Minnesota's largest shelter killed more than 14,000 animals last year. How many were unnecessary?

Despite euthanasia numbers in the thousands, Janelle Dixon, president and CEO of the AHS, sees her organization as a leader in the Twin Cities animal welfare industry
Larry Marcus

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."


CRITICS OF AHS'S high kill rates say the organization has been reluctant to adopt new trends in animal welfare that have dramatically reduced euthanasia in other states. Several open-door shelters nationwide—starting in 1994 in San Francisco and most recently in Tompkins County, New York; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Reno, Nevada—have been able to reach save rates for dogs and cats in the high 80 and low 90 percentiles, using the no-kill model put forth by Nathan Winograd, author of Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America. Winograd's formula for success includes increased community involvement, close partnerships between welfare agencies, and specific programs such as high-volume, low-cost spaying and neutering and a controversial trap, neuter, and release (TNR) effort targeting feral cats.

It is the responsibility of every animal welfare organization to use all the tools available to save animals, says Winograd, who refers to shelters with high kill rates as "assembly lines of death." We are a nation obsessed with pets, the former criminal defense attorney and shelter director argues. Every year Americans spend $40 billion on their pets and millions more donating to animal welfare charities. Yet "the reality is that 70 percent of cats and 40 to 50 percent of dogs nationwide end up in landfills instead of in the loving home of a family," he says . "It doesn't make sense."

Last October, Winograd came to the Twin Cities to discuss his program. His visit, sponsored by Animal Ark, was a day of hope for many animal activists, who cheered his solution to a problem they have grappled with for years. The crowd of well over 100 gave him two standing ovations.

"I see euthanasia as my personal failure," says Holly Ailts, shelter director of the Heartland Animal Rescue Team in Brainerd. Inspired by Winograd's successes, she is constantly striving to be a no-kill, open-door shelter. By implementing much of the model and working closely with other area rescue groups, HART has dropped its dog euthanasia rates to less than 20 percent. Ailts is still working on the cat problem.

"It's our responsibility to be open-minded to any program or policy that will save more lives," she says. "Philosophically, humane shelters have to be on board to be good stewards for the animals."

But philosophically, everyone isn't on the same ship. Sitting primly at a round table in a large, window-filled office in Golden Valley, Dixon is quite frank. "We are not moving toward, nor do we have an intention to be a no-kill or limited-admission facility," she says. "We always have at the top of our mind the welfare of animals and reducing euthanasia so that all adoptable animals get placed, [but] absolute no-kill doesn't exist. There are animals that will always be euthanized, and there will always be animals that cannot be safely and appropriately placed in homes."

Shelters like AHS open their doors to thousands of animals, says Dixon, who was at Winograd's presentation but has yet to read his book. Moving to a strict no-kill policy would mean wait times for people needing to drop off their animals, she says. "If you turn them away they are not going to keep the animal. They are going to find something else to do with it," she says, alluding to the large numbers of animals that are dumped.

No-kill isn't without controversy, says Daphna Nachminovitch, a vice president at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA has gotten complaints about overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at some of the sites Winograd claims as successes, she says.

Like abortion semantics, even the language categorizing welfare groups into "high kill" and "no kill" shelters is polarizing, says Dixon. To her, a no-kill operation means "closing your doors when you're full, screening for health and behavior at the time of surrender, and turning animals away that you don't think are a good fit for your programs, so you don't have to deal with some of the euthanasia decisions that an open facility does."

Many animal rescuers understand AHS's position. "It's really hard for a shelter to go to no-kill," says Erica Sutherland, a lawyer who serves on the board at All Dog Rescue, a local no-kill, foster-based group. "It is a lot more complicated than people realize. An impound cannot say no. We have the luxury of saying, 'All our foster homes are taken right now and we're not going to take any more dogs.' We close our doors and that's it. And when people contact us, we say go to the Humane Society. If you are in a hurry and you can't wait, go to the shelter. But no-kill is possible. It's just a lot of work."


The divisions in the animal welfare community have been frustrating for some. "In a way the no-kill movement is hurting us," says Marilou Chanrasmi, president of Pet Haven, one of the largest no-kill foster groups in the Twin Cities. "It's putting a wedge between groups. All the rifts, the bickering, to me it's wasted energy. Unless you believe [in the no-kill model] and can get everyone to rally behind it, it won't happen. We need to work together."


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.

Worried about the dog's welfare, the woman called Animal Ark for help. After nearly an entire day of negotiations and after threatening to call the news media, Animal Ark was allowed to take custody of the dog, Fry says.

(Laurie Brickley, a spokeswoman for AHS, tells a different version of the story. Tootsie was not scheduled for euthanasia; she was put on a mandatory wait period for all strays, in case the owners come looking for their pet, she says. Tootsie's rescuer was told that the dog might be put down if the animal failed to meet health and behavior standards. However, veterinary staff never were able to fully examine the dog because she was too fearful and aggressive to be handled, Brickley says.)

