“Fire is always a threat”
ORLANDO, Florida; FRISCO, Texas––“We were able to save 45 cats and 26 dogs,” the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando posted to Facebook after a late night fire on September 15, 2021.
“We are heartbroken to report that we lost 13 cats and there are four still missing,” the posting continued, between fifteen and sixteen hours after workers at the Orange County Animal Shelter, across a parking lot from the Pet Alliance complex, rang in the first alarm.
“Staff will be setting up traps at the location in hopes of locating the missing four,” the Pet Alliance posting finished.
The fire damaged about four thousand square feet of the 5,000-square-foot Pet Alliance facility beyond repair.
Shelter was “like a maze”
Steve Sherill, the first Orange County Fire Rescue battalion chief to reach the scene, described the complex to Kate Santich, Christobal Reyes, and Stephen Hudak of the Orlando Sentinel as “like a maze,” with “several entrances and exits, several buildings attached by little corridors, and concrete walls that sometimes led to a dead end.”
Sheriff “estimated that damage extended to as much as 75% of the building, which is mostly concrete but has a wooden roof, replaced just six months ago,” Santich, Reyes, and Hudak wrote.
Pet Alliance executive director Steve Bardy told Santich, Reyes, and Hudak that the shelter “was built in 1989 and did not have fire sprinklers, which were not required at the time,” but the ANIMALS 24-7 files and a variety of online sources indicate that 1989 was actually when the Orange County Animal Shelter was built, to enable Orange County Animal Services to take over the county animal control housing contract.
New shelter to be built on new site
The oldest parts of the Pet Alliance complex actually appear to have been built in 1938, on county-owned land, as part of the deal that awarded the Orange County animal control contract to the Orlando Humane Society for the next 50 years.
“The Pet Alliance is Central Florida’s oldest and largest animal welfare agency, established as the Orlando Humane Society in 1937 and later becoming the SPCA of Central Florida before being renamed in 2014,” acknowledged Santich, Reyes, and Hudak.
The original Orlando Humane Society structure was enlarged repeatedly with outbuildings and additions, joined together to give the appearance of being one building––as at many other older animal shelters.
A new shelter will be built on another site that the Pet Alliance bought in April 2021, Barty said.
Cox ran 22 shelters in 60 years
“Fire is always a threat,” observed Warren Cox.
Cox now lives quietly with wife Jody and dog Emma Rose in Frisco, Texas, after 60 years in the animal care and control field.
During that time, from 1952 to 2012, Cox headed 22 different organizations. Many of them occupied facilities that were comparably cobbled together, as humane societies and animal control agencies struggled on limited budgets to stay ahead of exploding demand for their services.
Driven by human population growth, chiefly the post-World War II “Baby Boom,” the U.S. dog and cat populations more than quadrupled during Cox’s career.
That alone would have proportionately increased demand for humane services, even if there had been no major changes in what animal shelters were expected to do.
Expanding shelter universe
In 1969, however, mass marketing experts Alex and Elisabeth Lewyt took over the management of the then nearly bankrupt North Shore Animal League America, introducing “no kill” sheltering techniques which saved millions of animals’ lives at cost of requiring vastly expanded workforces and kenneling capacity.
(See Who invented no-kill?)
North Shore proved that donors would support the investment, and that the investment would then more than pay for itself.
Cox, though he never headed a shelter that claimed to be “no kill,” was a keen observer. Cox had already been perhaps the first animal shelter director to use television to boost adoptions, beginning in 1958 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As a cofounder of the National Animal Control Association, Cox also helped to lead efforts to abolish killing shelter animals by decompression, ended in the U.S. in 1985.
By the time the first U.S. “No Kill Conference” was held in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1995, the fewer than 500 animal shelters serving the U.S. when Cox started had become as many as 4,500. These were augmented within the next decade by as many as 10,000 mostly home-based shelterless “rescues,” few of them actually incorporated, licensed as businesses, and routinely inspected by fire marshals.
A late-night visit to the Dallas SPCA
Experience and observation, meanwhile, made Cox fire-conscious.
Becoming acquainted with Cox at the 1993 American Humane Association conference in Baltimore, ANIMALS 24-7 met him again at an Association of Sanctuaries meeting in Dallas late the following year.
Then in the middle of a 14-year stint as executive director of SPCA of Texas in Dallas, Cox invited ANIMALS 24-7 to inspect the premises––at 10:00 p.m., after the post-meeting dinner ended.
