A Humane Society: Meet Robert Armbrust, Palo Alto Humane’s New CEO

Robert ArmbrustA Midwest native, Robert Armbrust was working in advertising when the opportunity came along to engage with Phoenix Children’s Hospital. It was there he fell in love with community work centered around youth and health initiatives, beginning a quarter century-long career in the nonprofit sector.

Years later, Robert fell in love again when he took a job at Humane Society Silicon Valley (HSSV). “My love of animal welfare and for all things related to humane interaction really sparked for me again,” he recalls. He viewed his work as “a pipeline to bring people to HSSV in terms of their personal connection with our mission — and connecting them not just with animals, but also with other people in our community as a whole.”

Building on that commitment, Robert worked for various animal welfare organizations, including several years as executive director of the Santa Cruz SPCA & Humane Society. There he helped start the construction of a new facility and led the effort to reintegrate the organization into the Santa Cruz community.

We spent some time with Palo Alto Humane’s new CEO, a self-described “eternal optimist,” to find out what brought him to the organization and what his plans are for its future.

PAHS: How did you first become interested in animal welfare? Where did that come from?

Robert Armbrust: I was a country kid. We had dogs, horses, and cows. I’ve always been around animals, and they’ve always been an integral part of my life. I can list for you all my pets throughout the years. It’s those critical moments in your life — when you’re a young kid, and you lose a pet — that really shape your connection to and understanding of what it means to have compassion and what it means to be connected to different parts of the world. The empathy you develop through a connection with animals and nature makes a big difference for what kind of person you become.

PAHS: What attracted you to Palo Alto Humane?

RA: Palo Alto Humane Society is so unique. Because we don’t operate an actual animal shelter, we have a great amount of latitude and a great amount of focus we can put in areas around humane efforts that other organizations may not have the resources to do. It’s all open — there’s any number of directions we can go in order to affect animal welfare and advocate for humane issues across the board.

Our goal is the same as every other humane society or SPCA, in essence, where we want animals to be in homes, not in shelters. And we want there to be interaction and connection between people and animals, so animals and our commitment to them are not secondary to all the other things in the world, and so we’re connected to our compassion for each other on a day-to-day basis.

PAHS: How does Palo Alto Humane help with that interaction and connection?

RA: People want connection, compassion, and a commitment to something bigger than ourselves. How do we serve on the forefront of building connections in communities? It could be as simple as developing programs so other types of organizations strengthen their ability to do community outreach and make greater connections with youth. We can help create that or be the conduit for that. Because that’s the next generation, not just in animal welfare, but the next generation in terms of leaders and compassionate human beings. If children get to experience animals’ unconditional love, or they make a fundamental connection with nature, they go out into the world thinking about things differently. And that builds compassion as a whole in a community.

PAHS: How do you define “humane”?

RA: I think we need to open what “humane” means. As we expand the definition and explore what it means to be humane, many more people, organizations, and entities can be involved in that process to think about how we are successful as a society. How are we more humane? We know we’re stronger when we pay attention to others’ needs in addition to our own. Palo Alto Humane is in a unique, great position to be able to partner on so many levels with different types of individuals, groups, and entities, which will help us redefine and expand what it means to be humane.

PAHS: What do you envision for Palo Alto Humane’s future?

RA: The future of our organization is about asking the relevant questions given society’s current conditions. How do we help gather information to develop effective community-driven initiatives? Again, it’s not about us making statements about what should happen; it’s about us being the ones to explore what could happen. That’s about partnerships. Palo Alto Humane will partner not only with animal welfare and shelter organizations, but we will also look at youth, environmental, and agricultural organizations. All these things tie into advocacy for animals. It ties into advocacy for human rights and the concept of a humane world. That’s where we want to go. We’re in a unique position to be able to support other organizations and to develop things that may not exist yet that will support communities, as well as animal welfare.

We’ve been around for 114 years. What do the next 114 look like, considering the immense change we’ve seen in our world in the past two years? It’s about the natural, informed changes we will make as an organization. These might include more programs and services, or it may be that we do more advocacy work. It may be that our partnerships are what will really drive the work we do.

There are no limits for us. We want to be on the forefront of researching to discover and help define what needs exist in our communities relative to humane issues, especially in animal welfare. But we also want to explore how that interacts with youth, seniors, community organizations, and corporate entities, and how we can partner with all these groups, so everybody’s thinking about humane issues on a global scale. Palo Alto Humane will be open to what we could do, can do, and should do for the future.