The dachshund was doomed.
It had been hit by a car, abandoned by its owners, picked up by animal control and marked for euthanasia by the Kansas Humane Society.
But a rescue group saved it, took it to an animal hospital for surgery, which involved removing a leg, and today the 2-year-old dachshund, even with three legs, is fast enough to justify its name, Red Rocket.
Its owner, Annette LeZotte, a professor at Wichita State University, remains appalled that it was almost put to death at the Humane Society. Red Rocket, she said, is very playful and loving, a “mama’s boy” that sleeps on a pillow next to her head at night.
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LeZotte has company in her disillusionment with the Humane Society. When it opened last summer on a new campus with Wichita Animal Services, animal enthusiasts expected that more pets would be saved and adopted than at the old shelter, a cinder block structure more than 50 years old.
The society says it has increased the number of pets saved by 15 percent since the move.
In 2009, it saved 8,100 of 15,491 animals it took in, and put down 7,140, the society says. The total does not include animals who were missing or died in the shelter.
That roughly matches the 50 percent national euthanasia rate of animals brought to shelters.
Critics think it is euthanizing too many animals.
“We’ve been so depressed. We were overwhelmed with the great number of animals that were being put down,” says Ellen Querner, a former Humane Society president who runs Pals Animal Rescue, which finds homes for unwanted pets.
The Humane Society says it does the best it can with its resources to evaluate and save as many as it can of the thousands of animals that arrive at the campus every year.
“One of the things that bothers me about these accusations is a feeling that people believe we make these decisions lightly, and we absolutely don’t,” says Kim Janzen, Humane Society president and CEO.
“They are heartbreaking. They’re heartbreaking for me, they’re heartbreaking for our donors and they’re especially heartbreaking for our staff who care for these animals every day.”
Model for shelters
The Murfin Animal Care Campus near K-96 and Hillside is intended to serve as a model for animal shelters around the nation. The new $10.2æmillion Humane Society building, funded by private donations, sits side by side with the $6.7æmillion city-owned animal services building in a color-coordinated partnership designed to streamline operations.
The Humane Society accepts owner-relinquished pets, while lost and stray animals go to the city’s animal shelter, where by law they must remain for 72 hours. After that, all animals not reclaimed by their owners may be evaluated and taken by the Humane Society, where they are adopted out, euthanized, taken by rescue organizations or sent to foster homes.
The animal shelter no longer adopts out animals.
The land is owned by the city. The Humane Society has a 50-year lease with the city at a cost of $1 a year.
Critics of the Humane Society like Wichita veterinarian William Skaer, a former member of its board of directors, say it “red tags” many adoptable animals for euthanasia at the animal shelter before giving them a chance to be adopted or rescued.
“We fully realize not every adoptable pet is going to be able to be placed, but they need a chance to be placed,” he said.
Skaer, Querner and others question how the Humane Society determines whether an animal is adoptable. And they say the numbers of animals the society claims to save have been misleading. In the past the society has said it saves more than 90æpercent of “adoptable” animals.
But critics say it takes mostly cute, cuddly animals from the city’s animal shelter that have a high probability of being adopted.
Janzen denies the accusation and says the society has moved away from the subjective term “adoptable,” using instead a measurement called a “live release rate,” which is the number of animals that leave the facility alive divided by the number taken in.
Janzen says she has been using the live release rate in reports to the society’s board of directors since March 2007.
The society didn’t post information about its live release rate on its website until May 6.
According to its latest numbers, the society and city’s animal services took in 25,976 animals combined in 2009, saved 12,275, and euthanized 13,450, for a live release rate of 47æpercent.
The Humane Society alone took in 15,491 animals last year, including 2,543 it transferred from Wichita Animal Services. It saved 8,100 animals, which were adopted or claimed by their owners, and euthanized 7,140, including 502 at the request of owners, it says. That’s a live release rate of 52 percent.
But the society gave a different number of animals saved in 2009 — 8,860 — in its spring newsletter. The society says this number inadvertently included some Wichita Animal Services transfer numbers.
The latest numbers show that the society’s live release rate of 52 percent in 2009 is up from 45æpercent in 2008 and 41æpercent in 2007.
Janzen says that when she took over in 2003, the live release rate was 33 percent.
Nationally, the euthanasia rate is about 50 percent. Of the 6æmillion to 8æmillion dogs and cats that enter shelters each year, 3æmillion to 4æmillion are euthanized, according to the National Council on Pet Population.
The Kansas Humane Society says its goal is to end the euthanasia of all adoptable animals by 2014.
But it says it does not have the resources to become a no-kill shelter.
Janzen says some of the 7,140 animals the Humane Society put down last year were adoptable animals. She doesn’t know how many.
“It’s a matter of resources. It’s a matter of 25,000 animals a year. There aren’t enough homes for all of them,” she says.
A central issue for its critics is how the society determines which animals are adoptable.
Its primary evaluation tool is the Safety Assessment For Evaluating Rehoming (SAFER), a process intended to identify and predict future behavior such as aggression, fearfulness and food guarding in dogs 6 months or older.
The assessment is a series of tests that includes looking at the dog, touching it, playing with it, and trying to pull a food bowl and toy away from it using a fake hand on an extension pole.
Critics say the Humane Society uses the SAFER evaluation too quickly at the shelter, often within the first 24 hours of an animal’s arrival, when it is newly caged, stressed and frightened.
They say issues that doom such an animal can be worked out if it is given more time and care, or if the animal is sent to a foster home before being adopted.
