With new leadership on board at the city's two largest animal shelters, Indianapolis has earned a place on nationally known animal advocate Nathan Winograd's "communities to watch" list.

Both John Aleshire, Humane Society of Indianapolis' executive director, and Douglas Rae, Indianapolis Animal Care and Control's administrator, have expressed commitment to making ours a "no kill" city since assuming their positions in recent months.

It's quite a change from the state of animal welfare in Indianapolis a year ago, that eventually saw the predecessors of Aleshire and Rae resign from their respective posts as controversy erupted around their policies and practices.

This past June, Martha Boden resigned as CEO of the Humane Society, a position she'd held since 2003. Boden had a contentious relationship with many in the grass-roots animal welfare community that reached its peak in March when she instituted a series of changes at HSI, including policies that essentially prevented stray dogs and cats from being surrendered to the private agency, and turning HSI into more of a pet shop where desirable animals were being brought in from other counties and states for adoption here. All local strays were being sent to the city's animal shelter, Indianapolis Animal Care and Control.

Leaders of animal welfare advocacy groups like Indy Pit Crew and Friends of Indianapolis Dogs Outside (FIDO) scrambled for a game plan after these changes, criticizing Boden for not bringing them into the decision-making process. Many were concerned that the public would resist taking strays to IACC, and that the policy would lead to an increase in animal dumping.

Boden's replacement, Aleshire, has been at HSI's helm since September 2008, and has worked to rebuild the agency's reputation. While some initially expressed reservations about Aleshire, who previously headed the nonprofit Little Red Door Agency, the community is beginning to respond to his efforts. When he hired Spay-Neuter Services of Indiana's Christine Jeschke as director of shelter operations, many people embraced this move as testament to his collaborative stance.

Correcting the past

"I couldn't be happier with John Aleshire and Christine Jeschke and all the positive changes they're trying to implement. They're a perfect team. They're very collaborative-minded and open to thinking outside the box," IndyFeral's Lisa Tudor says.

Some of that outside-the-box thinking is evident as the duo begins to review shelter protocols. Under Boden, for example, adoption fees previously ranged as high as $450 for purebred, high-demand dogs. Aleshire has capped the fee at $150, and many animals are adoptable for less.

He also stopped importing animals from other jurisdictions to put on HSI's adoption floor. Many animal advocates decried the practice, pointing to the 30-plus animals each day being put down at IACC. Now HSI focuses primarily on transferring animals from IACC, targeting only Marion County animals.

Perhaps most significantly, in contrast to Boden's perceived insularity, Aleshire seems to be going out of his way to engage critics of the organization. Monthly animal welfare summits have drawn representation from 14 local groups, and have laid the groundwork for future cooperation.

Trish Main, president of the animal watchdog group Move to Act, has attended the summits, and likes what she sees. "John has a vision, and he's driven," Main says. "I like his openness to working with all the grass-roots organizations and getting the education he needs to turn the place around. He's all ears."

Aleshire intends to ensure that HSI staff is well-informed about volunteer groups like Indy Pit Crew, FIDO and IndyFeral. "It's very important to change the culture here to one of collaboration," he says. "We're all in this together; how can we learn from each other? It's taken a while to take hold, but now I think it has. It's really good to see the staff rally and to see the response from some of these other groups who probably thought we had horns. With good reason."

According to IndyFeral's Tudor, the new level of partnership between HIS and local animal advocacy groups is a welcome change. "For the first time, they're helping us to adopt out friendly cats that we find in colonies. They adopted out 50 cats for us, which is huge, and helped us with some medical needs we've had," Tudor says.

Jeschke and Aleshire are also working to revitalize neglected relationships with potential foster families and rescue groups, both of which would help to move animals into homes faster. They acknowledge that neither program was nurtured during Boden's tenure. Jeschke says, "If there's a breed rescue that hasn't felt we've reached out to them, we'd certainly want them to reach out again and renew that relationship."

Straightening out the agency's dicey financial situation is another priority for Aleshire. On Boden's watch, HSI borrowed against the two trust funds that support it, leaving the agency deep in the red by the time Aleshire was hired on.

He has since restructured the organization to cut some 20 administrative jobs, and he is filling the development director role for the time being.

"Our goal this year is a balanced budget," he says. "Our finances picked up enough in the last quarter of 2008 that we did not need to use our line of credit." Donations in November and December exceeded HSI goals, and he expects that trend to continue as the public sees additional improvements.

"Calls are up; volunteers are up," he notes. Letters in his mailbag sound a familiar theme: "It's about time; keep up the good work."

A major goal is to operate a low-cost spay/neuter clinic out of HSI's Wellness Center. In the second quarter of this year, or earlier depending on the agency's financial recovery, they plan to begin offering spay/neuter services to low-income pet owners.

"That's a sin of the past that we're correcting," Aleshire says. "It's unconscionable that we've never been involved in that phase of animal welfare." The clinic will also be available to partner groups in the community.

Upheaval at IACC

The cross-town counterpart to the Humane Society is the city-run Animal Care and Control shelter, which has seen even more upheaval over the past year.

The trouble began when animal advocates volunteering at the shelter filed a grievance with the city after witnessing a dog being dragged on a control pole and a kitten left to die from a botched euthanasia. They also documented unsanitary conditions and generally subpar care.

Two independent investigators substantiated most of the complaints, recommending an assessment of whether administrator Steve Talley was right for the job. Talley, who had previously served as a member of the City-County Council and had no experience with animals or running a city agency the size of IACC, resigned the next day, citing the desire to spend more time with his family.

Most of the issues contained in the original grievance, as well as ongoing criticism of the shelter, involve the kind of basic care and treatment that are both morally and legally mandated, according to Greg Brush, co-founder of the Indy No-Kill Initiative.

