Chicago animal control director out; Oakland director quit but is still there, for now
CHICAGO, OAKLAND––More than two weeks after Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel controversially fired two-year Chicago Animal Care & Control director Susan Russell, and more than two months after Oakland Animal Services director Rebecca Katz put her job on the line to shake loose funding to fill vacant veterinary staff positions, hardly anyone before ANIMALS 24-7 seems to have mentioned that both Russell and Katz collided with the same realities.
Specifically, “no-kill animal control,” as defined by a 90% “live release rate,” cannot be achieved within the limitations of big-city budgets, at the same time as protecting the public and meeting humane animal care standards, if two-thirds or more of the incoming dogs are pit bulls: dangerous to handle, hard to rehome, and resource-intensive to safely house.
Katz is still on the job in Oakland after winning additional shelter funding at an eight-and-a-half-hour city council meeting on June 20, 2018. Russell appears to be out for good despite pit bull advocacy pressure to bring her back.
Russell & Katz each claimed 88% “live release rate”
Both Russell and Katz have long identified themselves with pursuit of the 90% “live release rate” goal. ANIMALS 24-7 has long pointed out that this goal is unrealistic at a time when relatively few animals received at shelters are easily rehomed puppies and kittens, while the majority of dogs are either impounded or owner-surrendered due to dangerous behavior.
A 90% “live release rate,” if achieved, practically by definition requires subjecting the public––and the pets of the public––to unacceptable risk.
Russell nonetheless claimed to have achieved an 88% live release rate for dogs in 2017.
Katz, before taking the Oakland job, achieved an 88% live release rate for dogs as San Francisco animal control chief, 2008-2014, including a 37% increase in dog adoptions during her tenure.
Differing styles, friends, & foes
Demonstrating differing styles and priorities as animal control chiefs, despite espousing similar philosophies, Russell and Katz have thereby had differing friends and foes.
Russell, among the noisiest pit bull advocates ever to head an animal control agency, was pushed for the job by pro-pit organizations and ardently pro-pit WGN/Chicago radio show host Steve Dale. When her management came under criticism, especially for allowing kennels to become overcrowded and for allegedly rehoming dangerous dogs, Russell was defended by the pro-pit bull Animal Farm Foundation and the Best Friends Animal Society.
Dale et al have also militantly protested against Russell’s firing.
San Francisco required pit bulls to be sterilized
Katz, a much quieter person, drafted a 2006 San Francisco ordinance mandating that pit bulls must be sterilized if brought within the city limits. Her October 2014 hiring to head Oakland Animal Services was vehemently opposed by the Oakland-based pit bull advocacy organization BADRAP, and also by the Oakland-based No Kill Advocacy Center, founded by pit bull booster Nathan Winograd.
The San Francisco ordinance reduced San Francisco animal control intakes of pit bulls by two-thirds in two years, and brought San Francisco the lowest volume of pit bull killing in shelters of any major U.S. city.
Katz in Oakland has had the help of no such ordinance. Nearly 75% of the dogs recently advertised as available for adoption on the Oakland Animal Services web site have been pit bulls or pit mixes. Most of the rest have been German shepherds or German shepherd mixes, among a handful of other dogs of large, aggressive breed, including Rottweiler, Dogo Argentino, and Cane Corso.
“Gave it my best”
Katz has promoted pit bull adoption at least as vigorously as Russell, if less flamboyantly, winning over some but certainly not all of the Oakland pit bull advocacy sector.
“I gave it my best for more than three years, and Oakland Animal Services is in a much better position than when I inherited it,” Katz told volunteers in an April 25, 2018 email, “but I simply cannot continue to work at an agency that does not get the resources and support from the city needed to fulfill its mission.”
Katz sent the email, KQED-TV reported, shortly after the resignation of the then-only Oakland Animal Services veterinarian, Jen Dalmasso, who took a position at the Alameda Pet Hospital.
“Dalmasso came on board in 2016,” KQED-TV said. “She says she had only one veterinary technician and an unlicensed assistant. Meanwhile, she was treating up to 30 animals every day. The only remaining veterinary technician is transferring out of the area next month, Dalmasso says, and the assistant will be going on maternity leave this summer, leaving the center with no veterinary staff.
“I could not continue on at the pace I was going,” Dalmasso said.
“Modest needs & requirements”
Reported the East Bay Times, “Katz said she submitted her letter of resignation to the city earlier this year [in March 2018], and laid out a list of ‘modest needs and requirements’ for Oakland to provide that would change her mind. Those included hiring people for vacant positions, some of which had been unfilled for more than two and a half years; advocating for more funding and positions in the 2018 mid-cycle budget; and getting the police department to ‘honor their obligations around animal investigations.’”
Katz appears to have won her showdown with the Oakland city council for now, but the shelter will continue to be flooded with dogs of high-risk history and difficult adoption prospects until and unless Oakland passes––and enforces––legislation to suppress pit bull proliferation.
Russell, “The $130,008-a-year executive director of Chicago’s chronically troubled Animal Care & Control shelter, was fired for ‘warehousing’ dogs in conditions that made dangerous dogs more dangerous,” reported Chicago News senior political reporter Fran Spielman.
