Get Out and Give Back: Passion for Paws

by WL Author

Fashion for Paws’ executive director Tara de Nicolas shares some surprising facts about herself. Here’s one: Her uncle works for the Pope.
By Jane Hess Collins

Tara and Darby, her beloved, kid-friendly pit bull. (Photo courtesy of Vithaya Phongsavan).

Tara de Nicolas has raised over a million dollars for the Washington Humane Society over the last four years. Now she’s closing in on her goal of raising another $500,000 during the fifth annual Fashion for Paws event on April 9. She took a short break from fundraising to talk with Washington Life about herself, her childhood, her animals and Fashion for Paws at Georgetown’s Leopold Kafe.

About the Animals

When did your love of animals begin?

I grew up in Long Island, New York. My dad, who was a philosophy professor at Stony Brook University, left my mom and me when I was ten. It broke our family apart when he disappeared, and my mom got me into horses and riding, even after we moved to a farm outside Charlottesville [Virginia] when I was 14. I think the animals really helped heal me and keep me on track. I was still a rebellious teenager but I always kept a fine line because I had to get up at 5 a.m. the next morning and ride. I still had responsibilities, and that’s what kept me sane.

Did you have any other animals growing up?

Oh, lots of dogs. I always picked up dogs. My poor mother. We once had five dogs at one time at the farm. I remember screaming fights with my mom about saving dogs. My dad wrote a forward in one of his books about how I once cried when I found a wild baby bird outside that had died and how devastated I was. I was about five years old. I’ve always been an advocate for that stray, sad animal. It’s always been in my blood. That’s my life.

Is it true you have a pet pit bull?

Yes, I got her 18 months ago at the Washington Humane Society. Her name is Darby and she’s spoiled rotten. She’s a normal, fun, wild puppy and loves the world, loves life. I’m a huge pit bull advocate, and that pit bull reputation is a misconception. They’re amazing dogs. I made my mom and aunt adopt one. I also have a Jack Russell Terrier named Tinsley. She was rescued from a puppy mill rescue and is still traumatized after four years. She’s still on Prozac.

Do you think animals can sense and intuit things?

I do, and I think animals teach you things. Animals have come into my life at different points in my life that I swear have taught me something and given me something (teary).  I genuinely believe it and that’s why I can do what I do.  I live it and I believe it.

About Tara

There’s so much public information about Fashion for Paws but so little about you. Why is that?

I’m not as interesting as the Fashion for Paws’ brand. That’s probably why I hide behind it (laughs). Really, I’m an open book, but I don’t want people to not support Fashion for Paws because of something they may not like about me, so I try to keep myself neutral and to stay removed. But I also have true, personal relationships with a lot of these people and they all know who I am.

And that would be…

I think people who I work with would describe me as serious and always professional, but in real life I’m 100% sarcastic, funny and silly. I’m just a goofball. People who know me know that I’m nothing that I first appear to be (giggling). Sometimes things come out of my mouth and they’ll say, “I never thought Tara would say that.” Yep, I do!  I have a professional reputation and people wouldn’t expect me to be silly or say something lewd once in a while, so I enjoy the shock value.

What are your strong suits?

I’m stubborn and I think that’s both a bad thing and a really good thing because I don’t take no for an answer. If I get my mind set on something no matter what it is, I try my hardest to make it happen and work to do it. So it’s come around to bite me but also it’s given me the strength to push, push, push. I’ve also learned to say when I’m wrong a lot so I own my mistakes. I really believe in the Washington Humane Society and Fashion for Paws, and I’m gonna make it happen and nobody’s gonna stop me. That’s my crazy little attitude.

What frustrates you?

The state of animal welfare in general, and the lack of understanding from the general public on how dire the situation is in any community. Animal overpopulation and a lack of an animal spay/neuter program. You see the problem everywhere. I just wish people would understand how bad it is and how important it is to get involved.

What’s a factoid about you that most people don’t know?

My uncle on my father’s side is the Superior General of the Society of Jesus in Rome and reports to the Pope. He and I are very close. I visited him in Rome two years ago and realized what level he’s on in the world stage, yet he’s so humble and so down to earth. It’s not about the accolades with him, it’s all about the work. Public service is something that runs in my family.

About Career

Where did you go to college?

I started at the University of Mary Washington and finished at George Mason University. I majored in anthropology and wanted to go into publishing. I love publishing because my dad was a writer, but I didn’t want to go into sales because I was never good at that. I even interned at Chronicle of the Horse, which is the bible magazine for horse lovers.

And you’re a Washington Life alumni?

Yes, it was my first real-person job after college. I worked in their advertising department. I credit Washington Life with teaching me the behind-the-scenes of how Washington, DC works. I learned about how to produce Fashion for Paws and donations and sponsors. They taught me so much. Washington Life is like family. I will always treasure them and I could not be successful without that Washington Life education.

And that led to your job at the Washington Humane Society, where you started out as their marketing director.

