Doug Rae's last days? 

For the 18,000 dogs and cats that find their way to Indianapolis Animal Care and Control each year, the odds of surviving are slim.

On average, only 7,000 will leave alive; the other 11,000 will be killed by lethal injection, incinerated and then hauled off to be buried with the rest of the city's waste at the municipal dump nearby.

At the beginning of this year, it seemed that Indianapolis had finally declared those numbers unacceptable and made changes reflecting a concentrated effort in saving the lives of the community's strays. At the top of the list of those improvements, was the hiring of Doug Rae in January, an administrator for IACC with actual experience running animal shelters, a first for the city.

Since his arrival, however, Rae has stirred a great deal of controversy and garnered a good number of critics among city officials and animal advocacy groups. He's also genuinely pissed off a significant portion of the IACC staff and the union that represents them.

As this story is published, a 60-day probationary period for Rae comes to an end and he, along with his critics and supporters, wait to find out whether or not he keeps his job.

Many have already reached the conclusion that Rae will be let go; a suspicion given credence last Wednesday after Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard removed Rae's staunchest supporter, Warren Patitz, from the IACC Advisory Board.

Just hours before a scheduled Board Meeting, Patitz received a telephone call from the mayor's chief of staff letting him know that he was being fired.

"He said the mayor appreciated my service, but the city had decided to take IACC 'in a different direction," says Patitz, "one that 'focused more on public safety, with more of an emphasis on strays."

Does he think Rae is next to be let go?

"Absolutely," says Patitz.

In the doghouse

Rae was put on probation at the beginning of August. Sanctioned, according to his boss, Acting Director of Public Safety Mark Renner, "on the basis of extensive fact-gathering [...] personal visits, board meetings, board member communications, inquiries from numerous City-County Council members, animal welfare stakeholders and community partners, and extensive discussion with employees."

And while the probation terms do not articulate any single incidence or idea that prompted the opposition to Rae, both the Department of Public Safety and Mayor Ballard's office have expressed concern over recent staffing changes at IACC. In particular, Rae's decision to reassign two employees from the streets to the kennels.

According to Rae, it was a practical move that gave him much needed staffing in the overcrowded kennels, without diminishing IACC's capacity to protect citizens from menacing animals on the streets.

"I'm not going to make any changes that put people at risk," says Rae. "And this was not a risky decision. It was a decision that improved the work schedule and our ability to take care of the animals at the shelter."

Many disagree, however, and the incident continues to be mentioned as one of the concerns over Rae's management of the shelter. Last week, in responding to questions from local media about the removal of Patitiz from the IACC board, the mayor's Chief of Staff Paul Okeson said the incident did prompt concerns over Rae's choices and his ability to remain at IACC.

"Stray dogs rank as the number one complaint to the Mayor's Action Center," according to Okeson. "We still have people waiting days for stray animals to be picked up and it puts families at risk and it's not the mission of this administration," Okeson said.

Other than the phone calls to the mayor, however, there is little evidence that the reassigning of IACC employees has affected the number of responses by Animal Control Officers or the safety of the community.

From January 1 through August 31 of 2008, IACC responded to 22,613 calls about stray or abandoned animals; in the same time period this year, they have responded to 24,631 calls, reflecting an increase of more than nearly ten percent with two fewer staff assigned to the task.

And public safety does not seem to have been affected by the change either. The number of reported dog bites in Indianapolis for the same period as last year is almost equal with five fewer reported incidents in 2009 than 2008.

"It doesn't make any sense,"says Patitz. "There is absolutely no evidence that Doug put anyone in danger by reassigning those officers to the kennels."

"The truth is," he continues, "This isn't about stray dogs. It's about stray politicians."

An unhappy union

"Amazingly, there are still people within the animal welfare community and city government that would rather roll back the clock to the way things were before Doug Rae was hired," says IACC volunteer and Rae supporter Greg Brush.

"That was a terrible time when abuse of animals was ignored, when animals suffered and died in kennels without medical care; (...) when killing animals was preferred to putting the time and effort into providing care and trying to save them; when concerns about the care of the animals was met with rhetoric and lies."

This view of Rae as a savior to animals in Indianapolis is one shared by a large number of people, as evidenced by the increased number of volunteers at the shelter since his arrival, the number of blogs and websites dedicated to keeping him at the helm of IACC and a recent "Save Doug Rae!" rally on the steps of Monument Circle.

