The Santa Fe Animal Shelter saves thousands of animals every year-some say that's not enough.
"Put any decent dog in even the best shelter and it will break that dog down."
-Sue Sternberg, renowned dog trainer and shelter owner
This is no dog pound.
The abandoned pit bulls, the Chihuahua puppies, the stray shepherd mixes-they must know that right away.
With a maze of endless kennels, 100 acres of choice bathroom spots and the radiant heat that rises from beneath slabs of concrete flooring, the shimmering new Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society seems an inviting place to stay for a spell.
Six months ago, the shelter moved from cramped quarters on Cerrillos Road to its new $10.2 million campus on the outer edges of town. The new shelter's two modern, adobe structures shoot up out of the desert dust incongruously, like some oil-soaked Middle Eastern emirate. Boasting almost double the staff, twice the kennel space and more plush architectural amenities than many human homes, the facility is a monument to the deep devotion Santa Feans feel for their animals. In a town where pets are as popular as green chile, the new shelter appears to be the perfect tribute.
Yet, despite the extravagant buildings and superb resources, the shelter has a growing list of critics. Some local animal lovers and shelter volunteers grumble that while the place may look nice, its leaders should exert more energy on the animals themselves. Specifically, critics say they should work harder to find the animals permanent homes before euthanizing them.
Some of those charges come from two dog trainers who quit their work at the new shelter after dogs under their care were, they say, euthanized without getting a fair shot at adoption. Both trainers allege the shelter's new management's efforts to find dogs homes are inadequate. They say the shelter fails to employ adoption-outreach practices widely used by other shelters. Subsequently, the trainers believe healthy dogs are euthanized to make room for new ones.
"The philosophy of getting rid of healthy, adoptable dogs to make space for more, healthy, adoptable dogs is moving the shelter towards the old 'dog pound' mentality," Suzanne Fuqua, who ran the shelter's dog training program before leaving in late November, says.
The shelter's new executive director, Duane Adams, bristles at the notion he's not doing everything possible to keep adoptable animals from dying. He denies all accusations that the shelter needlessly puts animals to death and points both to increased adoption and lower euthanasia rates as solid evidence.
"The only time we ever euthanize an animal is when all other options have been exhausted," Adams says.
Nonetheless, the debate over the new shelter's adoption efforts is intensifying. The debate reveals a widening rift among local pet advocates on how best to operate the largest animal shelter in northern New Mexico. No one disputes the shelter's good work. Rather, the conflict goes to the heart of the tragedy of the endless parade of abandoned animals into shelters in northern New Mexico; these are animals living on borrowed time, whose lives are completely dependent on the efforts of the shelter to find them new homes.
As Tristan Rehner, Fuqua's fellow dog trainer who also left the shelter in November, says: "If this shelter is not proactively working to make euthanasia less common, it's not doing its job."
For Suzanne Fuqua and Tristan Rehner, Nov. 10 and the week
that followed was when it all began and ended.
Even now, thinking back on that time, Fuqua's usually unwavering gaze clouds with anger. Rehner, typically placid and friendly, grows brusque and impatient. There had been five of them, all dogs, "pulled" from their kennels by shelter staff and, much to Fuqua and Rehner's horror, euthanized.
Most people who work in the field of animal care don't equate euthanasia with killing. Euthanasia is considered a "good death," an acceptable and necessary last resort in a world where there's a tragic overpopulation of domesticated animals. "When I euthanize an animal, I don't believe I am killing it," says Kim Intino, manager of animal services consultations for the Humane Society of the United States. "I am not hitting it over the head with a baseball bat. I am holding it in my arms, giving it a painless injection and letting it go to sleep."
Killing on the other hand-well, killing is killing. And in this case, at least for Fuqua and Rehner, what happened at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter seemed closer to the latter.
That autumn Thursday, Fuqua went to the shelter, as she did three days a week, to run her dog training program with Rehner. Both certified dog trainers, Fuqua and Rehner had worked at the old shelter since January and had transitioned to the new facility in August. Their program trained dogs to sit, greet, walk and quietly respond to other commands. Its mission was to help dogs better cope with shelter life, which can be intensely stressful and sad for any animal. The hope was that a better behaved dog would present as more adoptable.
"People don't realize how stressful it is for animals at a shelter," Fuqua says, the slightest whisper of a Kentucky drawl revealing her birthplace. "We were trying to help them gain some psychological control over a tough environment."
