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Last fall, Cindy, an Australian cattle-dog mix, came to the animal shelter owned and run by the Washington Humane Society on Georgia Avenue NW. The shelter houses animals that were surrendered by their owners or rescued from abuse or neglect by the charity’s investigators. Once inside the modest storefront, Cindy moved into her own dog run in the basement with about a dozen other canines.
In Cindy’s early days at the facility, she didn’t like people petting her. If one of the workers put a hand out, Cindy turned her back, according to the Humane Society’s staff veterinarian, David Darvishian. But as the days went by, Cindy grew more comfortable. The staff let her out of her dog run in the basement to run around upstairs. Cindy improved so much that she was scheduled to go to a foster home to await adoption.
On a Friday in October, Darvishian stopped by Cindy’s dog run. Cindy came up to Darvishian and wagged her tail. She appeared happy and healthy.
The next day, Cindy began acting lethargic. She wouldn’t lift her head. And she didn’t have much of an appetite. She also began expelling bloody fluids—all classic symptoms of a potentially fatal gastrointestinal infection known as parvovirus.
Parvovirus, which is spread through dog feces, is not uncommon in shelters. In the early stages of the illness, the dog may eliminate yellow or gray feces, or feces streaked with blood. The animal then dehydrates quickly because of vomiting and diarrhea. Some dogs may experience projectile diarrhea until they die. Death can occur within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms.
On Sunday, the staff realized Cindy was too sick to send to a foster home. The staff should have called a vet. But no one called Darvishian.
When one of Darvishian’s colleagues arrived at her desk Monday morning, she found a note from the animal-care staff reporting Cindy’s symptoms. Darvishian, who was preparing for surgery, requested that the shelter staff send Cindy to Friendship Hospital for Animals, one of the city’s best emergency vets. But Cindy never left. A couple of hours later, when Darvishian emerged from surgery, an animal-care worker carried Cindy over to him, wrapped in a blanket. The dog was dead.
The results of a necropsy later confirmed that the cause of death was parvovirus, say Humane Society officials, who determined that no other animals were infected.
Darvishian might not have been able to save Cindy. But he could have at least spared her some suffering.
In the wake of Cindy’s death, Humane Society officials carried out an investigation and fired the acting shelter manager. In the past six months, Humane Society officials say, they have revamped animal-care staffing. The changes came too late for some clinic employees, though.
The veterinary staff saw the animals’ living conditions when they went to the shelter and in their own clinic. When there was no more room at the shelter, Humane Society workers housed overflow animals in the basement of the clinic.
Rick McGranahan, a former veterinary technician for the Humane Society, says that over the past year he frequently saw overflow dogs from the shelter sitting in feces and on urine-soaked bedding. He and other former clinic employees further allege that animal-care workers sometimes missed feedings for animals, many of which were brought in as starvation cases.
Even before Cindy’s death, the veterinary staff had tried to alert shelter managers about animal-care issues. On Aug. 8, 2003, Darvishian outlined his concerns about waiting to test cats for diseases until they were adopted in an e-mail to Rosemary Vozobule, the Humane Society’s senior director of programs and overseer of the Georgia Avenue facility. Vozobule’s reply consisted of one sentence: “Okay, thanks for these extra thoughts.”
Darvishian’s “extra thoughts” failed to make an impression on Humane Society management. In mid-February, Darvishian sent up another flare to his bosses. “None of us look forward to coming to the clinic in the morning and are tired of arriving to the clinic with shelter animals there, the clinic not cleaned, cages left dirty, and then trying to get someone to remove the animals so that we have enough housing for surgical patients,” he wrote in an e-mail. “There is no excuse to continue as we have. The organization is risking the loss of the entire clinic staff.” Darvishian resigned earlier this month, and Humane Society officials closed his clinic soon after for budgetary reasons.
About the time Cindy died, Humane Society officials were selling themselves to District officials and to the public as the obvious choice to run another facility, the toughest animal holding pen in the area: the city-owned D.C. Animal Shelter, at 1201 New York Ave. NE.
The Humane Society has run the shelter for most of the past 24 years. Last fall, however, its streak appeared in jeopardy: The group walked out of the facility in September over a contract dispute with the city. It simply packed up some of the shelter’s furniture and equipment and bolted, leaving the city to manage the facility’s day-to-day operations. In January, the District agreed to a new three-year contract with the Humane Society to run the shelter. The charity is scheduled to return to the shelter sometime this spring.
Throughout its exile, the Humane Society made it clear that it wanted to return to the run-down municipal shelter. “Our hope is that we can keep doing what we’ve been doing…and finding as many good homes for unwanted, neglected, or abandoned animals as we can,” said Humane Society President Priscilla Clapp at a D.C. Council hearing last fall.
