“Get involved.” With Penny Bauder & Stephanie Nisan

My entire life, I have been an incredibly passionate animal lover and advocate. I have always felt an intense connection to animals that I can’t put into words. I used to be referred to as “dolphin girl” in grade school because of my love for dolphins, became a vegetarian at a young age and I […]

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My entire life, I have been an incredibly passionate animal lover and advocate. I have always felt an intense connection to animals that I can’t put into words. I used to be referred to as “dolphin girl” in grade school because of my love for dolphins, became a vegetarian at a young age and I was THAT kid that protested the frog dissection in science class.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Nisan with The Animal Pad.

Since childhood, Stephanie had one major passion: Animal Advocacy (In case you were wondering, yes, she was that girl who protested frog dissection in Biology class). In 2010, she sent out an email to her friends and family announcing that she was finally going to start her dream of an animal non profit- she didn’t know how it was going to work, but she knew it was time to make a difference. Dogs have always been a big part of her life and from 2010 to now, Stephanie has poured her deep love for these animals into The Animal Pad (TAP). TAP is a 100% Volunteer run (NO one is paid) and donation based rescue located in San Diego, CA. When Stephanie started TAP, the focus was saving dogs from high kill shelters in Southern California and in about 2016, that focus was shifted to rescuing the street dogs of Mexico. Being a border town, the plight of the dogs in Baja California is very visible and known in San Diego and so far in 2020, TAP has been able to rescue over 350 Mexican street dogs and is on track to double that number before the year is over.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Igrew up in beautiful San Diego, California and didn’t have your typical childhood, but one I am very grateful for as it laid the foundation for me to live a compassionate life. As the only child for the majority of my upbringing, I was a very independent kid- always the leader of my multiple friend groups, always the doer, always the “Mom”. I was that kid at sleepovers that would be up first, with the parents, making breakfast for everyone and planning the day (to this day I still can’t sleep in).

My parents divorced when I was a baby but both were very present in my life. My parents grew up together in Chicago. My mother was the definition of a 70’s era hippie and was raised in an Italian-Catholic home (she later converted to Judaism to marry my Dad) and my Father was the Quintessential jock- captain of the football team and was raised in a conservative Jewish home. The mix of these two made for many, many interesting stories to say the least.

My Mom (or Ma as I call her) came out to me as a lesbian when I was 10 years old. I’ll never forget how visibly nervous she was when she sat me down with her best friend to tell me- little did she know, I already knew… and then she said it. Without missing a beat, my response was “No DUH, Ma” and that was that. Why is this important? Because this is where my passion for compassion was born. Growing up in the 90s, being gay was not generally accepted. That created its own issues for me but it was my fuel for advocacy- I felt a deep need to protect and defend the Gay community. It became increasingly apparent to me that giving a voice to those who aren’t often heard or are voiceless, was (and still is) is at the core of my being.

Not only was I dealing with the ignorance of so many kids (and their parents) in regards to my mom being ‘different’ but we were losing close friends to the AIDS epidemic. This motivated me at a young age to get involved with the AIDS Walk in San Diego where I formed a team every year (TEAM VIVA), raised money and walked to increase awareness while motivating my peers to do the same. This was the beginning of my charity involvement — and here we are today.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

The Animal Pad (TAP) is dedicated to saving the lives of homeless dogs, primarily from the streets of Baja California. When TAP first started, we were focused on rescuing dogs from the high kill shelters in Southern California. About 5 years ago, our focus turned to Mexico.

Living along the busiest Border crossing in the World, we have the unique opportunity to make a big impact in two different Countries. The plight of the street dogs in Baja California is one that once you see, you can’t unsee. These dogs are living in unimaginable conditions and are suffering tremendously yet are truly the most grateful, amazing, resilient creatures that I have ever encountered. We lovingly refer to them as “Mexi-Mutts” and we are on track to rescue 1,000 of these magical Mexi-Mutts this year alone.

We are not only literally saving lives, but educating many people along the way. We are trying to change a mindset and cultivate an educated culture of compassion- a culture where people understand the importance of spaying and neutering. A culture where people comprehend that by purchasing a dog vs adopting, they are contributing to extraordinarily high euthanasia rates throughout not just the country, but the world .A culture that knows that they themselves, can truly enact change and make a big difference for these defenseless animals.

