The Humane Society of El Paso’s new executive director, Luke Westerman, is the 2016 Ohio Business Person of the Year and a former Wall Street investor who gave it all up for the dogs and cats of the world.
Westerman, 36, has plenty of changes in mind, and dealing with the city’s feral and community cats who’ve lost their homes is first.
“We’re going to be rolling out a seven-figure cat spay and neuter program in January,” he said.
For Westerman and his wife, Alisha, who was also an investment banker, it all started with one dog.
He had left his job as a vice present of JP Morgan Chase & Co. in New York to move home to Columbus, Ohio, where he started a venture capital firm, Solomon Global Holding.
Then they adopted a Staffordshire bull terrier, better known as a pit bull, and named him Frankie. Little by little, their lives and priorities began to change, setting the couple on a new course that eventually brought them to El Paso.
“In a nutshell, we got more and more passionate about animals,” Westerman said.
Along the way, he became a public figure in Columbus and the state of Ohio, mounting a campaign with his wife to rescind an Ohio state law designating certain dog breeds, including pit bulls, German shepherds and Rottweilers as dangerous and vicious.
That imposed heavy legal and insurance burdens on people who owned such dogs and banned them in some communities in Ohio until the state legislature, under public pressure, rescinded the law in 2012.
But that left all similar city laws across the state still in effect.
“So we started going city to city, meeting with city council members and mayors and lobbying them to do away with any breed-specific legislation,” he said. “We helped over 30 cities remove such legislation, so now people can own any breed.”
Working as volunteers with animal shelters, Westerman said he and his wife came to believe there are no inherently bad dogs but a lot of irresponsible owners whose carelessness and mistreatment of dogs can have tragic results.
“Don’t punish the dog, punish the knucklehead owner who was irresponsible or did bad things to their animals,” he said.
That led the couple to work for laws addressing animal cruelty in Ohio.
“Surprisingly, until a year and a half ago, you could murder your neighbor’s dog and get the equivalent of a speeding ticket for it. That needed to change,” Westerman said.
And it did.
“Now, if you abuse an animal, it’s a felony punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a large fine, and you’re prohibited from owning an animal,” he said.
By then, his wife had quit her job and was volunteering full time with animal shelters and for the cause.
“I started realizing the way I wanted to spend my time was helping animals,” he said. “In the last two years, I started to divest myself from the day-to-day operations of businesses I was involved in. And I started ramping up the time I was spending on animal welfare issues.”
What appealed to him was the idea of helping nonprofit shelters, like the El Paso Humane Society, operate like a business “instead of like a nonprofit, which is hoping and praying money’s going to fall out of the sky every year.”
He said the woman who runs Austin Pets Alive, regarded as one of the best if not the best nonprofit shelters in the country, suggested he consider El Paso, which was looking for a new executive director.
So, too, were major shelters in Seattle, Washington, and Nashville, Tennessee.
“We decided that if we were going to leave our families and all that, we wanted to go where we could really have an impact, where there was a need and an opportunity to raise the bar,” Westerman said.
He got the job at El Paso Humane Society in October and began commuting to work in November. The couple and their two dogs have since settled in El Paso, and Westerman says he’s already in love with the community.
He replaced Betty Hoover, who held the job for a decade.
“We love him,” said Nora Lovett, the Humane Society’s chairwoman. “He’s a pretty amazing guy. We got very, very lucky when we found him.
“He has a real heartfelt passion for animals, as we all do, in addition to having financial savvy.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.