A year ago, on the day before Thanksgiving, my cat Bodhi died. He was a fat, mellow tabby cat, who loved people, loved to play and really, really loved to eat. Bodhi also had feline leukemia, a nasty virus that causes cancerous tumors and has no cure. He was only five years old when he developed a mass in his chest and had to be put to sleep.
Bodhi had been my comfort through everything from the terrorist attack on 9/11 - when I lived in Washington, D.C., only five blocks from the White House - to family strife and cross-country moves. He was there when I started new jobs, found new friends and lost old ones.
When I came home to an empty apartment and put away his dishes and toys, it felt like a part of me had also died. I missed my cat and wasn't ready for a new one. But I wanted an animal in the house.
The perfect solution seemed to be to foster animals for the Dane County Humane Society. The shelter's website said it always needed homes for animals that were too young, sick or scared to be put up for adoption right away.
But after leaving several phone messages and sending an email, I was told that the shelter was scaling back its foster-care program. If I wanted to help, I should come back in two months.
Frustrated, I turned to Dane County Friends of Ferals, a local rescue group. A couple days later, I had two Siamese kittens in my home. They had bright blue eyes, gorgeous markings - and colds. They sneezed long ropes of mucus over everything I owned. But after a week of antibiotics, the kittens recovered. Two weeks later, they were adopted.
I was surprised to learn the kittens had come from the Humane Society - the same shelter that had rejected my offer of help. And because the kittens were sick, they had been marked for euthanasia. In fact, by the time Alison Colby, then director of Friends of Ferals, got to the Humane Society to pick them up, three of their littermates had already been killed.
The Humane Society regularly kills animals with treatable medical conditions.
"That seems to be their easy solution," says Colby. "If you had a cat in every cage, you would have to clean it, care for it."
Over the past year of fostering for Friends of Ferals, I've heard plenty of stories about the Humane Society. The shelter was killing animals with minor ailments like runny noses or watery eyes. It was killing cats that were old or just scared. It killed healthy animals that had simply been in the shelter too long.
And in March, the Humane Society implemented a new set of animal-care guidelines, which included reducing the number of cages available for cats on its main adoption floor. As a result, the shelter's euthanasia rate for cats went up. This year, for the first time in five years, the shelter reported killing cats - 29 so far - for "space." Its euthanasia rate for cats reached 40% in October of this year, up from 29% in October 2006.
Cathy Holmes, president of the Humane Society's board, says the shelter lacks the resources to save every animal and that "continuing to warehouse animals is not the answer."
But many critics want Dane County to be come a "no-kill" community, meaning the shelter would not euthanize healthy or treatable animals, saving 80% or more. And they question whether the Humane Society is doing everything it can to save lives - or merely taking the easy way out.
Holmes joined the Humane Society's board in what can politely be described as a "takeover." The main issue spurring this change was the belief that the Humane Society was killing too many animals.
At a contentious, packed meeting in 2001, the shelter's membership replaced the old leadership with Holmes and Steve Schad. Within a year, the shelter's executive director, development director and operations director left, along with six of the nine board members.
Holmes felt the Humane Society's euthanasia rate was too high, and that the shelter was killing simply because there was no other solution.
"It validated euthanasia for no reason other than that's what had always been done," says Holmes. "What we have today is a more proactive approach to solve a problem."
But after six years with Holmes on board, the euthanasia rate has not gone down. The shelter still kills about one-third of the nearly 7,000 animals it receives annually. And the numbers for cats are the worst. The shelter is actually taking in fewer felines - 3,000 so far this year, compared to 3,800 in 2006 - but is killing more of them. In 2003, the Humane Society euthanized 600 cats a year. By 2006, it was killing more than 1,200. And it's on track to kill an even higher number this year.
Critics blame the Humane Society's new care guidelines for the dramatic increase in killing, especially among cats. (Dogs have it better - nearly 80% of the 1,500 dogs taken in so far this year have been adopted or reunited with their owners.)