When Tootsie got to Animal Ark, she was in reasonably good health and playful spirits, despite having a Taser dart left over from her capture still stuck under her skin, Fry says. Several families wanted to adopt her. "Sadly, were it not for the tenacity of her rescuers, she would not be alive today." Tootsie's new owners have renamed her Eleanor Roosevelt. They say she is for the civil rights of dogs.

In his letter, Fry publicly challenged AHS's euthanasia policies and commitment to reducing overpopulation. Their temperament test is one example, he says. While many organizations and rescues use it as a guideline for assessing an animal's behavior, most don't use it as rigidly as AHS.

"Almost everybody knows dogs that are well loved, good, or happy, who wouldn't pass the temperament test there," says Ellen Weinstock, a St. Paul lawyer who was asked to leave AHS in 2002 after spending two years volunteering at the St. Paul shelter. "I was booted out of there for asking them why they were killing this particular dog and saying, 'Boy, I just don't see it. Can you explain it to me?' "

Dixon says stringent temperament testing is crucial. "One of our firm beliefs is that we have a responsibility to the animal, but we also have an equal and as important responsibility to the community. We want to make sure that animals getting placed from our sites or via us through other sites are temperamentally sound." Besides, she adds, some animals are given a second chance. Last year, 1,204 dogs and cats entered adoption preparation or behavior training courses to increase their chances of making it to the adoption area.

Paula Zukoff, supervisor of behavior and training at AHS, says the Sternberg test is "industry standard. A dog has to be really aggressive to fail."

In 2007, 61 percent of the dogs euthanized at AHS were put down because of breed or temperament. In total, 6,028 dogs and cats were killed for that reason—44 percent of the total number euthanized.

Another 4,294—nearly 31 percent of those euthanized—were killed due to poor health. "Given that other 'open admission' shelters have achieved save rates of 90-plus percent, it is obvious AHS should have had to euthanize a little over 3,000 for those reasons," Fry wrote.

"There were dozens of dogs that were euthanized because of one flaw," says Amber, telling the story of Bosco, a dog placed in the foster care of another AHS volunteer for two weeks and then returned for adoption. When the volunteer came back to visit Bosco "she was told he wasn't going to make it to the adoption floor," Amber says. "He had nipped at someone through the bottom of his kennel. The volunteer begged and pleaded for the shelter to let her adopt him, and they said no.


"Liability is a big issue at AHS. Even though Bosco had a person willing to take him, the shelter decided that he was unadoptable. This kind of situation has happened more than I can count. Puppies have been pulled and euthanized for play-biting. Play-biting is a normal puppy thing."

Critics say that too many of the animals brought to AHS never get a real chance at survival. They say that too many animals are never even put up for adoption. On the last Tuesday in July, dozens of cats but only 12 dogs were available for families to adopt at AHS's Golden Valley location. The agency's website the following week revealed hundreds of cats but only 20 dogs available for the public to take home at all five of AHS's shelters.

"There's just no excuse to have as many empty cages as they have," Amber says. "I've heard several people come into the shelter and say, 'Where are all your dogs?' And I say, 'Go ask, because I don't know.'"

Brickley says that in the last three to four years the organization has been seeing a decrease in the number of dogs it receives, though recent numbers don't support that contention. Last year 9,844 were turned over to the facility. In the first six months of 2008, however, the agency has already taken in more than half that amount—5,131 dogs.

Mary Salter, a former supervisor for customer service at AHS, says staff members at the shelter had a script to ease people's fears of euthanasia when they dropped off their animals. It was a spiel about the large number of adoptions done at the shelter. At first the marketing tool didn't bother her, but in 2003, after working there for four years, she left. "Once you saw how many animals were put down, it kind of felt like you could be misleading them," she says. Salter now works at Animal Ark.

"The no-kill shelters work with animals," Salter says. "If we get a dog with a behavior problem, we will have a trainer work with that dog so we can place them in an appropriate home. At AHS any dog that would have any reaction in their temperament test would not be considered for the adoption floor, even if it was a behavior that could be trained. Any cat or dog that would have even a treatable physical ailment would get put down."

AHS detractors also complain that the organization doesn't cooperate with other agencies to reduce the need for euthanasia. Many times, Salter says, she watched AHS turn down offers from other rescue groups willing to take animals scheduled to be put down. So far this year, AHS has placed only 43 dogs and four cats with other rescue groups, despite euthanasia rates in the thousands. "If they couldn't place them, why not allow other willing groups to place them?" Salter asks.

In 2006, 14 animal welfare groups, including the Twin Cities' municipal animal control facilities and Animal Ark, joined together to reduce kill rates and overpopulation by allowing rescue groups to take in animals scheduled for euthanasia at open-door shelters. AHS refused to join.

One reason is that AHS couldn't ensure that the smaller groups would provide adequate care, says Brickley. AHS is not going to give an aggressive animal to anyone, she says, even another group. Dixon later added via email: "We work in collaboration and partnership with many of the groups. ... [However], one of the important components that is required for Homes for All Pets participants is the expectation to collaborate in an open and constructive way. Unfortunately, this type of relationship does not exist between AHS and Animal Ark. The attacks...by Animal Ark are prohibitive to AHS participation."

