovative programs for seniors, children and needy families. It offers behavior training and a pet food bank, both designed to keep animals at home with their owners and out of the shelter.
“I loved my job in Medford,” Altine said, “but I had to leave in order to help more animals.”
Altine started in his new role a month ago, chosen from a pool of about 50 candidates identified in a nationwide search. Part of Altine’s charge, Cleary said, is to help oversee a $15 million capital campaign to expand the agency’s campus on Florin-Perkins Road. The project ultimately may include a new animal-intake facility, a dog park and a clinic offering low-cost veterinary services.
“We needed someone dedicated to animal welfare who also had a strong background in other critical areas,” Cleary said. “Kenn likes to build things and fix things. His personality fits the larger-than-life image we want the SPCA to represent in the community.”
I loved my job in Medford, but I had to leave in order to help more animals.
Kenn Altine, CEO, Sacramento SPCA
As he walks the rows of kennels each day, Altine tries to memorize the names and stories of every animal in the agency’s care. It is not an easy task, considering most days the shelter is full or nearly full, housing upward of 120 animals. Despite ongoing efforts by the SPCA and city and county shelters to reduce pet overpopulation, the cats and dogs just keep coming.
“It’s frustrating,” Altine said. “People are selling dogs on the internet when we’ve got shelters full of them. It’s a huge challenge.”
One of Altine’s primary goals, he said, is to reduce the number of people who surrender animals to the shelter for financial reasons. He wants to work with landlords to lower pet deposits for spayed and neutered animals, and to develop a low-cost dental care program for dogs and cats. He hopes to expand educational programs for children.
“We have to hit the kids harder with the message about spaying and neutering and vaccinating. We need programs on animals and ethics,” he said. “It all starts with educating the kids.”
Altine is an imposing presence on the SPCA’s sprawling campus. A motorcycle enthusiast with an intimidating build, a shaved head and a red goatee flecked with gray, he occupies an office with a door plate that reads TOP DOG. But his demeanor is friendly and disarming as he greets guests, smiles at staff members and gently encourages skittish animals to walk on a leash or accept a treat.
On his desk, Altine keeps a few reminders of why he does what he does.
One is a photo of a “Katrina dog,” a golden retriever mix named Buddy who ended up in the Sacramento area. Another is a crumpled note Altine found attached to a fence at the Oregon shelter in the early days of his tenure there. It was a plea on behalf of an older mastiff mix whose family had dropped her off overnight.
“Carly is her name,” reads the note, neatly printed in pencil. “She is a good dog. But we are homeless and can’t take care of her anymore. Please find her a good home.”
Carly was adopted after Altine fostered her for three months. But her short time with him left an impression.
“It helped me understand the plight of older dogs,” he said. “The odds of them even making it onto the adoption floor, in many cases, are low. But I know they are worth my time.”
It feels like a lifetime ago that Altine left his news career behind, he said. But he is comfortable in his new home.
“As much as I liked journalism, I am just as passionate about what I am doing now, if not more,” he said. “And I’m good at it, as it turns out.
“I think I was meant to be here.”