As a child, Baltimore native James Evans would bring home stray dogs, something he said drove drive his mother crazy.
At the time, neither of them knew animal advocacy would form the core of his life’s work, and that he would go on to help shift how underserved communities and, in particular, people of color approach their pets’ health.
Evans, 47, is black and grew up in a working-class neighborhood, which means he stands out in a movement dominated by white, middle-class women. That lack of diversity, according to research by sociologist and animal-rights activist Corey Lee Wren, is a key reason advocates often struggle to connect with disadvantaged groups and people of color.
But Evans is working to change that.
“Growing up in an impoverished community and being able to leverage that to help others in the community has been rewarding,” said the graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, now the CEO and creative director of illume, a communications agency.
At the start of his career, Evans worked in environmental graphic design, and in 1999 he started illume. He quickly secured the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a client.
After building a reputation for doing advertising for nonprofits, the Mount Vernon resident and father of one was approached by the Humane Society of the United States to lead a pilot program in Mississippi and Louisiana. Post-Hurricane Katrina, the euthanasia rate for animals in Louisiana, was disturbingly high, Evans said, and the Humane Society wanted help combating it.
For Evans, this was the perfect assignment. When he was a little boy, he loved watching the wildlife TV show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” and with a cat and dog of his own that he adopted from the Maryland SPCA, animals were a huge part of his personal life. Finally, his love of animals and passion for design were intersecting.
“It was literally like a childhood dream come true,” he said. “It couldn’t have been a better pairing of two things I was interested in.”
The collaboration resulted in Pets for Life, an outreach program that aims to help people in underserved communities take care of their pets. This can range from spaying and neutering pets for free to free care for animals that may have mange or another illness.
Most notably, Evans helped design the Pets for Life tool kit and an advertising campaign, focusing on educating communities of color and encouraging them to spay and neuter their pets. Today there are 34 cities in America running the Pets for Life program and using the tool kit, a manual that can be downloaded online.
“Through his work with the Pets For Life program, I think it really started a fundamental shift in the whole way we do animal welfare,” said Kenny Lamberti, 46, director of strategic engagement for the Humane Society. “A lot of his expertise and communications and messaging helped us tell our story better and changed the narrative.”
Lamberti said Evans changed how the nonprofit communicates visually – it now used more inclusive posters, featuring black and Latino people interacting with animals in a positive way.
He said Evans influenced verbal communication as well, teaching staff at the Humane Society not to use language that could be viewed as condescending by some. The Pets for Life tool kit, discourages the use of what might seems to be benign terms like “responsible” and “educate,” which can imply that pet owners they’re reaching out to are irresponsible and uneducated. It also advises advocates not to underestimate their audience’s intelligence.
“We’re trying to have a dialogue that changes culture,” said Evans. “If you don’t have a dialogue with them, it doesn’t help the animal.”
Evans said the common perception among animal advocates was that people who didn’t spay and neuter their pets didn’t love their animals or were careless. He said what was missing was an understanding of factors that meant some communities were less likely to do so than others. These factors ranged from people not knowing it was necessary to not being able to afford it. For some, religion plays a role, as they’re reluctant to “alter God’s work,” he said.
According to a 2009 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association, income is a key indicator of whether people will spay or neuter their pets; 51 percent of cats in low-income households had been neutered, compared with 90 percent of cats in middle-income households.
“We didn’t spay/neuter either,” Evans said of his family when he was growing up. “That was the insight I was able to offer.”
Evans has found the work rewarding and is still moved by how much love and compassion people in underserved communities show their animals, despite the economic and personal hardships they have to contend with.
“You meet amazing people who literally feed their animals before they feed themselves,” he said.
As much as Evans’ work has helped animals across the nation, he’s also pioneered groundbreaking work closer to home. The illume executive staff founded Charm City Companions, a Baltimore-based animal advocacy nonprofit that works out of the company’s offices. In 2014, Charm City Companions received a grant from the Maryland Department of Agriculture to assist in helping low-income pet owners in Northeast Baltimore and offer free spaying or neutering for their pets.
Juanita Stern, 34, is a mother of two and an East Baltimore resident who loves animals so much that she often takes strays and unwell animals into her home. She now has a Jack Russell terrier, two cats and a turtle. After being told about Charm City Companions by her daughter, she got her dog, Pup-Pup, neutered for free.
“I’m very happy,” she said about the fact her animals could benefit from Charm City Companions’ work. She also felt that it would be helpful to other people in her neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of people struggling with their animals,” she said. “Some are pet lovers and can’t afford to get them spayed and neutered, and some can’t afford to buy them food.”
Next, Evans hopes to go to Puerto Rico, where he said animal euthanasia is rife in shelters.
But whether at home or abroad, his core approach won’t change: using a nonjudgmental method to create a conversation, rather than simply instructing people on how to take care of their pets.