Blaze is a Rottweiler mix with liquid eyes and a penchant for pushing his big head against the bars of his kennel for petting.
A stray who entered Indianapolis’s municipal shelter on Feb. 29, 2008, he is one of the many dogs at Animal Care and Control awaiting a friendly touch, a walk or a new home. “I am a good boy,” begins the description on the card clipped to his kennel.
Unfortunately, the odds are poor for Blaze and his canine and feline compatriots. In 2007, 14,470 unwanted dogs and cats were killed at Indianapolis Animal Care and Control and the Humane Society of Indianapolis. That works out to about 40 animals a day, a staggering figure. The problem is enormous, complex and emotionally charged.
So when the Humane Society of Indianapolis announced a policy change in early March, it caused a furor within the local grassroots animal welfare community.
Reducing the overlap
As of March 15, the private agency said, pet owners bringing their animals to HSI would be required to have an appointment for counseling before being allowed to leave their pets. The “reservation required” system would enable HSI to control their intake flow and eliminate the need to euthanize animals due to space needs, HSI officials said.
The news release noted that Indianapolis Animal Care and Control was best equipped to handle strays.
Shortly after this announcement, IACC’s administrator, Steve Talley, and HSI’s CEO, Martha Boden, signed a Memorandum of Understanding formalizing their collaborative approach to the city’s animal welfare problem. The new agreement listed ways to coordinate the two agencies’ efforts and reduce overlap between them. The upshot: stray animals would be funneled to Indianapolis Animal Care and Control, and HSI would take in only owner-surrendered pets.
Boden sees great potential in the partnership. “We’ve opened up a whole new realm of possibility by looking at it as two facilities caring for one population. It’s a matter of determining where every animal should sleep at night, and what kind of services we both can provide to meet those needs.”
Though the Humane Society of Indianapolis shares its name with the Humane Society of the United States, the two organizations are unaffiliated, and the policy change is not nationwide, as some community members assumed. HSUS’s Director of Animal Sheltering Issues Kim Intino notes that shelters across the country are taking a fresh look at both receiving and adopting policies.
“One thing we are seeing,” she says, “is relinquishment by appointment, with phone calls first, and counseling efforts…with the intent of trying to keep animals in their homes if possible.”
Intino says formal partnerships between private shelters and public animal control are somewhat new, but if handled correctly, should not pose an obstacle to serving animals in need.
Grassroots advocates concerned
Local animal welfare activists foresee an increase in animals being dumped and left to roam as a result of this policy.
Angela Mansfield, an Indianapolis city councilwoman active in the local animal welfare movement, says, “I am extremely disappointed in what the Humane Society is doing. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the animals. I think it’s going to result in a lot more killing.”
This concern is overwhelmingly echoed by the leadership of Indy’s many grassroots animal welfare and advocacy groups.
Warren Patitz is one of HSI’s most vocal critics. He is president and co-founder of Move to Act, a nonprofit watchdog group with a mission of holding HSI accountable. Patitz is dubious about claims that the change was grounded in the animals’ best interests. He points to HSI’s shortfalls, estimated at $1 million by Public Safety Director Scott Newman in a recent Indianapolis Star article. (Newman did not return calls requesting comment; see editors’ note at the end of this story for more on Patitz.)
HSI’s financial problems lead Patitz to believe the organization is bankrupt. The reason, he says, is a drastic drop in donations due to a loss of the public’s trust.
Money was indeed part of the rationale for the change, Boden says, but the agency is not bankrupt. She denies a drop in donor contributions, which she says have only grown over the past five years, while still not keeping pace with the expenses of maintaining an open acceptance system.
“We were looking for a more efficient business model,” she says. IACC and HSI have duplicated efforts in education and community outreach for years, and this new approach will maximize their resources, Boden claims.
Patitz, who is calling for Boden’s dismissal, argues, “It’s an opportunistic move, it’s a selfish move, and it’s an incredible betrayal to the animals in the community. Their decision throws an incredible burden on the entire community.”
He predicts that another result of the decision will be a hefty price tag for taxpayers. Feral Bureau of Indiana CEO Greg Brush puts his estimate at half a million dollars in a recent post on the Hoosiers for Fair Taxation blog.
Brush based this figure in part on the city’s cost estimate for housing animals, with the projection that IACC will see an influx of 2,100 animals (the number of strays HSI handled in 2007) plus the possible 1,000 owner surrenders that HSI deems unadoptable. He also factored in the cost of posting an animal control officer at HSI.
However, Patitz notes that HSI’s plan to refer people to other area shelters besides IACC will likely obscure the impact of the policy change, and that the HSI Web site’s shelter list did not even include the city shelter as an option. (Editors’ note: The Web site has since been updated, with IACC at the top of the shelter list.)
