John Aleshire, executive director for the Humane Society of Indianapolis, sits with staffer Rachel Hodges. In the last two years, Aleshire has made big improvements at the shelter. Photo by Mark Lee

John Aleshire, executive director for the Humane Society of Indianapolis, sits with staffer Rachel Hodges. In the last two years, Aleshire has made big improvements at the shelter. Photo by Mark Lee

Gimme Shelter: John Aleshire brings new life to the Humane Society 


Not so long ago, the Humane Society of Indianapolis (HSI) wasn't a very happy place. Facilities were underutilized, with some rooms left completely dark or simply used for storage. Staff was largely underprepared for the huge task they faced, and often not trained for the job at hand. Programs weren't running well, and problem animals—who sometimes reacted with anxiety or aggression to their new surroundings—weren't given much of a chance to de-stress and adjust to the culture.

But today, barks, purrs and laughter seem as much a part of the culture as kibble and dog bones.

Much of the credit goes to the Humane Society's enthusiastic leader, John Aleshire, who will celebrate his second anniversary as executive director this September. Aleshire and his staff have been working hard to renovate the culture of the animal shelter, transforming it from a disjointed place where "the right hand wasn't talking — let alone working — with the left," to one where the focus is clear and the goal is reachable.

"Our creed is 'it's all about the animals,'" Aleshire said. "Each person makes a difference here, and we're in the relentless pursuit of excellence."

NUVO dropped by recently to see how things were going, and found a revitalized organization that has made great strides to forge new partnerships with the community at large and with other animal welfare organizations in the area.

Today, hundreds of volunteers help care for animals, providing caring companionship, walks in the dog park and kennel support. Similarly, hundreds of foster and rescue groups help by providing temporary but caring home environments for animals who are too young, old or anxious for shelter life.

The situation for unwanted animals citywide is still desperate, as underscored by a summer surge in the number of animals HSI has been forced to accommodate. But under Aleshire's leadership, animals that come through the shelter have opportunities to get healthier and happier, and find their forever homes. [K1]

"Because of all these partnerships, our release rate for dogs and cats is nearly 90 percent," Aleshire said. "That's up from 60-some percent from two years ago."


Early realities

Bringing a sense of vitality, connection and service back to the Humane Society is a big job and it requires a big passion. Prior to accepting the position, Aleshire was a long-time Humane Society donor. "As a donor, I wasn't always happy," he said.

When then-board director David Horth called and told him they wanted him to consider the lead role, he was a bit resistant. But as he learned about the board's unified vision, his hesitation dissolved. "I took the job knowing it was either going to be my biggest folly or my greatest legacy," Aleshire said. "So we'll see what happens."

He said his biggest surprise was — and is — the complexity of the organization. "It's a hospital, it's a wellness center, it's an adoption center, it's a bed and breakfast, it's Disneyland, because we want it to be a fun experience — and there was really no instruction manual."

Aleshire realized very quickly that some things were just not working. Programs weren't running well, staff members were not getting the training they needed, and Aleshire noted a kind of "silo" mentality that isolated the shelter instead of enabling it to partner with organizations who were willing and eager to help. "I didn't like the programs we had set up," he said. "I didn't like the way we were doing things -- it just felt so icky."

During the first two years, Aleshire faced financial challenges as well. "We have not always made good financial decisions in the last year, so we've corrected that," he said. He added that caring for each animal costs $600 to $800 and he's acutely aware that the work won't get done without the people who support the organization. Funds are raised through medical sponsorships, adoption fees, and special events, and the Humane Society collaborates with other animal welfare organizations to find the right services and support for each animal.

With the help of dedicated board members and a positive, passionate staff, things quickly began to turn around. "As we show good leadership and good stewardship, I think more and more people will say, 'That's an organization I want to support.'"

Signs of growth


Today, the shelter facility is in full use and many vital programs are up and running, thanks in large part to key members of Aleshire's staff. Early on, Aleshire hired Christine Jeschke, director of shelter operations, to come rebuild the shelter.

"She's had this enormous task," Aleshire said. "While I try to figure out the finances and help stabilize things, she's been back there with [fellow shelter employee] Kirsten, really changing the staff and changing protocols. We now have medical protocols, partnerships with Purdue University, and partnerships with Harrison College school of Veterinary Technology. None of that existed before, and she's put all of that together."

Another key staff member is Nina Gaither, a behavioralist who does extensive behavior assessments on incoming dogs to determine their temperaments. Aleshire is proud that the shelter knows the needs and capabilities of each individual animal. If a dog shows aggressive behavior, such as protecting his food bowl, they send the animal to enrichment coordinator Colleen Benson for retraining. After working with the dog extensively, Benson uses a series of tests to determine whether the dog is suitable for adoption. If not, the dog continues in the training program as long as it is making progress.

When the dog is made available for adoption, there are conditions — for example, a dog who displayed aggressive behavior is not a good fit for a family with small children. The detailed behavior assessment offers more dogs the opportunity to experience a happy home life. "We give a dog so many more chances now," Aleshire said.

