By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
ANIMAL RESCUE in the Twin Cities is a blend of private and public organizations that includes the Minneapolis and St. Paul animal control agencies, nonprofit sheltering facilities like Animal Ark and AHS, and no-kill, foster-based groups that place unwanted pets in homes temporarily while they look for permanent families.
AHS is one of the largest animal shelters in the country, a privately funded organization with an $11.3-million budget, as much as $26 million in net assets, and locations in Buffalo, Coon Rapids, Golden Valley, St. Paul, and Woodbury. It controls the majority of donor funds available for animal welfare in the state and considers itself a leader in the community.
There is no doubt that AHS places more homeless pets than any other group. From its inception in 2007 (in a merger between the Humane Society for Companion Animals, the Animal Humane Society, and the Greater West Metro Humane Society) through June of this year, the organization has adopted, reunited, or placed 23,370 dogs and cats. In 2007, 48 percent of the dogs and cats AHS took in were adopted, 5 percent were reunited with their owners, and 46 percent were euthanized. Less than 1 percent—135—were placed with other rescue organizations.
As animals pour into AHS, the staff pumps them through medical and behavior evaluations that can take anywhere from a day to a week, Dixon says. The odds for an animal's survival aren't good. In 2007, 42 percent of dogs and 48 percent of cats were euthanized. Many animals are put down after an extensive medical screening. Healthy animals with minor medical problems are treated. Those with serious medical conditions are killed.
Animals that make it past the medical component are then subjected to a temperament review to make sure they are suitable for adoption. Dogs go through a controversial 30-minute behavior screening using a modified test developed by Sue Sternberg with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The test determines whether a dog has a potential for aggression, says Dixon. In one instance a rubber hand tries to take food away from the dog to see how it reacts—to learn if it will growl or nip.
With cats, the equation is much simpler, says an AHS technician. If a cat tries to bite, scratch, or attack you, it's gone.
Animals that pass temperament review go straight to the adoption floor, where they will be reassessed regularly until someone takes them home. Those that fail go into one of two groups. Some are allowed to enter training programs such as Oh Behave and Adoption Preparation. However, the majority that fail are killed.
The process of euthanasia is simple, efficient, and relatively painless. On a recent Wednesday morning, a fat brown, black, and white cat was scheduled to be put down. It whined from a cage in an empty room on the upper floor of AHS's Golden Valley facility. Its owners had recently surrendered it. The cat had lived for 14 years and in its old age had lost its desire to use a litter box. She was developing cataracts, said Kathy Johnson, director of animal services at AHS. As she talked, Johnson prepared a syringe of blue liquid. Called Fatal Plus, the high dose of barbiturates quickly causes an animal to drift asleep. A few seconds later, its heart will stop.
The 15-pound cat scrambled off the table as soon as it was let out of its cage—almost as if it knew its fate. A veterinary technician grabbed her and stroked her fur, speaking calmly to the animal, trying to get it to stop crying.
Johnson administered the shot. Within seconds, the cat became quiet and still. Johnson listened to its heart rate. "Some take longer than others," she said. A minute or so later, she tried again. "Yeah, she's gone," Johnson said. The animal's eyes were frozen wide open. Soon, rigor mortis would set in.
So far this year, AHS is euthanizing an average of 1,015 dogs and cats a month in this way. The bodies are piled in freezers. Once or twice a week a trucking company collects the frozen clumps of fur and muscle and dumps them in a mass grave in an undisclosed location.
"It's heartbreaking," Johnson says, still running her fingers through the fur of the lifeless cat. "But [its owners] trust us to do the right thing. That's why we take this so seriously. We all believe it's a humane way to go. We all believe it's sometimes necessary, but it is still a life, and it's heartbreaking."
IN APRIL, the local animal welfare community spun into a tizzy on the blogs after Fry wrote an open letter to AHS that was published on several animal welfare websites and on Animal Ark's blog. In it he told about Tootsie, an "affectionate and playful" wirehaired-griffon mix found running in traffic in western Wisconsin. The dog was trapped by animal control and taken to AHS's Woodbury shelter as a stray.
According to Fry, a week later the woman who rescued Tootsie was told the animal would be euthanized, "in spite of there being a large abundance of empty kennels at the shelter." She was told Tootsie was sick and had behavior problems, "none of which turned out to be true," Fry says.