Another frequent criticism is that, despite AHS's size, it is doing little to alleviate the critical problem of animal overpopulation. The first tenet of Winograd's no-kill formula is instituting a trap, neuter, and release program for feral cats, to reduce the large number of strays brought to shelters.

Yet Fry says AHS spends little of its money to meet that goal. This year, he points out, AHS announced it is building a $4.25-million boarding facility to house pets while their owners are on vacation. The shelter hopes to pull in about $100,000 a year within two years from the fundraising plan. Fry and others believe that money could have been used to slow overpopulation and limit euthanasia using components of the Winograd model.

"Look, if Animal Ark had the same budget as the Humane Society, the Twin Cities could literally move toward no-kill tomorrow," he says. Fry's organization, the largest no-kill, limited-admission shelter in the state, took in 734 animals in 2007, but Fry says he had to euthanize only five.


While Dixon concedes that feral cats are becoming more of a problem in the Twin Cities, AHS has no plans to implement TNR. "It's not on our immediate agenda," she says. TNR is a complicated, controversial program that takes a lot of effort to be successful, Dixon says. "We're just not there yet. Our first priority is subsidized spay and neuter on a broad scale for people in the community."

AHS does not offer a low-cost spay-and-neuter program for low-income families, another crucial part of the no-kill model. Currently it is against the law for any group to provide sterilization surgeries to the public unless it is owned or run by a veterinarian, Brickley says. But that doesn't mean groups can't finance them, Fry counters. Many rescue organizations, including Animal Ark, provide low-income families with vouchers for the procedure. AHS does not, and instead is working on legislation to change the law. They maintain that if shelters could do the surgeries, more would get done.

"Why does it really matter who is doing the surgery?" says Fry, whose organization spent nearly half of its $1.3 million budget to fund spay-and-neuter initiatives. "What matters is that it is getting done, and you would think, at least in the meantime, they would be doing everything they could to get more animals sterilized."


DESPITE HER CRITICS, Dixon argues that AHS is making strides in reducing both the population of homeless animals and its high kill rates. "We are always trying to reduce our euthanasia rates," she says, pointing to AHS's 420 foster homes and its new Mission Meow pilot program. Hundreds of volunteers have signed up to foster older cats during kitten season, so they don't have to compete with the little ones for adoption, she says.

With five locations, AHS can transfer pets from place to place to increase their visibility. "One of our goals is to have our animals in our facilities for as short of a time as possible," she says. "That's better for them, for their health, and for the individual animal."

Once put on the floor for the public to see, the average length of stay at AHS is 3.2 days for dogs and 5.7 days for cats. But there is no time limit, says Dixon. Some pets, like hard-to-place breeds or special-needs animals, stay with AHS for months.

This year AHS started Project Pitbull, a program that gives the contentious mixed breed a chance at adoption. Prior to the merger, some locations would automatically euthanize the dogs. Last year 49 dogs were killed for that reason. "This offers an alternative," Dixon says.

Dixon takes AHS's role as a leader seriously, pointing to its legislative efforts, its significant funding of animal welfare education, including training programs for pet owners and its work with youth, and its support for the animal welfare industry. Unlike most shelters, AHS rarely euthanizes for space, having killed only 688 cats since the merger for that reason. In 2008, they have taken in 1,050 dogs and puppies from other shelters that couldn't handle their load.

Last year, AHS helped to fund the sterilizations of at least 2,540 animals that belonged to other rescue groups that couldn't afford the procedure on their own. "It has just been a lifesaver for us," says Susan Bakken, a computer programmer who serves on the board at All Dog Rescue. "One hundred percent of our dogs are spayed and neutered. They would be anyway, but we wouldn't have been able to help so many without them."

Yet for all of AHS's good work, to many volunteers and advocates there is no place in the animal welfare world for privately run high-kill shelters. "It's almost as if dogs are considered a commodity there, just like a puppy mill," says Shannon McKenzie, director of Underdog Rescue, a local no-kill foster program.

Many believe that if AHS doesn't embrace the no-kill concept, the euthanasia numbers at the state's largest intake facility will never drop. "AHS has done a lot of good but has a long way to go," says Amber. "No-kill means ending unnecessary shelter killing. This has not happened. I think the shelter focuses on self-preservation at the expense of their mission."

Charlotte Cozzetto, president of the Animal Rights Coalition in Minneapolis, the oldest organization of its kind in the Twin Cities, says she is not surprised that AHS has yet to embrace a no-kill philosophy. Historically, AHS (or the groups that have come to be AHS) has been reactive as opposed to proactive when it comes to animal welfare, she says. AHS clung to the use of gas chambers for euthanasia after many other organizations switched to more humane approaches. Only recently could they ensure that every animal leaving their shelter was sterilized, and the list goes on and on.


"They are in the top 1 percent of all shelters nationally in terms of assets and funds," Cozzetto says. "I think they should really be setting an example for the entire humane community in this state, instead of always being the one who lags behind."

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