More than 30 employees, former employees and community members showed up at First Presbyterian Church in River Forest Tuesday to voice their concerns about conditions at the Animal Care League shelter in Oak Park. Calling themselves the Oak Park-River Forest Concerned Citizens for Animal Welfare the group complained about issues they say tarnish the image of the Animal Care League and endanger the community.
The group also called for the termination of ACL's new executive director, Kira Robson. But Robson, reached after the meeting, said employee unrest was based on misinformation and the fact that ACL had no director for almost a year prior to her stepping in. She said staff was chafing at new leadership and having to be accountable.
Issues discussed at Tuesday's meeting were characterized as quality of life for animals at the shelter, threats to public safety, and a toxic working environment.
Originally, the committee asked the Animal Care League's board of directors if they could make a presentation at the board's Tuesday night meeting. However, they decided to host their own public presentation after being told their session would be cut in half and would be videotaped by a human resources attorney.
With no board members present, the committee members spoke of what they consider poor management and unethical business practices being allowed by the shelter's board of directors and Robson.
Euthanasia policy changes
Animal Care League veterinarian Dr. Mary Eisenlohr disagreed with the shelter's practice of killing fewer animals in order to be considered a "no-kill shelter." She said while the public may think this is good, it is actually harmful because it means that the shelter is running out of space for other animals, resulting in a trickle-down effect of inhumane living conditions and overflow of animals at this and other local shelters.
"The grim and harsh reality is that the more time and opportunity we give one animal, fewer animals get any opportunity at all," said Eisenlohr, who gave an example of a pit bull that has been at the shelter for five months and can no longer be walked by experienced volunteers because of his violent behavior, resulting from confinement and stress. This is causing problems because other dogs could have been adopted had they been able to occupy the space this troubled dog has occupied, thus saving more animals in the long run.
Robson said in a telephone interview that the shelter has been given direction by the board to reduce euthanasia.
"We only euthanize for aggression or extreme illness," she said.
She said she changed the number of people who made "end-of-life decisions" for shelter animals, which were formerly made by the animal managers alone.
"We've incorporated more people involved in the decision making and documented it better," said Robson, who previously worked for PAWS in Chicago where she helped open the adoption center. She also worked for Chicago Animal Control.
Fifty-five animals were euthanized between Nov. 2013 and April 2014, whereas 65 had been euthanized the previous year during the same period, said Robson, adding that the pit bull in question often travels to a volunteer's home and is allowed to swim in the kiddie pool as part of "enrichment resources ACL is lucky to have."
'Dangerous' animals adopted
Critics said the ACL has radically changed its definition of what it means for an animal to be adoptable in the six months since Robson has been executive director. Ellen Milad, former manager of canine operations, described what she considers the dishonest practice of marketing dogs as ready for new homes and good pets despite a history of violent behavior toward humans and other pets.
Milad said one dog adopted by a family killed their pet cat within three hours of adoption. After the dog was returned, Milad said, the shelter adopted it out to another family, which did not know its history of killing a family pet. She said members of the staff felt as though they had to lie to the second family all in the name of adoption. She also described another dog currently up for adoption, which has injured several volunteers.
Veterinary Technician Jane Barker said dog adoptions are down 18 percent this year. She attributes it to the bad reputation the shelter is beginning to develop as people learn of such stories.
"Do dangerous dogs make good ambassadors as shelter dogs for Animal Care League?" Barker asked.
Robson disputed the 18 percent figure. She said the adoption numbers were almost the same year-over –year in the first six months. She said the number had fallen from 372 in 2013 to 364, or one percent.
Robson, interviewed later, acknowledged the family with cats that was not properly warned about how to introduce the new dog to the household was a "staff mistake." She denied that staff members were told not to tell new adopters of the cat-killing incident.
"The dog tested fantastically. He was a great dog. We had a terrible incident and we made a mistake," Robson said.
Robson said the ACL uses "SAFER," a behavior evaluation procedure approved by the ASPCA.
"We never put an animal into the community if we think it is dangerous," she said.
Robson said in the past six months 12 dogs were returned from adoption, two with cat issues.
At the public meeting, Eisenlohr said morale is extremely low among employees at the shelter.
"In the past seven months, ACL has lost 40 percent of its employees, many whom left in despair," she said. "We deeply believe in [ACL's] mission as we understand it, to help as many animals as possible, but we feel we cannot attain this end on the path down which we have veered."
Robson later disputed those numbers, saying around eight people (around 30 percent of the staff) had resigned or been terminated in the past six months.
Veterinary Technician Carol Craig said she would like to see Robson terminated because of her lack of care in preserving the mission of the Animal Care League and promoting dishonest business practices.
"I would like [the board] to understand those concerns and I would like them to find an executive director who would, in fact, implement the policies that we think are accurate," Craig said.
Milad said the board needs to seriously look at the questions the committee is raising in order for the shelter to thrive.
"We're concerned about safety in our communities, the quality of care of some of the animals at the Animal Care League and the toxic work environment that also floats into the reputation of the Animal Care League that is something so many of us have worked so hard to build up."
Robson said later she thought some members of the ACL staff were having a hard time adjusting to "leadership" after having no executive director for almost a year.
"Somebody coming in and asking for following proper policy and procedures and asking for accountability is a shock to the system," she said. "We have had a few people resign," she acknowledged, "but one was moving out of state."
"The whole process of communication appears to have broken down," for some employees, Robson acknowledged. "I always say my door is always open."
This article has been updated to provide figures for the number of animals adopted and the number of ACL employees who have resigned or been terminated.