It contrasts sharply, however, with the growing concern and opposition over his approach to managing both the employees and animals under his supervision. As high-profile as the reassigning of the IACC employees was, there were many other complaints about Rae that lead to his probation and the conditions for his continued employment.

Since being notified of the probation, Rae has been given a series of "corrective measures" he must institute in order to keep his employment with the city, and the fifteen or so items break down into roughly two categories: managing employees and managing animals.

The measures covering the treatment of employees come largely as a result of complaints to and from the union. Excessive mandatory overtime, short notice of policy and schedule changes, disrespectful treatment of employees, unavailability to employees and unresponsiveness to employee concerns are but a few of the dozens of grievances against Rae by his union staff.

Rae and Patitz, both attribute the complaints to an unmotivated group of city employees who had grown complacent under the previous administration and now resent the efforts to overhaul and improve IACC.

According to Patitz, "Doug inherited an agency with decades of corruption and systemic inertia, a toilet basically."

"He's put an end to the culture of animal abuse and neglect (at IACC) and employees doing whatever they want," says Patitz. "Now they have to actually work and some don't like it."

It's a view Rae shares, and he provides a long list of the offenses that led to disciplinary measures against union employees as evidence, including "lateness, absenteeism, slow job performance, insubordination and poor treatment of the animals."

There was "no accountability" prior to his arrival, according to Rae, and in order to achieve his goal of transforming IACC into an animal-focused shelter, he "wrote up more employees in four months than the previous four administrators combined ever did."

Matters of dissent

In addition to the union complaints over how Rae treats employees, management of the animals that come into IACC is the other main criticism of his leadership.

The measures for improving the care of the animals outlined in the terms of his probation are, in large part, the result of a meeting held in late July, when several members of the City-County Council organized a conversation between themselves, members of the concerned welfare groups, and then Director of Public Safety, Scott Newman.

The meeting took place at the Humane Society of Indianapolis, and according to HSI Director John Aleshire, "it was a three-hour collegial, sane and focused discussion about how we could all work together to improve IACC. It was not a 'bash Doug Rae' conversation."

"People had genuine concerns," says Aleshire. "People who have been working with IACC for years, and then find themselves shut out when a new guy shows up. Suddenly, all of the groups that once transferred animals out of the shelter for adoption weren't having their phone calls returned; weren't being notified when animals were available; and felt as if they were being branded as trying to sabotage Doug Rae if they criticized or asked questions."

"I like the guy," says Aleshire. "I think his heart's in the right place. But it's been a real challenge to work with IACC since he arrived. The relationship between our organizations is not as effective as it could be."

Patitz dismisses the criticisms by Aleshire and others who attended the meeting in much the same way he does those coming from shelter employees, a resistance to change and desire to maintain self-serving policies.

"Some of these groups are upset because they no longer get special treatment," says Patitz. "They used to be able to come in through the back door and cherry-pick the animals they wanted to rescue. There was no accountability and record-keeping was a mess. Now they have to play by someone else's rules, and they don't like it."

For his part, Rae is a bit more circumspect, admitting that he was overwhelmed with the scope of work when he first arrived and had little time for anything more than putting out proverbial fires.

"For the first few months, I was in the kennel, sleeves rolled up, leashes around my neck, going from room to room, cage to cage, doing the work myself. I had no staff, no time to do outreach. I could have done a better job at getting to know people, letting them get to know me."

Personality may have also played a role in the criticism, according to both men.

"He's not a political guy. He can be a little abrasive," explains Patitz, and Rae concurs. "I don't have much of a filter," he admits. "Usually, if I think it, I say it. I speak my mind and I speak straight from the heart. That gets me into trouble sometimes."

Regardless of what Patitz and Rae would characterize as missteps, both feel it's too soon to pass final judgement and hope Rae is allowed to continue at IACC past the probationary period.

"He deserves the chance to do what he was hired to do," says Patitz. "He hasn't had the opportunity to fire on all cylinders yet. He deserves that chance."

"We are now an animal-focused shelter," says Rae. "We've made a lot of changes and things are much better. Give us the chance to do some good stuff."

A simple goal

The "good stuff" Rae aims to do at IACC boils down to one simple premise: save the life of every adoptable animal that comes into his care. And while that might seem like a prerequisite, it's actually quite a hindrance in the traditional model of how urban populations deal with abandoned and stray cats and dogs.

