The Lady and Her Tramps
Janelle Dixon helped nearly 20,000 pets find new homes last year as head of the Animal Humane Society. So why is a growing cadre of fellow animal lovers making her life difficult?
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If the old model was an “emergency room,” as dixon puts it, with animals arriving unexpectedly, the new AHS would operate more like a clinic. No longer would people be permitted to drop off animals without explanation; they would need to make an appointment.
The initiative was called Bound for Home. The after-hours drop-off room was closed and, beginning last January, in a warehouse room retrofitted with cubicles, staffers began fielding up to a hundred phone calls a day. They ask people who want to surrender their animal, well, why? Have they tried behavior classes? Have they tried fixing a medical issue? Have they tried giving the pet to someone they know? They suggest resources, a rundown of the classes and services offered by the AHS. If no alternative presents itself, they schedule an appointment—for 48 to 72 hours later, just in case, in the meantime, the person can find a different solution.
Almost immediately, the number of animals coming into the AHS started to slow. Of the animals that did arrive, the staff knew more about them than they would have before—why the pet was surrendered, where it came from, how it behaved at home—which helped to market them to potential adopters. It also helped avoid euthanasia. In a typical story, a woman who had taken in a pregnant cat soon found herself overwhelmed by kittens. She brought two into the Woodbury shelter, but the kittens were stressed and only one proved adoptable. Because the staff had the woman’s information, they called her and asked if she wanted the other one back. She did, sparing the cat’s life.
By the end of the year, the euthanasia rate had dropped precipitously. Adoptions had picked up. There were days this past winter when many of the cages were empty. “It’s been transformational,” Dixon says.
But it wasn’t long before some animal activists began to complain. On a Facebook page called “Stop the Killing at Animal Humane Society Minnesota,” which has 931 fans, activists noted the empty cages and wondered why they were not being used to house chronically ill animals of the sort that were often euthanized. “Are all their locations full?” one activist posted. “I heard they have plenty of open kennels and can’t understand why they are killing [animals].”
Gail Anderson, a longtime board member with Star of the North Humane Society, which took in 700 animals a year from the Grand Rapids area until its shelter closed last year, questions whether the appointment policy is helping troubled animals or discriminating against them. “People who find injured or stray animals, they’re not going to keep them until they can come in for an appointment,” she says. “They’re going to find a faster solution.” She has advised other activists to think twice before working with the AHS. “The AHS has amassed enough money and veterinary support that they could do wonders for animals with issues,” she says. “Instead, it feels like they’ve decided to focus on healthy, adoptable animals. Instead of changing their policy on euthanasia, they’re dancing around it.”
Last June, the animal-control centers in both Minneapolis and St. Paul reported taking in more animals than usual in the first half of the year—90 more in St. Paul, 375 more in Minneapolis. Some of the animals, at least in Minneapolis, could be traced to the tornado that hit the city’s north side. But by fall the numbers in Minneapolis were still running about 26-percent higher than normal.
Bill Stephenson, who runs the St. Paul Animal Control center, says he can’t pin the increase there on the AHS’s new appointment policy any more than he could pin it on the weather or the economy. The numbers have fluctuated for years, and although he ended the year with about a third more cats than he received in 2010, he had the same total (300) in 2009. Still, Stephenson says, he wouldn’t be surprised if some people looking to unburden themselves of an animal couldn’t be bothered to keep an appointment. “People often want instant gratification,” he says, “the quick fix.”
Mike Fry, a well-known activist in the Minnesota animal-welfare community, runs a shelter in Hastings and a thrift store in St. Paul that generates money for the shelter. Both, he says, have experienced a “dramatic surge” of animals abandoned on the steps, the way they once were at the AHS. In a typical example, he says, the St. Paul staff recently found a banker’s box sealed with duct tape. Inside were seven cats.
Fry is now publicly criticizing what he calls the “serious negative consequences” of the new policy. “I’m a fan of the concept,” he says. “They shouldn’t take in more animals than they can care for. But simply not killing animals is different from saving them—they’re just pushing the problem away.”
On a sunny afternoon, dixon waves me to a seat in her office at the AHS headquarters. Dixon is known among her peers as brisk and business-like. But around the office, say her employees, she can become emotional when discussing animal welfare, melting behind the makeup. “She’s a softie,” one longtime colleague told me. She also has a healthy sense of humor, her slight smile reflecting more bemusement than reserve. Once, when I came to her house for an interview, her dog ran out to my car. “Probably going to pee on your tire,” she noted drily, as if to say, “What can you do?”
Human behavior is another story. “We, as people, don’t always do the things that animals need us to do,” Dixon says diplomatically. “Our goal with the appointments is to understand why—why that bond between a pet and its owner is broken—and see if we can’t make the right adjustment.”