Running the D.C. Animal Shelter can be a thankless job. It is the area’s only 24-hour open-access shelter, meaning that it doesn’t turn any animals away, regardless of condition, age, or temperament. The animals that wind up at the shelter are brought in by their owners or recovered by a team of animal-control officers who patrol the streets, gathering sick and stray domestic animals and wildlife.
The D.C. Animal Shelter has become an integral part of the Washington Humane Society’s identity. In the public’s mind, the plight of homeless animals at the shelter is indistinguishable from that of the organization. And the Humane Society enjoys a loyal following among both animal-welfare activists and the city’s elite—a pair of constituencies that can always be counted on to battle for the group’s agenda.
No one doubts the sincerity of Washington Humane Society officials when it comes to animal welfare. Too often, though, Humane Society managers believe they’re the only ones who know what’s best for the District’s animals.
And that’s the lesson of the Humane Society’s reoccupation of the New York Avenue shelter. Last year, during contract negotiations with the District over a new five-year contract to run the shelter and to provide animal-control services, the organization’s leaders appear to have bristled at the very mention of oversight. After spending decades helping the Humane Society become an established organization in the District, they started treating it like an establishment organization: They fought the presence of an on-site monitor. They proposed limiting the kinds of documents available under the Freedom of Information Act and the kinds of cases in which the D.C. Department of Health can intercede.
“When you’re the only game in town, you go into the negotiations with a very big stick,” says mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock.
The D.C. Animal Shelter doesn’t look like the sort of place that a well-connected organization would fight for. It sits behind a concrete barrier on New York Avenue, tucked between an on-ramp for Brentwood Parkway and a parking lot, the kind of neglected real estate usually reserved for trash-transfer stations or salt domes. Inside, water leaks from the ceiling.
The shelter’s front counter is a revolving door of human-animal interactions. It’s where people come to surrender sick and dying animals and where they come seeking a new pet. In fiscal year 2002, more than 12,000 animals spent some time at the New York Avenue facility.
Next to the front counter is an office with views of the inside of the shelter as well as the entrance. Back in 1997, the room was the domain of Peggy Keller, whom the D.C. Department of Health had hired to monitor the animal-shelter contract. Keller spent every day there, going over receipts and logbooks. Her location also allowed her to hear when customers were having problems with the staff—and see firsthand how employees coped with antiquated facilities and unreliable city vehicles.
Keller didn’t sit quietly and shuffle papers. When Humane Society employees violated the terms of their contract, such as the time an animal-control officer cut through a fence to get into a resident’s yard and impound dogs, she would document it. If she heard a customer getting upset, she might step in.
Washington Humane Society officials didn’t always appreciate her input. Soon, they were telling then–Chief Management Officer for the D.C. Financial Authority Camille Cates Barnett that they needed the office space for shelter staff.
Keller fought to retain her access to the shelter. “The Washington Humane Society has repeatedly tried to remove the Chief of Animal Disease Control [Keller] from being onsite every time that there is a new Director or Deputy in the Department of Health,” she wrote in a Nov. 10, 1997, memo to her bosses.
At first, Health Department officials agreed to move Keller to a back room at the shelter, a former surgery room. On Dec. 30, 1997, Keller wrote in a memo to her bosses, “I have been unable to move from my office into the old surgery….[A]t this time, no employee could function in the conditions in the old surgery. It has been sprayed with chemicals, lacks suffient [sic] lighting, has enormous amounts of rat feces on the floor, and cannot be locked….By moving back into the dark windowless surgery, I would not be able to see any of the operation.”
Humane Society officials, however, did better than just isolate Keller: They ousted her. In a strange quid pro quo, the Humane Society offered to pay for $150,000 in renovations and repairs to the shelter, according to an April 1998 agreement. The order further stipulated that the front office “will be vacated by the DoH employee [Keller] within five business days.”
After she was booted from the shelter, Keller made several trips to the facility every week. But rather than seeing problems as they happened, she was forced to wait until someone found her name and her number and complained to her.
Occasionally, Keller would make a push to reclaim her space. Each time, though, the Humane Society pushed back. For example, on March 31, 2000, then–Humane Society Executive Director Mary Healey wrote to a top Department of Health official, “WHS would be extremely disappointed” if the agency reoccupied the front office, “especially after WHS had completed its promised improvements to the city’s shelter and spent over $150,000 to do so.”
