Sumner, who recently completed her Ph.D. in Applied Animal Biology/Animal Welfare at the University of British Columbia, began her position in the NZSPCA’s Science and Education Department in September.
In electing to move to New Zealand to continue her career, the diversity of animal welfare issues the NZSPCA handles appealed to Sumner, as did the chance to live in a different part of the world. In her new role, she uses a full range of skills developed from her experiences working with animals as well as with different groups of people.
“I have always been concerned about animals; the family pets were always sleeping with me at nights as a kid,” Sumner said. “And I have always worked with animals. Even when I was doing teenage summer jobs, it was with animals.”
She studied primates as an undergraduate at New York University and, after graduating with a degree in anthropology, worked for five years as an animal keeper at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. She moved on to Chimp Haven, the national chimpanzee sanctuary in Louisiana for six additional years before enrolling at the Clinton School in 2011.
She notes that a Master of Public Service was an unusual fit for someone pursuing a career in animal welfare. But, having worked with animals daily for more than a decade, she was ready to “study humans.”
“Animal welfare For me, it was kind of stepping away from the non-human animals and studying how people in organizations integrate welfare into what they are doing.”
As part of the Clinton School’s field service curriculum she traveled to Uganda to work with Heifer International, conducting qualitative research support for an organization implementing subsistence farming practices on a chimpanzee conservation site.
The school’s commitment to qualitative research was a game-changer for her approach, and even impacted the research for her Ph.D.
“I think there was this very academic side but also this applied side that’s rooted in wanting to know more from people’s perspectives,” Sumner said. “Understanding that you’re not the expert in the room of other people’s lives and really embracing that.”
After finishing the final piece of her field service work with The Sustainability Consortium, Sumner returned to Heifer for a seven-month fellowship researching the implementation of animal wellbeing recommendations on projects in the Philippines, Cambodia, Honduras, Peru, Malawi, Zambia, and Ghana.
What can you tell us about the position you’re in now?
I’m a Scientific Officer with the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of the organizations that uses the title of SPCA. Down here in New Zealand, SPCA just officially turned a year old as one national institution. It’s exciting, it’s really exciting. As a scientific officer, we are mostly a support department for the rest of the organization.
In becoming one big SPCA, a huge part of the motivation was to become more effective at what they’re able to do to improve welfare in New Zealand. They philosophically take an evidence-based approach to advocating for improvements in animal welfare. Therefore, they have a science team that works for the organization.
Where you always interested in animal care?
I was always a keen little kid, always into animals. I grew up in an animal-loving family. I have always worked with animals, even when I was doing teenage summer jobs, it was with animals. In undergrad, I studied primates and then I started working in captive management fields like zoo and the sanctuary world. It wasn’t until I was working with animals in captivity that animal welfare really started to materialize as something specific. It wasn’t until then that I really started thinking deeply about what humans do to animals and how that impacts the outcomes for animals.
What are some of the skills you took from the Clinton School?
I came into my job with all these project management skills. The Clinton School is so great at that. It’s not a thesis-based program but I came in with all the professional side stuff heavily developed. You develop a project and organize it and work with others and map that out and really achieve outcomes of a project, so that was really a key attraction to me.
There are so many moving parts (in project planning) and the Clinton school really demystified it for me. It taught me how to develop an entire plan and what that means, even thinking through: Who needs to be sitting at this table? Who are we missing? Who are we not talking to right now? Also, mapping out stakeholders. Who are the people that we need to target? Planning everything and developing timelines and communicating with people – that I’m glad I learned.