By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
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By Michelle LeBow
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When Amber was a little girl she would save her allowance to buy cat food for the strays roaming her neighborhood behind the Animal Humane Society's St. Paul location, a place still plagued by feral cats today. As a child, Amber made friends with the cats, begging neighbors and friends to take them in. Every once in a while she would go inside the shelter to watch the dogs in their cages. "I loved the dogs," says Amber, who is now a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher.
When Amber was in college at Concordia University, she and a friend decided to volunteer at the humane society. When she first started, the shelter was full "to the point where [we] would be there for four- or five-hour chunks, trying to get all the dogs adopted. It was a really great place. They were doing a lot," she says.
Then things started to change. Slowly it seemed as though dogs started to disappear. "Groups of them would be gone, and I thought, 'Wait a minute, this doesn't seem right.' We kept asking, 'Where are all the dogs? What's happening?' We were very vocal about it, and they didn't appreciate that," Amber remembers.
She says they were told the animals had been euthanized—that "so-and-so was too aggressive, another not adoptable, and the rest too sick." She was devastated.
"I started feeling like, if I'm coming here I'm supporting what they are doing. It just kind of tugged at me," she says. "But, if I didn't come here, I wouldn't be there for the dogs."
Amber left AHS in January after eight years of service. She asked that her last name not be used because she might want to return. Although this year she decided to take a stand by choosing principle over the animals, she's not sure she made the right decision. "I wrestle with that every day," she says.
LAST YEAR, the Animal Humane Society, the largest animal welfare organization in Minnesota, accepted 36,378 living creatures into its shelters—and killed 14,610 of them.
AHS euthanizes about 40 percent of the animals it takes in. The vast majority of the dead animals—94 percent—are dogs and cats. They are brought to AHS for any number of reasons. They are found abandoned on the side of the road or roaming feral in empty fields. Their owners are relocating to a place where pets aren't allowed. Family dynamics have changed—a new baby was born, there was a divorce—and the animal had to go. Lassie was too expensive to care for, and Puffball couldn't be housebroken. Irresponsible owners and pet breeders ended up with litters of unwanted puppies and kittens.
Regardless of the owners' motives, AHS accepted every one of the animals brought to its doors—dogs, cats, birds, rats, livestock, wildlife, a tiger, and an elephant, to name a few of the organization's previous intakes.
"We believe that we should be there for all animals and that we shouldn't be turning animals away based on subjective criteria," says Janelle Dixon, president and CEO of the organization.
Unfortunately, Dixon says, AHS's open-door philosophy requires its shelters to take in animals that other rescue organizations won't, including those too sick or too aggressive to put up for adoption. Even a large shelter can't care for so many animals indefinitely, Dixon says, and many of them must be euthanized.
Critics, however, say that's not true. While sympathetic to AHS's situation, many animal welfare groups in the Twin Cities say AHS's euthanasia rate is just too high. They say AHS does not invest enough in animal health care and training, which would put more animals on the adoption floor, and that it is too focused on self-preservation and fundraising to attack the biggest cause of homeless pets: animal overpopulation.
"It's a strange and surreal stance for an organization that boasts the word 'humane' in its name," says Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark, the largest no-kill shelter in the state and the most vocal opponent of AHS. "It's really quite sleazy the way they misrepresent themselves to the public."
AHS's policies have created a schism in the animal welfare community. Proponents of the so-called no-kill approach contend that the shelter should take much more aggressive steps to prevent animal deaths. In the Twin Cities, former AHS volunteers and employees now staff many of the no-kill rescue groups. Several say they left AHS because of the excessive killing, and each has stories about animals they would have saved.
For the last year, volunteers at AHS have formed discussion groups at each of AHS's five locations, insisting on reform, says one volunteer who wishes to remain anonymous.
"If we don't say anything, the animals suffer. If we do, we'll be let go and they'll suffer more. We took our ideas all the way to senior management and they blew us off. They said, 'Great. We'll look into it,' and we never heard from them again."
Another current AHS volunteer (who also asked to remain anonymous) put it this way: "A lot of animals get adopted through here, many get treated through here, but it's really disturbing the number of animals that get killed through here. So many come in one day and the next they are gone. If I had to surrender my animal, I'd never bring it here. There's a good chance it would die."