Gene Baierschmidt had no experience working with animals when he took over as executive director of the Utah Humane Society in 1988.
Although he wasn’t raised with animals (his family couldn’t afford a dog), Baierschmidt had always loved them. At 38 years old, he left his fundraising job at KUED to run what was then a 5,000-square-foot shelter in West Valley City.
At the time, things were pretty dismal for animals in Utah. Most people weren’t educated to spay and neuter their dogs and cats, and during Baierschmidt’s first year as Humane Society director, the shelter received about 20,000 unwanted pets. They could only find homes for 3,000, so the remaining 17,000 were euthanized. That, says Baierschmidt, was the hardest part of his job. He still sounds sad when he talks about those animals.
“Some of them were not adoptable … but a good portion were,” he said.
He recalls during his first year, a little spaniel mixed breed had been at the shelter for about a week and Baierschmidt had fallen for the dog because of the way it looked at him while he worked. As the week ended, Baierschmidt feared that the 6-month-old dog would be euthanized over the weekend so he adopted him and named him Donner.
Today, the Utah Humane Society, which is run out of a renovated 41,000-square-foot building in Murray, adopts out nearly 10,000 pets a year. The shelter hasn’t euthanized any adoptable cats or dogs in the past four years. In fact, it doesn’t receive enough unwanted pets to keep up with demand from locals who want to adopt, so it imports unwanted animals from other parts of Utah and from other states, like New Mexico and California, that have higher euthanasia rates.
All of these changes came under Baierschmidt’s 31-year directorship, which ended in April when he handed the reins of Utah’s largest, private open-admission shelter over to newcomer Vaughn Maurice. Baierschmidt’s four rescue dogs could be heard barking intermittently as he spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune on the phone. Now that he is retired in St. George, he said he plans to spend his free time taking the dogs on more walks.
Baierschmidt says he has seen a sea change in animal rights over the past three decades in the Beehive State. Most people are much kinder to animals now than they were when he started his job, he said. Animals are seen as a part of the family, and people expect them to be cared for with dignity and respect.
“The way people treat animals is the way they also treat people generally speaking,” he said. “That’s been a great shift in our culture, that people treat animals much better now. I think that’s a positive thing for society.”
But that cultural shift did not come about in a vacuum. Baierschmidt led much of the push to educate Utans about animal welfare.
Frank Pignanelli worked with Baierschmidt on animal cruelty legislation during his time as a state lawmaker in the 1990s and lauded his hard work.
“It’s not easy to be an advocate for animal interests in the public arena,” said Pignanelli. “Yeah, you have the dog lovers, but back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, most people wanted to be kind to animals but they didn’t understand why there needed to be laws.”
One law that Pignanelli and Baierschmidt worked on together was a ban on bestiality.
“That, believe it or not, was not an easy fight,” chuckled Pignanelli.
The bill wasn’t taken seriously its first time around, Pignanelli explained, in part because some people didn’t believe bestiality was really happening. It took several years for the bill to pass, but in that time Baierschmidt never lost patience. He just kept providing facts and explaining to the lawmakers that bad things happen to animals, and that people who hurt animals often move on to other people, said Pignanelli.
Soft-spoken, good-natured and quick to give credit to others, Baierschmidt was liked even by those who disagreed with him, said Pignanelli.
Sen. Gene Davis worked with the Humane Society to pass Henry’s Law, which makes willful animal torture a third degree felony, in 2008. The law was named for a dog that was put into an oven by his owner’s husband.
Davis also worked with Baierschmidt to pass a 2015 bill that made cockfighting a third-degree felony. He lauded Baierschmidt for advocating for animal rights while also respecting Utah’s farmers.
“If I could stay one thing about Gene Baierschmidt, it’s the fact that he understands animal rights, but he also understands the local community,” said Davis. “He understands the use of animals, but at the same time he knows that you need to treat animals with care, with dignity.”
Baierschmidt has gone to great personal lengths to help animals. He said he once spent hours in a dog kennel in a parking lot as part of a fundraising stunt. He even kissed a pot belly pig on television. The shelter received the pig in the ’90s, and Baierschmidt announced that he would be happy to kiss the pig publicly if someone adopted it. The pig found a home, and received his farewell kiss.
New Humane Society Executive Director Vaughn Maurice said he is still learning the lay of the land, but that he is excited to work with the “great team” at the organization.
“The number of animals we have helped is just incredible,” he said. “That we handle the volume of animals that we handle is amazing.”
Maurice has been working in animal welfare for the past 11 years, most recently at a wildlife hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area. He now hopes to build on Baierschmidt’s past successes as he continues to grow the shelter. A mobile vet clinic that would assist rural or lower-income pet owners obtain medical services for their pets is on his list of goals for the shelter.
“I like to say we make lives happy, both animals and people,” said Maurice.