The Animal Welfare Association of New Jersey has a new executive director.
Laura Houston, a lifelong West Deptford native, was named to the post last week. She has 20 years of animal experience, having previously served as director of education at Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and in a similar role at the Philadelphia Zoo.
“For me it’s a huge honor,” Houston said. “I’ve grown up in New Jersey, lifelong West Deptford resident. I still live there … Just being amazed by the organization and the work they were doing, it’s just kind of unbelievable to be part of an organization you admired for so long.”
The new role is a first in Houston’s career. Always a pet lover, she nonetheless hadn’t sought work with a shelter.
“ … Initially it’s not a career track that I thought I was going to take,” she acknowledged. “I spent 20 years in the zoo field and that wasn’t a career I thought I would take [either]. I started out teaching English. I have always had a fondness for nature, and animals, and conservation, so when I was able to find positions in environmental education, (I was able) to combine my teaching background with my love for animals.”
A Rutgers graduate with a master’s in English, Houston said her initial goal was to teach college English, but felt it “didn’t give back enough” for her.
“A career in animals wasn’t something I was well versed in,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to be a vet or a zoo keeper … I stumbled on someone in the zoo education field and they said, ‘Hey, it might be a great field for you,’ so I started part time and worked my way up.”
The shelter’s board chair Jonathan Furlow praised Houston in a statement.
“Her passion for animals, knowledge of the local community and expertise in animal welfare and zoology are the perfect combination to guide us to the next chapter of ‘Building a Place Where Happiness Begins,’” he said.
“AWA has been saving animals for nearly 75 years,” Furlow added, “and under Laura’s leadership, we are confident that we are laying the foundation for the success of the next 75.”
AWA has been a leader in animal safety for years and the Voorhees community should not anticipate that changing any time soon. “One of the things that attracted me most to AWA was their commitment to humane education,” Houston noted. “I think that finding forever homes for animals is terrific. It’s amazing that we are able to do so.
“It really goes to creating that human-animal bond and creating that better environment for everybody.”
Houston has a few pets of her own: a 10-year-old Yorkie named Chewbaca, or Chewy for short; a 15-year-old Maltese Mix; and two African parrots, Teva, 27, and Sam, 31.
Of the latter, she said, “He curses like a sailor.”