After a group of volunteers came forward with concerns about the percentage of dogs being recommended for euthanasia by C.A.R.E., city officials are taking a hard look at the nonprofit that supports the Evanston Animal Shelter.
C.A.R.E., which stands for Community Animal Rescue Effort, has partnered with the city since 1987 to help strays and unwanted pets find homes, and operates out of the municipal animal shelter at 2310 Oakton St. Now, the group’s method of evaluating dogs for adoptability has come under fire, after a consultant’s report showed that the number of dogs euthanized between 2010 and 2012 ranged from 34 to 47 percent. That's compared to 22 percent at the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society, 44 percent at Chicago Animal Care and Control and 22 percent at the New York City municipal pound, the volunteers say.
“The absolute final straw was little Angel, who was a 12-year-old Chihuahua with two teeth, and she wasn’t dangerous to anyone,” says Vicky Pasenko, who has volunteered at C.A.R.E. for seven years. “It was just indefensible to think you would kill this dog as a dangerous animal. This is not objective, it’s completely subjective.”
Pasenko says that she and two of her fellow volunteers, Alisa Kaplan and Cathy Roberts, initially brought their concerns to C.A.R.E. leadership, but felt that they were rebuffed. Frustrated, they went to the city, which runs the animal shelter as part of the police department.
Based on the volunteers’ concerns, city officials decided to bring in the ASPCA to review C.A.R.E. and the animal shelter’s policies. The agency issued its report in May 2013, which particularly criticized the nonprofit’s behavior evaluation methods. City officials are now planning to discuss the issue and map out a vision for the city shelter at an upcoming human services committee meeting on Feb. 3.
“The city has actually been extremely responsive,” says Alisa Kaplan, who has volunteered with C.A.R.E. for three years. “The police department immediately stepped in and put a stop to the sort of rampant euthanasia.”
Because the police department stepped in, the euthanasia rate declined significantly in 2013, to four dogs out of roughly 90 taken in, Kaplan and her fellow volunteers report. They say the decrease is misleading, though, since C.A.R.E.’s behavioral evaluators continue to recommend the same number of dogs for euthanasia. Rather than sign off on every euthanasia, animal warden is now trying to place many of those dogs with rescue groups or foster homes, the volunteers say.
C.A.R.E. president Linda Gelb, however, says the nonprofit’s goal is to provide adoptable, safe animals to the community—and its behavior evaluations are critical to that effort.
“We want people to be happy with the animals they receive,” says Gelb, who has been president since 1992. “They don’t need a dog that they have to manage for the next 10 years.”
ASPCA Report Recommends C.A.R.E. Discontinue Behavior Evaluations
Both the city-commissioned report by the ASPCA and a second report from a C.A.R.E.-commissioned consultant focus on the nonprofit’s behavioral evaluations as the biggest problem. Gelb and two other volunteers are the sole people who conduct the evaluations on dogs that enters the shelter, using parts of two different methods. One is the ASPCA’s “SAFER” test, which is used to predict canine aggression, and the second is the “Assess-a-Pet” test, used to determine a dog’s temperament.
“Both of them give us a complete picture in order to help the adoption counselors place a dog,” Gelb explains.
The main reason a dog will fail a test is if it displays aggression toward people or other animals, according to Gelb. One part of the test involves disturbing a dog while it is eating, and the other involves taking possessions away from the dog.
“If a dog reacts strongly to both of them, we feel that dog is not fit for adoption,” she says.
In its report, however, the ASPCA concluded that C.A.R.E. was not using either behavior tool correctly, and recommended that the nonprofit review its behavior evaluation process for dogs in order to “maximize live release potential.”
“It is not necessary to use both assessment tools and there appears to be a lack of consensus and understanding around the purpose and implementation of those tools,” ASPCA representative Jesse Winters wrote in the report.
She also suggested that the shelter discontinue implementing behavior evaluations altogether until the city and C.A.R.E. could come to an agreement about their use and improve their implementation.
After the ASPCA came in to the shelter, C.A.R.E. hired its own independent consultant, dog behavior expert Janice Triptow, to review the organization’s policies. She, too, recommended that the shelter should relax its criteria for placing dogs up for adoption, and also suggested that C.A.R.E. should run a pilot foster program for dogs.
“The team’s administration of two different behavior tests, sometimes successively and then repeating one two weeks later as a matter of course with dogs that have failed, can be too rigorous, particularly in light of newer data suggesting that findings of failed tests are not thoroughly predictive of behaviors outside the shelter,” Triptow wrote.
Asked whether she had considered relaxing the behavior evaluations, Gelb said the nonprofit had looked at working with dogs to reduce mild cases of food and possession aggression. However, she said that C.A.R.E. has found that behavior modification in the shelter does not necessarily transfer to a home.
