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From Victim to Victorious

Veterinary Nurse of the Year 2022, Cheri Herschell, CVT, at the American Humane Awards Gala, West Palm Beach, Florida, Nov 11, 2022

How does one go from being a lifelong victim of abuse to an advocate for victims of domestic violence (DV) and the 2022 American Humane Hero Veterinary Nurse of the Year? It’s a journey that I could not have made without amazing friends, terrible experiences, and good grace. Lots and lots of good grace.

Suffice to say, I was a victim of domestic violence for most of my life. My last experience—which lasted seven years and ended in 2016—prompted me to become a staunch advocate for other victims. I was offered the opportunity to first volunteer and then work for Crisis Center North, a domestic violence organization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My journey with CCN began when I joined the first PAWS for Empowerment Committee in 2012. Since the inception of the program in 2011, we have had three Canine Advocates that accompany Legal Advocates to court with DV victims and attend counseling sessions.

Dogs have always been an important part of my life. As a child, our living arrangements did not permit us to have a dog. I did, however, own every imaginable type of pet that could be kept in an enclosure. I also had the opportunity to spend time with my grandparents’ dogs every weekend. Their neighbors owned Rottweilers, and were kind enough to let me play with them in their backyard. (Imagine letting your eight-year-old kid go over to play with dogs bigger than her. I don’t know if my mom had a lot of faith in me, the dogs, or both!) I even trained their new puppy when I was 10. That began a love affair with dog training and sports.

As soon as I left home, I knew I needed a dog. I had started working for a Labrador kennel that was near the college I was attending, and I took home my first dog “Cali,” a chocolate Lab, in 2001. She taught me so much, and together we got her Companion Dog Excellent title, as well her as Rally Novice in her senior years.

While attending Obedience class with Cali, I was approached by a man asking if I might be interested in joining a local Labrador club. Little did I know how much that simple question (and my immediate “Yes!”) would change the entire course of my life.

The Greater Pittsburgh Labrador Retriever Club has become so much more to me than just a dog club. Through GPLRC, I was introduced to Conformation, Hunt Tests, and a whole lot of “volunteer” work that is necessary to keep a club running. But along with that, I have made friends who are closer than family, and with their help I trained my dogs beyond anything I could have accomplished on my own. Besides being great dog people, they have been the rock that has supported me through all the turmoil in my life—never judging, and always being there when I needed a hug (or a kick in the butt!). Without my GPLRC family, I am certain that I would not be where I am today.

As a hobby breeder of AKC Labrador Retrievers under the Rebellion prefix, I take pride in producing dogs that can excel in ALL venues. Labradors are capable of titles on both ends of their names, and I strive to produce dogs that can accomplish that. A well-bred Labrador should be able to show/trial in the morning, and accompany the hunt in the afternoon. I own three Grand Champion Labradors with field titles (two Junior Hunters and one Senior Hunter who is a Bronze GCH), and they are accomplished upland hunters as well. All of my dogs must prove themselves in the field before I will consider them as part of my breeding program. Working ability is as important to me as Conformation. Perhaps the thing I am most proud of in my small breeding program, however, has been producing Service Dogs.

Veterinary Nurse of the Year
‘Rune’ going Best of Opposite Sex for her last single points under judge James Albrecht, Oct 2022.

My current partner, “Rune” (more formally known as Rebellion’s Amralime JH) is my fifth generation of Rebellion Labrador Retrievers and has been working in her role as a Canine Advocate in court since she was 12 weeks old. In summer 2020, Crisis Center North was interested in adding a new Canine Advocate. “Penny,” Crisis Center North’s first Canine Advocate, was 12 years old at the time and she deserved to pass the torch. We had one other working dog, “Ari,” but he couldn’t be both in court and attend counseling.

Veterinary Nurse of the Year
The three Canine Advocates of Crisis Center North (L to R- Rune, Ari, Penny)

I intended to keep a female out of the litter that I was planning for the summer of 2020, and hoped that she would have the working attitude necessary for shows and field work, but also the compassion and easygoing nature that victims need in court. At eight weeks old, I knew yellow collar girl was my pick. Orange collar girl went home with a trainer from MD Dogs Inc, an organization focused on raising Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADs). Over the next few weeks, we worked on socialization, maintaining obedience in public, etc.