For decades, animal advocacy groups have been exposing the horrors of IACC: the cruelty, neglect and abuse of animals, the poor conditions, the concessions due to lack of funds which lead to substandard care.

In recent years, many of these groups took matters into their own hands, setting up foster and adoptive networks to help transfer animals out of IACC and save them from imminent death; and eventually bringing their complaints formally to the IACC board and the city council demanding action.

With the arrival of the Ballard administration in 2008, many of these individuals and groups seized the opportunity to bring improvements to IACC, and to their credit, as well as the administration's, efforts for reform were successful.

Animal welfare advocates were appointed to the IACC Board, investigations into animal cruelty and employee inexperience were launched, IACC administrator Steve Talley was forced to resign, the recommendations of advocacy groups started to be implemented and a search for new IACC leadership began.

In the midst of all this change was the introduction of an approach to managing IACC known as "No-Kill" that focuses on dramatically reducing the euthanasia rates of dogs and cats, a number that exceeds 200,000 in America every single day.

In April 2008, a coalition of animal advocacy groups released their vision for the future of IACC, including the principles of No-Kill advocacy and the direction of the movement's founder, Nathan Winograd as a consultant in determining the shelter's future.

That same month, Mayor Ballard appointed Warren Patitz to the IACC Advisory Board. Patitz, founder of the animal rights organization Move to Act, was one of the first and most vocal advocates for No-Kill methods in Indianapolis, including organizing and underwriting several visits for conferences and workshops by the founder of the No-Kill Advocacy Center Nathan Winograd to the city. A visit by Winograd was eventually included in the IACC improvement plan. .

The Indianapolis "No-KillÃ" mandate garnered its biggest victory, however, with the hiring of Doug Rae as the new Administrator of IACC in December. During the interview process, Rae, who previously managed No-Kill shelters in Phoenix and Philadelphia, stated his commitment to saving the life of every animal possible again and again, and spoke of Indianapolis as being on the verge of an animal welfare revolution.

If hired, he vowed, his goal would be to dramatically reduce the kill rate of cats and dogs at IACC to 15 percent, killing only those animals who were incurably suffering from injury or illness or were deemed too vicious or aggressive to adopt out.

As Winograd wrote on his blog a few weeks later, the subsequent hiring of Doug Rae made Indianapolis a "No-Kill" city to watch in 2009.

Abandoned and unwanted

Municipal animal shelters have their origins in the beginning of the last century when the industrial revolution gave rise to new urban areas and problems that accompany dense populations. Much like municipal orphanages, they evolved at a time when concerned citizenry rallied support for a collective responsibility for the abandoned, unwanted and otherwise vulnerable creatures or, at the very least, the removal of these strays from the general population.

Mandated and administrated by city ordinances, and funded by tax-payer dollars and private donations, Indianapolis Animal Care and Control falls under the purview of the Department of Public Safety and is charged with removing dangerous, stray and abandoned animals from city streets and accepting unwanted animals surrendered by owners unable or unwilling to continue caring for them.

Like orphanages, the mission of animal shelters has evolved over the past century from being simply an institution meant for housing the unwanted population into existing as a temporary stop-gap until a new home can be found either through fostering or adoption. Thanks to the efforts of child welfare advocates, orphanages as institutions have all but vanished from our communities, as we collectively sought and found better ways to not only protect but also improve the lives of the unwanted or unattached children among us.

In many ways, Rae's task of running the city shelter actually is similar to an orphanage not too far from the Charles Dickens stereotype -- underfunded and understaffed; a place where simply keeping up with the feeding and cleaning and supervising of the wards is a full-time job, not to mention the medical needs that the animals bring in with them; as well as the ones that spread quickly and dangerously among so many frail residents.

It doesn't help to reduce the stress or the problems that, by law, IACC must accept every animal that it receives. And, oh yeah, the budget was cut this year. Again.

By his own admission, Rae will do whatever it takes to keep the animals in his shelter alive. And sometimes that means upsetting the status quo, breaking the rules and otherwise improvising if necessary.

For Rae, the idea of having a fixed number of allowable animals at the shelter and requiring him to kill any animals over that number is tantamount to asking the head of the orphanage to kill the sick, frail, bully or older children who are unlikely to get adopted based on a one bed, one kid rule.

Making a kid or two sleep on the couch, or even on the floor for the night is certainly less cruel then killing them because temporarily there is no bed available for them, would be Rae's reasoning.

