16 years, 20 million pet adoptions and 1 Clemson degree
By Nancy Spitler
Even as a kid growing up in Joplin, Mo., Betsy Banks Saul M ’96 was always bringing home animals. At 12, she started volunteering with a woman who rescued pets. That experience with Animal Aid, and the revolving menagerie of animals she encountered, made a lasting impression. It planted the seed of an idea that would result in her being named one of “50 women who are changing the world” by Women’s Day magazine.
“I’ve always loved animals deeply,” says Saul, founder of Petfinder.com. “I’ve also been amazed that such intense regard can cross species and language boundaries. It makes me feel like a part of something so large and universal to be able to attract the love of a pooch, the good humor of a horse or the trust of a chicken.”
So how did she go from a 12-year-old in Joplin to being listed in the company of Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Maria Shriver and Marian Wright Edelman, among other notables?
It was a somewhat circuitous route, but it was by way of Clemson.
A responsible citizen
Saul did her undergraduate work at Missouri Southern State University. After college she worked as a park ranger in Alaska at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, “a very cool and primitive park,” as she describes it. From there, she came to Clemson to pursue a master’s degree in forestry, focusing on groundwater contamination.
All of those things speak to Saul’s connection with the world and her understanding of what it means to be a responsible citizen of that world. It’s an understanding that was formed early in her life.
“We always had pets in our home,” she says, “but I think I was less influenced by having pets than by the fact that my family always had an open door for anyone in need. If we encountered an old stray dog, hungry and covered with mange, while we were out picking blackberries along the county road, we would bring him home, fix him up and find him a home.”
It wasn’t that her family was consciously “rescuing” animals, she says. “We were just being neighborly — responsible. Having a sense of responsibility as part of the family culture was hugely formative for me.”
In 1995, Saul had completed her course work for her master’s degree at Clemson and was working in New Jersey’s urban forestry program while she completed her thesis with Professor Tom Williams. She and her then-husband, Jared Saul, made a New Year’s resolution to use the power of the Internet to implement a project — not for profit, but for some social good. The issue of homeless pets seemed a natural one to tackle. Estimates at that point were that the U.S. was euthanizing more than 16-20 million pets in shelters per year. He built the search engine and she learned to code HTML; they spent evenings building a database of homeless pets.
“During the day, I was putting that good Clemson forestry department information to work and helping develop educational material and programs to get folks interested in protecting and preserving their street trees,” says Saul. “But while I was at work, pet lists were arriving in my mailbox, my inbox and on my neighbor’s fax machine. I went home every night and entered homeless pets from local shelters into the brand new database we’d built. It was exciting, but I remember feeling torn because I really was serious about my field of study and my ‘real’ job.”
That project was the seed for Petfinder.com, a database of over 350,000 adoptable homeless pets at more than 14,000 animal welfare organizations in North America. Petfinder might seem a far stretch from a graduate program in forestry, focused on groundwater contamination, but Saul credits her experiences at Clemson with preparing her for life as an entrepreneur. She speaks fondly of professors B. Allen Dunn and Tom Williams and her colleagues from across campus.
“Being one of only a few women in the forestry department (and a tree-hugger, at that) was a foreshadowing of what was to come,” she says. “There used to be a wide gap between the animal control officers and the ‘rescue’/foster community, just as there can be a wide gap between traditional foresters and environmental protection groups or utility tree trimmers and local tree commissions. Facilitating collaboration has been a constant since my days in graduate school. At Clemson, I ended up making a diverse group of friends from all over the campus (the best of which were from wildlife and engineering). We hung out at the Esso Club. Those extracurriculars, the relationships with folks from other departments and perspectives, and interactions with the professors probably most prepared me for life in business.”
Determined to make a difference
It was no small thing at the beginning to get shelters on board with the online idea. The World Wide Web was brand new, and people didn’t trust the audience yet. There was no spare money for advertising. But one at a time, shelters began to fax and email their lists of adoptable pets, and the idea caught on.
“I still have my first newspaper article about Petfinder, back when the website address was www.clemson.edu/~betsy/petfinder.html,” says Saul. Her first goals sound almost laughable now. “I told myself that if we could reliably help save a life a month, then I’d have to consider making Petfinder more than an after-hours hobby,” she says.
In 1998, the site went national; in 2000 the addition of Canada took it international. “Sixteen years and 20 million adoptions later, we aim to help save over 200,000 lives a month this year,” says Saul. Petfinder is now responsible for 70 percent of all pet adoptions in this country, and the number of euthanized pets will be less than 4 million this year. “Still too high,” says Saul, “but amazing progress by the animal welfare community in 16 years.”
The lessons live on
Saul now lives in Florida and has a small farm with rescued farm animals in North Carolina, a combination that brings her near Clemson when she drives back and forth with her family and shepherd mix, Jake. “I fell in love with the Southeast when I was at Clemson,” she says.
Saul shares her home with her husband, Ed Powers, and two teenagers, plus 20 or so formerly homeless pets ranging in size from a box turtle (Sydney) to cows (Harriet, Juliette and Missy). Although Discovery Communications acquired Petfinder in 2006, Saul remains extremely involved with both Petfinder and the Petfinder.com Foundation, established in 2003 to assist animal welfare organizations in time of need. Saul also serves on the advisory board of Tufts University’s veterinary college and the Alliance for Contraception of Cats and Dogs (looking for nonsurgical solutions to spay/ neuter). Last year, she was named alumna of the year of Missouri Southern State University in her hometown of Joplin.
There’s no doubt that those lessons of responsibility and being neighborly she learned early in life continue to yield results.