A CARE volunteer voices his concerns over the euthanasia rate at the City’s animal shelter. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

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Volunteers at Evanston’s Community Animal Rescue Effort (C.A.R.E.) – representing thousands of volunteer hours tending for abused or abandoned animals – attended the Feb. 3 Human Services Committee meeting to voice their dismay over its high euthanasia rate for dogs, which rose as high as 46 percent recently. Even after objecting to the way C.A.R.E. determines which animals should be euthanized, most maintained their faith in the organization, which has rehabilitated and found homes for stray, injured and homeless animals for the past 25 years.

Two reviews commissioned by the City appeared divided on whether the complaints by C.A.R.E. volunteers represent an abuse of discretion and unnecessary euthanization on the part of decision-makers at C.A.R.E. or are part of a larger debate on what constitutes a safely adoptable dog.

An ad-hoc subcommittee composed of two aldermen and representatives of both sides of the C.A.R.E. controversy will try to come up with a resolution of the problems among the volunteers and between C.A.R.E. and the City.

C.A.R.E.’s Procedures

Gail Lovinger-Goldblatt, a board member of C.A.R.E. and 20-year volunteer there, presented the case for C.A.R.E.’s current practices. “Behavior evaluation starts the moment the dog comes in,” she said. “We work with dogs that have behaviors we can modify.”

C.A.R.E. has “shortened the time it takes to adoption” and puts animals up on at least 100 websites, Ms. Lovinger-Goldblatt said.

“We love dogs – we want them all to be adopted [but] we have a responsibility to adopt out dogs that will … work with the community…. We know that safe dogs are a concern for City Council,” Ms. Lovinger-Goldblatt said. She added that other C.A.R.E. volunteers have been “devastated and demoralized” by the recent criticism but said they are “committed to continue as an organization.”

She added that C.A.R.E. representatives met with City officials in November to try to work out a long-term relationship but also said, “The City must have respect for C.A.R.E. and the C.A.R.E. process. We have protocols … and a process for resolving disagreements.”

Twenty-nine dogs were euthanized in 2012, said Ms. Lovinger-Goldblatt – 14 for medical reasons or other reasons not related to behavior.

Volunteers’ Concerns

Whether any of the dogs euthanized or slated for euthanasia could be rehabituated by a rescue group appeared to be the sore point between the C.A.R.E. board and the concerned volunteers.

Elisa Kaplan presented the side of the concerned “senior volunteers.” She said they had “approached C.A.R.E. board members about specific dogs and issues – especially behavior evaluations – throughout 2011 and 2012 and had formally submitted questions to the board in October 2012. The board “acknowledged the euthanasia rate was 40-50 percent, she said, but they “said they had no plans to reduce it. At that point, we approached City officials.”

In the years 2010, 2011 and 2012, about 250 dogs came annually into the shelter, Ms. Kaplan said. Typically about 150 each year would be returned to their owners, and between 80 and 100 became shelter dogs and went through C.A.R.E.’s behavior-evaluation process. Using that process, C.A.R.E. “failed” about 46 percent of the dogs and recommended that they be euthanized.

The ‘Lucky 18’

If the Chief Animal Warden disagrees with the assessment that a dog should be euthanized, that dog may be transferred to another animal welfare agency. At the Feb. 3 Human Services Committee meeting, C.A.R.E. volunteers presented synopses and photos of 18 dogs that had been slated for euthanasia by C.A.R.E. staff but were rescued and went on to live peacefully in adoptive homes. Many of the dogs were transferred to Secondhand Snoots, a no-kill rescue and foster agency in Gurnee. Others were adopted locally, such as Rudolph, adopted by a CARE volunteer, and Claude (now Flip), who was adopted by First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske.

Subcommittee in Progress

The members of the Human Services Committee agreed that a subcommittee, headed by City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, should look for a resolution to the euthanasia controversy and hammer out a lease between C.A.R.E. and the City for continued operation of the animal shelter. The subcommittee will be composed of Ald. Fiske and Sixth Ward Alderman Mark Tendam and three persons from each side of the C.A.R.E. controversy.

The meeting was adjourned without committee members’ addressing two other issues raised during citizen comment: First, what is the long-term future of the animal shelter, particularly if only a one-year extension of the lease is anticipated? The second question dealt with the money raised by C.A.R.E. for a new animal shelter and whether money earmarked for the shelter has been used for operations. It is not clear whether the subcommittee will also address those issues.

The first meeting of the subcommittee was scheduled for Feb. 12 at the Civic Center.

Concerns over kill rates at the animal shelter have been churning at the Community Animal Rescue Effort (C.A.R.E.) for more than a year, according to a Jan. 30 memo to the Mayor and members of the Human Services Committee.

For several months the City and C.A.R.E. have been discussing the operations of the animal shelter, in particular how C.A.R.E. evaluates dogs for adoption or euthanasia.

The two groups agreed to retain Janice Triptow, a long-time C.A.R.E. volunteer and dog counselor, to review the practices. The City also asked the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) “to provide a broad overview of shelter practices.”

While the reports do not differ materially in several areas, the two are far apart on how they characterize the evaluation of dogs and the canine kill-rate – which in some years was more than 40 percent – at the shelter.

The ASPCA report, written by Jesse Winters, senior director of ASPCA outreach, said the evaluation tests for dogs were not intended to be life-or-death evaluations. He recommended changes in several policies.

The Triptow report characterized the controversy at the shelter as a difference of opinion among some staff members and volunteers that is being played out not only in Evanston but across the country. Both reports noted a lack of clear communication between staff and volunteers.

The ASPCA Report

The ASPCA report recommended:

• reviewing the Association of Shelter Veterinarians Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters regarding vaccination protocols, diagnostic testing and routine husbandry;

• reviewing the processes of behavior evaluation and euthanasia decision for dogs;

• increasing adoptions and reduce the amount of time all animals spend in the shelter;

• and improving volunteer management procedures.

Regarding decisions about euthanasia, Mr. Winters wrote, “Based on the information shared with me, it does not appear that either behavior evaluation tool currently being used [Assess-A-Pet and SAFER] is being executed and interpreted accurately. … [T]here appears to be a lack of consensus and understanding around the purpose and implementation of these tools. The space used to conduct these assessments is inadequate. … Neither tool is intended to be used to determine if a dog should be euthanized.”

In addition, Mr. Winters wrote, “priority should be placed on identifying and facilitating an exit strategy for each animal entering the shelter.”

The Triptow Report

Ms. Triptow wrote that the debate between “providing the community with thoroughly tested, highly adoptable pets who are very likely to stay in a home, and shortening animals’ length of stay and lowering euthanasia rates, is a debate being repeated across the animal welfare industry as a whole. … For the City of Evanston and C.A.R.E. … a balance of these sometimes competing interests will not be struck by issuing edicts and applying formulas.”

Ms. Triptow found that the two behavior tests are performed “by a team of three individuals, who are not certified in the performance of these tests, but who “have undergone assessment training and have had a wealth of experience in working with the shelter animals.” She found that the lack of certification is “not concerning.”

The Triptow report characterizes the discord at the animal shelter as “a philosophical difference of opinion amongst volunteers as well as staff members” in two areas: what represents acceptable behaviors by a dog in a shelter environment and the predictive qualities of the tests.

The differing views of how the tests predict the adoptability of shelter dogs, Ms. Triptow wrote, is the focus of the conflict.

The Triptow report did not recommend any substantive changes.