Katie Tyler builds safety net for pets

Katie Tyler is credited with saving the Charlotte Humane Society after she volunteered to oversee changes in the agency during a lawsuit in which they were accused of not doing enough to reduce euthanasia rates, despite having a contract with the city for spay-neuter services.
Katie Tyler is credited with saving the Charlotte Humane Society after she volunteered to oversee changes in the agency during a lawsuit in which they were accused of not doing enough to reduce euthanasia rates, despite having a contract with the city for spay-neuter services. ddeaton@charlotteobserver.com

Katie Tyler managed to keep a small construction company profitable during the recession, which puts her among Charlotte’s most determined business leaders.

But her broader reputation in the community is based on the jobs Tyler was not paid to do, as a scrappy advocate for Mecklenburg County’s animals.

It’s a role she has played unapologetically, even to the point of once famously telling the founder of the Humane Society of Charlotte to retire or be fired. Tyler then took over the agency as a volunteer leader and proceeded to save it from what many believed was imminent self-destruction.

That was just more than 10 years ago, but it is far from the only time Tyler has taken action on behalf of animals. Other examples include her launching of the state’s Schnauzer Rescue organization, volunteering for the board of the Florida-based Southeastern Guide Dogs to push for reorganization, and joining the advisory board of the George D. Patterson Family Fund, which has distributed $1.9 million to animal causes in the region.

Tyler is now part of a movement to build a new home for the Humane Society, and she’s crafting a complex initiative at Foundation for the Carolinas to increase the number of grants given out each year for animal causes.

Peers use words like “passionate” and “determined” in describing Tyler, but Bob Morgan of the Charlotte Chamber says she’s better summed up as “fiercely independent.” He says he knows her well, having worked with Tyler as a member of the Chamber’s Executive Committee.

“Katie likes to question things, and she gets nervous when it feels like everybody is going along to get along,” says Morgan.

“Most things around the Chamber’s Executive Committee table get decided through consensus, when votes are called for. Those votes are typically unanimous. When they are less than unanimous, I’ve seen her cast the lone dissenting vote. She has the courage of her convictions, and you don’t get anything whitewashed.”

Court-appointed rescue mission

Tyler first emerged in the spotlight as a community activist in 2004, after a judge put her temporarily in charge of the Humane Society of Charlotte while a lawsuit was settled among its board members.

The agency was in upheaval at the time, after an Observer series called “Death at the Pound” focused attention on the Humane Society’s lack of impact on lowering animal euthanasia rates. Data showed about 15,000 dogs and cats a year were being killed by the city’s Animal Care and Control Department.

Tyler took her court-appointed role so seriously that she one day presented the agency’s founder, the late Patty Lewis, with a choice: Retire or be dragged out the front door of the agency “kicking and screaming.”

Lewis retired, and Tyler spent 10 months rebuilding public trust in the agency – a job she did without pay while her staff at Tyler 2 Construction covered for her.

Former Charlotte City Council member John Tabor is the one who nominated Tyler to be the court-appointed receiver, and he believes she laid a foundation for lasting change.

“I don’t think the Humane Society was in danger of ceasing to exist, but it could have gone bankrupt and had to start over. It would have lost credibility, and it would have gone through very hard times,” he said.

Humane Society leaders say data comparisons show just how drastically things have improved.

In 2004, the agency had 458 animal adoptions. Last year, the number was 2,971. And the society is doing double the neutering procedures it did a decade ago, with 13,004 last year.

“I don’t want to give the impression that Patty Lewis wasn’t a visionary. She was,” says Humane Society President Shelly Moore, who took over the agency five years ago. “But the organization wasn’t living up to its potential. Katie clearly had a vision of what it could be for Charlotte.”

Mark Balestra of the city’s Animal Care & Control office says Tyler succeeded in part because she leveraged her connections in the city to promote animal welfare. “She has a lot of friends in high places, and that makes a difference,” he said.