“It’s apparent there [will] be no trail or evidence reflected in a higher intake at IACC,” Patitz says. “It won’t happen if we point everybody elsewhere.” Patitz believes this plan is reflective of a longstanding pattern of “deceit and obfuscation” at HSI.
Other leaders of local animal welfare organizations, while less harsh in their criticisms of Boden, are just as worried about the impact of the new policy.
Darcie Kurtz heads up Friends of Indianapolis Dogs Outside (FIDO), a group that targets low-income neighborhoods where many dogs face abuse, neglect and unchecked breeding. “I know from firsthand experience that there’s a huge unmet need for dealing with strays on the street, [and] for dealing with abuse and neglect,” she says. “It concerns me that these problems, in my opinion, are likely to be escalated based on the cutbacks. Animal Care and Control is already overburdened. This is just going to exacerbate the problems that are already out there.”
Lisa Tudor of IndyFeral says calls to her organization have already increased, with would-be stray cat rescuers expressing the fear that taking an animal to IACC is akin to a death sentence. “The feeling I get is that people are going to ignore the animals totally,” she says, adding that she urges callers to have the cats altered at the very least.
Spay Neuter Services of Indiana’s Christine Jeschke agrees that the “average good Samaritan” who has historically taken a stray animal to the Humane Society will be unlikely to intervene under the new policy. With spring breeding season fast approaching, she expects Indy’s stray animal problem to grow exponentially. “I’m confident there’s going to be more animals on the street this summer,” she says.
“No one unserved”
IACC’s spokeswoman, Media Wilson, says she empathizes with these concerns, because her own initial response was similar, but she got past that “knee-jerk reaction” once she saw the actual numbers. In 2007, the two organizations combined took in an equal number of strays and surrenders.
“This change does not leave us with nowhere for strays to go,” she emphasizes. “HSI was not taking most of the strays to begin with. We’re still here.” She rejects the notion that all strays taken to IACC meet an unhappy end, pointing out that IACC transfers animals to numerous rescue groups and no-kill shelters, most notably Southside Animal Shelter. In 2007, Southside took nearly 1,000 of IACC’s animals to give them a chance at a new life. In addition, some 1,700 animals were adopted directly from IACC.
Furthermore, HSI’s policy on euthanasia is unchanged, and the idea of HSI-received animals always ending up in the arms of a new owner is a fallacy, Wilson points out. “Neither of [the shelters[ are a certain confirmation of the animal going on to live in a happy home. Nor are we a certain death sentence.”
“People [should] not be discouraged from bringing the animal in, or think they have to let an animal go to give it its best shot.”
Boden suggests that the new policy will actually cut down on the number of animals roaming free, given the blurry line between homeless and owned animals. She notes that stray dogs and cats are often just pets at large, and keeping these animals in their homes will address part of the stray problem.
The bottom line, says Wilson, is that “no one is going to go unserved.
“The Humane Society didn’t just sit back and say we’re going to make this decision and not tell anybody,” she says. “They didn’t make this decision in a bubble. They sat down with the director of public safety and the shelter and said, how can we work this out so our decision doesn’t have an overwhelming impact.”
Board was not advised
That’s not how it appears to groups like FIDO, Indy Pit Crew, IndyFeral and other mostly volunteer-based animal welfare groups that specialize in direct outreach. They say they were not informed of the decision, and that communication lapse has left them scrambling to come up with a game plan.
“We had no advance notice, no prep, and [they] made this change as we enter puppy and kitten season,” says Jeschke, who helped draft an assessment of the city’s animal welfare situation once the policy change was announced. “If there was planning, and if we were doing this for the best interest of the animals, we should have had a conversation about it. None of these groups knew this was coming.”
She questions the planning that actually went into the decision, since the IACC board of directors was also apparently blindsided by the move.
Erin Clancy, who served as board chair up until Feb. 29, confirms that there was no discussion of the policy change at the IACC board meeting two weeks prior to the public announcement. “I can’t speak for HSI’s executive director ... or the administration of Animal Care and Control,” she says. “All I can say is I wasn’t advised as the IACC board chair as to this development at any point prior to the time it broke in the newspaper.”
It irks many of the small nonprofits that their street-level expertise seems to have gone ignored. Indy Pit Crew’s Stacey Coleman says she would have wanted more than a courtesy heads-up. “As somebody that runs an organization dedicated to getting out in the neighborhoods that need help,” she says, “it’s really frustrating to not have been part of the discussion as the policy change occurred. We have so much insight we can bring to the table that wasn’t even considered as part of the change.”