The new rules decreed that old or sick cats - even those with treatable conditions - would be euthanized. Kittens that arrive needing to be bottle-fed would also generally be killed, since the Humane Society limited the number of foster families available to care for them to just 10. And the shelter's large cat "playrooms" could house only three or four animals at a time (later upped to 10).
Perhaps most important, the shelter cut from 48 to 24 the number of cages on its main adoption floor available for cats. Now there's one cage sitting empty for every cat on the floor. This makes the cages easier to clean and prevents the spread of disease. Eventually, the Humane Society plans to cut holes between the cages, so the cats can use both.
To make space for its new "two cages for every cat" policy, the shelter killed 73 cats over a period of several weeks. Most of those animals, the Humane Society said, were old or sick.
Terry Tyson, a former Humane Society volunteer, says it was clear what the new rules meant: "We're not going to waste our resources on certain animals - that was the gist of it. I realize that any shelter may make hard decisions at times. You always feel a little sorry for the people euthanizing them." But now, she says, "I don't feel sorry for them anymore. Why don't they leave those cats alone?"
Tyson eventually stopped volunteering at the Humane Society and now fosters for Friends of Ferals instead.
Holmes says the new policies are intended to keep the animal population healthier, which will in turn increase adoptions and lower euthanasia rates: "We understood there would be an initial increase, but the long-term goal was to see this level out to either the same or slightly less euthanasia over the next couple of years."
Glen Gardner, a board director who resigned shortly after the takeover, is incensed when he hears the Humane Society is deliberately leaving cages empty, especially since he helped the shelter raise $5 million for a new facility on Voges Road.
"The reason we built that building was to have more space," he says. "If they are purposefully not filling cages, that's a travesty." And he predicts the Humane Society could lose donors over the new policies. "A lot of people who gave money to that shelter, specifically so animals wouldn't be put down, are going to be angry."
The architect of the Humane Society's new rules is Sandra Newbury, a shelter medicine expert at the University of California-Davis. Newbury lives in Madison, but travels the country, advising shelters on how to manage their animal populations. She used to be the Humane Society's lead veterinarian and now works as its consultant.
Newbury says the shelter's euthanasia rates may be increasing, but not dramatically. She notes that most shelters have a "sanctuary rate" - which is the number of animals for which there is no reported outcome. Most of those animals are presumed to have been euthanized, since adoptions usually require paperwork and a fee. In 2006, the Humane Society had 300 cats unaccounted for, a sanctuary rate of 8%. This year, with better tracking, it's about 6%. Not counting those extra animals last year, she says, could have artificially lowered the shelter's euthanasia rate.
And Newbury says trying to run a "no-kill" shelter presents its own set of problems. She was part of a team that consulted with the shelter in Las Vegas, which was trying to become no-kill - meaning it would euthanize less than 20% of its animals. The shelter, which took in about 55,000 animals a year, quickly become overwhelmed. Diseases, including distemper, were rampant. Dogs starved in their kennels. Animals lay dead in their cages.
"They did have lots of space, but not for 55,000," says Newbury. "They euthanized one animal for space - and lost scads to disease."
To Newbury, the Las Vegas shelter could not be considered no-kill, because it allowed disease to do the culling instead. And disease, she says, often chooses those animals most likely to be adopted: kittens, puppies and animals that are friendly and outgoing.
"That leads to lost opportunity," says Newbury. "Those are adoptions that we would have been able to do. But instead, those animals got euthanized."
Newbury advocates an admittedly "counterintuitive" approach: kill some animals to save the rest. Most shelters simply do not have the resources to save all animals, she says.
"I am not in any way advocating for more euthanasia," she says. "I am advocating against overcrowding by moving animals promptly through the system. What this does mean is that different animals may be euthanized or that animals may be selected for euthanasia sooner rather than later."
