Worked his way to the top from cleaning cages
DENVER, Colorado––Possibly the longest serving executive ever of a humane society that he did not himself found, Robert “Bob” Rohde, 68, on February 9, 2018 turned over the presidency of the Denver Dumb Friends League to Apryl Steele, DVM, after nearly 45 years with the organization and 41 years in the top post.
“During her 18 years as a practicing veterinarian in Denver,” Rohde wrote, introducing Steele as his successor in November 2017, “Apryl moved impressively through roles as president of the Denver Area Veterinary Medical Society, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association and the Animal Assistance Foundation,” also previously serving on the boards of Dumb Friends League and PetAid Colorado, before becoming president of the Colorado Humane Society & SPCA––a Dumb Friends League subsidiary––in 2015.
44,000 animals, 17 people, no vets
Rohde, among the last presidents of a major humane society to work his way up from animal care technician, joined the Dumb Friends League at age 23 in 1973, along with his wife Jann, two years younger.
For several years Rohde mostly shoveled dog poop and helped to euthanize animals.
“A friend told Rohde he’d probably only work at the Denver Dumb Friends League for a few months,” recalled Jeff Todd of CBS-4 in Denver. “Rohde and his wife moved to Denver [from Iowa] in 1973 because both got jobs at the league when it was housed in a dilapidated building off Santa Fe Drive.”
Recounted Rohde, “When we first started at the league, we had a staff of 17 people,” with no staff veterinarians, “we were handling about 44,000 incoming animals a year, and only roughly 11% walked out the door. The community wasn’t with us at that time. I just kept telling myself something had to change.”
“Our Dumb Friends”
In 1974 the Dumb Friends League moved to the present location on Quebec Street, then the main highway into downtown Denver. Adoptions increased, but so did animal drop-offs and, of necessity, killing animals from inability to keep them long enough to find them new homes.
As others burned out and quit, Rohde rose through attrition, becoming one of the youngest humane society executive directors of his time in 1977, at age 27.
The Denver Dumb Friends League, which also holds title to the name Humane Society of Denver, Inc., was incorporated on September 8, 1910. Founder Jean Gower meant for the organization to emulate Our Dumb Friends League, of London, England, founded in 1897, at a time when the word “dumb” indicated only that animals cannot speak for themselves.
Initially engaged chiefly in horse protection, Our Dumb Friends League opened an animal hospital in the Victoria district of London in 1906, and in 1912 initiated a subsidiary, The Blue Cross Fund, to help horses during the Balkan War of 1912-1913, a preliminary to World War I (1914-1918.)
By the end of World War I, the Blue Cross Fund had become known as just the Blue Cross, and had subsumed Our Dumb Friends League, though the “Dumb Friends” name was also still used as late as 1955.
The Blue Cross continues as a leading British veterinary charity, having inspired emulation by the Blue Cross of India, founded in 1959, and several other animal charities around the world, of which the next best known after the Blue Cross of India may be the Blue Cross of Hyderabad, also in India.
After Our Dumb Friends League quit using the “dumb friends” title, the Denver Dumb Friends League inherited unparalleled name recognition, and has used it proudly––especially under Rohde, known for introducing himself as “Your new Dumb Friend.”
Vigorously soliciting community support, Rohde presided over at least seven significant expansions of facilities and mission, beginning with adding spay/neuter capacity. The Dumb Friends League now employs 11 veterinarians, mostly to do spay/neuter.
Next, in 1987, came major expansion and renovation of the Quebec Street shelter.
The Dumb Friends’ Buddy Center adoption location in Castle Rock, a major Denver suburb, opened in 2001, partnering with Douglas County animal control since 2002.
The Quebec Street shelter was again expanded and renovated in 2003.
The Dumb Friends League added the Harmony Equine Center, near Franktown on the Denver outskirts, in 2012.
Partnering with Petco and the Petco Foundation, the Dumb Friends League added a downtown Denver adoption center in February 2015.
About six months before announcing his retirement, Rohde announced that the Quebec Street shelter will embark upon a three-year, $40 million renovation and update.
The Colorado Humane Society
Completing the job will be among successor Apryl Steele’s many challenges. But her three years heading the Colorado Humane Society included managing one of Rohde’s most ambitious expansions of mission.
Founded in 1881 as the first private animal welfare institution to be recognized and assisted by the Colorado legislature, the Colorado Humane Society in 1901 became the original home of the Colorado Bureau of Child & Animal Protection, which later evolved into separate government agencies.
As other humane societies formed, however, competing successfully for public recognition and donor support, the Denver Dumb Friends League most successfully, the Colorado Humane Society fell on hard times.
As recently as 2007 the Colorado Humane Society still operated two animal shelters, one serving the cities of Englewood and Littleton, the other in Lakewood. But the Lakewood closed in October 2007 “after donations fell when it was discovered that animal carcasses were disposed of in a dumpster,” explained Denver Post reporter Howard Pankratz.
