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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 2 of 4)

Dixon grew up in washburn, wisconsin, a small town on lake Superior, in a family with dogs. But unlike most American families in the late 1960s and early ’70s, they didn’t keep their dogs outside. “Ours slept in the bed with us,” Dixon says. “We were not the norm. We had strong bonds with our dogs.”

After college, Dixon moved to California and found work in Silicon Valley, managing employee training for a semi-conductor company. Then, in 1990, longing for a simpler lifestyle, she returned to the Midwest. “I wanted to work for a nonprofit, much to my boyfriend’s chagrin,” she jokes. The boyfriend is now her husband, Phil, and they live on the outskirts of Hudson, Wisconsin, just across the border.

Dixon got a job managing volunteers at the Humane Society for Companion Animals, in St. Paul. Eventually, she became the director. When the shelter merged with the AHS and the Greater West Metro Humane Society of Buffalo, in 2007, she became the giant new organization’s second-in-command. She had only been on the job for two weeks when her boss committed suicide.

Dixon hadn’t been gunning for the top position. She was already busy at work and home—she and her husband had recently adopted two children from Guatemala. But she took it anyway, and then she took some heat. Some board members resigned: they had signed on to work with Dixon’s predecessor, by all accounts a well-liked figure in the animal-welfare world, not Dixon. Linda Lee, a former AHS board member who has known Dixon since her days in St. Paul, recalls the tumult. “Emotions were running the gamut in the animal-welfare community,” she says. “The job would have felled other people for sure. But Janelle has a very clear head. She can merge her desire to do something more for animals with the necessities of the real world.”

Dixon quickly got to work. In late 2008, she opened Now Boarding, a for-profit pet-boarding service run by the AHS near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. More recently, she partnered with a veterinarian to start a low-cost spaying and neutering service called Kindest Cut, a vet facility in a van, which is driven to low-income neighborhoods . The work brought her notice: she is currently the president of the National Federation of Humane Societies.

But the euthanasia rate barely budged in those first two years. By 2009, Dixon and a renewed board of directors were ready to try something different—a “game-changer,” as one board member told me. They invited several experts in shelter medicine from the University of California–Davis to study the AHS operation. The assessment: too many animals spending too much time on the adoption floor. The animals were stressed, which led to illness, fewer adoptions, and euthanasia. Something had to give.

“The unfortunate reality,” Dixon says, “is that in our community of 3 million people, only about 21,000 animals are adopted every year. We have an imbalance, we have pet overpopulation. So if you want less euthanasia, you can either get fewer people to surrender animals or you can get more people to adopt them.”

Dixon went for both.

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