Bending the rules

Critics say the problem with instituting a no-kill rule at shelters, however, is that the animals aren't in this limbo for only a night or two, but that very quickly these shelters turn in to little more than animal warehouses; hoarding unwanted animals in conditions that quickly deteriorate and operating on a propensity for making up the rules as they go along, or breaking rules altogether.

They also raise concerns about the implications of instituting a plan for managing a city animal shelter based on good intentions rather than pragmatism and proven methodology.

In the short time he's been at IACC, Rae has given credence to each of those concerns through a series of what his supporters would call life-saving measures and critics would call poor decisions.

On July 4th of this year, for example, IACC held a one-day event during which it cost only $4 to adopt a pet from the shelter, significantly lower than the normal $60 fee.

"We saved 150 lives that day," Rae says with pride, "and who knows how many more by emptying those cages for other animals."

As the news spread about the event however, some had complaints. Turns out, the adoption fee at IACC is set by city ordinance, meaning Rae's $4 special was, technically, against the law and some members of the City-County Council were upset over what they saw as a disregard for a city ordinance by a division of city government charged with enforcing them. As a result, part of Rae's probation requires that he learn and abide by city ordinances concerning the operation of the shelter.

A more animal-centric criticism, however, was that lowering the price lowered the value of the animals and, by extension, the quality of adoptive families. By making it practically free, Rae was making it too easy to adopt the animals, allowing some to be adopted by families that would ordinarily be screened out or consider the choice to add a pet to the family more carefully if paying full price.

While Rae will admit to knowing of only four or five animals that were returned to IACC following the July 4th event, an informal survey of surrounding shelters finds that as many as 20 of the families who took home cats and dogs that day changed their mind and wanted to to give the animals back.

Of major concern is the fact that some of the dogs adopted that day displayed behavior too aggressive for the new families, behavior that other shelters would have identified as making the dogs poor candidates for adoption. According to at least one director of a nearby shelter, some of these animals should have never gone out the door.

"We got four or five of those dogs within a week or two of the event. The first dog was surrendered for not getting along with [the family's] other dog, the second snapped at several members of the family. One of them was sick with kennel cough. [Another] had bit the lady's husband and snapped at her child."

Any means necessary

Identifying aggressive dogs and not adopting them out to the public is sure to be an ongoing debate between Rae and others, particularly because he has decided to use a different testing procedure than previously used at IACC.

"There was no real policy for temperament testing prior to Doug," according to Patitz. "Just a random pull, poke, shove a food bowl in front of its face. Now, he's assessing each dog individually, using years of animal experience to evaluate the dogs."

As part of his probation, Rae complied with the request to provide a written "policy establishing the means, manner, and time frames within which temperament testing to determine safe adoptability of an animal shall be conducted... the testing methodologies chosen, either alone or in combination, shall be a kind and quality generally accepted in the animal behavior community."

In it, the animal is put through a series of tests and observations to determine adoptability ranging from behavior around food, in a cage, on a leash and with both men and women handlers.

"There are ways to tell if a dog is aggressive," says Rae. "And that usually takes more than two minutes of poking it or putting food in front of it and then blocking access to that food. Just because a dog growls when you take its food, doesn't mean it's vicious. It might just mean it's hungry."

Rae also got into hot water just a few weeks into the job when he allowed more than a dozen dogs to be adopted out of the shelter before being spayed or neutered. Again according to city ordinance, all dogs and cats adopted from IACC must have been altered prior to adoption.

The problem came when Rae was faced with an overflowing kennel several days before the next round of surgeries were being performed.

"Yes, I did allow those dogs to go out before being altered," says Rae. "But I had no other choice. It was either send them to their new homes with appointments to come back for the surgery and free up those cages, or kill 10 dogs. I chose to have them go out the door alive. All of them had the surgery as scheduled, and no harm was done."

And then there was the incident with the chihuahuas. All 15 of them, who came to IACC recently when an Indianapolis woman was found to be in violation of city ordinance for having too many dogs in too small of quarters and in too unsanitary of conditions.

"When they arrived, I was in a panic," says Rae. "We had absolutely no space. So, yes, I improvised."

Rae and several members of his staff put the dogs in the IACC conference room, much to the dismay of several other staff members, the union and some animal rights groups.