Boden understands the frustration, but states, “It was more a question of timing.” She needed to focus on ironing out the partnership with the city, she says, including bringing new Public Safety Officer Scott Newman up to speed, and there wasn’t time to bring others into the process. Once a plan was in place, she sent letters to key groups, she says.
Coleman and Kurtz both consider pit bulls the real victims of this policy. Up to 40 percent of dogs taken to IACC are pits and pit mixes. IACC does not allow adoption of these dogs, not because they are inherently dangerous, but because the city shelter lacks the resources to screen potential adopters. In the past, Coleman says, the Humane Society was the shelter of choice for people picking up even-tempered stray pits. HSI staff could weed out people likely to exploit the breed, and make sure the dogs went to loving homes.
“The Humane Society did a good job with that, and I hope they continue to,” Kurtz says. Despite assurances that HSI will continue to pull adoptable pits from IACC’s kennels, she doubts they will take a proportionate number.
Coleman laments, “The sheer number of pit bulls and pit bull mixes will mean certain death for a majority of the dogs. Most of the dogs are going to be left behind.”
Wilson admits that IACC has limited options for pit bulls, but denies that their fate is automatically a death sentence. “We do everything for every animal that we possibly can to find a good outcome for that animal. We have a certain number of resources available, and we have to work within those limits.”
But Coleman says the pit bull rescue groups she works with are all stretched to capacity already. She worries that bully breeds will only be more marginalized if people start leaving strays to fend for themselves after hearing the news of HSI’s policy change. “We’re going to see people driving past the dogs rather than stopping to pick them up. That doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help the overpopulation problem, and it doesn’t help the public’s perception of the breed either,” she says, predicting increased dog bites and animal attacks.
“Pet store approach”
For his part, Patitz is critical of what he calls HSI’s increasingly “pet store approach” to animal sheltering. The fact that some strays will be transferred to HSI for possible adoption does not impress him; he calls it cherry picking.
“It’ll certainly allow [HSI] to pick and choose to make it easier for them so they don’t have to put out the effort to get [animals] adopted,” he says. “They’re basically just selectively choosing those dogs, whether they come in the surrendering door or from Animal Care and Control. They’re only going to put on the adoption floor the ones they can move.”
Patitz would like to see HSI embrace national animal advocate Nathan Winograd’s no-kill equation, which calls for liberal use of rescue groups and volunteers, aggressive spay/neuter programs and innovative adoption efforts, among other things. He decries HSI’s practice of charging near market rates for purebreds, saying, “In responsible animal sheltering a shelter, operator should contact breed rescue immediately.”
Boden says the agency works with dozens of rescue groups, and uses them “when it’s in the animal’s best interest.” With their new system of requiring relinquishers to call first, she says staffers can steer appropriate callers to rescue groups right away. But she says purebreds will still be accepted into HSI’s adoption program if it’s the best option for the animal.
She defends the practice of charging hundreds for certain dogs, saying, “We haven’t seen any of our prices higher than the prices for the same type of dog at a pet store.” Besides, if 10 people are in the market for a particular breed, she says, an adoption fee of $450 is not a deterrent to a dog of that breed going home. “And that $450 is leaving a legacy for other dogs. That’s a heck of a lot of spays and neuters.”
Adoptees go home altered and microchipped, having undergone a veterinary exam and a behavior assessment, she points out, and those costs alone would likely run higher than the adoption fee.
Furthermore, she contends that many of Winograd’s recommendations are already in place, citing expanded hours, an active foster program and the partnerships with breed rescue groups.
But some local rescue groups have found HSI less than cooperative. According to Handi Skorich of Indianapolis Poodle Rescue, it’s been over two years since someone from HSI called her to take a poodle. She often sees HSI showcasing poodles in TV spots, which frustrates her, since she has a waiting list of people desiring the breed. “[The poodles] could have been moved out within the same day,” she says. “Another dog that doesn’t have the connection to breed rescue could have had that spot.”
Patitz says Skorich’s experience is not an isolated case. He also deplores the fact that HSI brings animals from shelters in other states to fill their adoption kennels, while others are taking Indiana’s shelter dogs across the country for a second chance.
According to Cathi Eagan of CanINE Express Transport Project, each month volunteers transport adoptable dogs from IACC and other area shelters to their partnership shelters in New England, where aggressive spay/neuter programs have cut down on pet overpopulation. In 2007, they transferred nearly 3,000 dogs, most of them “on the euthanasia list,” according to Eagan, who was dismayed to learn that HSI brings animals in from elsewhere.
Boden’s explanation invokes a complex calculus of factors: The number of animals coming in changes every day, as does the number going out, whether adopted, transferred, euthanized or returned to owner. Available space shifts on a daily basis. The need for behavioral and health assessments further complicates how many animals are housed where within the facility. “It’s like a daily tic-tac-toe,” she says.