The program-staffed by as many as 35 trained volunteers-worked well at the old shelter under previous director Kate Rindy. The trainers practiced their silent commands on the dogs and used "Gentle Leader" and "Easy Walk" training harnesses to help modify the dogs' behavioral problems. More than 100 dogs were trained-dogs like Muncie, whose two claims to fame were jumping and peeing on everything in sight (before Fuqua's training rid him of both habits and he was adopted). The shelter, meanwhile, kept the dogs as long as it could in the hopes that a better trained dog would make a better pet, Fuqua says.
The training program continued to flourish under the stewardship of Duane Adams, who replaced Rindy when she stepped down in August. At least for a while.
Then, on Nov. 10, Fuqua says shelter staff informed her the shelter was going to start euthanizing some of the approximately 36 dogs she and her group were working with. Fuqua couldn't believe it.
"I wanted to know why they weren't doing more to get these dogs adopted," she says. "I wanted to know why these dogs weren't being taken out for mobile adoptions, why their faces weren't on posters all over town. I didn't think it was fair to talk about euthanizing these dogs at that point. They were adoptable!"
That same week, before Fuqua could follow up on her concerns, the trainers noticed that Dinah, a 2-year-old pit bull mix with ears that stuck straight up in the air, was missing from her kennel. A second young pit bull mix, Austin, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Dinah and had a special affinity for cat food, was also nowhere to be found. A third pit bull, Bear, a feisty 1-year-old, also was gone.
Word eventually drifted back that all three dogs had been euthanized. Fuqua and Rehner were floored. Dinah had received solid marks on her "report card," written up by training staff, for sitting, waiting on command and being walked on a loose leash. Austin was equally praised for his ability to sit when commanded, even inside his kennel. And while little Bear was certainly a handful, he'd not scrapped with any other dogs nor gotten into any trouble that might have warranted immediate euthanasia.
Six days later, two more dogs had disappeared. Katie, a small 2-year-old pit bull mix, seemed good at everything, whether walking, greeting or licking trainers after she earned a treat. Then there was Abby. A young pit bull/Labrador cross, with one ear entirely white, the other black, Abby received mostly high scores from different trainers throughout the course of her work with them. The trainers' report cards described a dog who was "very sweet and happy to run," made good eye contact and loved hot dogs and other meaty treats. Abby had been at the shelter for more than a month, and Fuqua considered her a special dog because of the progress she'd made in the training program.
After asking around, Fuqua and Rehner were told both dogs had been euthanized. To make things even harder, a photo of Abby, wide-eyed and smiling, had been featured in the "Pets of the Week" section of the Nov. 20 Santa Fe New Mexican. She'd died three days earlier.
The trainers were devastated. Both women had worked around shelters long enough to accept euthanasia as a crucial policy for shelters overburdened with too many animals. For them, the crux of the matter was whether the shelter had done enough to get the dogs adopted, a critical component to the mission of progressive shelters throughout the country.
"What about posters? What about fosters? What about mobile adoptions? What about transfers to other shelters?" Rehner says.
She didn't wait around to find out the answers. The day Katie and Abby died, Rehner quit the shelter altogether. Her master's degree in animals and public policy from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts had not prepared her for this sort of grief.
"I would have taken Katie myself if I had known there was a chance she'd been euthanized," she says, throwing her head back in an awkward laugh, barely masking her rage.
Fuqua, an accountant by trade, began documenting what had happened in meticulous notes: Never in the brief history of the training program had so many adoptable dogs been euthanized in such a short period of time; the adoption outreach seemed virtually nonexistent; the euthanizing of healthy animals to make room for other healthy animals hearkened back to a day when shelter animals were viewed as nameless numbers.
Through a flurry of e-mails and a phone conversation with Adams, she demanded to know why.
"He told me that after the shelter has done everything it can do and the community has rejected the animals, we need to make room for more," she says.
The response left Fuqua cold. On Nov. 18, she ended her training program and left the shelter for good. A short-haired, even-keeled woman of 52 with a tough veneer, Fuqua works furiously to control her own emotions while recounting her interaction with Adams. Fuqua's 7-year-old Australian shepherd, Dynah, sits at her side, watching curiously as her trainer begins to cry.
"I just don't think the shelter has been doing everything it can, and it's excruciatingly painful to see the results," Fuqua says. "On the surface, Duane's policy makes sense from an administrative perspective, from a numbers perspective,
but it doesn't make sense when it comes to the dogs."
