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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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.