Dixon smiles sympathetically. “The fallacy is that people who surrender animals don’t care about them,” she says. “Some of us simply have a greater capacity than others to find solutions. Each person comes from such a different place.”
Dixon allows that some people, confused or annoyed by the appointment process, may be surrendering their animals elsewhere. The AHS expected this, she says, at least for the first year. And she doesn’t believe it’s a high number. People surrendered 25,600 animals to the AHS last year while 4,881 cancelled their appointments or didn’t show up. The AHS surveyed them to find out why and heard back from 3,370, a 70-percent response. The majority said they either kept the pet or found a new home for it. Only 128 said they took the animal to another shelter—a fraction, Dixon notes, compared to the thousands of animals that the appointments apparently helped people keep.
Of course, there is no way of knowing how many people, spooked by the new policy, never called the AHS and chose a different solution. But according to call-center data provided by the AHS, the number of people who did contact the AHS last year was within a few dozen of the total who had surrendered the year before, suggesting little change. Dixon isn’t about to speculate. Fewer animals are good for those that remain, she says, and some of the empty cages are an illusion: animals are simply moving in and out faster than before, sometimes the same day. The average waiting period for adoption has shrunk slightly for dogs and dramatically for cats, from 32 days to eight.
“I don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time in a defensive position,” Dixon says. “We’ve been transparent, we’ve said what we believe in. From our perspective, there are many ways to help animals.” Dixon flashes a wry smile. “Look,” she says, “this is highly emotional work—I get that—and everyone thinks they can do it better. I’ve had to deal with that since forever.”
In 2007, a few months after Dixon ascended to the top of the AHS, a young attorney from San Francisco named Nathan Winograd published Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, in which he argues that the problem at animal shelters isn’t too many pets or too few adopters—it’s the shelters themselves. Most are too quick to euthanize, he claims, and too lazy about finding adopters. With a little creative thinking, he says, they should be able to lower their euthanasia rate to 10 percent or less.
Winograd wasn’t the first to say this. The “no kill” movement began in San Francisco in the early 1990s. But he was the first to say it so loudly. A kind of goateed St. Francis for the blogging age, he now travels from city to city working with local officials to make it easier for people to adopt animals and harder for shelters to euthanize them. In just a few years, he has inspired dozens of alternative no-kill shelters around the world, each going to great lengths to avoid euthanasia, sometimes housing unadoptable pets in perpetuity.
On his blog, Winograd has singled out the AHS as a particularly lazy shelter. He has also blasted Dixon during his regular call-in appearances on the syndicated radio show Animal Wise—with the encouragement of Mike Fry, the local animal activist. Fry, as it happens, is the show’s co-host. And his shelter, called Animal Ark, is the largest no-kill operation in Minnesota.
Fry’s mother founded Animal Ark in Hastings in 1977. It’s small compared to the AHS, as nearly every other shelter is, typically housing about 100 animals. “This place used to be a hell-hole,” Fry says while showing me around. Now there are five yards out back for animals to play in and a separate sanctuary recently created for a dog deemed too dangerous for adoption. Inside, cats are housed in spacious glass-windowed rooms—“cat condominiums,” Fry calls them. Potential adopters play with animals in cozy “socialization rooms,” complete with fireplaces and televisions to simulate a home.
For the last six years, Fry claims, 98.2 percent of the animals that have come into his shelter have gone out alive. “There are way more people looking for pets than most people think,” he says and cites several cities—Reno, Nevada; Austin, Texas—where, under Winograd’s watch, shelters have boosted adoption rates. “I find it very condescending for a shelter to say, ‘We’re going to wait for people to step up and take care of these animals,’ and then, when people don’t come forward, blame the killing on the community. You’ve got to put your heart and soul into it!”
Like many activists, Fry had been encouraged by the appointment of Dixon’s predecessor as CEO, in 2005. She orchestrated the merger of three humane societies, believing that a larger, better-funded organization could save more animals. She also signaled an openness to new ideas, managing a tenuous truce with activists. “She was beloved,” says a former colleague of hers at the AHS. And then she was gone—“a brief beam of daylight,” Fry says.
After Dixon took over, Fry gave her about nine months, then fired off a letter—which he published on the Animal Ark website—deploring the cages used at the AHS and offering his advice on boosting adoptions. Recently, his advice has become more personal. On the Animal Ark blog, he has implored Dixon to “move on to a career in a different field that is better suited to your ethics.” He calls the recent drop in euthanasia at the AHS a “baby step” and, in December, he helped rally about 100 people to protest the AHS at a Woodbury City Council meeting.
Fry pauses to take a call (his ring tone is the sound of dogs barking) and then, as though forgetting his antagonism, says of Dixon, “We should be able to put our personalities aside and say, ‘What’s the common goal?’ We should be able to work together, and not care that we hate each other’s guts.”