Growing up in India in the 1950s and ’60s, Caroline Reiswig saw much that troubled her.
Her father was a colonel in the Indian Army, and the family had a dozen servants. But outside her home and her English school run by nuns, beggars scrabbled in the dirt. Packs of mangy, diseased stray dogs fought in the streets.
“It made me a better human being, more empathetic, more of a do-gooder, because I saw so much injustice,” said Reiswig, 67, who speaks fluent Hindi and studied Nepali, Burmese and French. “Nobody would even give a second look. … But it hurt me. I never got anesthetized to that, ever. Thankfully.”
Today, Reiswig, a retired corporate manager who has lived in Camas 12 years, pours her energy into animal welfare causes. She’s coordinator of a Larch Corrections Center program in Yacolt that pairs inmates with shelter cats until the cats are ready for adoption. She works with the Animal Society of America and has volunteered for two local shelters. She’s found homes for more than a dozen animals on death row in California shelters. And she’s personally adopted several dogs and cats that had been severely abused and neglected in their former lives.
Her menagerie includes six small dogs, two cats, four squirrels and two rabbits, all of which were rescues. In addition, she has six chickens.
“We save ourselves for the die-hard cases,” Reiswig said, speaking of herself and her partner of 14 years, Roman Jacobi.
Friends who work in animal rescue describe her as a dedicated, caring and humble person with a wealth of life experience and a heart for animals.
“I’ve never known a woman with more drive,” said Joanne Schmidt, owner of Cat’s Meow Boarding on Chkalov Drive in Vancouver. “If she has a goal or something in mind, she gets the job done. … She’s a wonderful person. … She’s taking care of everybody.”
Alycia Hadfield of Vancouver, president of the Animal Society of America and a producer of “Animal House” television show about renovating and building animal shelters, said she admires Reiswig’s honesty and conviction.
“You always know where you stand with her and what to expect, and she gives 100 percent of what she does,” Hadfield said. “She really is a great example of what people in this movement should be like.”
Reiswig arrived in San Francisco on a student visa in 1964 with $8 in her pocket at age 16. After finishing high school at a convent, she earned a business degree at San Francisco State University and got married. (She later would divorce). After giving birth to a daughter, Reiswig embarked on a 16-year stint as a waitress.
“The money was better than anything I could do with a degree,” she said.
Her energy attracted the attention of Nestlé executives whom she served at Bay Area restaurants, and they offered her a job.
“They liked me and they liked that I could literally do 10 things at the same time,” Reiswig said.
Reluctant to give up her waitressing earnings, she held off for a year before agreeing to work for Nestlé part time as a store merchandiser while continuing her restaurant work, she said.
In 1985, Nestlé offered her a full-time position at a “really good salary,” and Reiswig moved to Modesto, Calif., to work in sales and marketing. For the first time in her adult life, she didn’t have to work nights, holidays and weekends. She had a company car and an expense account.
“I was just kicking ass and taking no prisoners because I loved what I did. To me, it was like working part time compared to what I had been doing,” she said.
The career move led to job offers from other companies, and Reiswig moved on to work for Sara Lee and then Armor Swift Eckrich, where she was a Western regional manager. In 2003, she asked for a transfer from the Bay Area to Camas so she could be closer to her daughter, who lives in Portland.
Meanwhile, Reiswig spent her scant free time rescuing dogs and cats slated to be killed at animal shelters. She and a neighbor in Modesto also took in several strays. They had the animals vaccinated and found good homes for them, she said. Reiswig also was a mentor for teenage delinquents and gang members through a Modesto Police Athletic League program. After moving to Washington, she spent a year volunteering for the Camas Roots Garden, a project that involved schools and the juvenile justice program.
“There’s so many creative ways of rehabbing people,” she said.
In early 2013, Reiswig got involved with Larch Correction Center’s cat-inmate program, transporting animals from shelters to the prison, getting them medical care and training the inmates how to rehabilitate the cats — a therapeutic process for both the men and animals. In 2015, a group of South Korean university students learned about the Larch cat program through an online search and contacted Reiswig to arrange a visit. The students had pitched a plan to incorporate a similar program in Korea’s juvenile detention facilities as part of a national initiative, and they were among 30 teams chosen out of 4,000 teams that applied for the 21st LG Global Challenger, a program sponsored by Korean company LG Electronics Inc. The winning teams were sent overseas to research their project ideas and produce a report.
Reiswig, who played host and chauffeur for the students for a week, called it one of the most important things she’s ever done. She said the students’ project could help change the Korean mindset regarding cats, which they view with suspicion, and dogs, which they eat.
The project ended up taking third place overall, and now the students are contacting Korean prisons about launching an animal program there.
“That’s a big deal because it affects international relations,” Reiswig said. “It’s not just our little world.”
Reiswig said her goal in life is to eliminate the need for animal rescue due to spaying/neutering, adopting and rescuing rather than buying from breeders.
“I think we should take care of the planet and each other,” she said, “and everything will fall into place.”