Colorado attorney general John Suthers in December 2008 put the Colorado Humane Society into receivership and removed then-executive director Mary C. Warren, her husband Robert Warren, who was development director, and Mary Warren’s daughter, Stephenie L. Gardner, who had been operations director, from leadership roles in the organization.
Suthers alleged that they had falsely represented the Colorado Humane Society as “no-kill,” while killing up to 29% of the animals they received; that they had raised about $3 million since 2003 without maintaining accountability and nonprofit status; had co-mingled personal money with society funds; illegally operated the society’s veterinary clinic; and did not fully document spending $66,155 in donations raised to help animals affected by Hurricane Katrina.
In January 2010 the Warrens were barred for 10 years from operating or managing any nonprofit organization in Colorado, and from owning or operating any business covered by the Colorado Pet Animal Care Facilities Act. Gardner was placed under similar restrictions for two years.
“Name lived on”
“While the Colorado Humane Society shelter was shut down, its name lived on,” recounted Korene Gallegos of Denver Post in September 2011.
“It’s a good name,” Rohde told her, arranging for the Dumb Friends League to acquire both the name and the charter to investigate cruelty statewide conferred by the legislature 120 years earlier. Soon Dumb Friends League agents commissioned by the state Bureau of Animal Protection began pursuing cruelty cases in 43 of the 64 Colorado counties––basically all counties that lack locally based commissioned cruelty investigators.
Rohde’s proudest accomplishment, however, has been reducing shelter killing of dogs and cats, both in the Denver area through Dumb Friends League activity and nationally, as an exemplar.
Reduced shelter killing
“If there were a disease that was killing 45,000 domestic animals each year, wouldn’t there be a public outcry for something to be done to try and stop the death of so many helpless cats and dogs?” Rohde told the Rocky Mountain News in January 1991.
“Well, that’s just what we’re facing each year in Denver; the problem is epidemic.”
In truth, though, the Denver numbers were already going down, even though greater Denver has throughout Rohde’s tenure at the Dumb Friends League been among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S.
Shelters in the greater Denver area in recent years have killed fewer than 10,000 animals, all combined, even though the human population has just about doubled, and along with it, the numbers of pets in homes.
“Dr. Jeff” & pit bull ban both helped
Part of the reason for the improvement was Rohde’s expansion of Dumb Friends League spay/neuter services.
Probably a bigger reason was that veterinarian Jeff Young, now star of the reality TV program “Dr. Jeff,” in 1990 opened his Planned Pethood Plus clinic in Denver, which rapidly became the largest for-profit s/n clinic in the world (also housing nonprofit programs).
One big reason that Rohde has been reluctant to credit, probably for political reasons, is that Denver and many surrounding suburbs banned pit bulls in 1989.
Shelters in most of the rest of the U.S. saw pit bull intake rise from under 2% of the incoming dogs as of 1989, to more than 30% today, and saw pit bulls rise from 5% of dog euthanasias then to more than two-thirds today.
Denver-area shelters, however, have seen a much smaller rise, to about 15% of intake, or perhaps 20%, counting dogs who are misidentified to avoid the local prohibitions.
Pit bulls in the greater Denver area appear to account for about a third of canine euthanasias, half the national average, not because Denver-area shelters rehome more pit bulls, but because they do not receive as many.
This means the Dumb Friends League has been able to avoid receiving many of the dogs who are hardest to rehome, and are most likely to require euthanasia for behavioral reasons.
Rohde has preferred to focus on the Dumb Friends League adoption record. The Dumb Friends League during Rohde’s tenure rehomed more animals than any other sheltering organization in the U.S. except the North Shore Animal League, of Port Washington, New York, just east of New York City at the western end of Long Island.
The North Shore Animal League has rehomed more animals than any other shelter in the U.S. in every year since 1969. But in most years during Rohde’s 41 years as chief executive the Dumb Friends League ranked second.
The North Shore Animal League was the first big shelter in the U.S. to make extensive use of paid mass media advertising of animals for adoption, the first to transport adoptable animals from animal control shelters to adoption boutiques, and was, for that matter, the first to invest heavily in building an adoption boutique, as opposed to just the traditional row of noisy line kennels.
The Dumb Friends League had experimented with innovative techniques to increase adoptions before Rohde’s time, indeed before Rohde was born, including building line kennels on Santa Fe Drive that enabled passers-by to see dogs from the sidewalk, and putting up one of the first neon signs to promote adoptions.
Rohde leaned less toward experimentation than toward watching whatever North Shore and others were doing successfully, then emulating it, including offering animals for adoption from local Petco stores. Petco had begun offering shelter animals for adoption through the original Petco stores in the San Diego area in 1968, but the Petco partnership with the Dumb Friends League may have been the first in other parts of the country.
The Dumb Friends League has since 2007 averaged about 15,000 adoptions per year, dipping to the 13,000 range in 2013-2014, but rebounding to 15,497 in fiscal year 2017.
Rejected term “no kill”
The one promotional gimmick widely used by others that Rohde adamantly rejected was to call the Dumb Friends League a “no kill” organization, even though for all practical purposes it has been one, by conventional working definitions, for more than 20 years.