The 15 chihuahuas were given food, water and bedding, and for several days were cared for in the conference room rather than individual cages among the other animals because, Rae stresses, there were no cages for them.

"The choice was between killing 15 dogs or putting 15 dogs in a conference room and getting on the phone to find adoptive homes. It took a few days, but we did it. And none of them had to die."

Not coincidentally, several of the other conditions for Rae's probation are the requirement that he set a maximum capacity limit for the shelter; another is that he discontinue the practice of using employee areas such as break and conference rooms as storage rooms for animals.

Committing to no-kill

Rae's probation may have addressed all of these practical concerns in the short-term, but they do little to settle the larger debate over "No-Kill" policies and whether or not the city of Indianapolis, particularly those who care about stray and abandoned animals, seeks reformation or revolution in its goal of reducing the staggering number of dogs and cats killed at IACC every year.

There is a fundamental divide in animal advocacy that has existed for decades and created the distinct differences between animal rights advocacy and animal welfare advocacy. Theses labels are often used ubiquitously and interchangeably. In their truest sense, however, they represent two distinct points of view and often two different approaches to managing a city's unwanted animal population.

In short, rights advocates seek to abolish practices that cause animal suffering, while welfare advocates seek to reform practices that cause the suffering.

To this end, animal rights advocates, like those lobbying for No-Kill methods here in Indianapolis, believe that animals, or at least companion animals, are to be afforded the same basic right to life as humans; their lives are no less valuable. Killing abandoned, stray or surrendered pets is murder, even under the guise of euthanasia, and their job is to save the lives of these animals however they can.

In a recent essay revisiting the founding principles of the No-Kill movement, Winograd reiterates his absolute insistence on building shelter policies around a rejection of killing first:

"Shelters must take killing off the table for savable animals and utilize the programs and services of the No-Kill Equation not sometimes, not merely when it is convenient or politically expedient to do so, but for every single animal, every single time."

"'No-Kill' policies and procedures are the only legitimate foundation for animal sheltering," according to the official No-Kill Declaration. "All shelters and animal groups (should) immediately begin implementing programs and services that will end the mass killing of sheltered animals (and) reject the failed kill-oriented practices of the past."

Local rescue groups and animal welfare advocates concerned about the changes at IACC as a result of Rae's hiring and his implementation of No-Kill agree that euthanasia rates are far too high, and the ultimate goal of any community should be finding a loving and safe home for every animal in need of one. But most also believe that a focus on the conditions which cause animals to end up in the shelters is a better approach than simply eliminating the option of euthanasia and then dealing with the chaotic results.

While not pro-euthanasia, those opposed to No-Kill as an approach to shelter management believe better education about responsible pet ownership, increased spay/neuter programs, available behavior classes and affordable and accessible veterinary care, as well as an increased number of adoptive and foster homes are ways to reduce euthanasia rates responsibly, effectively and collaboratively.

"'No-Kill' is an emotional rallying cry," says Aleshire, "an effective one." But it also sets up a division between animal advocates that's detrimental. There is the notion that Winograd is the only one with the truth, and that's simply false.

"For too long, people have adhered to ideology rather than the practicalities of saving the lives of animals," he continues. "We need to change that through collaboration, not isolation."

It remains to be seen whether or not all of these points of view can find a collaborative model for Indianapolis Animal Care and Control with Doug Rae at the helm, a man who has made no secret of his motives or a single attempt to hide an agenda. As soon as today, all interested parties could learn if the terms of his probation have been met and he's been found sufficiently compliant with the changes demanded.

One thing is certain, however, he won't be changing the fundamental principles by which he plans to operate IACC, should he continue.

"I won't play politics with animals," Rae says, unequivocally. "And I won't kill for space. I just won't do it."

Author's note:

In addition to those quoted above, at least six other individuals were interviewed for this story, including members of the City-County Council, IACC union employees, representatives of several animal rescue groups and employees of other shelters. All of these individuals had serious concerns and criticisms about Doug Rae's management of IACC, but all of them also requested that their comments be "off the record" and their names withheld from publication. As a result, I have had to rely on summary and generalization rather than their own words in relaying their remarks and concerns. It is my sincere hope that they feel represented in this piece, but also my sincere regret that they chose not to speak publicly for themselves. -- LM

Update 10/05/09 Monday - 10:00 a.m.

We received news this morning that Doug Rae has been fired. An interim director, Teri Kendrick, has been named until a permanent replacement is found.

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