Like most people who work in animal shelters, Duane Adams
has an unusual number of pets.
Five of them are dogs, ranging in age from Squirt, his 1-year-old Chihuahua, to Jake, a 12-year-old chocolate lab. Adams also has a horse named Tuff and two desert tortoises who have no names at all.
"They won't come when you call anyway," Adams, a soft-spoken man of 42 with a tightly trimmed goatee outlining thin lips, jokes.
Originally from Phoenix, Adams was on a track to become a peace officer for the Arizona Department of Public Safety by the time he was 18. But after an inspiring summer job at the Arizona Humane Society, the son of a high school teacher decided to continue work with animals. He started as a part-time ambulance driver before he was given a permanent position behind the front desk, where every morning he'd clean out kennels and put animals to sleep. A year later, Adams began conducting animal cruelty investigations for AHS.
"I saw a lot of really bad things I hope to never, ever see again," he says solemnly.
Over the next 23 years, Adams served as manager of AHS' animal shelter, eventually becoming its director of operations and, in 2001, he was appointed vice president of the entire organization.
Adams still carries himself like a police officer. His freshly ironed off-green shirt is tucked smartly into his black slacks, his white cheeks are shaved spotless save his goatee and there's more than a glint of impatience behind the soft-spoken shell.
The impatience flares more often these days because Adams is on the defensive. Defensive about the job he's doing, defensive about the shelter and, most importantly, defensive at the idea that he'd euthanize any dog when it isn't absolutely necessary.
Euthanasia has long been the most controversial part of the animal welfare profession. Dog catchers and shelters used to kill stray animals by any number of grotesque means-bludgeoning, shooting, even drowning. Under pressure from animal advocates, shelters began to use more humane methods. Now, only two remain-an injection or a carbon monoxide chamber.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that animal shelters take in six to eight million dogs and cats every year. Three to four million of them are euthanized.
"Eliminating the euthanasia of healthy, adoptable animals is something we all strive for, but the unfortunate reality is there are more animals than there are homes for," Intino says.
For the Santa Fe Animal Shelter, euthanasia is standard operating procedure, primarily because the shelter is dictated by mission to take in every single animal brought to its doors. The way Duane Adams sees it, the hard reality is that the community doesn't want them all.
"The euthanasia of healthy animals is a disgrace," Adams says. "But there's an overpopulation of animals, and the community needs to accept that there's a limit to how many can be placed."
To be sure, the job of deciding which dog lives and which dies is enormously difficult.
The shelter houses thousands of animals each year (6,009 in 2005) dropped at its doorstep for any number of reasons-maybe illness or behavior problems, or perhaps because the animal is a stray.
Once an animal is at the shelter, it's held in the intake building for anywhere from four to five days if it has no tags, five to seven days if it does. During that time, the animal receives medical attention if needed. If no one claims the animal, the shelter conducts a second medical evaluation.
More revealing is the SAFER animal behavior test, developed by noted animal behaviorist Emily Weiss; the shelter conducts the test to determine whether an animal has any psychological issues that makes it incompatible with other dogs and humans. If the animal fails, it is euthanized. Seventy-five percent of the time, however, the animal clears the test and is shuttled immediately to the adoption area in a separate building.
At this point, the life of an animal becomes a race against time. Like most similar operations, the Santa Fe shelter does not impose any limit on how long an adoptable animal can stay. According to Adams, that time can vary-a week, month, sometimes more. It runs out when the shelter believes the animal, no matter how healthy, friendly or cuddly, is depriving another animal still waiting for its own chance at adoption.
"The hardest thing for a shelter is to make a decision on whether that dog has been there long enough," Sue Sternberg, the owner of Rondout Valley Animals For Adoption in the Catskills and an acclaimed shelter expert, says.
In 2004, Sternberg was the subject of an HBO documentary,
which followed Sternberg and her staff as they made gut-wrenching decisions on the lives of dogs in their care. "The decision to euthanize any animal often upsets people. But it's truly an unselfish decision," she says.
Duane Adams shares this philosophy. As for how, specifically, he and his staff actually choose which animals live and which die, Adams says:
"The only fair way we can do it is to let the community decide which animals to keep."
This idea is where Adams and his critics part ways.
It's puppy pandemonium outside of Trader Joe's.
Blackie, a 2-year-old German shepherd-chow mix, tugs playfully at his leash while Ranger, a young whippet and boxer cross, licks the hand of anyone in reach. A crib of four miniature pit mixes nip, sniff and wrestle with each other nearby, coming up for air every few minutes to howl at the morning sun.