Similarly, partnerships with organizations such as Indy Feral and Cats Haven enable the Humane Society to offer cats more options, too. Now, old or skittish cats can go to a foster home or to new on-site facilities like the free-roaming cat room, the "de-stress" cat room or the room for HIV-positive cats (which has a decidedly Zen feel). All offer cats a way to socialize and relax while they wait to find permanent homes.

The Humane Society also better supports new owners to help adoptions stick, said Rick Doucette, director of canine training. With a number of classes for puppies and adult dogs, Doucette works to teach the basics of successful dog training. To that end, the shelter has a call center that receives more than 25,000 calls a year from animal lovers throughout the area, asking for pet advice or looking for resources.

The Humane Society also offers a low-cost vaccine clinic, a food bank, a dog park, microchipping services and more. Information about all of these services can be found on the organization's website, www.indyhumane.org, or on its Facebook page.

A desperate summer

Despite improvements, the Humane Society alone can only do so much. The situation for animals in Indianapolis remains urgent, as a recent uptick in animal surrenders has shown.

In the past, the shelter usually operated in the red, offering services that exceeded the shelter's income. Under Aleshire's watch, however, the Humane Society has worked hard to balance fiscal responsibility with compassionate care. This means that when there is a boom in animal surrenders – as there has been this summer — decisions must be made about how many new animals they can responsibly take in.

Although the shelter is budgeted to care for 340 animals, recently the census at the shelter reached 550. Its capacity thus strained, the Humane Society decided last month to temporarily stop making new appointments to talk with owners about bringing in their pets.

"We found ourselves beyond our financial ability to care for these animals," Aleshire said. "We do not euthanize for space and we are caring for medically needy animals in ways we never have before. And that means they are here longer than other shelters because we're putting them back together."

Aleshire added that when owners want to surrender animals and the shelter can't take them in, the Humane Society will work with owners to help them keep their animals a little longer. Sometimes a little extra support goes a long way for an overwhelmed owner, and the Humane Society offers retraining classes for older dogs as well as a call-in hotline for additional support. The shelter's Nonie Krauss Foster Care Program provides invaluable support to the shelter and offers training for individuals and families who want to work with specific types of animals, like newborn kittens or puppies or elderly dogs and cats.

"We are always looking for new foster families," Aleshire said.

Over the Fourth of July holiday, the shelter offered a creative—and successful—promotion, reducing adoption fees to $17.76 for older animals. The public response was "wonderful and humbling," Aleshire said. More than 120 animals found homes that week.

More promotions are planned for the months to come, and right now the Humane Society is running a kitten adoption special through Aug. 31, 2010. When you adopt one kitten for the regular fee of $95, you can take home a kitty friend for only $25. "We try to have fun with it throughout the year as we have a need," Aleshire said.


Vision for the future


Aleshire's next plan is enhancing the organization's involvement with the Indianapolis Animal Welfare Alliance, a collective group of welfare organizations that has developed a 10-year vision for the city. "These partnerships are one of the things I am most proud of because previously we were not a partner," he said. "So to see this come together for the new project we want to launch at Fountain Square is just going to be stunning."

The Alliance found that approximately 73 percent of all Animal Care and Control calls come from 10 ZIP Codes in Indianapolis, six of which are in the Fountain Square area.

While carrying on with the daily work of the Humane Society is Aleshire's first priority, he is aware that in the next year there will be 10,000-12,000 dogs and cats euthanized at various places in Indianapolis because of overpopulation. "We can't adopt our way out of the problem," he said.

"Our 10 year vision is to create an Animal Welfare Center that will be unique to any place in the country. In the building — we're raising money right now — we will have a high-volume, low-cost, spay/neuter clinic that's targeted to low-income. It will also have pediatric surgery because kittens can start to reproduce at four months. We intend by year three to be doing 10,000 surgeries a year."

This will have a huge impact on the number of animals that get involved with Animal Care and Control, and "animals that are spayed and neutered are healthier animals and their hormones are in balance," Aleshire explained. "It's just a better thing all around."

Another important aspect of the Animal Welfare Center is that transportation will be provided and a low-cost vaccine clinic will be available to the public. Other organizations involved in the Alliance — such as Indy Feral and Friends of Indianapolis Dogs Outside (FIDO) — will house their headquarters in the building and provide services to the public. (To find out more about the Indianapolis Animal Welfare Alliance, visit www.indyanimalalliance.org.)

As if continuing to improve life at the Humane Society, helping to get the Indianapolis Animal Welfare Alliance off the ground, and caring for Bert and Ernie, his own one-time shelter cats, weren't enough, Aleshire has another dream he'd like to see become a reality in the next two years.

"I want the old Walgreens," he said, referring to the building that is now vacant and adjacent to the Humane Society property. His vision includes expanding the canine school, offering a doggy day care that is equipped for special needs animals, and expanding the clinic.

It's a big job, but judging from the positive changes at the Humane Society these first two years, it's easy to imagine that Jim Aleshire will somehow pull it off — smiling the whole way.


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