The Making of Mall Dogs - A Story of a Shelter Like No Other

I find that opportunities are never found where you'd expect. That said, when you recognize those that are once in a lifetime you need to hold on tight and not let go.

Jessi Badami is a film maker and actress, who resides in Albuquerque, NM who came upon just such a situation when running across Lucky Paws, an animal shelter located in a local mall.

It's a remarkable story. Remarkable enough that Jessi and her team of talented individuals started a Kickstarter program to share her dream that others would follow the Lucky Paws Model to film.

SP: What's your background? Where do you come from? What's your experience with adopting shelter dogs before coming across Lucky Paws?

JB: I’m from New York City and grew up in a home without dogs. Although I’ve always loved animals, my Mom was afraid of them. So our only companion animals were neon tetra fish. After graduating from college, I moved to Manhattan and occasionally volunteered walking dogs for the ASPCA, as well as helped the campaign to improve conditions for the horses that were used for carriage rides throughout the crowded streets of Manhattan. After moving to Seattle, I became very involved with rescue.

Before seeing Lucky Paws, I visited shelters in many cities. More often than not, they were depressing. Many were located in industrial or undeveloped, out-of-the-way places. The city of Albuquerque’s shelters were at least located in populated areas. But, even after years in rescue, it was extremely difficult to walk into the shelter and not leave in tears. And I didn't feel that I was being helpful to the animals when I was that sad.

SP: And that's when you found Lucky Paws?

JB: I stumbled upon Lucky Paws accidentally. I was visiting the Coronado Mall for the first time after moving to Albuquerque and I saw what I thought was a pet store. When I discovered that this ‘pet store’ wasn't a pet store at all and instead part of the city shelter, I was so surprised...and intrigued! I started asking my friends and acquaintances about it and everyone was raving about it. Well, not everyone. One woman I bumped into in the mall parking lot said she thought it was terrible to put dogs in a mall to get them adopted—as if it was sending a message that animals are something to be purchased, like new shoes.

But that was looking at things in a skewed way. Some folks I’ve met in rescue have a hard time seeing things from someone else’s point of view. I thank my extensive background in advertising for training me to see things from the customer’s point of view. Thinking about who the target audience is and what action we want them to take. For people who are already animal advocates, or who work in rescue, they may not need a ‘nicer’ shelter to motivate them to adopt. But for most  other people, who aren’t adopting, environment and messaging can make the difference between adopting and not adopting. And reaching those people is a worthy goal! After all, just 21% of people who acquire a family pet do so from a shelter. [From the HSUS statistics]

Think of the depressing messages that abound regarding shelter animals—most people will shut down when they hear about depressing things, rather than change their behavior. But if you create something positive, that shows benefit, they will be more open to learning and possibly changing their behavior. In this case, choosing to adopt.

After that experience, I was working on another film project and the person we were filming was a volunteer at Lucky Paws, so she asked if we could film her there. When I got to know Lucky Paws, the incredible manager, the staff, the systems in place, and how they approach things—I became convinced that this was a story that MUST be told.

SP: You talk about how colorful and friendly the shelter is, in comparison to what what people traditionally think of when visiting a city run facility, but what did you see with the dogs that were interacting with people at the shelter? How were the people reacting? How busy was it?

JB: At Lucky Paws, the setup is very conducive to a positive experience for the animals. All the dogs are taken out in the morning before the facility opens. There is a grassy area where they get to sniff and walk, and spend some fresh air time. The staff all get to know every animal there, and I should mention that there are many animals there: cats, rabbits, and other small pets that come into the shelter. The cats and dogs have living quarters that are bright, clean, and private. When folks are interested in meeting a dog, they must first sit down with a staff member to fill out an application and discuss their situation a bit. This brief but essential form of adoption counseling helps determine if the animal and the person are a good match.