One Trader Joe's employee-a heavyset, fully grown man-rushes out of the store and coos like a newborn when he sees the dogs.
"Awwwww, loooook at the leeetle, teensy puppies," the man gushes.
A little boy, barely bigger than some of the dogs himself, looks like he's trying to climb into the puppy crib, before his father sheepishly yanks him away.
"Look at the puppies!" the boy gurgles.
The Española Animal Shelter has come to town.
There are many ways to get people to fall in love with an animal, aside from the obvious viewing, playing and cuddling hours at a shelter facility itself. Posting pictures of adoptable dogs on the Internet is one. Another involves peppering a particular location with posters of doe-eyed dogs and cats. A third method is when a shelter takes a select group of animals off-site for a "mobile adoption."
"In any business people are encouraged to be proactive, to go out and get things as opposed to being reactive. The same holds true for an animal shelter," HSUS' Kim Intino says.
According to HSUS, only 17 percent of dogs and cats are adopted from shelters. It shows, ostensibly, that shelters need to work increasingly hard to spread the gospel about their animals.
"There's a lot of competition, whether it's puppy mills, pet stores or the next-door neighbor. If a shelter wants to promote animals and get them adopted, then it needs to get out there in the community and do it," she says.
The Española Animal Shelter (officially known as the Northern New Mexico Animal Protection Society), a smaller operation which runs on half of its Santa Fe counterpart's budget, employs a host of techniques. Aside from posting adoptable animals on its Web site and on the Web sites of two national pet adoption sites, Española focuses extensively on mobile adoptions and posters. Nearly once a week, a van filled with volunteers and animals travels to popular Santa Fe locations like Trader Joe's. The Española shelter also uses a team of 12 volunteers to canvass Santa Fe, Española and Los Alamos once a month with approximately 175 posters of its animals.
"It's a very important aspect to what we do," Bridget Lindquist, the shelter's executive director, says. "The more people actually see the animals, the more those animals are on their minds."
In addition to the intense public outreach, Española sometimes will transfer an animal to a shelter in a different state if staff believes that animal has a better chance of being adopted elsewhere. Last year 981 dogs and cats were transferred from Española to shelters in Salem, Mass., Colorado Springs and Boulder.
All of these efforts are part of Española's multi-pronged effort to increase adoption. Lindquist actually has a clause in her contract that gives her financial incentive to get the shelter's euthanasia rate down. The shelter holds approximately 100 animals. Currently, 80 percent of Española's adoptable animals end up in homes; the rest are euthanized.
"We'd like it to be zero," Lindquist says. "And that's what we're working towards."
By comparison the Santa Fe shelter's outreach efforts appear less rigorous. It does put all of its adoptable animals on its Web site, as well as a national Web site. The shelter rotates a different group of six cats at PetSmart pet store for adoption.
"We're planning on sending dogs there too," Adams says.
The shelter also occasionally will run ads in local newspapers (including this one) and conducts a monthly radio show advertising its adoptions.
But the shelter doesn't do much in the way of mobile adoptions and posters. Adams has mixed feelings on both modes of outreach. He says the shelter puts up "some" posters and conducted one mobile adoption in the last six months, but neither produced results. With regards to the latter, Adams explains he's not a big fan of the practice; that he oversaw a mobile adoption program while working in Arizona, and it didn't work.
"I'm not holding back on them, but I'm not pursuing them either. I don't see them as a savior," he says.
In terms of fostering, the Santa Fe shelter typically sends 10 to 20 animals to temporary owners, a network that's "extensive as it needs to be," Adams says. As for transfers, Adams says he has open agreements with a number of shelters throughout the country and that over the past five months 25 dogs, 29 cats and 38 other animals have been safely transferred out of the shelter. Overall, according to the shelter, out of 3,500 adoptable animals housed last year, only 500 were euthanized and 86 percent were adopted. It's an impressive rate by any shelter's standards.
Between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31 of 2005, Adams says adoptions were up 22 percent when compared to the same five months at the old shelter in 2004. Meanwhile, the euthanasia of adoptable animals plummeted 50 percent over the same period. Adams partly attributes the success to the new shelter's increased kennel space, which allows animals to be held longer, thus increasing the chance of adoption.
"Every day I'm happier that Duane Adams is here. He is making sound decisions and we're very proud of him," Roddey Burdine, president of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter's board of directors, says.
