From the Union-Tribune Monday, Sept. 20, 2010
Critics say shelter broke vow to put down fewer animals
Former board members say the focus should be on more adoptions
By Tanya Sierra
When soliciting money to build a $21 million animal shelter in Mission Valley, fundraisers touted an ambitious goal for donors — to end euthanasia of treatable pets in the county by 2005.
Not only was that goal not met, but the number of treatable animals put down since 2004 has more than tripled.
The issue is one of many causing a rift among supporters of the San Diego Humane Society, as 11 former board members sent a letter last week to the current management calling the failure a broken promise and demanding more animals be saved.
Mark Goldstein, the veterinarian in charge of the humane society, said there is a new goal to end euthanasia of adoptable and treatable pets by 2020. He said the 2005 goal was admirable, but was set by a broader coalition of county and other officials and was not something his society had control over.
“The document was a compilation of an assortment of dreams, visions and aspirations,” he said of the primary fundraising prospectus. “We all had an opportunity to have our say.”
The shelter built thanks to the fundraising campaign is undoubtedly pleasant for the pets who end up there. They live in custom-decorated rooms with art on the walls, furniture to seem homey and soothing ambient sounds. The design is feng shui, with fountains.
Although the facility is larger than the old one, it fits the same number of pets because each one has more spacious accommodations.
Disaffected former board members say the atmosphere hides unpleasant facts about the society’s practices — in particular, that an unforgiving test is used to determine animals’ fates. More fail than necessary, resulting in higher euthanasia rates, they claim.
They say not enough animals are saved through adoption — a charge humane society officials reject, saying their efforts are based on quality more than quantity.
Jeff Lyle, who was on the board from 2002 to 2008, said the humane society is a powerful influence in the county and should not mislead the public about its impact.
“If the humane society wants to run a relatively small organization, that’s fine,” Lyle said. “They should tell the public this is what our role is: ‘We’re running the Four Seasons of animal welfare.’”
The humane society is not the main driver behind euthanasia statistics, as the neighboring county Animal Services facility takes more animals and puts more down. The county handles about 27,000 animals a year, eight times as many as the humane society. However, critics say the humane society should save more from the county process.
They say they county’s euthanasia trends are disturbing given that the humane shelter was built on the promise of putting fewer to sleep.
Donor Nancy Vaughn, who spent 25 years working with or on the humane society board, said she is stunned Goldstein would deny responsibility for the 2005 goal promoted during fundraising.
“He personally met with big donors and utilized the literature in soliciting millions of dollars,” she said.
Mike Luther, who served on the board from 2004 to 2008, said the humane society was supposed to reach the 2005 goal through low-cost adoption, its new larger facility, and through spaying and neutering.
In their letter on Friday, the former board members expressed concern that the Humane Society has taken in millions in donations to promote pet adoption but plays a small role in helping save animals.
They complain other organizations do more with a smaller budget and staff.
Humane society statistics show the facility took in 3,273 animals last year. Of those, 2,332 were adopted and 510 unhealthy and untreatable animals were put down. Remaining animals were sent to other shelters, died on their own or are still at the society.
Former board members say they don’t understand how an organization with such a large budget, with 148 staff including seven veterinarians and 853 volunteers can only adopt out 2,332 animals.
One reason the humane society deals with so few animals compared to the county is because they don’t take in strays. They strictly deal with owner-relinquished-pets.
“It’s about quality, not quantity,” Goldstein said. “We are role modeling.”
Goldstein and current board President Fred Baranowski say their organization does not simply focus on adopting out pets.
“It’s not bang them in and bang them out,” Baranowski said “The education component is big here.”
The humane society offers a number of classes and community outreach programs that aim to strengthen the human-animal bond and teach children that pets feel pain and require food, water, attention and love.
Every dog and cat that goes through the shelter is subjected to a battery of behavior assessment tests in which their temperament is gauged. Dogs are poked with a dummy hand while eating food, to test reaction. An infant doll is introduced to it as well, and behavior is analyzed around cats.
Critics say the test is outdated, and that puppies and docile breeds don’t need the assessment.
“They do the behavior assessment in a manner that causes the animal to fail the assessment,” said Elaine Godzak, a former humane society volunteer. “They fail the animal for bogus reasons so they can euthanize an animal that is ‘untreatable.’ The public would rather see pretty lies like that, rather than the ugly truth.”
Goldstein says the accusations are hurtful and untrue. He says the tests are necessary and are done to protect the public. He scoffs at the idea that he should not test every animal, saying he has a responsibility for the safety of the families who adopt his dogs.
“How would you feel if a dog you adopted was not tested?” he asked.
Goldstein admits the humane society is an expensive and luxurious operation, but he says it is run in good conscience with high standard to create an environment that will produce good pets as well as good owners.
“Measuring ourselves just by output is selling ourselves short,” he said.