At 12 weeks old, I felt like she was ready to do some public access training in court. It just so happened that day, there was a victim who had to testify against her abuser. I wasn’t expecting anything out of Rune other than to interact with this victim as only a 12-week-old puppy can, but she did so much more. She went with the victim up onto the stand, and laid with her head on the woman’s feet the whole time.

Afterwards, the victim stated that she couldn’t have made it through without Rune’s support. It was then that I knew she had found her calling. And orange collar girl? Well, she’s known as “Rooney” and went on to graduate as a DAD. She was placed with a Type 1 Diabetic this past summer. So far, she has a 100 percent accurate alert rate—she has never falsely indicated, nor has she missed an episode of high or low blood sugar, which, from what I hear, is pretty remarkable. We are so proud of Rooney!

Veterinary Nurse of the Year
‘Rune’ hanging out with the District Attorney of Allegheny County.

From talking to victims, Crisis Center North knew that victims were refusing to leave their situation because of their pets. Shelters and temporary housing rarely allow animals, and with little resources when they flee, victims could not afford higher priced pet-friendly housing. The PAWS for Empowerment program applied for, and was awarded, one of five OVC Federal Grants to assist victims who are fleeing with their pets. Emergency hotels, temporary housing, boarding, veterinary care, and tangible goods are all things that we can provide to victims who need to leave but can’t bear the thought of leaving their best friends behind.

That wasn’t enough, though. Pets are victims of domestic violence too. Who is most likely to see pet neglect and abuse? Veterinarians. It became obvious that the veterinary community was part of the systemic change we sought to make. As an integral part of every community, veterinarians and their staff are very familiar with their clients. If we could educate them about the link between animal neglect/abuse and domestic violence, we could save more victims and their pets. And so, the position of Canine Intervention Specialist at Crisis Center North was born.

In this role since 2018, I create presentations and visit veterinary offices and veterinary technician schools to educate veterinary professionals on the intersectionality of animal neglect/abuse and domestic violence. I have also had the honor of presenting at the AVMA National Conference in Philadelphia in July 2022. Connecting with veterinarians has brought me back to my original purpose as a Certified Vet Tech—to help people and their pets. I’m just doing it in a different way now.

In May 2022, the call for nominations for the American Humane Hero Veterinary Nurse of the Year Award was brought to the attention of CCN’s Executive Director, Grace. She wrote a beautiful nomination to American Humane, and in July, I was notified that out of over 500 nominees I had been selected to the Top 5 Finalists. It now came down to the voting public, who would choose the Hero Veterinarian and Hero Veterinary Nurse through online voting.

Early October brought the amazing news that I had been selected as the 2022 Hero Veterinary Nurse of the Year! A weeklong stay in West Palm Beach, Florida, was punctuated with visits to the American Humane Sanctuary, meeting the American Humane Hero Dogs, filming, luncheons, and of course, a hurricane. (It is Florida, after all!) The week culminated on November 11 with a beautiful black-tie gala event featuring none other than Michael Bolton as the headline entertainment! Videos of each of the seven American Humane Hero Dogs, as well as the Hero Veterinarian and Hero Veterinary Nurse, were shown. Seeing all the wonderful work being done by the Hero Dogs, and Hero Veterinarian Dr. Raquel Fagan, brought the crowd to their feet. It truly was an honor to be among them.

Veterinary Nurse of the Year
2022 American Humane Awards Gala, West Palm Beach, Florida, Nov 11, 2022

I am humbled for the recognition of the transformation I have made, from domestic violence victim, to a successful career as a veterinary technician that was almost ended by DV, and finally, bringing it full circle as an advocate for all victims of domestic violence, two-legged and four-legged alike.

Standing in front of the 500 people who attended the gala to honor us, I realized that I have become so much more than I ever thought I could be. The world knows my story, a story which is no different than every other survivor’s story. There is still so much work to do. I hope that by sharing my survival with the world, more victims will realize that their potential can never be taken away from them.

My story with dogs started as a child, and those dogs have brought me to a point in my life and career I never thought was possible. Dogs were the reason I became a Veterinary Technician. Training dogs was what brought me to the door of Crisis Center North, and the friends I have made through dog sports and showing are the ones who have kept me going. Without dogs, I am certain that I would not be who I am today.

If you have any questions, please contact Crisis Center North at 412-364-5556.

I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… Small acts of kindness and love. —Gandalf