Those connections currently include serving on six boards and committees with ties to the Charlotte Chamber, Foundation for the Carolinas, the Boy Scouts, Steele Creek Property Owners Association and Advantage Carolina. And in the past, she served on boards for the the Arts & Science Council, Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Hornets Nest Girl Scout Council, Hospice of Charlotte, Leadership Charlotte and WFAE Public Radio.

And this is while putting in a 40-plus-hour week on the job at Tyler 2 Construction.

A fierce independence

Friends credit Tyler’s community spirit to her father, Tom Burgess, a retired Boy Scout executive who at age 90 still works with an agricultural gleaning project to collect food for the poor.

His job as a Scout executive had the family moving frequently, including time in four states and Japan. Katie Tyler was in college when her father and her mother, Norma Burgess, now 89, moved to Charlotte.

All those moves resulted in Katie Tyler being a shy child, who found dogs, cats and horses to be easy companions. “My grandfather had a boxer named Duke that I swear was our baby sitter,” Tyler recalls. “I always felt safe and loved when Duke was around. That love transferred to the many dogs that have been in and out of my life since that time.”

She says she came to Charlotte in 1974 to visit her parents for the summer but never left. Nine years later, Tyler launched Tyler 2 Construction, another example of that fierce independence her peers talk about. The company specializes in interior commercial construction.

“I wanted to be a project manager in the construction business, and no one would hire me. All they wanted was a secretary. I finally thought: ‘Screw it, I’ll do it myself,’” she says.

Things got tough during the recession, and Tyler stopped paying herself a salary for up to six months at a time. Then, she asked her staff to take some cuts, with a promise of paying them back when times got better.

They all stuck with her, and she says she’s still working on paying them back for it.

Raising money for the future

The only thing Tyler is shy about discussing is her age, which she sees as more irrelevant than a secret. “What does it matter? It would only be interesting if I was 4 or I was 90. And I’m neither.”

She’s been married for 30 years to Scott Tyler, who runs a residential real estate company, Lead Dog Realty. She jokes that he once told her she was bringing home too many dogs: “He said we had four dogs and shouldn’t get any more. I told him: ‘Honey, you’re going to miss me.’”

The two met in a private gym, while she was trying to gain weight and he was trying to lose it. He claims to be on the shy side and envies her ability to tell a good story in a crowded room. He also says there are many things about his wife that might surprise her boardroom pals, including how she loves motorcycling and also once bought a 33-foot sailboat without knowing how to sail. She learned.

The couple have had as many as 15 dogs at once, including some that were part of a foster program. She also helped train six dogs for Southeastern Guide Dog.

He believes she would shrivel up and die without at least two dogs underfoot. In fact, she takes two of their four dogs to work with her every day.

“Animals are part of her nature. It could be spiders and she’d be worried about it getting hurt. She won’t even watch anything on TV that suggests animal cruelty,” Scott Tyler says. “The only thing she doesn’t like is cockroaches. If she sees one, she screams and tells me we need to move to a motel.”

He says the two are lucky to see each other three hours a day, because of their busy schedules. But that’s not stopping her from plotting additional efforts on behalf of animals.

She’s at work on an effort to get local donors to put animal welfare causes in their estate plans. The idea is to create more entities like the George D. Patterson Family Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas, which recently provided money to find homes for Charlotte’s large population of unwanted pit bulls.

Tyler says she intends to go on a speaking tour and will reach out to animal friendly groups, law firms and estate planners. The goal, she says, is to get enough community money set aside at Foundation for the Carolinas to make grants of $1 million annually, five times what is currently given out for animal causes.

Setting an example, Tyler and her husband, who have no children, have arranged for 100 percent of their estate to go to a fund at Foundation for the Carolinas to support animal welfare.

The biggest challenge facing local animal advocates now is the need for a new Humane Society headquarters, Tyler says. The agency is paying $1 annually to lease the former home of the Animal Care & Control Department – long known as “the pound.” The site, built in the early 1970s, is considered obsolete.

Tyler says she intends to help raise money for that project, once a price tag is announced.

“I won’t slow down, until there are no more homeless pets,” she says. “There is so much work to do, and I’m just the person to take that on.”