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Helen Woodward Animal Center celebrates 50th anniversary

The Emmy Award-winning CBS show Lucky Dog
The Emmy Award-winning CBS show Lucky Dog filmed an episode at the Helen Woodward Animal Center last December. (Above) Helen Woodward Animal Center Communications Director Jessica Gercke, Lucky Dog host Eric Wiese, and Billy Bishop, co-founder of show sponsor Blue Buffalo pet food, pose with a statue of Helen Woodward.
(Robert McKenzie)

Rancho Santa Fe facility continues to evolve in its multi-faceted mission

In 1972, philanthropist Helen Whittier Woodward founded the San Dieguito Animal Care and Education Center.

Renamed the Helen Woodward Animal Center in 1986, it has evolved into a regional hub and North County institution.

A nongovernmental organization, the center serves as a shelter for abandoned pets, an adoption agency, an educational venue, a purveyor of pet encounter therapy and an international resource for managing such a facility, among other functions.

Center officials estimate that since its founding, it has saved or assisted more than 13 million animals and benefited more than 1.5 million people.

“There’s no place in the world like this,” said Woodward President and CEO Michael Arms. “There’s no place that has all these things that we provide.”

The center in Rancho Santa Fe is celebrating its 50th anniversary June 11 at Fairbanks Village Plaza, 16236 San Dieguito Road, in conjunction with its annual Spring Fling gala.

The fundraiser, which is themed “The Golden Age of Hollywood,” is scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

It will be emceed by local TV and radio personalities and feature Tinsel Town decor, character impersonators, cocktails, hors d’ouevres, a silent auction and dinner catered by some of San Diego’s top restaurants.

Information on the event and tickets are available through the website animalcenter.org.

Then on Aug. 6, the center will host a VIP event, details of which will be forthcoming.

Proceeds benefit the nonprofit’s numerous programs and facilities in keeping with the vision of Helen Woodward.

The daughter of Los Angeles oil tycoon and Beverly Hills founder Mericos “Max” Whittier, Woodward bought the property on which the animal center still sits in Rancho Santa Fe and eventually lived in Del Mar.

Woodward was a prolific supporter of aid and research for the blind and elderly, a donor to the San Diego Zoo, and an animal welfare advocate.

“Her big thing was adopting out pets and humane education,” said Renee Resko, the center’s vice president of development. “She loved animals and really got involved in caring for them.”

Woodward’s grandson, Bryce Rhodes, is chairman of the center’s board of directors. Arms credited Rhodes with being a strong presence in helping the center to achieve its goals and maintain its focus.

“I don’t think I’d have stayed here if he wasn’t here,” said Arms, who started as the center’s administrative head in 1999.

Woodward would have undoubtedly endorsed the center’s latest fundraising campaign. Arms said the organization has raised more than $300,000 for the rescue and care of pets in Poland and Estonia that have accompanied refugees from the war in Ukraine.

“Animals were coming across the border from Ukraine,” Arms said. “People were not leaving their animals behind. They were carrying them over (the borders) on their shoulders. There was no bedding, food or medical care available.”

Caring is Woodward’s legacy and is reflected in the center’s no-kill policy and adoption strategy. Most of the animals arriving at the Rancho Santa Fe locale come from other shelters overwhelmed by the number of orphaned animals.

“We’re getting close to adopting out 4,000 animals per year,” Arms said.

In addition to adoptions, education and therapy, the center offers programs that include Therapeutic Horseback Riding, Pets Without Walls, Home 4 the Holidays, Remember Me Thursday and AniMeals.

The Remember Me Thursday campaign encourages people to post written messages on social media about the importance of pet adoption and to shine a light on shelter animals.

In 1983, the center pioneered AniMeals, which partners with Meals on Wheels to get food to the pets of seniors who are confined to their homes.

“What’s so cool is it’s been replicated in 65 cities across the United States and Canada,” Resko said.

Meanwhile, Arms is orchestrating a project to replace the center’s outdated educational structure with an approximately 10,500-square-foot Humane Education/Pet Encounter Therapy Complex.

The complex, which will cost an estimated $8.5 million, will include two birthday/craft rooms, six classrooms, five outdoor animal enclosures, an outdoor animal enrichment area, two outdoor presentation areas and two animal holding pens, plus outdoor storage areas.

Those interested in contributing to funding for the project or other aspects of the center should contact Resko at reneer@animalcenter.org or 858-756-4117, ext. 347.


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