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?

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.
 

 

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.
 

 

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.”
 

 

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.”
 


Adoptable?

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.

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