TAP is 100% Volunteer run and to me, that is quite possibly one of the most impactful and important messages we send without saying a word. By making this a Community effort, we are changing the way people look at charity work- it’s not just passively writing a check. It’s getting involved in something you are passionate about and making a difference directly. It’s giving people the ability to know that they can make a major change for the better that is far more valuable than any amount of money. We are seeing the change in people and feeling the reach- we have more volunteers than ever which is not only incredible for the dogs, but the impact will hopefully go on to influence generations of rescuers and advocates for years to come.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

My entire life, I have been an incredibly passionate animal lover and advocate. I have always felt an intense connection to animals that I can’t put into words. I used to be referred to as “dolphin girl” in grade school because of my love for dolphins, became a vegetarian at a young age and I was THAT kid that protested the frog dissection in science class.

I grew up with always having both dogs and cats (and hamsters, fish, anything I could convince my parents to let me have). Being an only child for the majority of my childhood, I felt a special bond with my pets- they were like my siblings. I am a care taker by nature so being able to provide for and create happiness for animals did, and still does, provide me with a sense of meaning and purpose. I feel a deep obligation to defend animals and right the wrongs that they have suffered at the hands of humans and always have.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I knew I was going to start an animal-based organization of some sort. I didn’t know how or what it would look like but I knew I just had to.

When I was looking to adopt another pup, I came across an ad for a dog that was going to be euthanized at a high kill shelter in Los Angeles. I wasn’t very familiar with the shelter system at that time and certainly wasn’t aware of how many high kill the shelters were in my own backyard. I corresponded with the girls that were trying to save the dog I saw an ad for (now known as Diego) and they told me that dogs at that shelter were being put to sleep within days of coming through the doors. I couldn’t believe it. Days?! This sent me in to a tail spin of research and I truly was in shock and outraged at what I found. This was happening right here Southern California which meant I could actually do something about it.

I adopted Diego who was severely abused- from cigarette burns on his stomach to missing hair on his mouth where it had once been sealed shut with duct tape, this boy had been through it. His emotional scars were worse than the physical ones and to this day, he still struggles.

As I got to know Diego more and really got to see the permanent damage he was left with, my motivation to do something was stronger than ever. I continued to research and in October of 2010, I sent an email out to my friends and family, announcing that I was finally starting my Organization and it would be called The Animal Pad (TAP).

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I wish I had something profound to say as to how I started, but simply, I googled it. I learned that you needed to incorporate and then file for 501c3 tax exempt status which could take years to obtain, so I filed the Corporation documents immediately. I reached out to my close family and friends, told them that I was going to open an animal rescue organization, with the ultimate goal of opening a no-kill Sanctuary and asked for their input and involvement. At that time, I was thinking the organization would be more of an umbrella type charity where we would raise funds and then allocate them to where needed most to help minimize the euthanasia that shelter animals were facing. I really wanted to make sure that TAP was going to be as useful as possible, so I connected with our local animal control and asked them many questions. I asked what would be the most helpful in reducing the amount of animals in the shelters and they made it very clear: more foster based rescues. I received their message loud and clear and with that, the vision of TAP was solidified.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

TAP has been the greatest school I have ever attended. I have learned many, many life lessons through this journey and I am forever grateful and humbled by it. Identifying the most interesting story is tough, but what immediately comes to mind is working in Mexico in general, but specifically, our work with the Mexican Government. We have met with the government several times to discuss the struggle of the street dogs, the decades-long problem of puppy selling that happens in the Border line (which we are addressing through our activism wing, TAPACT), the possibilities of a shelter and more. Politics in any Country are very interesting (to say the least), but especially in Mexico. I’ll leave it at that.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I’m constantly saying that we need a reality show as the things that go on, the issues and obstacles, the ups and the downs, have created some of the best, funniest and most entertaining moments of my life. To narrow it down to the ‘funniest’ is impossible but one that comes to mind is when we first started transporting large (15+) groups of dogs from Ensenada (about 1.5 hours into Baja) back to San Diego. At that time, we would rent large passenger vans, remove the seats and replace them with crates. Now, the dogs we rescue are obviously not in the best condition. They are starving, dehydrated among many other things. Naturally, our first instinct is to feed them as soon as we rescue them- and feed them we did.

On our first and largest transport mission, we brought super high quality and nutritious food to feed the dogs before we made the long journey back home. The dogs were ravenous and it was such a great feeling to see them eat, many for the first time in days. From there, we loaded them in the van and embarked on the journey back to the Border. As we approached, we could see it was going to be at least a 4 hour wait to cross so we settled in and got in line.

