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.
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.”
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.