“We are often asked: ‘Are you a no kill shelter?’” Rohde said on the Dumb Friends League web site and in a variety of other public statements.
“The answer is: the Dumb Friends League is an open-admission animal shelter, meaning we open our doors to all animals in need—whether they’re old, ill, injured, unwanted or lost,” including to the extent of maintaining night drop-off kennels, out of vogue at most shelters in part because they attract abandonments of animals who cannot easily be rehomed, if at all.
“In every case,” Rohde emphasized, “we strive to relieve suffering, always keeping in mind the needs of the animals first. In some cases, this may lead to euthanasia. We do not euthanize healthy animals,” he said, “nor do we use euthanasia as a form of population control. There is also no set time limit for how long a pet can remain in our care. Our goal is to find a loving home for every adoptable animal that comes through our doors.”
The combination of Denver Dumb Friends League adoption success, the success of Planned Pethood Plus and other local spay/neuter clinics, the efficacy of local pit bull bans, and antipathy toward the term “no kill” led Rohde and former Dumb Friends vice president of finance and administration John Nagy to take a leading role in 2004 in developing an agreement called the Asilomar Accords, named after the conference center in Pacific Grove, California the accords were formally introduced.
The Asilomar Accords included a now widely used format for shelter data tracking which distinguishes among “adoptable,” “treatable,” and “rehabilitatable” animals, and between “owner-requested” euthanasia and killing done at option of the shelter itself, whether for health or behavioral reasons, or simply to accommodate more intake.
“Live release rate”
The introduction of the Asilomar Accords also brought into widespread use the so-called “live release rate” as a purported measure of shelter performance.
The “live release rate” is the inverse of the equally misleading “euthanasia rate,” the most widely used animal sheltering statistic of the late 20th century.
By either name, the “live release rate” or “euthanasia rate” measures only the percentage of animals a shelter receives who leave the shelter alive.
“Live release rate” or “euthanasia rate” does not take into consideration the reality that as successful spay/neuter reduces the numbers of easily adoptable puppies and kittens who are surrendered to shelters, an ever higher percentage of shelter intake are sick, injured, or dangerous animals.
A shelter “live release rate” can be boosted and the “euthanasia rate” can be lowered if the shelter either refuses to admit dangerous dogs, unhealthy animals, and other animals of low adoption prospects, or rehomes unsafe dogs.
Prior to the introduction of the Asilomar Accords, U.S. animal shelters had rehomed only four dogs in 146 years who went on to kill someone. Since then, U.S. animal shelters have rehomed more than 50 dogs who went on to kill people, mostly members of their own adoptive families––and more than two-thirds of those dogs have been pit bulls.
Post-Asilomar Accords, U.S. shelters rapidly moved toward accepting a 90% “live release rate” as the definition of “no kill.”
The Denver Dumb Friends League, where pit bull admissions have averaged around 10% of total dog intake, easily met the 90% standard despite practicing an open admission policy, otherwise rare among shelters claiming a 90% “live release rate,” and without––yet––adopting out any dogs who went on to kill or disfigure a human being.
This would probably not have been possible without the local pit bull bans.
Microchips & disease control
A more positive example of leadership came, also in 2004, when Rohde helped to push the makers of microchip scanners to standardize their technology so that a single scanner could be used to check incoming animals for identifying chips from any and all microchip manufacturers.
Rohde also won widespread praise from the zoonotic disease control community for his handling of an outbreak of the bacterial disease Streptococcus equi zooepidemicus, a rare canine pneumonia variant that killed five dogs at the Dumb Friends League’s Quebec Street shelter in April 2013. At least a dozen other dogs fell ill.
“We are voluntarily ceasing dog intakes and adoptions to protect the 263 dogs currently in our care, as well as the dogs in our community,” Rohde announced on April 20, 2013.
“Hardest thing I have been through”
Consulting shelter veterinary experts at Colorado State University, Cornell University, and other institutions, Rohde told ANIMALS 24-7 that, “In my 39 years of serving animals and the League this is the hardest thing I have ever been through.”
But the outbreak was stopped by June 2013.
Similar disease outbreaks at shelters have often killed many more animals and have persisted for longer, amid premature declarations of control that led to recurrence.
Fading off into the sunset
Scarcely to be overlooked was Rohde’s success as a fundraiser. The 25th annual Denver Dumb Friends League “Furry Scurry” dog walk, coming up in May 2018, is expected to attract as many as 10,000 human participants plus 5,000 dogs, and to raise nearly $1 million––which would be about average, over the past 10 years.
Rohde may be there, with wife Jann, walking their two dogs. But he has made clear that he does not plan to complicate the transition to Steele’s administration by hanging around.
“I think it’s best if I just kind of fade off into the sunset,” Rohde told Todd of CBS-4.
Said Oregon Humane Society president Sharon Harmon, “Jann Rohde deserves an award for supporting her husband. Bob was a first in, last out kind of leader. All of us who have been in the business for any length of time have all benefited at some point from Bob’s counsel.”