Arriving circa 10:30 p.m., expecting to find the shelter closed, ANIMALS 24-7 instead found it humming with cleaning and maintenance personnel––and, though occupying an older building, the shelter was among the cleanest ANIMALS 24-7 had ever seen. One dog, however, had just pooped in his kennel. Cox, in his go-to-meeting suit, immediately entered the kennel, scooped the poop, and then raced down the row of kennels to catch up with the cleaning crew, to ask that the dog’s floor again be washed and disinfected.
Maybe Cox was just “putting on the dog” for a media visitor?
“Hey Warren, why all the fire extinguishers?”
While Cox was busy, ANIMALS 24-7 took the liberty of wandering through another part of the shelter, encountering old acquaintances and career shelter workers Alex and Mary Stewart, last seen 17 years earlier in San Jose, California, in a kennel floor office.
“You’ll learn something new from Warren every day,” Alex advised. “Just walk around and keep your eyes open.”
Rejoining Cox, ANIMALS 24-7––as a former firefighter––noticed an unusual number of home-or-car-sized fire extinguishers hanging on the walls, usually not more than 20 feet apart.
The typical animal shelter, at the time, might have one industrial-sized fire extinguisher in the front office and maybe another beside the back door.
The obvious question: “Hey Warren, why all the fire extinguishers, in a concrete-and-steel environment where there is nothing to burn but dog poop and you already have zillions of hoses?”
ANIMALS 24-7, though a veteran of fighting barn fires, soon learned quite a bit more about both firefighting and fire extinguishers.
What fire extinguishers are good for
First Cox explained that a fire starting amid the paperwork in the front office, as the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando fire apparently did, could rapidly fill an entire shelter with smoke and heat, as concrete walls and ventilation systems could turn passage ways into chimneys.
Though nothing much in the kennel area itself might be combustible, anything that could burn––like a roof––soon might.
Then Cox issued the tip that ANIMALS 24-7 has amplified ever since, possibly saving countless animal and human lives:
“The main thing you want fire extinguishers in the kennels for, though, is breaking up dog fights and keeping your staff from getting attacked when a big dog escapes and becomes dangerous.”
Having begun logging fatal and disfiguring dog attacks in the U.S. and Canada in 1982, ANIMALS 24-7 was able to swiftly verify from file information that a fire extinguisher is almost as effective in stopping a dog attack as a gun, and vastly safer to use, since fire-fighting foam never hurts anyone with a ricochet.
The numbers have not changed in the many years since: a gun will stop a dog attack with the first shot about 80% of the time, but with high risk of collateral damage. A fire extinguisher works about 70% of the time, without risk to anyone else nearby.
What else Warren Cox knows
So what else does Warren Cox know, that others can learn from?
A few months ago ANIMALS 24-7 asked him.
At first Cox said “Not much––animal sheltering is not so much a science as it is a matter of using good sense,” but then Cox began emailing tips, a few at a time.
“Get away from your desk, at least several times a day, to walk the shelter,” Cox mentioned right away.
This is why Cox visited the Dallas SPCA at 10:00 p.m.: not just to show the place off to a visiting muckrake, but to make sure everyone assigned to a job was actually doing it, knew what to do, had a chance to ask questions, and––perhaps most important––made sure everyone working late got a few words of praise and encouragement.
On a second wander-about while Cox was talking to someone else, ANIMALS 24-7 met a kennel worker who freely admitted to having had drug addiction issues and to having spent half his life in prison. “I never felt like I did anything worthwhile until I worked here,” the man said. “We’re just mopping up dog and cat messes, but Warren makes us feel as if we’re keeping up the Taj Mahal.”
“I was not the smartest guy in the world”
Advised Cox later, “When you first visit a city, visit the zoo and the animal shelter. How a city treats animals will tell you how it treats its citizens.”
“Thinking about the things I have learned over the years,” Cox emailed a few days ago, “from my first management job I realized I was not the smartest guy in the world, so I picked good people to do what I wanted done and was smart enough to let them do it.”
Cox said he later learned this philosophy had been similarly summarized by Theodore Roosevelt, though Teddy Roosevelt reputedly did believe himself to be the smartest guy in the world, at least much of the time. (Mark Twain disputed this.)
“Image is important,” Cox emphasized. “That includes having clean vehicles and neat-appearing staff, as well as a neat shelter and grounds.