I volunteered with them while I was working at Washington Life. I found the Washington Humane Society after Googling nonprofits that needed help. When I found the Washington Humane Society I realized that no one was advocating for them. They offered me the marketing position in October of 2006.

What’s the secret of Fashion for Paws’ success?

It’s having so many key people involved who are so invested in it. I have great people around me who are all relationship builders. I really believe good energy brings good energy and the people who are involved are brilliant. So it’s a sense of ownership. There are so many young people who want to give back and Fashion for Paws is a fun movement, but it’s really a way to get everybody to focus on a cause that’s so important to this city.

How big is the Fashion for Paws staff?

Fashion for Paws is just me, so it’s very grassroots and there’s no bureaucracy, but it’s part of the Washington Humane Society. We’re not a separate 501(c)(3) from them. I think I help connect the dots and try to keep things organized, but it’s really good people who allow me to do that.

How many hours a week do you work?

It’s hard because I can’t call all of it work. I have these great committee meetings then we all sit around afterwards until midnight and brainstorm ideas. I mean, my whole life is work but its work with a lot of play involved. I’m lucky. I’ll never complain or say I’m too tired. I don’t get to really date that much (giggling) but I get to do what I love.

Is it hard asking people for money?

Yes. I absolutely despise it. You’re asking your friends to give money. I never thought I’d grow up to be a fundraiser. It’s just that I believe in the mission so much and I know that money is needed, and when I walk into the shelter and I see the animals that need the money so badly I’m kind of slapped in the face with the reality and say, “Get over your insecurities.” Then I ask people to give because these animals really need it.

What do you want people to know about Fashion for Paws?

I want people to understand that it’s more about a human/animal bond. We don’t just help homeless animals. We create a community of compassion and teach kids to be nice to all living beings. It’s about giving to the community, kids and our wounded warriors. We’re not only about animals and wildlife.

The Great Escape

How do you separate yourself from Fashion for Paws?

I’m an extrovert/introvert. I have this extrovert part of my life where I’m outgoing and have all of these great friends. But the introvert Tara is the Tara that spends time away from everybody with animals quietly, just riding horses, doing what I need to do to rejuvenate. That “Tara time” is quiet, alone time. So I think that balance saves me from getting too caught up in the Washington, DC culture.

Where do you go when you need to escape?

I go the family’s farm outside Charlottesville. My horse Rigsby is retired there. He’s the one I used to compete with. I’ve had him since he was a baby and now he’s 19 or 20 years old. I also spend time with my niece and nephews in that area. When I go there I literally shut down. Something that happens when I cross Key Bridge. It’s what I need. I put on my farm boots and veg out and clean the horse stalls. Cleaning the stalls is therapy. We horse people joke that having a horse is cheaper than having a therapist.

How often do you need a break ?

At least once a month. I need two days tops then I start to go crazy. I come back rejuvenated. That balance is my way of not getting too saturated with [what I do], too overwhelmed by it or too intertwined by it. I’m learning how to have that fine balance and not become too overly involved here. Otherwise people will get sick of me and I don’t want that.

Is that what you’re afraid of?

Yeah! It’s so funny!  If you’re drawn to animals like I am, they are your safety and security blanket. That’s where I thrive.

But you have some really good friends.

Yes! I surround myself with great friends. Fashion for Paws wouldn’t be what it is without the friendships and the late-night dinner conversations from where the ideas come. I respect my friends so I’m really careful about how I portray myself, especially with Facebook. I’m a huge fan of Facebook but I’m careful. My board of directors looks at my homepage too, so I try to stay one step away.

Tara’s Advice

What advice do you have for someone who’s looking for a way to give back that will make them as passionate as you are?

Animals found me as a young child. I believe in signs, and the day I was struggling with whether to take the Washington Humane Society job or stay in corporate work, I had to help two dogs who had gone loose on Foxhall Road. As I called their owner I thought, “This is a sign. This is the work you’re supposed to do.” So I took the Washington Humane Society job. You’ve got to go with your gut and be in it for the cause, not for yourself. You’ll sacrifice a lot for it but it’s worth it at the end of the day.

Anything else?

Don’t burn bridges and be loyal. Help the people that helped you. I’ll always be loyal to Washington Life and others who helped me with Fashion for Paws. They’ve all been a part of that journey and they’ve made it what it is today.  So I’m grateful.

But it’s not easy.

It’s not always easy. I’d love to be married and have a family, but I don’t. But at the end of the day, the stories I have, the friendships that I have, and doing what I love to do means more to me right now than anything.

Speaking of that, what about that Facebook post that you and (Fresh FM DJ) Tommy McFly are engaged? Are  you?

No! A group of us were joking about how Tommy and I are always together and how we should have a relationship. Since it was around Valentine’s Day we thought it would be really funny to tell everyone we were engaged or in a relationship on Facebook because we didn’t think anyone would believe it. And everyone believed it! I felt terrible! I had cousins who I hadn’t spoken with in years emailing me to say “congratulations.” I felt really guilty.

And whoever you meet must love animals.

Oh, yeah.

Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. She also established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her at

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