Erin Hannigan, playing her oboe for the dogs she loves. (Photo Credit: Teresa Berg)

Philanthropy & Nonprofits

How A Dallas Symphony Orchestra Oboist Used Her Skills to Save Animals

Her efforts have helped raise more than $200,000 for the city's largest no-kill shelter.

In 2011, 72 percent of shelter animals housed at Dallas Animal Services were euthanized. When Dallas musician Erin Hannigan learned that detail, she says she looked for ways to use her talent in classical music to fight Dallas’ animal rescue crisis.

The city has too many stray cats and dogs and not enough resources to support them. Dallas is working toward a 90 percent live-release rate, but DAS still finds itself overcrowded. Which is why supporting shelters is so helpful. Seven years ago, Hannigan organized the first Concert for Kindness, a classical music and visual arts show performed by volunteer creatives across Dallas, including performers from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Opera, and the Avant Chamber Ballet.

The concert is held every March and benefits Operation Kindness, the largest no-kill shelter in North Texas. And in June, Hannigan received the 2018 Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service, given to just five orchestra musicians across the country who use their musical talents to improve their communities. What began as a small network of volunteer artists has become a rewiring of the way animal foster care and adoption are paid for in Dallas: over the past five years, Concert for Kindness has raised more than $200,000 for Operation Kindness, allowing the shelter to raise adoption rates and provide spots for more animals.

“I think our future lies in getting out into the community and not just waiting for people to come to the hall,” Hannigan says.

Hannigan knew she wanted to help rescue animals in Dallas as soon as she moved to the city to be the Principal Oboe of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “I first got involved [with animal rescue] when I was living in Rochester, New York, and I started to become aware of the great need. Then when I moved to Texas it really became evident, because we euthanize so many cats and dogs every year.”

After volunteering at Operation Kindness, Hannigan decided to harness her orchestral role to fundraise for the shelter, which receives no public funding and has annual expenses of $4.5 million. Hannigan had big plans from the start. She sort of had to.

“I knew if I was just going to do an oboe recital it wasn’t going to raise a lot of money,” Hannigan says.

She began searching for other artists to involve in the project. Hannigan reached out to local photographer Teresa Berg after the artist appeared on CBS Monday Morning for her transformational photographs of shelter animals. She cleaned them up and took them out of their cages for portraits. Together, the two founded Artists for Animals, a nonprofit focused on raising adoption rates through collaboration with local creatives, including the successful Concert for Kindness.

Hannigan’s compassion is accompanied by a strong pragmatic streak. In the past, the welfare of local shelter animals largely depended on regular, committed volunteers. Now, initiatives funded by the concert have helped these pets appear in the community, to attract buyers who might not seek out a shelter. Hannigan notes that while the environment at Operation Kindness is one of hope, “some people don’t want to come to a shelter because they think it’s a very sad place.”

Adoption trailers made possible by the concerts allow the animals to be adopted in familiar neighborhood settings: restaurants, pet stores, sporting events, community festivals. Since implementation, trailer adoptions have become 21 percent of Operation Kindness’ 5,088 annual adoptions. The concerts have also helped cover the cost of medicine that the shelter pays to treat its animals, an expense of over $120,000 every year.

Once a week, Artists for Animals brings a rescue animal to model for the life-drawing class at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The resulting portraits are auctioned off at Concert for Kindness, and the animal is usually adopted by one of the students. In the process, young creatives learn the experience of using their craft to give back to the community. The concert ticket sales provide an easy opportunity for those intimidated by regular volunteering to contribute.

Hannigan works hard to help shelter cats and dogs in Dallas, but her aims go beyond the animals.

“I want [people] to see the Dallas Symphony as a group of community members,” Hannigan says. “We’re here because of the Dallas Symphony job, but we are entrenched in the community and it’s a wonderful thing.”

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