Christine L. Exley was 17 years old when she saved the life of a “wiggly-butt Pit Bull” named Pepper. While volunteering at a local shelter, she fell for sweet Pepper, and was saddened to learn that the dog would be put down if no one adopted her.
So Exley took Pepper for a walk and never came back. After all, she was seventeen – too young to adopt Pepper herself. Drastic times, etc.
The point is, Christine Exley cares about the wellbeing of dogs. She’s been caring about them – in demonstrable, proactive ways – since she was eleven and started volunteering at the shelter near her hometown. It began as a means of earning a Girl Scout badge, but “immediately became a passion.” She’s been doing it ever since.
It’s not her only passion, though. Exley is also pretty fond of Economics, which she studied at Stanford in pursuit of her doctorate. It was there, while researching the work of Economic Scientists Lloyd Shapley and Alvin Roth, that she realized she could combine her two passions – Applied Economics and man’s best friend – to help find homeless dogs their forever homes.
According to Exley, who was interviewed by Working Knowledge:
“I recall – perhaps naively, but excitedly – thinking, ‘I know how to save the dogs! We just need to come up with a better matching algorithm.’ “
She took her idea to the San Francisco SPCA – which she volunteered at in her spare time – only to learn that someone else had already approached them with a similar idea. That person was Elena Battles, a Stanford MBA graduate who’d previously worked as the COO of the Silicon Valley Humane Society. The two women joined forces, created Wagaroo together, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Well, sort of.
The first iteration of Wagaroo was actually not all that successful. After Exley and Battles created what they believed was a workable matching algorithm – potential adopters would fill out surveys about preferred breed, size, age, energy level, and so on – they proceeded with matching adopters and dogs. The only problem was, what people said they wanted and what they ended up choosing were two very different things.
“Anecdotally, what we saw over and over was that people see a dog in person, they fall in love with it, and they get it. Maybe they thought they wanted a calm, six-year-old Labrador Retriever, and said so on the survey. But then, when they saw a really cute two-month-old Poodle, they just had to have him. And that’s the dog they ended up getting.”
So they switched gears a bit. Instead of merely focusing on matching adopter and dog via their algorithm, they started working on other avenues of bringing canines and humans together. Namely, by rehoming them.
“We talked to a lot of people about where they got their dog, and a story that kept coming up was that people often found their dog from another family. Not from a shelter, not from a rescue group, not from a pet store or a breeder. Just, you know, ‘A friend of mine had a co-worker who needed to rehome her dog.’ ”
Of course, rehoming is always a bit of a controversy among animal lovers. There’s a tendency to get angry and blame the original owner for being selfish or uncaring as he or she just passes off his or her dog like an old appliance. And while there are certainly cases where that’s the reality of the situation, there are also cases where rehoming is not only unavoidable, but also the noble thing to do. A death in the family, a serious illness, a financial crisis, what have you.
“We help owners in crisis of needing to rehome their dog. Instead of surrendering their dogs to shelters, we help owners directly rehome their dogs to new families. We also developed a mechanism, discussed in a Harvard Business Review blog (by Paul Oyer), to screen out ‘bad actors’ from our Family2Family program.”
It’s important to Exley and Battles that neither puppy mills nor backyard breeders can game their system and use their rehoming program to make money. As such, anyone trying to rehome their dog must do so free of charge. On the other end, to avoid potential abusers, adopters must pay a fee to Wagaroo, which will then go toward general operating costs and finding other dogs homes.
Solving the problem of dog homelessness is a massive undertaking, and one that needs to be fought on all manner of fronts. I still have questions about how effective Wagaroo’s overall plan is – for example, I’m not sure how connecting people to “responsible breeders” helps – but it’s clear that the bulk of their work is focused on saving dogs’ lives.
There are other things that need to be done, obviously, as there always will be, but at the end of the day, Christine Exley and Elena Battles are fighting the good fight. And they’re doing it in the nerdiest way possible – with Applied Economics.
(Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that Pepper the Pit Bull is still wiggling her butt in Christine’s family home nearly ten years later.)
Featured Image via Christine Exley