Harv Harris has a small shorthair, tri-colored Sheltie puppy named Ralphie that he got through Pals who was doomed for not socializing.
“He was less than four months old at the time, scared to death and thrown in a cell. But he’s about as social as you can get. People come over and he jumps on them,” Harris says.
Mary Ann Bullinger has another Pals-rescued dog, named Max, which was brought to the shelter wounded and emaciated, and red-tagged for death due to aggressiveness.
“He loves everybody he meets. He wants them to say hi, he wants to be petted, and if they pet him then he won’t leave them alone,” she says. “He thinks everybody should like him, and he likes everybody.”
Nadine Conner, a dog trainer, has two dogs that the Humane Society deemed unadoptable for being aggressive toward other dogs.
Both are certified good citizens, and one, a purebred Lab, has become a certified therapy dog.
Conner, who worked at the Humane Society about three and a half years ago, said the SAFER evaluation is very difficult for a dog to pass.
Of the 50 dogs she has in a dog-training classes, she says, maybe three could pass.
“The way the test is done, it doesn’t give the dog a chance. Put any dog in a shelter situation, they’re going to be stressed.”
Janzen says the society understands that animals placed in an unfamiliar situation can have difficulty adjusting.
“But the other side of that is, with 25,000 animals a year, we have to make sure we are utilizing our resources in a way that is going to help us increase the number of animals that leave our facility alive. We are highly committed to that.”
Karla Hartlep, a certified pet dog trainer for the society, says the SAFER evaluation isn’t the only tool the society uses. It also observes animals in the kennels and watches how they interact with staff and volunteers.
SAFER evaluations are videotaped and reviewed, she says. A “safety net” committee of staff members comes through the kennels every morning to review the evaluations. Some animals have been saved from euthanasia by the committee.
If animals need more time, she says, they get it.
The SAFER evaluation was developed by Emily Weiss, senior director of shelter behavior and research with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She says her initial research showed that assessments given in the first 24 hours effectively predicted behavior.
Data later became available that showed stress levels decrease in animals after 72 hours, and the ASPCA recommends that a shelter wait that long to assess animals if it has the resources to care for it.
“If the organization has resources to hold an animal for that length of time and enrich animals with daily walks, things to chew on and sensory enrichment, and can hold off and wait, then hold off and wait,” Weiss says.
The SAFER evaluation can be performed immediately when owners bring them in, and Hartlep says the Humane Society hopes to do more of those.
Weiss, who lives in Benton, says there is no pass or fail with SAFER.
“All it is is a tool to help identify the potential for future aggression and particular types of aggression,” she says. “How it is used depends on the individual.”
She strongly suggests testers be certified in giving the assessment to make the process more uniform throughout the country, although certification isn’t a requirement.
There is one certified SAFER tester at the Kansas Humane Society, Janzen says, and other staff members are in the process of becoming certified.
Criticism also comes from volunteers at the Humane Society. Janell Knuth, a teacher and volunteer who walks dogs on Sundays, cites a number of experiences she has had with adoptable dogs that were put down.
Volunteers have requested a meeting with shelter supervisors to find out how animals are evaluated for euthanasia, Knuth says.
Another volunteer, Shelley McNerney, who has been working at the society for about a year and also provides a foster home for animals, says volunteers want more information about euthanasia because they are exposed to it more in the new facility. The room where it occurs is closer to lofts that house dogs than it was in the old shelter, she says.
McNerney says she wanted to work at the new facility because she thought it was advertised as a no-kill zone.
“I thought they would be following that philosophy, and it’s apparent that a lot of animals are being put down,” she says.
Querner says her organization and others have saved more than 30 dogs that had been slated for euthanasia by the Humane Society.
But not all rescue groups have issues with the society. Toni Wenger, founder and president of Kansas K-9 Res Q, says the real problem is overpopulation of animals in the community created by commercial breeders, or “puppy mills,” which cut corners on care and vaccinations.
“There’s more animals coming in than the Kansas Humane Society can take,” she says. “I’ve found the Humane Society is very willing to work with us. To judge that they’re not doing a good job, I don’t make that judgment.”
In a letter to supporters dated Thursday, the Humane Society’s board chairman, Barry Schwan, wrote that complaints about the organization being investigated by reporters from The Eagle and KWCH-TV came from “a small group of disgruntled people with a long history of maligning the Kansas Humane Society.”
“The board of directors and I find their allegations without merit,” he wrote.
In an interview, Schwan, who has been on the board for eight years, said the heart of the problem that has led to the allegations is the over-population of animals in the community.
“When every day you’re dealing 40, 50, 60 animals coming in, you only have so many resources,” he says.
“Nobody wants to hear from somebody that animals are being euthanized. The hard fact is that they are. And they will continue to be euthanized until we can start reducing the inflow of unwanted pets into our shelters,” he says.
Janzen points to programs the Humane Society has launched to save more lives. It gives owners who relinquish their pets a chance to take them back if the pet isn’t a candidate for adoption. It offers pet behavior training for adopters and other members of the public to reduce behavior issues that make people want to bring pets to the shelters.
The Humane Society has 800 volunteers, works with more than 200 rescue groups, has 150 foster families to provide care for pets that aren’t immediately ready for adoption, and provides education for youths to teach responsible pet care, Janzen says.
It also works with shelters in Denver and Boulder, Colo., to transport animals for adoption in those communities.
Ten months after opening, the Humane Society is finding that the new facilities are bringing in more animals, Schwan says.
“It’s been a great success,” he says, “and an unbelievable challenge.”