But even with the numbers Adams cites, there have been others-aside from the two dog trainers-who have questioned the shelter's efforts.
Julie Luetzelschwab, a mapping co-ordinator for the Santa Fe National Forest, worked as a volunteer with 42 dogs the shelter absorbed in October from Hurricane Katrina. After weeks turned into months and with the dogs still sitting in their kennels, Luetzelschwab says she and many of the other volunteers wondered why the shelter wasn't doing more to get the dogs adopted. She sent out an e-mail to volunteers and shelter staff suggesting putting some into foster care or, even better, holding an adopt-a-thon for the dogs.
Little happened, however, even after volunteers confronted Adams at a Dec. 9 meeting about the dogs' future. Shortly after the meeting, a San Francisco animal rescue group, which got word of the situation through local news coverage, contacted the shelter and offered to take most of the remaining Katrina dogs. Adams quickly agreed, even offering to pay to transport the dogs out of the shelter.
While Luetzelschwab praises the shelter for finally whisking the dogs away to safety, she believes that if it wasn't for the rescue group's chance offer, the shelter would have put down most of the dogs.
"I was not satisfied the shelter was doing enough. There absolutely should have been more outreach, more advertising," she says.
Another volunteer, Valerie Gisiger, called the situation "a nightmare."
"There needed to be way more public awareness," she says. "The shelter needed to be incredibly aggressive in reminding people not to forget about these animals."
Adams insists the shelter did everything possible for the dogs. He points out that for the first six weeks, the shelter couldn't take them out into the community because it had promised sister Louisiana shelters that it would try and find their owners first.
"We explored a number of viable options to get the dogs homes," he says. "I can't honestly say we would never have euthanized them, but it wouldn't have been until all those options were exhausted."
As for the dogs in the training program, Dinah, Austin, Bear, Katie and Abby, Adams also says the shelter did everything in its power given the available resources at the time.
In a followup e-mail to SFR, Adams writes: "After having been with us and presented to the community-in our adoption kennels, online, and in several cases, in advertisements-anywhere from a month-and-a-half to three months, after no one in the community elected to adopt these animals, we needed to provide the space for other healthy, adoptable animals for whom our community might provide a home."
(Adams was unaware of the newspaper ad in which Abby appeared after she died, but says the shelter would never consciously advertise an animal after it was euthanized.)
Tristan Rehner and Suzanne Fuqua don't buy it. and they take umbrage with Adam's notion that the shelter did everything it could.
"If you have these fancy buildings, this fancy facility and you're still euthanizing healthy adoptable animals because of a lack of space, then to me that's backwards," Rehner says. "The fact is, the shelter could have been doing a lot more to move these animals through and still have them come out alive on the other side."
If there's a single individual solely responsible for the new Santa
Fe Animal Shelter and all its grandeur, that person is Kate Rindy.
Executive director of the old shelter for a decade, Rindy worked exhaustively to drum up the millions of dollars so the new facility could be built. Although she stepped down shortly after the shelter opened in July and now lives in Massachusetts, far removed from the animal welfare world, Rindy still thinks about the shelter and its animals often.
When told of the recent rumblings, Rindy offers strong support for Duane Adams. She points out that just because the new facility is bigger and better in no way means euthanasia will stop.
"People don't understand the harsh reality that having a surplus of animals creates," she says. "As long as you have too many animals and not enough homes, you have to make tough decisions."
Rindy also understands the sobering toll such decisions can have.
"I can't count the number of times my heart was broken, or the number of times I'd find a staff member sobbing outside," Rindy says. "There's always a way we can say we didn't do enough."
Fuqua and Rehner remain convinced of exactly that. In their minds, if the euthanasia to adoption rate is so solid now, imagine how much better it would be if the shelter wasn't simply sitting back and waiting.
"When you talk about moving dogs through a facility, when you talk about them like numbers, it's horribly disappointing," Fuqua says.
Meanwhile Duane Adams is in the midst of organizing an ambitious regional spay and neuter campaign he hopes will ultimately reduce the need for euthanasia in northern New Mexico. The campaign already is earning him praise from local animal advocates and his counterparts in Española.
Adams also is making another promise: that the shelter will focus more on adoption outreach.
"We're going to be unrolling additional programs in the coming year," he says. "We can always be doing more."
And for some dogs, it will always be too late.
J Christopher Dupuy contributed reporting to this article.