About an hour into the wait, there was a dog dashing through the cars. Naturally, we swooped her up and loaded her into the van. About another hour later, the dogs were all getting very antsy. When we turned around to see what was going on: one of the dogs who was loose in the van (we didn’t bring enough carriers), was standing on top of one of the wire crates, defecating directly into and on top of the dogs heads that were in the crate. Mind you, we still had a solid two hours of wait time. We got out, attempted to clean everyone up (while hysterically laughing) and then realized that we only had ziplock bags. You know the totally clear ones? Yep, those. So we loaded the smelly contents and of course, there was no trash can in sight but there are however, guys that walk up and down the Border Line and collect trash for a tip. So there Lauren, my Director of Operations was: hands full of ziplocks full of Mexi-Mutt feces with nowhere to go (keep in mind, there are several hundreds of cars witnessing all of this). Then, like a Mirage in the desert, one of the trash collectors appeared. He put his hands out and asked if she had any trash (she looked like a deer in headlights at this point). Lauren meekly answered “yes”, hung her head in shame and quickly handed him the bags and ran back to our circus of a van. (don’t worry, we tipped him handsomely). Just another day in the glamorous life.

Lessons learned from this experience: 1. NEVER feed dogs before transport. 2. ALWAYS carry a plethora of cleaning supplies. 3. If you forget both 1 and 2, carry cash so you can tip the poor, unexpecting street cleaner that you just handed bags of poop to.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

NONE of what TAP has accomplished has been a solo effort. I have had tremendous help along the way and have never really done any of it alone- I have always had co-pilots and a team. This work requires an insane amount of dedication, sacrifice as well as time and it’s not cut out for everyone long-term. And that’s ok. I am so grateful to all who have helped TAP throughout the years and those who have done this work with me as they have all contributed to the success of the rescue. I often get all the credit which I quickly correct, as our team, our community, our beloved Tribe, is who deserves the credit, not me. TAP has taken on a life of its own that is much bigger than anything I have ever dreamed of. Our team that runs the rescue is currently comprised of 15 Directors which are part of 105 “full time” volunteers that run the day-to-day operation. That’s incredible to me.

Its no secret that I get very emotional when talking about our team. The fact that people from all walks of life have come together to be a part of something bigger than themselves and have sacrificed so much to do this work, is just beautiful. The fact that TAP is able to do so much good and have such a positive influence on so many lives, is truly, my greatest joy and I’m humbled to be a part of it

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’m proud of TAP for many reasons, but one of the main ones is the Community we have built which we fondly refer to as the “TAP TRIBE”. As an all-volunteer run organization, everyone is in this together, on the same playing field, all for our shared love of dogs. This creates a common bond and a natural sense of family and support for both humans and animals alike.

One of the most moving things about TAP is that it saves the humans as much as it saves the dogs. The amount of volunteers who have told me how TAP has changed their lives has forever touched me in ways that I cannot articulate. To know that we have been able to change so many lives, both human and canine, has quite possibly been the most transformative and meaningful experience of my life.

