Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Mike Arms shares a moving story that led to his career

Mike Arms is president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center.
(Jan Goldsmith)

Helen Woodward Animal Center president has devoted his life to saving animals


In 1977, Mike Arms was director of Manhatten’s Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Arms was bothered by the organization’s “kill” policy leading to thousands of animals being euthanized annually in New York City. He decided to leave for a life insurance job and gave two-weeks’ notice.

Arms had six days remaining on his notice when he was called to the scene of a car accident involving a dog.

“There was this little black and tan terrier that looked just like Benji,” Arms said. “He was laying in the street with a snapped back and shaking badly. Just as I was about to reach down for him, these fellows yelled, ‘What are you doing?’”

“I said, ‘This little one is dying. I’m taking him in the ambulance.’ They said, ‘No, you’re not taking it anywhere. We’re betting on how long it’s going to live.’

“I reached down and scooped the little one up. I held him and cradled him in my arms. I looked down at him and he was staring into my eyes.

“His body started to relax as if he was saying, ‘I feel safe now.’”

“Just as I reached for the ambulance door handle, the fellows hit me from behind with a bottle and stabbed me.”

“Now, I was the one lying in the street.”

“That little one, who should not have been able to even move, found a way to crawl to my side and lick me back to consciousness. When I opened my eyes, I was staring into his beautiful eyes one more time.

“I laid in that street and cried. I prayed asking to give me another chance and promised to devote my life to protecting these animals. After that, my little friend closed his eyes and passed on.”

Arms survived.

True to his promise, he rejected the insurance job and, instead, agreed to help run a “no kill” animal adoptions agency in Long Island. He worked there for 20 years, learning, making contacts and helping to expand the agency.

In 1999, Arms moved to San Diego to become CEO/president of the nonprofit Helen Woodward Animal Center, which was then in financial distress.

He quickly changed the center’s direction by instilling business-like features, such as heavy marketing, convenient hours, clean facilities, education programs and services designed to attract the public, in addition to traditional nonprofit fundraising and volunteerism.

Arms’ changes succeeded and are still followed today in his 24th year as CEO/president.

In 1999, the center was in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. Today, it has an $11 million endowment and millions more for expansion projects, including a new education center. It has 170 employees and 1,000 volunteers.

In 1999, the center averaged 500 adoptions annually. It now averages 4,000.

Dogs and cats come from communities and “kill” facilities locally and out-of-state. No pets are killed. All are housed, given medical care and adopted.

The center uses 100 volunteer temporary foster homes throughout the county for overflow needs.

In addition to pet adoptions, other programs at the 12-acre Rancho Santa Fe facility include children education programs, camps, special needs horseback riding and pet encounter programs, an animal hospital, boarding facility and thrift shop.

Arms is known as a pioneer in the animal welfare industry and is invited to share his successful strategy around the world. “We are in the business of saving lives,” he tells groups. “And we need business-like approaches.”

More than 14,000 people have attended his speaking engagements, usually at conferences, corporate events or training programs. He has organized partnerships with 4,100 participating agencies in 23 countries, which, he says, has saved millions of pet lives. In 2022, he testified before a United Nations committee.

Arms, 74, lives in San Diego with his wife of 43 years, Carol. They have a daughter and granddaughter.

He never forgets the little black and tan terrier and his promise that, he says, gave him purpose in life. “I would love the day when my granddaughter asks, ‘Is it true they used to kill animals?’”

About this series

Jan Goldsmith is an Emeritus member of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Community Advisory Board. He is an attorney and former law partner, judge, state legislator, San Diego city attorney and Poway mayor.

Someone San Diego Should Know is a column written by members of the U-T’s Community Advisory Board about local people who are interesting and noteworthy because of their experiences, achievements, creativity or credentials.