"Making sure animals have food, that they don't have to wallow in filth, that they have medical attention - those aren't things that should need to be addressed," Brush says. "They should be ensured for every animal in the facility."

However, with the arrival of Talley's replacement, Douglas Rae, as the new IACC administrator this month, Brush and other activists expect the situation to turn around.

"For the first time in the history of the city," he says, "we actually have someone who is an animal sheltering professional in the job." Furthermore, Rae seems to have a strong personal drive to do the right thing for the animals, and he is unconcerned about politics or personalities, Brush says.

Rae, a staunch advocate of the no kill philosophy, started as IACC administrator Jan. 12 and brings years of business and animal advocacy experience to the position. At shelters in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Maryland, he successfully brought animal kill rates down while increasing adoptions using no kill principles. While these are his ultimate goals in Indianapolis as well, Rae's business experience leads him to talk in terms of increasing market share, improving customer service and preventing lost sales as the way for the city shelter to turn itself around.

At a Jan. 14 IACC board meeting, Rae introduced himself at length to the public and talked about his plans for the organization. "We're nowhere near where we should be," he said to those assembled, flipping through pages of notes he'd taken in his first few days on the job. "We've got an awful lot of work to do."

Rae's goal is to drastically decrease the city's kill rate from more than 60 percent to less than 15 percent as soon as possible. With Aleshire expressing a similar no kill strategy at the Humane Society, Rae sees an enormous opportunity in Indianapolis. "We're both on the same page," he says. "We're both saying that something monumental and historic is going to happen in this city.

"I don't play games with the numbers, none of this 'adoptable animals' vs. 'unadoptable,'" Rae elaborates in a follow-up interview. "I look at the number of animals coming in vs. the number of animals that leave alive."

To get there, he plans to increase adoptions, taking market share away from pet stores and breeders. He envisions the city shelter as a warm and inviting place for potential adopters, who will be assisted by adoption counselors. "We need to make the shelter people's first stop [for pets]."

Rae also intends to beef up the shelter's volunteer program, including foster care and rescue groups. Among the positions he plans to fill are a full-time rescue/foster coordinator and a full-time behaviorist. To illustrate the need for these positions, Rae describes some 100 stray dogs being held in kennels past their mandated holding time; they could not be released for adoption because no one had evaluated them. This would be the behaviorist's job, along with consulting with people who want to surrender their pets. A comprehensive public education campaign and spay/neuter efforts are other key components of his plan.

Rae has worked with less money and more animals: At Philadelphia Animal Care and Control, he took in 30,000 animals a year with a $2.9 million budget. Here, the intake is 18,000 animals annually, and the budget is $3.7 million.

He emphasizes his commitment to keeping the public safe from aggressive animals, noting that it is possible to protect both the public and the animals.

"If you're anything like I was when I volunteered, you want to see changes happen yesterday," Rae told a group of IACC volunteers at the Jan. 14 meeting. He then asked them to avoid finger pointing, and said he would educate his staff about the importance and role of volunteers. "Let's move forward," he asked those on every side of the ongoing animal debate.

But last Tuesday, some controversy surfaced on Indypaws.com when a volunteer posted that IACC is more overcrowded than ever. The poster likened shelter conditions to hoarding, a common charge against no kill. Contacted for a comment, Rae called the accusation "ridiculous" and said there were no more animals there than the day he started. Furthermore, some 35 dogs and cats were turned over to foster care and rescue groups the following day.

Rae admits that the shelter is "at capacity," despite winter typically being a slow time for animal shelters. Meanwhile, many of the staff resigned when he was brought on board, making it hard for the remaining crew to stay on top of things. "I need people to come in and do some adoptions now," Rae says. "Fostering dogs and cats is another way animal lovers can help alleviate the crowded conditions and bring down euthanasia rates."

Ellen Robinson, director of the low-cost spay/neuter FACE clinic, says it's too soon to tell whether the new leadership and policies at the city's two largest animal welfare agencies will ultimately bring the city's pet overpopulation problem and shelter overcrowding down.

She would like to see the city place its primary emphasis on prevention through spay/neuter services. "I hope that they decide to look at the problem for what it is, too many cats and dogs out there. Increasing adoptions is great. Still, there's no magic answer. I don't think we'll be able to make strong inroads into [the animal welfare situation] till there are fewer of them and they're more precious."

Indy No Kill's Brush is more optimistic, but notes that Rae will need the support of staff, volunteers, the public and the city. "He's the professional, and the city needs to give him resources he needs to do the job," he says.

Brush doubts that the earlier allegations will ever be directly addressed, but says it doesn't really matter at this point. "In the end, the animals will reap the reward of having a new humane environment at the shelter. Unfortunately, it took six months. Think of all the animals that suffered during that six months.

"Both new administrators are expressing a commitment to bringing new humane treatment and saving lives. If this pans out, and we hope it will, we could be seeing the beginning of a new era for animals in Indianapolis."

Sidebar: Resources

Humane Society of Indianapolis: www.indyhumane.org

Indianapolis Animal Care and Control: www.indygov.org/eGov/City/DPS/ACCD/home.htm

Indy No-Kill Initiative: www.indynokill.org/test/

Move to Act: http://movetoact.org/

Nathan Winograd: http://nathanwinograd.com/

No Kill Advocacy Center: http://nokilladvocacycenter.org/

Alliance for Responsible Pet Ownership: www.adoptarpo.org

Spay Neuter Services of Indiana: www.spayneuterservices.org

Indy Pit Crew: www.indypitcrew.org

Friends of Indianapolis Dogs Outside: www.fidoindy.org

IndyFeral: www.indyferal.org

FACE low-cost spay/neuter clinic www.facespayneuter.org

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