How busy Lucky Paws is really varies but its usually busiest on the weekends. People come to see the animals and they bring their children. This is great exposure for the animals and for the children, who are learning, from an early age, what shelters are all about. These same people might not drive to a shelter but in the context of the Coronado Mall, they choose to visit the animals and show them to their children, in addition to adopting. 

SP: That's great! It almost seems more like a rescue than any shelter that I've visited. What else can you share about the staff? It sounds like the staff is pretty special. Not only are they thoughtful about placing the animals in the right homes, but also put the prospective pet parents at ease, by working with them.

JB: I have to start with Michelle King, the Manager of Lucky Paws. Ask anyone who knows her and you’ll get the same response: people absolutely love her, and with good reason. Michelle is positive, vibrant, energetic, and the definition of a ‘can-do’ person. She inspires her staff to do more and be better every single day. She is friendly, helpful, pitches in on any task that needs doing. She is smart and understands the importance of a great customer service approach. Michelle herself could be the subject of a documentary on great managers who are making a difference. I am so excited to be able to tell her story, and know it will be a compelling, inspiring one.

The community and volunteers love Lucky Paws so much, that a non-profit organization called Save Lucky Paws was started several years ago when budget cuts threatened to shut its doors. As someone said to me, how many other government organizations have their own fan clubs?

SP: Making a documentary is a daunting task. What made you say that this was a project that
had to be done?

JB: As a filmmaker and actress, I’ve worked on a lot of projects. But my heart has always been in helping animals. I’ve done advertising and marketing for animal organizations but when I got to know Lucky Paws, I realized that this would be a great story to tell that could actually affect big- picture thinking about animal adoption. And the fact that this was a city-run, municipal shelter just blew me away. I considered how best to tell the story and realized that a documentary would be ideal. It would allow people to see and experience this place from many different eyes. Plus, it’s something that people of all ages are usually interested in. And film is a medium that is in need of positive animal stories. Yes, we have Disney for fiction, but this is fact.

SP: What are your plans for release? I really like that you're making it accessible to folks of all ages. Are there any educational tie-ins that you're working on as well?

JB: The initial release of the film will be a screening here in Albuquerque, followed by immediately pursuing film festivals and TV and video-on-demand distribution. We’ll also be sending copies to municipal shelter directors across the country. After the film is complete, I’ll be creating a blueprint for other shelters to see Lucky Paws best practices— so that they can implement some or all of the Lucky Paws model in their shelters. Our goal is to get the film out to as many people as possible.

SP: What can traditional shelters do today to take a step closer to the Lucky Paws model?

JB: One of the biggest things that shelters can do, no matter what their location, is to approach the adoption of animals from the potential adopter’s (or customer’s) point of view. That means instituting a customer service attitude, for example. Yes, shelters deal with tough issues, but they also have the opportunity to attract that 79% of the market who are going elsewhere.

There are so many ways that shelters can do this: from recruiting volunteers to help with customer interaction at the shelter, to advertising their website so that potential adopters can pre-connect with an animal online.

Shelters might also consider creating a positive environment like Lucky Paws with bright colors, well-designed signage, and other customer-friendly features of the shelter. We’ll be documenting many more specifics in the film and in the follow-up materials.

SP: Anything else including anecdotes from folks who have adopted dogs from Lucky Paws or behind the scenes action that is helping to shape the film?

JB: We are collecting great adoption stories from Lucky Paws, and are looking forward to interviewing a variety of people who might not be traditionally associated with this type of film to get their perspective on it. It’s going to be fascinating, I promise!

This is a very special project and one that myself and other readers of are embracing. Even if you only have $5 or $10 to spare, I'd encourage you to look into this very worthy project and throw it in their direction to help this get made. Whether you're a rescue, shelter volunteer, or just a lover of animal, what a great legacy to leave behind to say that you helped supporting the documentary that changed the way that shelters think about their facilities, their customers, and the animals that they support.

I'd like to thank Jessi for seizing the opportunity to make such an important film.