Please enjoy this Q&A article with Zoe Black, CEO and co-founder of Happy Paws, Happy Hearts. This exchange occurred live during the Future Generation Global (ASX: FGG) FY2023 Full-Year Results Webinar.

Happy Paws Happy Hearts is one of Future Generation Global’s social impact partners, all of which are working to prevent mental ill health and promote wellbeing in our young people. Can you tell us a bit about what you do?

The easiest way to describe Happy Paws Happy Hearts is to frame it around assistance therapy. People, when they think about assistance dogs, understand that those dogs are trained and matched to individuals who need them, such as dogs for the blind.

What we did is we flipped that completely around. We took all these young people in need out of isolating situations to where there were animals in need – in refuge shelters.

So the young people who go through our programs are grouped together and they learn how to work with and care for the rescue animals. These animals can be puppies, cats, farmyard animals, reptiles and every other animal imaginable. Along the way, these young people build up their wellbeing, they build up their confidence and they make friends. Then they go onto a new pathway – either back to school or into employment. We like to say Happy Paws Happy Hearts is one of the coolest universities around because these young people are getting access to all these life experiences and they get to do that with animals in their rooms!


I love the fact that Happy Paws Happy Hearts is dual purpose because, obviously, so is Future Generation. You help both animals and people, and we deliver both investment and social returns. So, are you hoping that your program participants end up getting jobs with animals or are you just trying to give them the support they need?

We’re really about their individual journey. The natural assumption would be that, because they’re learning how to work with animals, they will end up working in that space. But, actually, our young people are so diverse. They have such different desires for their futures. Some of them want to be aerospace engineers, but they didn’t get through school because of their social anxieties. The animals really bring them into a space where they can rebuild their confidence and reignite their love of learning, so that they can actually achieve those dreams.

Of course, some of our participants do end up in the animal world.  They complete vet certificates to become vet nurses or they go and work in the farmyard space. But it’s really individualised. Whatever they want to do, we’re here to provide that confidence and that platform to help them go onto that next pathway.

We also love that Happy Paws Happy Hearts is dual purpose, and that the animals also truly benefit from their time with the young people. In fact, the animals are on a very similar journey. Rescue animals are trying to rediscover their confidence in people, they’re trying to find their next stage in life, they’re recovering from trauma. So, really, they’re on this kind of parallel journey with the young people in our programs.


You mentioned trauma. We’ve all read the latest youth mental health figures and they are truly distressing. You’re dealing with these issues continually, so what are you seeing on the ground?

It’s probably one of the worst phases that I have seen in living memory. We’re seeing really terrible rates of youth suicide. We’re working with young people who have not left their homes for, in some cases, three years, apart from taking essential medical trips. We’re working with young people who simply cannot face school. School refusal is a huge problem.

So, we’re starting from a really difficult place and the journey towards re-engagement can take a long time. We’ve just transitioned a young man – and it took us 6 years of working with him for him to get his certificate. It’s really amazing that he’s got to his place, but it was a 6-year journey. That’s the level that we are working with currently. And, then, of course, there’s a crisis across the hospital system. They actually can’t cope with the current scale of the problem. So, we can’t, in my view, keep going on this path of just reacting to the crisis. We need to move into the prevention space!


Obviously we, at FGG, share that view because mental ill health prevention is the focus area for our social investment. But why do you think prevention is so critical?

It just makes sense. We are seeing our hospital system completely overloaded and so many people are struggling to even get access to psychologists right now. If we don’t do something on the prevention side, so many people will be denied the important care that they need, which will lead to disastrous consequences.

For me, though, it’s really personal. I just want to take these young people, who are struggling, and return them to life. I want to see these young people not shut out from reaching their potential. The way I see it, we need to do more work in the prevention space and bring these youth in, draw them out, give them that confidence, return them to school.

I always tell the story of this one young woman, Chaya. When she first came into Happy Paws Happy Hearts, she wouldn’t  say a word.  She was so traumatised from her experience at school and her social anxieties were so high, that her mother thought she would never step outside of her home, let alone return to school. If we weren’t in the prevention space, people like Chaya would be left to languish for a very long time. Over time, that just adds costs onto costs – and results in other consequences that we can’t bear thinking about. But that is the reality.


We have one final question from one of our shareholders, Liz. She wants to know why Happy Paws Happy Hearts doesn’t operate in Victoria? 

That’s our ambition, Liz. We are in expansion mode. We currently operate in Darwin, Queensland, bits of New South Wales and in Hobart. With the help of Future Generation Global, we’ve been able to operate in more locations. But there are currently about 40 more locations across the country where we could operate – and Victoria definitely has a number of those.

Back to blog