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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Longtime supporters of the AHS have watched the attacks on Dixon with dismay. Marilou Chanrasmi helps run the small Pet Haven shelter in Minneapolis. In 2009, she co-founded, along with Dixon, a coalition of about a dozen like-minded shelters and rescue groups, called MnPAW. “There’s so much divisiveness in the Minnesota community,” she says. “We needed to set some ground rules: we can disagree, but just pause, suspend judgment, and really listen to each other.”
Other supporters believe that activists have never gotten over the fact that Dixon isn’t her predecessor. “She is who she is,” says Linda Lee, the former board member. “They were different people with a shared vision and Janelle has stayed true to that. She has persevered.”
Lisa Goodman, the dog-loving Minneapolis City Council member and current AHS board member, credits Dixon for embracing change. “The status quo was not going to be acceptable,” she says. “By any measure of success—fundraising, our thousands of volunteers—Janelle has pushed us forward.”
Goodman decries the attacks from no-kill advocates as disingenuous, citing the small number of animals taken in compared to the AHS. “We’re a place of last resort,” she says of the AHS. The appointment policy, she says, was the least it could do to moderate the intake.
Former board member Emilie Buchwald, who started Gryphon Press a few years ago to publish children’s books about the humane treatment of animals, takes a philosophical view. “The AHS is the largest humane facility in the region,” she says. “We must be supportive of it. But human beings don’t tend to work toward harmony, do they? Factionalism rules.”
“Every group wants to say they’re the most humane,” Buchwald continues, “but they need patience, imagination, diplomacy—they must collaborate.” The irony, she says, “is that the main thing standing in the way of humane treatment of animals is humans.”
Humans are sparse where Dixon lives. Her cozy, cabin-like home, down the road from horse stables and across from a prairie preserve, is marked with a mailbox carved to resemble a fish. On a snowy night, the golden glow from the house is the only light around.
I arrive at the door as her husband, Phil, is corralling their energetic kids, Jake and Izabella, in the living room. She corrals the dogs. “This is Blanca,” she says of the Great Dane that affectionately pins me against the wall. “She has no sense of personal space.” Like Barney, the yellow Labrador sniffing my shoes, and Mugsy and Bugsy, the house guinea pigs that Jake is carrying around in a box, Blanca was adopted from an AHS shelter.
The night before, 105 dogs arrived at the AHS headquarters, rescued from a trailer home outside Bemidji. “I sometimes think, ‘If we could have one more dog,’ ” Dixon muses, looking around the house. “But that’s why I do what I do, so it’s not the few taking the many.”
This year, Dixon hopes to halve the euthanasia rate at the AHS once again, to around 10 percent, which would put it on par with many no-kill shelters, all of them much smaller. Not that she expects any credit from her critics—or longs for it. Not anymore.
“Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d still be in this line of work,” she says, the dogs asleep at her feet in the living room. “But then you see the difference you can make in the lives of these creatures we’ve domesticated.” The work becomes personal, as fraught as any relationship with a living thing. “They attach to you,” she says, “and you attach to them.”
How fates are decided at the Animal Humane Society
You’ll need an appointment—no one can surrender an animal now at the Animal Humane Society without one. And by the time you come in for that appointment, the veterinary technicians should know everything you know about the animal: medical issues, food preferences, even its favorite toy. That will make adoption easier.
But first, the health and behavior exam. In a dog exam room, vet tech supervisor Lynn Hartman explains the 45-minute procedure. If you ignore the dog, what does it do? What about when you reach for its food or make loud noises or present it with a three-foot doll, a stand-in for a child? “I’ll be honest,” Hartman says. “If it’s an aggressive dog, we can’t go with it.”
Then comes the “lumps and bumps” check—a routine health inspection. “It’s like buying a used car,” Hartman says. “It’s going to have its knocks. But we don’t want to hide anything.”
If the animal passes, it goes up to the adoptions floor. If it doesn’t, the staff decides if the issues can be corrected with training or medicine—they often are—or, in the case of a difficult or chronic condition, whether an adopter can be found. If an animal is clearly unadoptable, it is euthanized as soon as possible. No reason to make it wait. “I worked on making my own dog as adoptable as possible,” Hartman says, “just in case.”
Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.