UIX: A real treat for local companion animals: Cathy Bissell

Cathy Bissell, director of corporate affairs for Bissell Inc., helps companion animals in West Michigan and even the U.S. through the Bissell Pet Foundation, which she began in 2011.
Were it not for Cathy Bissell, director of corporate affairs for Bissell Inc., and wife of Bissell president and CEO Mark Bissell, companion animals in West Michigan and even the U.S. would have a lot less to wag about. Through Bissell’s Pet Foundation grants to events like the annual Blocktail Parties and the first Howloween event later this year, the compassionate heart of this woman helps animals find better shelter, find medical treatment, and find caring homes. Most of all, Bissell’s passion for pets has spread to others.

Every week, Bissell posts a list of adoptable animals on the company’s internal bulletin board. She also networks with different local sponsors to promote and fund pet-centric events, hosts adoption days at Bissell to introduce employees to adoptable animals, and even visits with local shelters and rescues to find out about their needs and plans. And that’s just a small part of her schedule.

The Bissell Pet Foundation

Bissell’s work is far reaching. The Bissell Pet Foundation, which she began in 2011, now boasts over 700 partners—animal welfare organizations that the foundation helps through fundraising. The foundation also weighs as many as 350 grant applications at a time, each requesting to implement adoption, spay/neuter, foster care, microchipping, or safety net programs, awareness of which Bissell maintains are the core of the foundation’s aim.

It all started with Bissell’s curiosity and desire to help.

“I would tour shelters just to find out what I could do,” she says. “I found out that if we gave pet products to people, it would keep the dogs from coming back to the shelters, because animals make messes and people get frustrated. We devised this online way to do it and started Partners for Pets program.”

To become a partner, a shelter, rescue, or other animal welfare organization connects with Bissell and signs up to receive one new pet product a year to be used as a fundraising item. The items are typically in the $100 range, and Bissell now adds 4 to 5 partners a week—and sometimes a day—so the cost to the company is significant, but one Bissell is willing to front in the name of animal welfare. Some of the organizations go further and apply for a grant from the Pet Foundation, which Bissell admits takes work, but is worthwhile.

“A lot of shelters don’t have grant writers so it’s a complicated process,” she says. “We’ve been getting a lot of guidance so I think we’re figuring it out. The requests are high. We typically fund spay/neuter, microchipping, fostering, and adoption. That’s the core we try to say focused on.”

The foundation also maintains an emergency fund that was employed this past spring to help rebuild two shelters in New York that burned down, as well as rehabilitating the rescued animals from different hoarding and puppy mill situations.

“You literally cry when you hear what’s going on around the country,” Bissell says. “How do we allow puppy mills? How do we allow people to breed all these animals? People sometimes get mad at the shelters for putting these animals down, but they’re doing the best they can and they’re crying every time they do it. It’s not an easy task.”

Pet-centered events

The Blocktail party, held at Mangiamo! the second Wednesday in June, is Bissell’s most visible event at this point, with food from chefs and restaurants around the region and a largely successful auction, raising money and awareness for animals and several local animal care groups. Bissell said she got the idea for the Blocktail party at a similar event she attended in New York with friends from the local Humane Society board years ago. Now nine years old, the event has grown wildly since then and for the first time this year incorporated an online auction.

“We opened the auction at noon that day, and I drove from my house to Mangiamo—so about 10 minutes, and the total was up to $10,000 already,” Bissell says.

This year’s Blocktail Party raised over $80,000 in auction, with funds supporting nearly a dozen “Blocktail Buddies” and sponsored grants going to many more.

“With our funds from Blocktail we encourage the different organizations in town to partner and share information to help move animals,” Bissell says. “Someone might be true to Vicky’s but they might not be finding what they want, so they might go on Petfinder. If they’re sharing information, then these animals can be more visible."

Bissell  said she’s proud of the partnerships she’s helped form since starting the Pet Foundation, and happy to see such progress in moving pets to caring homes and lowering the euthanasia rates in the region.

“It’s our duty as a community to bring everyone together to help these animals,” she says.
Planned for Oct. 19 is the Pet Foundation’s newest event, Howloween, which will be centered on children and pet adoption. The carnival-themed event will be held in East Grand Rapids’ Manhattan Park, and operate on a pay-to-play ticket system with no admission fee, so all families can attend.

“It’s centered on the importance of adoption and we’ve partnered with West Michigan Therapy Dogs because they have adopted animals that then go on to Helen DeVos Childrens Hospital to see the kids,” Bissell says. “It shows that adopted dogs are great for healing and being a part of your family’s life. You don’t just need to have a pure bred puppy.”

The Bissell Pet Foundation will get half the money raised at Howloween, a quarter will go to West Michigan Therapy Dogs, and a quarter to Helen DeVos Childrens Hospital.

The Pet Spot

The Bissell team really cleans up when it comes to supporting animals and the facilities that provide for them. It’s not just a robust product line, among which are listed “crud suds,” “ewww,” and “dang.” On any workday at the Walker-based corporation, you’ll find many Bissell employees even bring their pets along, letting them enjoy a shift at the Pet Spot, and even contributing to R&D.

“It was started so the employees can work in an environment with their pets,” Bissell says. “A lot of times people need to leave their pets. We can only hold about 3 to 5 at a time but then they can also collect hair or collect messes, and create products to help clean up.”

The Pet Spot has indoor and outdoor kennels for animals to stay in during the workday, while security cameras help insure their safety.

The future

Bissell can relate tear-jerking stories of animals found in the worst conditions before being rescued, and she admits these stories happen far too often. While she has her hands full with Roxy, Taz, D.J., and K.C., her spirited family of black Labrador retrievers, she prides herself on empowering others to help animals as much as they can.

“I can’t adopt them all but this helps make a difference,” Bissell says. “Everyone on my team feels the same way. It’s a great team of compassionate people.”

The Bissell Pet Foundation raises most of its money through product sales at Bissell, and while grant applications from throughout the country are considered, the events and partnering are confined to the West Michigan community. The Pet Foundation’s work is growing quickly but there are no plans to transplant or clone it in any way. Bissell is willing to help others out in spearheading their own pet-centered fundraising ideas, though, keeping in mind the goal of the Pet Foundation.

“It’s the fostering, adoption, spay/neuter and microchipping that we concentrate on. And more importantly, it’s just raising the awareness that you can find beautiful dogs through adoption,” she says. “Every kind of dog you would want is available. And you don’t have to start at a puppy. It’s almost easier to get a grown dog, because you know what their behavior is going to be. If you’re unsure of an animal, don’t get a puppy, get one that’s trained.”

For more information on the work of the Bissell Pet Foundation, or to find out how to help, visit http://www.bissellpetfoundation.org/.

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]. 

Photography by Steph Harding
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