“It’s a tough world, and there are a lot of issues.”

That’s according to Debra Berger, the Georgia state director for the Humane Society of the United States, who is being honored for her efforts on behalf of animals at the annual gala of the Georgia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on Saturday night, June 25.

Debra Berger, the Georgia director of the Humane Society of the United States, with her dog, Sophie

Debra Berger, the Georgia director of the Humane Society of the United States, with her dog, Sadie

“Because of my position, I get recognition for the work I do, but there are so many people in Georgia working quietly behind the scenes. … There are many unsung heroes in animal protection,” she said. “I’m not going to pretend that I don’t work hard, because I work really hard, but so do a lot of others who don’t get recognized.”

That hard work is part of a long list of accomplishments, but Berger said she knew little about the issues when she started out.

“In my 20s I volunteered at the Atlanta Humane Society, and that raised awareness for me of the plight of homeless animals, which frankly was not something I’d ever thought much about before,” she said. “Seeing the dogs and cats made me realize that most of the pets surrendered were there due to human circumstances and not an issue with the pet. That was the beginning.”

Berger rose through the ranks of the Atlanta Humane Society, supervising other volunteers and advocating changes in the system while becoming animal welfare chairwoman.

“It was my job to train volunteers about issues beyond the shelter, and that really opened my eyes. I learned so many ways that animals suffer at the hands of humans. So I was learning while I was teaching, at the same time, in the ’80s. It was all new to me,” she said.

“It’s been several decades, and I’ve been so thrilled to see how many people — particularly in my adult daughter’s generation — now take it for granted that rescuing a pet is the norm. It doesn’t mean we don’t still have problems; it’s just we’ve had a culture shift. That’s a very positive thing.”

One of the problems addressed was dogfighting. “About 10 years ago the HSUS identified Georgia as a state with a very serious dogfighting problem and with weak dogfighting laws,” Berger said. “They sent grassroots organizers here and helped us lobby lawmakers to pass stronger laws.”

Another concern involves changes in the food supply chain to eliminate the extreme confinement of animals. Berger said McDonald’s, Walmart and Costco are already participating in this endeavor.

“That’s a big point I want to make. So many things that are good for animals are also good for people because they’re so intrinsically connected. We’ve been on the forefront of this issue by educating consumers and corporations, and we’re seeing a big change as we’ve learned more about the egregious suffering that farm animals have to endure for our dinner,” she said. “There is a lot more demand for ethically sourced food.”

Berger said Judaism guides her outlook. “A lot of my animal advocacy is highly connected to my Judaism. My belief has strongly influenced my efforts towards animal protection,” she said, mentioning the concept of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, which she described as “a group of Jewish laws that tell us we cannot cause the suffering of living beings.”

She also wants the public to foster more pets to help save lives, and she recommends “simple, individual actions” such as buying cosmetics from companies that don’t test on animals, avoiding circuses and other entertainment that exploits animals, and eating more plant-based foods.

“I learned that citizens have the power to speak for the voiceless,” Berger said. “My affiliation with HSUS has really empowered me to see how we can all be part of effective changes. In 30 years, I have seen tremendous progress, and when I go in to school, I see kids who want to grow up and help animals. These students are aware of the problems, and they want to be part of the solution.

“It’s invigorating; it gives me a lot of hope for the future.”