Pam McCloud Smith, the Dane County Humane Society's executive director, says the shelter agreed to try Newbury's recommendation of two cages for every adoptable cat, to reduce illness. "With the two cages, we can give the animal more comfort, less stress. It makes it a much healthier environment."
But Smith admits the Humane Society has never actually had an outbreak of a serious disease, like distemper. She still defends the new policy, saying it has greatly reduced the incidence of upper respiratory infections - the cat equivalent of a cold. (The illness is easily treatable, though it can be fatal to small kittens.)
Tyson and others associated with the Humane Society (most of whom asked not to be named) say the cats were likely getting sick because workers were ignoring basic protocols, like washing their hands in-between handling animals.
"That double-cage stuff is bullshit," says Tyson. "I witnessed so many people - other volunteers and staff - not paying attention to these common precautions." (Smith says that even when the shelter was scrupulous about hand washing, "none of that worked with reducing illness.")
Holmes admits it took her a while to accept Newbury's ideas. But she eventually saw that leaving animals in tiny cages for weeks at a time would inevitably stress them out and make them sick. It was more humane to euthanize them earlier on.
"If you make them sick and have them die here, is that better for them?" asks Holmes. "Euthanasia stinks. You only do it because you believe you are doing the right thing."
In October, Nathan Winograd, founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center in California, came to Madison. He was promoting his new book, Redemption, which details his experiences working at the famous no-kill shelter in San Francisco and as director of another no-kill shelter in Tompkins County, N.Y.
Winograd says neither shelter ever had the outbreaks of disease that Newbury warns about.
"You can do many things to keep animals healthy," he says. "If the animals get sick, you don't kill them. You isolate them or send them into foster care."
He also thinks it's unfair to invoke the example of Las Vegas. That shelter, he says, never vaccinated animals on intake, and didn't isolate animals once they became ill.
"What happened there is the worst kind of sheltering," he says. "They weren't following basic protocols."
Winograd calls Newbury a "dinosaur" who is trying to revive shelter management practices from the 1980s, when most shelters killed the majority of their animals.
"What Sandra Newbury represents is a backlash by the traditionalists who are being challenged on the status quo," he says, adding most shelters across the nation are "going in the other direction."
Winograd offers a formula for becoming no-kill: Utilize all available space; do a better job of marketing available animals; offer more offsite adoptions; use foster parents and rescue groups to handle the overflow; and reduce intake with low-cost or free spay/neuter programs.
The Humane Society is doing some of those things, but not all. The shelter does offsite adoptions at Mounds Pet Food Warehouse, but with restrictions: no cats that need to be the only pet in a household; only one large rabbit at a time.
Earlier this year, the shelter's full-time foster care coordinator resigned. She was replaced with a part-time volunteer. The shelter dramatically scaled back the number of animals sent to foster homes, from what Smith calls "hundreds" to about 25. In the past month, the shelter has slowly started to increase the number of fosters again.
To reduce intake, the Humane Society got a grant for a mobile surgical unit, which travels around town and to rural areas, performing low-cost spay/neuters. The shelter is also working with Maddie's Fund, a multimillion-dollar animal foundation, for a grant that would pay local rescue groups for every animal that is spayed or neutered, and for every animal that is adopted, above a certain number.
Smith says the shelter's goal is to get closer to no-kill. But, she cautions, "It's not going to happen overnight. I want to do it in a responsible way that promotes the health and welfare of the animals."
But Holmes says it will be hard to achieve no-kill here. She notes that San Francisco is "white collar and highly educated. More people there understand spaying and neutering your pet." But Dane County "is still pretty rural. We get a lot of feral cats. Farmers don't understand."
In 2003, Holmes notes, the Humane Society managed to temporarily reduce euthanasia by sending 500 cats into foster care. But most of these eventually came back to the shelter, spiking the euthanasia rate. She says this shows that a no-kill approach is not sustainable.