IACC is first to be called if space opens up, she says, but if their animals are promised to New England shelters, HSI contacts other places, some within the state, some elsewhere.
Only 200 of the 2,800 animals transferred from IACC went to HSI last year, and that is something she hopes the new partnership will remedy. Her kennel manager is now in daily contact with IACC.
An urgent problem
Many in the animal welfare community wish HSI would take the lead in addressing Indy’s pet overpopulation problem, including communicating the scope of the problem and implementing aggressive spay/neuter programs.
Tudor says the responsibility lies not just with HSI but with the city administration. “The city really needs to step up and say we’re going to embrace a citywide spay/neuter program ... It’s a longterm investment from a tax perspective. For every dollar we invest in spay/neuter, it saves the city 10 in the long run.”
With so many animals dying, there is a sense of urgency in the grassroots groups. Jeschke and Tudor say many of the recommendations in a 2002 Animal Care and Control task force report were unheeded. “If you look at that report from 2002, the primary thing our city needed to do was spay/neuter,” Jeschke says. “This model we’ve been following, finding homes for a few and killing the rest, should not be acceptable.”
Another component of the study, Tudor points out, was the idea of pooling resources in public education and outreach — the very thing IACC and HSI are emphasizing now.
“It’s history repeating itself,” Councilwoman Mansfield says.
The urgency is compounded by the example of other cities embracing Winograd’s no-kill equation. In Reno, Nev., for example, where intake numbers are similar to Indianapolis’, the Nevada Humane Society is leading the way to no-kill countywide, saving nine out of 10 dogs and almost eight out of 10 cats.
Winograd, who will be in town May 3-4 for a No Kill Solutions Conference (see sidebar), has offered to complete a comprehensive assessment of IACC, with written recommendations. Patitz is awaiting confirmation from Director Newman that the invitation will be accepted.
Asked whether they would attend the conference, both Boden and Wilson are noncommittal. “I don’t have a problem listening to any view of animal welfare, but it’s an issue of time management,” Wilson says. From April through November, IACC is busy with off-site adoption events, she says.
Boden says she hasn’t decided yet, citing time and resource constraints, and the accessibility of Winograd’s ideas on the Internet.
But Tudor would like to see both agencies represented at the conference. She knows that no one person has all the answers. “I hope there’s bits and pieces that fit our community that would make sense,” she says. “To me if we’re not doing everything we can, to the best of our ability, we’re failing the animals.” n
Monday, April 7, Warren Patitz of Move to Act was appointed to the Indianapolis Animal Care and Control Board of Directors by Mayor Greg Ballard. “I hope to create a heightened awareness of what can be pursued to reduce killing of adoptable animals in Marion County,” he said about the appointment. While he did not actively pursue the position, Patitz has had several discussions with Ballard about the state of animal welfare in Indianapolis, presumably motivating the mayor to include Patitz in IACC decision-making.
By the numbers
Animals Handled by Indianapolis Animal Care and Control in 2007:
Returned to Owner: 1,402
Animals Handled by Humane Society of Indianapolis in 2007:
Returned to Owner: 266
* These numbers do not include animals present at the shelters at the beginning of a calendar year, nor do they account for a small number of animals that are dead upon arrival or euthanized at the request of the owners.
No Kill solutions conference
Activist and author Nathan Winograd returns to Indianapolis May 3-4 for a conference on how Indianapolis can follow in the footsteps of other municipalities and become a “no-kill” city. The conference is being held at TherAplay, 9919 Towne Road, in Carmel. For more information and registration, go to http://movetoact.org/.
Save the Strays Rally
When: 10 a.m. - noon, Saturday, April 26
Where: Monument Circle - East
Who: Anyone who cares about companion animals
Why: Too many homeless and stray animals, not
For more information contact Stacey Coleman, of Indy Pit Crew, firstname.lastname@example.org
Indy No-Kill Initiative: www.indynokill.org/test/
Alliance for Responsible Pet Ownership:
Spay Neuter Services of Indiana:
Hoosiers for Fair Taxation:
Feral Bureau of Indiana: www.feralbureau.org/
Indy Pit Crew: www.indypitcrew.org/
Friends of Indianapolis Dogs Outside:
Move to Act: movetoact.org/
Humane Society of Indianapolis:
Indianapolis Animal Care and Control:
Nathan Winograd: nathanwinograd.com/
No Kill Advocacy Center: nokilladvocacycenter.org/
HSUS Animal Sheltering Magazine:
Animal welfare groups in Indianapolis, including those interviewed for this article, have prepared a Community Assessment of Indianapolis Animal Welfare that has been released for public viewing. The 63-page white paper is available at www.spayneuterservices.org.