“In order to adopt out an animal that has behavior issues, we would need to work with the family who wants to adopt that dog and they would need to follow the protocol that we start in the shelter in their home,” Gelb says. “When we’ve explained this to people when we’re doing interviews, a lot of them have not wanted to take that on.”
Behavior evaluator and dog trainer Angela Love, who is one of the two other people who evaluate dogs along with Gelb, stresses that their goal is to prevent people from adopting dogs that are going to take a lifetime of work and could possibly bite a human being one day.
“Management is only as good as the person managing,” she says. “We are trying to be safe and responsible…not only to the dog but to the community that we’re serving.”
Rescue, Foster Programs Considered
In 2010 and 2011, C.A.R.E. did not transfer any of its dogs to rescue programs, according to the records in the consultant’s report. Among dogs that were not returned to their owners, the rest were either adopted or euthanized because they were determined to be aggressive, dangerous, unadoptable, bite cases or unhealthy, according to the report. In 2012, however, the city’s animal warden transferred 10 dogs to other organizations, and the warden has continued to do so in 2013 and throughout this year.
Among the people who have adopted one of the dogs slated for euthanasia is Ald. Judy Fiske (1st Ward). An Evanston resident found the 12-pound miniature poodle in her backyard two summers ago, and contacted her alderman, Ann Rainey (8th Ward), who suggested she take it to the animal shelter.
The woman followed up with Rainey daily to find out how the dog was doing, and said she had a friend who might be interested in adopting it, according to Fiske. When Rainey found out the dog was marked as unadoptable and recommended for euthanasia, she was upset, and reached out to Fiske for help.
Fiske adopted the dog, now named Flip, and says that with much patience and training, he is doing very well.
“He’s not this horrible vicious dog that you would think needed to be euthanized,” Fiske says. “Sometimes I look at him, I almost start crying…I think we just have to look and figure out what our focus as a community is with the dogs that are placed in our care.”
Increasing the number of dogs transferred to rescue organizations or placed in foster homes is key to reducing the number of deaths, C.A.R.E. critics say.
Volunteer Cathy Roberts, the canine medical director, says she has worked with several rescue groups transporting animals from Chicago animal control to downstate Illinois or Indiana.
“They will take hospice dogs, pregnant pit bulls,” she says. “It’s not like they’re looking for designer dogs. They really want to help.”
Gelb says it’s more complicated than simply passing off a dog to a rescue group, however, and that she has asked to work with the city to develop a vetting procedure for those organizations.
“Our feeling is that a rescue deserves to get a good dog that they can adopt out and that can be a plus for their organization,” she says.
In her opinion, that means passing on only dogs that are “temperamentally appropriate” and spayed or neutered.
Due to the findings of the ASPCA and consultant’s reports, C.A.R.E. has recently revisited its foster program, according to Gelb, and has a new foster coordinator in place.
That, too, is tougher than it seems, however, says C.A.R.E. volunteer Aviva Tauman, who supports the shelter’s current method of behavior evaluations.
“As hard as it is to adopt dogs, it is probably even harder to foster dogs,” Tauman says. “You’re asking somebody to commit to a relationship with a dog for what may be a very short time, but not long enough to be committed to the dog.”
City Officials Look at Waukegan Animal Shelter as Potential Model
Ald. Judy Fiske and other Evanston officials recently traveled to Waukegan to visit the city’s municipal shelter, as a potential model for operations in Evanston. The city has a population of roughly 95,000 people, but its median income is significantly lower than Evanston’s, according to Fiske.
Over the past year, however, the animal shelter’s euthanasia rate was under one percent, she said. That’s because the animal shelter works with more than 70 different rescue or foster groups to transfer animals out of the shelter.
Unlike operations in Evanston, where the city provides space and a few staff for the animal shelter and C.A.R.E. handles animal training and adoptions, Waukegan’s animal shelter runs with a few city staff and does no adoptions whatsoever.
“When they were rewriting their ordinance [for the shelter], they looked at how shelters all across the area, including Evanston, were run, and decided they did not want to have an adoption agency working out of the shelter, that that did not give the dogs enough of a chance to be evaluated properly,” says Fiske. “I think we just need to figure out what our vision for the shelter is, whether it’s going to be a no-kill shelter, or if we want to say, we want to run an adoption shelter.”
Asked about moving to a model like Waukegan, where the city simply transfers dogs to other organizations, Gelb said that she felt the setup would effectively eliminate C.A.R.E. from the picture.
“We are there 365 days a year. We supplement the city’s budget for the shelter by purchasing a lot of the food, items for the shelter,” she says. “We’ve been in Evanston for 25 years. We have done the best that we can for the community and for the people.”