Good Dogs Labeled Bad, CARE Critics Say

Evanston Animal Shelter volunteers recount success stories of dogs wrongly labeled for aggression now placed in loving homes.

Ramsey, once sentenced to death row for food agression, shows his table manners after he is taken out of stressful shelter environment. Credit: Provided.
Ramsey, once sentenced to death row for food agression, shows his table manners after he is taken out of stressful shelter environment. Credit: Provided.

When Ramsey, a young, male pit-mix, arrived at the Evanston Animal Shelter, volunteers described him as a wreck. Underweight and still “intact,” he was placed in a cage next to a female in heat.

“He could be grabby if you stuck a treat between the bars of his cage,” Alisa Kaplan, a shelter volunteer, said. “A volunteer got nipped.”

Eventually, Ramsey underwent behavioral testing and failed when volunteer evaluators took away his food bowl. Deemed unadoptable for “food aggression,” he was slated for euthanasia.

Kaplan and other shelter volunteers have raised concerns about the behavioral evaluation methods used by Community Animal Rescue Effort, or CARE, the non-profit organization that runs the city-owned animal shelter.

The animal rescue group has come under fire by other shelter volunteers, who claim that CARE’s temperament testing is too rigorous and not being applied according to industry standards.

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Behavioral evaluations look for such issues as biting, food aggression, guarding and other undesirable traits before putting up dogs for adoption. Dogs that fail testing are often recommended for euthanasia. The final decision is left up to Evanston's chief animal warden.

CARE has maintained that it is following the Evanston Police Department’s policies not to place dangerous dogs in the community. The animal rescue group's leadership vigorously defended their methods before city aldermen on Monday evening during a discussion on extending the city’s agreement with CARE to continue running the municipal shelter another year.

The argument has divided shelter volunteers into two camps: those supportive of CARE’s leadership, and others, who have questioned the shelter’s 45-percent kill-rate of the unclaimed strays that become property of Evanston.

The dog that started the maelstrom, Claude, an apricot poodle, was rejected for biting and put before Chief Animal Warden Linda Teckler to sign his death warrant.

Teckler refused, and instead, called around city hall to see if an employee might want to foster or adopt Claude.

Claude, renamed Flip, now lives with Ald. Judy Fiske (6th Ward) and has been a loving, non-biting companion.

“A shelter environment is worse for little dogs. A lot of them are terrified,” Kaplan said. “The cages are stacked on top of each other and when they’re placed in high cages, little dogs can get fearful and nip at you. Claude was nippy because he was a fearful dog.”

After Ramsey failed behavioral testing because he showed aggression when his food bowl was taken away, shelter volunteers got him out of the shelter and into a foster home, Ramsey’s food aggression disappeared.

“We wanted to see how he’d be in a home because he was so stressed out at the shelter,” Kaplan said. “Almost immediately he didn’t have the kind of issues they said he had.”

A video was shown of Ramsey allowing his foster mom to pet him while chowing down on some kibble during Monday’s meeting. He even let his foster mom the tickle his mouth while eating.

Gail Lovinger-Goldblatt, a CARE board member, who gave a presentation at the human services committee meeting, stated that food aggression is one of several traits taken into consideration during behavioral testing.

“We give dogs extra time to acclimate to the shelter before we test them,” Lovinger-Goldblatt said. “We work with dogs that have specific behaviors which we can modify through training, and then we retest them.”

CARE was advised by its own commissioned animal behavioral expert relax current criteria it uses for placing dogs up for adoption.

For one thing, Kaplan said, the room used at Evanston Animal Shelter to test dogs does not meet ASPCA standards, which recommends a minimum 10-by-10 feet for behavioral evaluations.

Cramped for space, the room used at the shelter is 3-feet by 8-feet, acknowledged by volunteer evaluators after Monday’s meeting.

Kaplan thinks evaluations as they are currently being performed are unfairly labeling dogs, who with a little TLC and rehabilitation, can be transformed into model family members.

“The ASPCA has a certification process that is supposed to ensure that the test is done in a uniform way,” she said. “Room size, body posture and timing of the evaluator can affect the outcome.”

