Joel McLellan is the Animal Defense League of Texas's new Executive Director.
Joel McLellan is the Animal Defense League of Texas's new executive director, succeeding Janice Darling, who is retiring. Credit: Valérie Eiseler / San Antonio Report

The baby bird had no chance of survival after falling out of its nest, but the 7-year-old boy still tried his best to save it.

The boy was on his way home from school in his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, when he found the fragile animal. He rushed it home and tried giving it water. Unfortunately, it was just too late for the bird.

“When I realized it wasn’t going to make it, I took hockey pucks – I’m so Canadian – to make a little tomb for it. I said some kind words and I put it in there for eternity,” recounts Joel McLellan, now 39. “I realized at that point in time that I had a profound connection to animals and that living things here deserve respect and require support.”

On Saturday, McLellan becomes the new executive director of the Animal Defense League (ADL) of Texas, succeeding Janice Darling, who is retiring. The nonprofit has been highly involved in addressing the overpopulation of stray animals in the San Antonio area, and it’s the oldest no-kill shelter in Texas.

The 7-year-old McLellan didn’t know that his rescue attempt might set the stage for his future career. Instead, he went to work in management for a large Canadian grocer – an environment that gave McLellan an appreciation for process management and efficient growth strategies.

Really, efficiency seems to be one of the main driving forces behind McLellan’s work philosophy. It even translates into his speech, which seems to average a mile per minute.

But what he lacks in breath, he makes up for in passion. While waiting for his Social Security card in 2011 after arriving in San Antonio, McLellan used his time to volunteer for the City animal shelter by walking dogs that were facing euthanasia.

This was before the City made a more directed effort to reduce the number of euthanized pets in shelters, he remembers.

“And frankly, I love Animal Care Services of San Antonio. The administration there is a group of very talented people who do wonderful things, but in those days, the live-release rate was quite low.”

During that time, McLellan says he gained real exposure to the animal overpopulation crisis.

McLellan later went to work with San Antonio Pets Alive for four years, after which he came onboard with the ADL. Both nonprofits partner with Animal Care Services to help rescued animals.

After starting out as ADL’s shelter services director, he spent most of his 3 ½ years with the organization in the role of operations director. As such he oversaw the adoptions program, housing and kennel operations, as well as basic maintenance for ADL’s campus.

The Animal Defense League now occupies the Paul Jolly Adoption Center at 210 Tuleta Drive across the street from the San Antonio Zoo in Brackenridge park.
The Animal Defense League of Texas has two locations, including the Paul Jolly Center for Pet Adoptions across Tuleta Drive from the San Antonio Zoo in Brackenridge Park. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

He’s especially proud of implementing systems to help ADL use its resources more efficiently: “We moved from sentiment-based management decisions, which means by my definition ‘I think we’re doing a pretty good job,’ to creating key metrics and data sets that really demonstrate how well we’re doing – but more importantly ‘Are there areas for improvement or possible refinement?’”

He says his work with other animal rescue organizations in San Antonio has made him a big believer in collaboration. He wants to focus on bundling all of their efforts, including the ADL’s, going forward as executive director.

Moving into this new position, McLellan is “honored and nervous” but feels confident in the vision he has for the ADL. And he’s not afraid to change things up.

“What got us to this current level of success is not necessarily what’s going to get us to that next stage of success. It’s being able to embrace progressive programs, look to cities that have already gone through our same scenario and don’t be shy to ask for a little bit of advice and guidance.”

Instead of further expanding the campus, he says he’ll be working to refine the processes within the existing structures first. And while the number of the stray animal population has decreased over the years, he’s aware of the work that’s still ahead.

“Ideally, it’d be wonderful if I could shut the doors and turn off the lights one day and say now I’m no longer needed, problem solved. But the reality is we still have a ways to go as a community to understand the full breadth of the problem and how our actions actually contribute to the solution or contribute to the problem.”

Avatar photo

Valérie Eiseler

Valérie Eiseler is an intern at The Rivard Report. She's looking to get to know San Antonio before heading back to her hometown of Darmstadt, Germany.