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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?

The Lady and Her Tramps
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 1 of 4)

On a Saturday afternoon, Janelle Dixon stands in the auditorium at the headquarters of the Animal Humane Society, in Golden Valley, with a laptop and a projector, awaiting an audience. The room, typically used for pet training, is tiled and gym-like and echoes with the faint barking of distant dogs. Dixon, in tall black boots and spiky hair, pays the noise no heed. As president and CEO of the Animal Humane Society, or AHS, Dixon is used to the racket, if she still notices it at all.

Last year, Dixon was charged with the care of some 25,600 dogs, cats, rabbits, lizards, birds, pigs (guinea and otherwise)—companion animals, as they’re known in the shelter trade, in need of a companion. About 70 animals arrive every day at the five Twin Cities shelters run by the AHS, making it one of the largest animal-welfare organizations in the country.

“We’d like a lifetime commitment between people and their pets,” Dixon tells me, “but it doesn’t happen all the time, and that’s why animals end up here.” They come from all over: from people who found them, from people who can no longer care for them, from people who no longer want to care for them. Some are strays. Some have simply become too much to handle. Last year, a man who owned four dogs brought two of them into the AHS shelter in Woodbury; he had returned from combat in Iraq too injured to still take care of all of them.

The animals are “surrendered,” in shelter speak. And then, more often than not, they’re put up for adoption. Others are euthanized. The reasons vary. The owner requested it. They were deemed, after a health and behavior exam, to be too sick or fierce for adoption. In the majority of cases, they had chronic illnesses or complicated conditions and, after a thorough search, no adopter could be found. “Manageable/treatable,” the AHS categorizes this latter group, “no placement options available in community.” When the time comes, they are brought downstairs to an operating room and placed on a table. The veterinary technician on duty will usually pet it, speak quietly to it, then hold it close while injecting a lethal dose of sodium pentobarbital, a sedative known informally in the shelter trade as the “blue juice,” referring to its dark blue color.

Dixon’s guests begin to arrive: women mostly, in sweatshirts and jeans bearing the telltale fuzz of pet ownership. They’re the shelter’s most dedicated volunteers, and Dixon holds a town hall like this every so often to hear their perspective. The discussion has rarely been dramatic. In 2009 and 2010, the AHS took in roughly the same number of animals and sent about the same number home with adopters, which means it euthanized about the same number, too: about a third of all the animals that came in, fewer than many similar-sized shelters though not extraordinary. But last year, all that changed. When the volunteers are settled, Dixon flashes a Powerpoint page of remarkable statistics.

Last year, she proudly announces, the AHS took in roughly 9,000 fewer animals, cutting its intake by more than a quarter. It raised its placement of animals (mostly to new homes, some were returned to owners) from 67 to 81 percent, finding adoptive owners for 15,472 pets. Its euthanasia rate fell by nearly half, to 19 percent—while 4,428 animals were put down, that’s 5,750 fewer than the year before. It may well be the lowest euthanasia rate among comparable shelters in the country. (National averages of shelter euthanasia are hard to come by, but hover around 56 percent. The similar-sized Michigan Humane Society has routinely euthanized 70 percent of its animals.)

The volunteers are stunned. “This is huge,” says one. Many of them clap.

Then a volunteer speaks up. Has the AHS simply been turning away thousands of animals, she asks, saving fewer pets in favor of bettering its percentages? “It seems like you’re playing the numbers,” she says. Dixon, nonplussed, replies, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Then she explains, as carefully as she can, what happened to all those animals that are no longer coming through the door.
 

The headquarters of the ahs stretches across a pretty, tree-lined hill at the edge of an industrial park. From the outside, it looks like any other office building, and a visitor may wonder if the animals inside are in kennels or cubicles. There is an old wing dating to the 1950s and a new wing, connected by labyrinthine corridors and a quirky HVAC system, such that the place can smell like cats where there are no cats, and dogs where there are no dogs, as though it were housing ghosts.

They’re real enough, though: cats in stacked cages, dogs in a room marked “hearing protection recommended,” louder than any rock concert and laden with the funk of a touring van too long on the road. Whenever one is plucked from the adoption floor, an announcement is made on the shelter’s public-address system: a puppy/cat/what-have-you has been adopted and is going to its “forever home.” The staffers interrupt their duties to shout, “Yay!”

The AHS is a non-profit, with a $12 million annual budget largely supported by donations and adoption fees. When it was founded, in 1891, it focused on the draft horses literally working their tails off in 19th-century Minneapolis. Protecting pets, as we know them in their dog booties and cat castles, was a concept nearly as foreign as automobiles.

These days, there are myriad Minnesotans devoted to helping pets: rescuers taking them in, shelters putting them up for adoption, municipal animal-control centers nabbing them when they’re amok. Every sizable community has at least one shelter and there are rescue groups for almost every breed, from Airedales to whippets. They share certain beliefs: that animals deserve the best possible life, and, if nothing more can be done for them, the best possible death (euthanasia is Greek for “good death”). They often cooperate, sending animals to whichever place can best help them. The AHS employs a driver whose job is to move animals from one shelter to another. But it’s a decentralized network. Everyone, it seems, has a different idea of how life and death should be administered.

Tracie Popma, the public-affairs manager for the AHS, gives me a tour of the headquarters. The shelter has always been open admission, meaning it takes every animal that walks, crawls, or is carried through the door, no matter how unlikely its prospects for adoption. It’s a rare policy, Popma notes, that typically only the largest humane societies can live up to. Over the years, however, it has led to the misperception that the AHS is a government agency, a centralized place for people to drop off animals, like a recycling center. And for decades, the AHS did little to dispel the notion.

Popma points out the former after-hours drop-off room. Until last year, anyone could leave animals here in the middle of the night, no questions asked. There were cameras mounted nearby, and Popma noticed the same people leaving animals night after night—boxes full. “Serial surrenderers,” she calls them. Hoarders, perhaps. Self-styled rescuers. No one knew where the animals were coming from, unless the surrenderers bothered to fill out the forms near the entryway. “We even had petting zoos dropping them off,” Popma says.

Many of the animals were too sick, feral, or fierce to be companion animals. Others were simply a mystery, which made them harder to advertise and to adopt: medical or behavior problems sometimes presented themselves only after someone took the animal home. “We’d get phone calls from the new owners saying they didn’t realize some issue beforehand,” Popma says. “Well, neither did we.”

The animals piled up. In the 1990s, overcrowding led directly to death—if kittens were on the adoption floor more than five days, Dixon says, they were euthanized. This practice reportedly ended in 1994, but not because the tide had turned. Animals were still flooding in. “It’s our own fault,” Popma says. “We had established this no-questions-asked reputation. We shot ourselves in the foot.”

When Dixon took over the AHS, in 2007, it was still admitting more than 36,000 animals into its shelters every year and euthanizing more than 14,000 of them, about 40 percent of the total intake.
 


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