Winograd counters that San Francisco has been no-kill for 13 years and Tompkins County since 2002. The Dane County Humane Society, he says, stopped trying too soon: "They couldn't even do it for a year."
Some activists worry that the Humane Society's new policies will make the community think the euthanasia problem is solved.
"If you walk in and see half the cages are empty, people are going to think there's not a pet overpopulation problem," says Colby.
Ted O'Donnell, who co-owns the MadCat pet stores in Madison, has held community meetings on no-kill and put information on his website, felineunderground.com. He says the Humane Society needs to ask the community to help lower euthanasia.
"It's a form of defeatism to start out saying you can't save them all," he says. "They should be screaming for help."
Part of the problem may be that people feel the Humane Society has enough resources. The shelter's annual budget is $2.1 million, and it has a $5 million building set on 29 acres of prime, wooded land. It has ample space for dogs, cats, rabbits, lizards, birds - even a barn for wildlife and a paddock for cattle. The shelter is staffed with 52 full- and part-time employees, and has an army of 500 volunteers.
When the shelter complains about no resources, O'Donnell says, "I just don't buy it."
But the Humane Society has been operating at a deficit for years. In 2006, it was nearly $400,000 in the hole.
"That facility is really expensive to maintain," says Newbury. "I think there's this impression that the Humane Society is rolling in dough, and [it's] not."
The shelter's new practices may not be helping. Just ask Heidi Clark.
In June, the Stoughton resident took a kitten she'd found to the shelter. It had been coming to Clark's window every day, meowing to be let in. Clark already had two cats of her own, but she was charmed by the kitten, whom she named Sweet Pea.
But Sweet Pea did not adjust well to shelter life. When Clark called to check on her, she was told that Sweet Pea was "cowering" in her cage. She was not considered friendly and would be killed.
Clark was furious. "To me, that's not an acceptable reason to kill a cat - because she's afraid. What cat would not be cowering?"
She got the Humane Society to keep Sweet Pea for a few days, while she contacted Friends of Ferals. They called me and I agreed to take her. The Humane Society had classified Sweet Pea as unadoptable, but with me she was warm and affectionate. She was also adopted a month later.
"I don't know what their definition of 'adoptable' is," complains Clark. "She was adopted, so of course she was adoptable!" She says the way the Humane Society handled this situation "is to me the definition of inhumane."
On the day Clark retrieved Sweet Pea from the shelter, she returned home to find a membership renewal from the National Humane Society in her mail.
"I threw it in the trash," she says. "No humane society will ever get my money again."
At his talk in Madison, Winograd shared a story about a black cat named Tippy that had been at the Tompkins County shelter for months and was always overlooked. Finally, the shelter posted an ad in the local newspaper - a "letter" from Tippy, wishing she could be adopted. More than a dozen people called about Tippy. That day, every black cat in the shelter was rechristened Tippy and many were adopted.
Sneaky, but effective.
In the past year, I've fostered nearly a dozen cats for Friends of Ferals. Some were animals I worried would never find a home, including a cat so painfully shy he hid under my dresser for three weeks. I had a plain black cat, too, and I thought people might find him boring. So at the group's weekly adoption fair at MadCat on the west side, I wrote on his card that he liked to watch nature specials on PBS. He was adopted that same day - his new owner said she thought his PBS addiction was funny.
All of my foster cats have eventually been adopted, with time, patience and a little creativity. And, predictably, last spring a little cat arrived at my house, settled in, and never left. To look at Izzy's sleek lines and whiskered face is to know why the ancient Egyptians worshiped cats.
I have several foster cats living with me now, including a "feral" kitten who hissed at me nonstop for a week. At the Humane Society, she would be considered unadoptable and likely be killed. And frankly, in the past few weeks, I despaired of her ever becoming friendly enough to be someone's pet. But the other day, she snuck up beside me and nudged my hand, asking to be petted.
Sometimes, all they need is a little time.