“You do not need a big fancy shelter to have a good organization,” Cox stressed, having established his national reputation for effective management while rarely if ever enjoying the luxury of having a shelter that was younger than his youngest personnel.
Soap & water
“Having a place that is clean and well kept-up, a friendly staff, and animals who are well cared for is very important,” Cox repeated.
“I have visited large organizations,” as has ANIMALS 24-7, “where a lot of these things did not apply,” Cox said.
“I think I got my first manager job in Cedar Rapids,” Cox recalled “in part because I told the board that soap, water, and paint would go a long way––and when I interviewed with the president of the board at his home, I swiped my finger across a piece of furniture in their back porch that was covered with dust. They laughed and I blushed.
“There is a difference between what looks clean and is clean,” Cox said. “You never know if people are really listening.”
But Cox remembered that once “A young man who worked for me in the kennel quit and went to work for a printing company. One day he stopped by and thanked me for teaching him how to clean. At his new job he was always cleaning, and it impressed his boss so much he was given a much better job.
Keeping animals healthy
“In another case,” Cox cited, “there was a volunteer who was assigned to taking care of the cats in a mobile unit. She took care of the cats, but the dust was piling up. She could not understand why I wanted all dust-catching surfaces to be clean, until I explained that the dust held germs. The place became spotless.”
Cox considers keeping animals healthy to be the most important part of animal sheltering.
“It is misplaced kindness to crowd animals together and keep them for long period of times and then place sick animals, or worse, have to euthanize them,” Cox advised, “and this does not address the stress and strain on the staff and the budget, not to mention public image,” when a disease outbreak spreads throughout a shelter and then, in worst-case scenarios, into the community.
Keeping animals healthy includes keeping them psychologically healthy.
“Years ago , in the 1950s,” Cox remembered, “we had community cat room and multi dog pens. Then we moved to single runs. We got lonely animals and more noise, and for the most part, we still do.
“We found it was advantageous, if possible, to place two large dogs together,” Cox recalled. “They keep each other company, so they do not have to seek out company [by barking] when left alone.”
Just hours before the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando fire broke out, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office on September 15, 2021 served a search warrant on Ruth Rupprecht of Palm Coast, Florida, who “operates a nonprofit animal rescue organization known as SAFFARI (Save A Furry Friend Animal Rescue Inc.),” a sheriff’s office media release summarized.
Rupprecht came under investigation for allegedly illegally selling prescription narcotics and antibiotics, wrote Flagler County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Melissa Morreale said.
More than 100 prescription medications and $20,000 in cash were seized from the premises, along with 17 dogs, 28 cats, a squirrel, and a deceased kitten, “discovered living in filthy conditions,” Morreale added.
The 46 surviving animals, including a kitten who later died, were transferred to the Flagler Humane Society.
Not a unique case
Such cases, in which a shelter or “rescue” founder allegedly uses the organization as a front for suspected drug dealing and embezzlement are, unfortunately, not unique.
In July 2021, for instance, Recycled Paws Rescue founder Lisa Marie Birdsall, 55, of Mohegan Lake, New York, was charged with grand larceny for allegedly stealing $17,000 from her own organization.
But far more common are cases of staff doing similar things, often for many months and even years before higher-ups notice.
Cox, whose career included stints directing animal shelters in Fort Walton Beach, Boca Raton, Tampa, and Lakeland, Florida, also has thoughts about preventing crime in shelters.
“It pays to listen to staff,” Cox began.
Petty theft adds up
For example, Cox recalled, “I had taken a new position and was just meeting staff and learning about the place. Behind the receiving counter was a cleaning closet. On the door jamb was a small wire hook with a ring at the top for the finger and the bottom had a hook. I asked what this hook was used for, and I was shown. The counter had a stainless steel top and at one end was a donation box fastened to the counter. The staff person said. ‘You put your finger in the loop at the end, stick the wire into the donation box, and remove the paper bills. Simple.’
“In another case,” Cox recounted, “when the field officer collected a donation, he was supposed to send out a thank you note showing the amount of the donation. It was felt that money was being collected but not shown, so we had the dispatcher sending out the thank you. Then we found out that the officer and the dispatcher were splitting the donations.
“In another case an employee showed me how the staff had been shown how to place a piece of tape under the place where the fee was indicated [on a carbon copy]. The client had a receipt but the amount was not shown on the other part of the record.