The Human Services Committee has requested that a subcommittee comprised of stakeholders from both sides be formed to re-evaluated shelter operations.

Ali February 10, 2014 at 11:42 AM
To Michelle, Here's the problem with your friend. Wrong dog for her! When you adopt a dog, you enter the risk of all the problems that the dog may have occurred in it's life time. Dogs bond very quickly to their families. When they become abused or abandoned, trust issues, behavioral problems happen. I have had a lot of shelter dogs in my life time. One that was so mental, I had spent $$$ on him. He also needed a ton of exercise too which I had to learn the hard way. BUT I was committed. Labs need exercise and a JOB! If not, they will go nuts and drive you nuts. It is not the labs fault, that they're jumpy. It's is your friends for not doing the proper research. This is very, very crucial people. Do your research, make sure the animal is the right fit for you. That will also decrease animals in shelters. Labs, Collies, terriers, working breeds etc., NEED a great deal of exercise. That includes if they are a mix breed too. Common sense is the key here. And just because your friend had one bad experience, doesn't mean ALL dogs are to be that way. You WILL have issues in the beginning. But if you are a responsible person who has the time and commitment, the animal will mostly likely over come its issues. We have an adorable mix that we rescued. When we left our home, he had barked and barked an hated being left alone. (still does) Was that stressful? Yes, but we knew what we had to do and that was give him the time. He is now so perfect and it paid off. Don't judge one incident just because you hear a bad story. These dogs merely don't understand our life style and it takes them learning and patience. Think of it this way. If you were stranded on some remote Island and the natives had a very bizarre ritual that you didn't understand, and each time you did something that they didn't like, they screamed you or put in a crate or worse, they beat you for simply not understanding their ways, how would you react?? And again, that's what needs to be considered. I agree, C.A.R.E NEEDS to clean house!!!! BTW, I work with large animals and my sister has a degree in animal behavior. Also all my dogs/cats/rodents and one horse have been rescue animals!!!
Concerned Evanstonian February 10, 2014 at 04:14 PM
At the end of the day it does not matter who is wrong and who is right The euthanasia rate is too high and the current system and it's leaders need to be evaluated with a critical and objective eye. This service like the rest of the municipal services requires auditing. Tragically with this particular service there are only animal victims. All human egos should be set aside for the sake of the cause. This is not really a debate about whether CARE volunteers think the organization runs well or commits egregious crimes against the innocent animals it is charged with. What matters now is how we will move toward excellence at our city shelter and put people in charge who function from both a place of deep compassion and practical management. Shelter work is tireless and knows no end. That said, Evanston has an obligation to improve things, decrease our euthanasia rate and be held accountable if they cannot. Lastly, there can never be enough people caring about these animals. So please, if you have the time to sit on this site and respond and feel enough passion about the subject to respond, get out and volunteer. If not at Evanston, then somewhere, anywhere. Foster a dog or cat, walk a few in your spare time, don't buy from breeders or pet stores and encourage those you know to follow your lead. Make a difference in animal's lives - they need more than your voice - they need your time too.
Jordan S. Zoot February 10, 2014 at 04:51 PM
Perhaps CARE is using the model from the Copenhagen Zoo.....where they blew the giraffe to kingdom come with a shotgun and then cut it up in front of the zookeepers and fed it to the lions. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-zoo-kills-giraffe-20140210,0,554107.story
Concerned Evanstonian February 10, 2014 at 09:08 PM
Jordan -unreal. The story seems like it should have been written decades ago it's so unprogressive and barbaric.
Michelle Rupley Demos February 11, 2014 at 01:38 PM
Ali, my friend has done her homework. She has had a lab before from a breeder and raised him from a pup. She loves the breed and after her beloved lab passed she wanted another one. This one unfortunately has behavioral issues that surpass "jumpiness" as you say. It is aggression not high energy or jumpiness. The FIRST trainer she went to told her that this dog has such severe fear and behavioral issues that he is a bite risk. He was kicked out of doggie daycare because of aggression toward other dogs. You have no right to put blame on my friend; if anyone is to blame it is the rescue/shelter who did not do its homework and due diligence with this dog before putting him into a home.


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