One story that particularly stands out to me is that of our Fundraising Director, Autumn. She came to TAP after experiencing the sudden and tragic loss of her brother. She needed an outlet and a positive focus. Being a dog mom to many rescue dogs already, rescue was exactly what she needed. After my first meeting with her, it was obvious that she would make an incredible addition to the team and quickly became our Fundraising Director. Concurrently, she was fostering for TAP and that is where her healing began, with a pregnant dog from the streets of TJ who she named Buffy (for Buffy and The Vampire Slayers, a show she and her brother enjoyed watching together). Buffy needed a lot of healing, both physically and mentally. Autumn was the perfect one to provide her the nurturing she needed. What Autumn didn’t realize, was that through providing the healing support to Buffy, she was healing her own heart. They needed each other at that exact time and they were in this together. Along with a big family to support both of them- the TAP Tribe.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Simple- ADOPT vs Buying your next pet. There are millions of homeless animals that are needlessly euthanized every year.
  2. Provide low cost spay and neuter services everywhere, to everyone. Spaying and Neutering is single handedly, the main way to control and eliminate pet overpopulation.
  3. GET INVOLVED! We are all in this together and we are all responsible for rectifying the problem that we as humans, have created. If more of society got involved in this cause, or any cause, can you imagine what we could accomplish?!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Check your ego at the door. When you are running an all-volunteer organization and asking people to do very emotionally draining work for free, Ego has no place here. I have had to bite my tongue more times than I can count and say and do things to appease people, despite me really not wanting to, for the greater good of the rescue.
  2. Run the organization like a business. This was not an easy lesson to learn but I credit it as being quite possibly the most important one. I have seen rescues close as quickly as they open because they are not run right. We are all in this because of our hearts- we let our passion lead and hope the rest will follow, but that can get you in some dangerous situations. I have had to make some very tough decisions along the way that not everyone agrees with, but I have to take my emotions out of it for the greater good of the team and the rescue as a whole. In order to really be successful at running an Org like this, you need to let your head and common-sense lead.
  3. In business, you make calculated moves usually based on forecasts and cycles. Unfortunately in our “business”, much is out of our control and unpredictable which requires us to try and reduce risk wherever we can. A good example of this is with the main shelter we rescue from in Mexico. They do not have a proper intake process and put new, potentially sick dogs, in the same kennels with healthy ones. This obviously creates a never-ending cycle of disease with no end in sight. We kept taking case after case of dogs with Distemper, an almost always fatal disease that attacks the central nervous system. This incurable disease is absolutely heart wrenching to witness as it takes over the dog and provides for a miserable death. This of course affects the dog, but the foster family, the volunteers involved in the rescue, the social media followers that are invested — the aftermath is just devastating for so many. I knew we couldn’t sustain like this, I knew we had to make a big change in order to continue saving these dogs. Since the shelter would not enforce a proper intake procedure, we had to take matters into our own hands. Every 6 weeks, we charter a bus of 60 volunteers to the shelter to feed, socialize and often times medicate, all 300+ dogs at the shelter. Through these trips, we decided to start conducting shelter wide campaigns: We raise money to purchase enough medications and vaccines and protect all the dogs in the shelter. Doing mass campaigns like these have turned things around in a MAJOR way and it was one of the best decisions we made. Sure, its a large, up front investment. But an investment that has a long term pay off for all involved.
  4. No one will work as hard as you do- and don’t expect them to. This is something I need to be reminded of constantly. I am undoubtedly a work horse- always have been. I often find myself getting frustrated when people aren’t working at my level . I can’t expect them to. I can’t expect anyone to.
  5. RELEASE CONTROL- This was a tough one for me to really apply but once I did, everything changed. Naturally, when you create something, you are protective of it and think no one can do better than you can. Let me just tell you, that as soon as I embraced this concept and let go, we soared. Relinquishing control has been a very therapeutic experience for me and I highly recommend it. I am proud to say that I am now a recovering control freak.
  6. Create leaders- I have become increasingly passionate about cultivating leaders. For me, being a leader came naturally, but I understand that is not the case for most.
  7. Each of my Directors has a team that they are responsible for. Now, leadership skills aren’t easy to “teach” but if my Directors aren’t leading their teams appropriately, it affects all the other teams, so I try to provide them with advice and tools to lead. I am always trying to coach our Directors to release control to their teams, which will give their team members confidence to do their jobs. We all need a boost of confidence sometimes and having someone believe in and trust you, is very motivating. It’s also a good reminder that you need to lead by example. There are teams counting on and looking up to the Department heads and it’s crucial that my Directors keep that at the forefront of their minds. It not only is for the benefit of the Rescue, but their personal benefit as well that they can apply throughout their lives. If I hadn’t released control and didn’t invest in cultivating leaders, there is no way TAP would be what it is today.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

For me, being able to follow my passion has laid the roadmap for my life and I can’t imagine what my journey would look like without it. I feel extraordinarily lucky that I get to live my dreams everyday- how many people get to say that?! I’m fortunate that my passion has allowed me to make a positive influence on society as it has fulfilled me on many levels. The sense of joy I feel with each dog that’s rescued, with each volunteer that’s forever changed, is immeasurable. It’s our duty as one people, one World, to right the wrongs we as humans have caused and hopefully reverse some of the damage we have created. The process has been very motivating and inspiring to be a part of. We have one world that each of us is responsible for, so let’s make it an amazing one. So do yourself and the planet a favor- go find yourself a cause to invest your energy in- I promise it will be the best decision of your life.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Betty White- need I say more?

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram: @theanimalpad



Instagram: @snisan


This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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