“Never thought to ask if pop had been paid for”
“One day I was making the inspection of a puppy room,” Cox told ANIMALS 24-7, “and I stumbled against the donation box on the wall beside the door. It was locked with a small padlock. By chance I pulled down on the lock and it came open. The inside had been jimmied, but the person assigned to open the box still had to use a key.”
At yet another shelter, Cox described, “We had a large store room where cases of soda were keep to fill the vending machines. Since I parked my car at the back of the building, I had to walk down the long hall past the store room. Often a staff person would join me, at times carrying a six pack of soda. I never thought to ask if the staff person had paid for it. Later I found it was a big joke that I never caught on.”
Listening to staff also includes paying attention to who actually does the work.
At one stop, Cox remembered, “I went to the shelter on Sunday and was talking to the person cleaning the kennels. I asked if working alone was a hardship, as the cleaning was usually a two-person job. The worker said no, as it didn’t take two people. Watch and ask.”
“The animal sits but refusing people makes staff feel important”
Cox increased adoptions and decreased euthanasia at every stop during his long career, developing a deep skepticism of standard adoption procedures.
“Is collecting a high adoption fee important, when the animal is retained for long periods of time?” Cox asks rhetorically. “Why don’t more organizations keep track of how long it takes to adopt an animal and what is the daily cost of keeping the animal?
“This reminds me that many years ago a home visit was required of prospective adopters,” Cox recalled.
That was a carryover from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when humane societies often ran orphanages and some rehomed more children than dogs and cats.
“Rescue groups are really bad about this today,” Cox said. “The animal sits, but refusing people makes the staff person feel important.”
Credit check reduces stress for all
Mike Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California and the international Home-4-the-Holidays program it coordinates, and a longtime friend of Cox, has in his 55 years in humane work facilitated more than a million dog and cat adoptions, beginning through the North Shore Animal League America and the Pet Adoptathon it sponsors each spring.
After years of refining adoption screening procedures to reduce stress for all concerned, Arms since 2005 has recommended just asking prospective adopters for a piece of photo identification, such as a driver’s license, plus a major credit card.
The photo ID establishes that the person is whoever he or she claims to be. The major credit card enables the adoption agency to run an online credit check.
While an adoption counselor helps the adopter to choose and become acquainted with a pet, a data processing clerk quickly accesses all of the information that could be obtained through a traditional questionnaire, pre-verified by the agency that compiles the credit history.
“Know when to pick your battles”
Cox is also critical of shelters “that close early or are closed when people are off work,” able to visit a shelter, and of shelters that accept and adopt out animals only by appointment.
Such practices discourage adoptions, increase animal abandonments, and erode public willingness to visit shelters.
“It is important to stick up for the rights of animals, but know when to pick your battles,” Cox advised.
“It does not matter who gets the credit [for an improvement in procedures or facilities], as long as the goal is met,” Cox said, “a lesson I learned 40 years ago when I had pushed hard for a retaining fence around the shelter to no avail, until a board member noted that we should have such a fence. I started to say, ‘That is what I have been telling you,’ but stopped when I realized I had gotten what I wanted.
“What’s in a name?”
“Ever notice how the title of the person in charge has changed over the years?” Cox asked. “In the 1950s it was superintendent, then manager, then executive director, and now president and chief executive officer.
“In animal control it was dogcatcher and pound master, then animal control director, and now director of animal services, and I am sure I have missed a few.”
Each new managerial title signifies greater responsibilities, more people to supervise, higher public expectations, and more chances to be fired.
Cox noted the cliché that, “If the board likes you, you can do no wrong, but if they do not like you, then you can do nothing right.”
But there is more to just that involved in keeping an animal shelter management job.
“Become the face of the organization”
“Staff also plays a big part in having a manager removed,” Cox mentioned.
Regardless of procedural firewalls, some staff members and volunteers will almost always develop access to board members, enabling them to undermine managerial efforts to introduce change.
“Employment contracts for years were no more than an outline of what was expected and at what salary. That changed to provide some level of protection for the manager, because boards change,” Cox observed. “Some people come on a board simply to get rid of the manager.
“It is important, regardless of the size of organization, for the manager to make contact with the donors, in person if possible so you can tell your story,” Cox advised.
“Become the face of the organization through the media,” Cox recommended.
“It may be hard, but it pays off,” Cox finished. “One example was when on a weekly radio show the host and I were talking about things we needed. I mentioned one thing and had it within days, and that was just the beginning of a friendship.”