Citing “City Hall sources,” Spielman wrote that “Russell’s fate was sealed by her underlying philosophy that every dog, even those deemed dangerous, could be rehabilitated. Russell’s refusal to acknowledge what one source called the ‘downside of that business’ resulted in the city pound operating beyond capacity since mid-February.”
Elaborated Spielman, “‘Warehoused’ dogs were ‘stored in offices and inhumane conditions,’ a City Hall source said. That exacerbated dangerous behavior, and ‘multiple volunteers and staff members,’ including Russell, were bitten by dogs.
“58% increase in biting incidents”
“Despite a 58% increase in biting incidents over the last year,” Spielman continued, “Russell disputed the warehousing charge. City Hall sources, though, argued that dangerous dogs were adopted out, only to be returned. Other shelters,” receiving transfers from Chicago Animal Care & Control, “were losing confidence in the city’s ability to distinguish between dangerous dogs and those that could be safely adopted, the sources said.”
Spielman said that some sources had mentioned “‘an unreasonable level of risk’ and liability for Chicago taxpayers.”
Russell told Chicago Tribune reporter Tessa Weinberg that she “was provided no explanation” for her firing.
Recounted Weinberg, “In a meeting at the mayor’s office with Emanuel’s chief of staff Joe Deal, Russell said she was asked to resign.”
Was asked to resign, would not, & was fired
Said Russell, “They asked me to resign and I did not wish to resign, and from there it was a termination. I said, ‘Why? What is the explanation for this?’ And I received none.”
But Russell appeared to have been at risk of termination for at least six months, in part for promoting pit bulls in a manner conflicting with the Chicago Animal Care & Control mandate to protect public health and safety––although Russell herself appears to have only cats as personal pets.
On multiple occasions Russell, prior to her appointment as Chicago Animal Care & Control director, promoted pit bull advocacy literature and memes on Facebook.
Two years before becoming Chicago Animal Care & Control director, Russell published a book for children entitled Shelter Dog Kisses: And How You Get Yourself Some!, encouraging children to volunteer in animal shelters, depicting a pit bull on the cover.
Priorities in conflict
Though Chicago Animal Care & Control exists to protect public health and safety, Russell did not mention either mission among her “top values” when WLS-TV news anchor Ravi Baichwal on June 16, 2016 asked her point-blank what those values are.
Russell instead listed “Respect for life, humane stewardship of animals, good people, and compassion.”
Russell boasted to Tails Magazine writer Laura Drucker in an October/November 2017 article that “Fewer pit bull-type dogs were euthanized last year at the city’s shelter than any other year prior.”
Cut euthanasia by cutting intake
Chicago Animal Care & Control dog euthanasias, all breeds combined, fell from 1,876 in 2016 to 689 in 2017.
But Chicago city animal shelter dog intakes dropped to 3,134, down 41% from 5,319 in 2014, even as “dangerous dog” incidents soared, some of them involving alleged failures by animal control to impound pit bulls after they attacked other people and pets.
Continued Drucker, “Russell doesn’t believe in labeling dogs by their breed. Instead, she calls all the canines in CACC’s care ‘Chicago dogs,’” even though by Russell’s own estimate, cited in the Drucker article, “about 70% of the dogs that enter Chicago Animal Care & Control—either as strays, surrenders, or those who are confiscated due to abuse or neglect—have the pit bull label.”
Rescue groups took 22% fewer dogs
Despite the slowdown in shelter intake, rescue groups counted upon to help rehome the pit bull glut were by the fourth quarter of 2017 showing signs of overload.
“Overall, rescue groups pulled fewer dogs — down about 22% or 220 dogs — in October through December of 2017 compared with the same time period in 2016,” Russell acknowledged to Chicago Tribune writer Leonor Vivanco-Prengaman.
Built to hold 200 dogs at a time, with a maximum capacity of 260, the Chicago Animal Care & Control kennels by January 2018 reportedly held as many as 300.
A $10,000 donation enabled Russell to offer rescue groups $100 to take dogs, mostly pit bulls, who were already spayed or neutered, vaccinated and microchipped, and $200 to take dogs who were not.
Russell herself was injured by pit bull
Russell herself, meanwhile, was “rushed to a hospital over the Christmas holidays after a pit bull she was walking took a chunk out of her arm and leg,” Chicago News reporter Fran Spielman disclosed on January 2, 2018.
Spielman said she learned of the multiple bites on Russell through a Freedom of Information request filed by Jennifer Jurcak, whom Spielman described as “a longtime volunteer at the city pound.”
Russell ordered that the pit bull who attacked her be euthanized, infuriating Jurcak and some other Chicago pit bull advocates.
Little, if anything, is expected to change at Chicago Animal Care & Control under acting successor Kelley Gandurski, also a pit bull advocate, who is to serve until a permanent executive director is named.
“Gandurski previously served as CACC’s deputy director and general counsel. Prior to that, she worked for the city’s Law Department,” reported Chicago Tribune writer Tessa Weinberg.