“[T]he District should recognize that its role is to oversee, but not micromanage, the Contractor’s performance,” Healey continued. “The District’s repeated involvement with individual animal cases, sometimes with results that contradict the need for effective animal control law enforcement, are difficult for the Contractor and often counterproductive from the standpoint of Animal Control.”
The Humane Society’s contract with the District government was set to expire in June 2001. That month, the Humane Society agreed to stay on at the shelter until June 2002, while the city reviewed contract bids. In return, the Health Department promised to stay out of its business.
In a June 26, 2001, memorandum of understanding, Health Department officials agreed to limit their authority to “the disposition of suspect rabies animals, animal bite cases, and dangerous dogs….Other than for those animals, the [Washington Humane Society] will be responsible for taking appropriate action with respect to a particular animal.”
On paper, the change didn’t sound like much. But in practice, it meant Keller could not interfere with or otherwise override Humane Society decisions. Previously, Keller could have stepped in when, for example, an owner changed his mind about surrendering his pet; now she was forced to sit on the sidelines.
Humane Society officials also made sure the news media would have a harder time getting their hands on contract violations written up by Keller, some of which turned up in a negative March 2001 Washington Times series on the Humane Society. In the June 2001 memorandum of understanding, the Department of Health essentially agreed to restrict the kinds of documents available under the Freedom of Information Act. “If the Department sends a written communication that could be interpreted in any way as critical…the communication will be clearly labeled as a draft…” Drafts are considered part of a deliberative process and can be exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Humane Society may not have liked the scrutiny of the District monitor or the media, but it’s shown on several occasions that it needed it.
Three years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the Humane Society had captured, rescued, received, and subsequently euthanized 881 federally protected migratory birds over four years. In a plea agreement, the Humane Society pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of capturing and killing three mockingbird hatchlings. A December 2001 audit by the Office of the Inspector General concluded that the Humane Society had failed to keep track of controlled substances at the shelter. The organization had also shorted the District of $76,000 in reimbursements, the audit reported. In their response to the audit, Humane Society officials contested the latter figure, but by their own accounting, the group owed the city $43,000.
In January 2002, the Washington Post reported that the Washington Humane Society allowed the Friendship Hospital for Animals to use cats and dogs from the D.C. Animal Shelter as blood donors.
And for years, animal-welfare advocates have also questioned the group’s euthanasia policies at the shelter. Under the Humane Society, D.C. shelter workers put down 66 percent of the animals it took in each year. That rate isn’t unusual for an open-access urban animal shelter. What upset some local animal-welfare advocates were stories of adoptable animals being killed simply for having colds or because the shelter didn’t have enough space.
One foster-care giver, for example, says that last spring she decided to adopt a 10-month-old cat. But when she called the shelter, it turned out that the cat, which had appeared alert, affectionate, and healthy the day before, had been euthanized that morning because: “She was sneezing.”
Washington Humane Society Executive Director Jody Huckaby says he can’t address the specific case, but the decision to euthanize is never simple or easy: “We make an assessment of adoptability. If over the course of a week an animal becomes ill, we have to take that into consideration.”
The shelter’s trigger finger appears to have made it a destination point for animal elimination. In one nine-month period in 2000, Madeleine Gioridano brought in 39 cats, 10 dogs, two mice, and a cockatiel that she picked up in various locations, including “Rt. 50,” the Bronx, and a Delaware pet shop. That’s a total of 52 animals, 43 of which were euthanized at the shelter. (Shelter records indicate that most of the animals were aggressive or sick.) Of the remaining nine, two were dead on arrival, four have incomplete records, and three lucky ones were later adopted.
The D.C. Department of Health investigated Gioridano’s visits to the shelter. The case was dropped after Gioridano stopped coming to the shelter, says an agency official.
The Washington Humane Society is accustomed to operating on its own terms. Since 1870, the society has operated under a congressional mandate to investigate cases of animal cruelty and neglect in the District. And it is the only agency in the city that does so. Its five humane-law-enforcement officers last year investigated more than 1,700 cases of abused and neglected animals.
No one, however, polices the animal police. If pet owners disagree with their decisions, they have to go to court. Details of the Humane Society’s anti-cruelty operation are not available through the Freedom of Information Act.
In a 1997 memo, Keller suggested that the Humane Society’s immunity from oversight in its cruelty operations had set a tone for the rest of the organization. “They resent any monitoring as they have never had any over their primary function of anticruelty authority….WHS prefers no oversight.”
Department of Health officials didn’t want whoever was going to be in charge of running the D.C. animal shelter to perpetuate any of the Humane Society’s headline-making blunders. They looked at the new contract as a way of forcing some changes. They didn’t want dogs and cats from the shelter used as blood donors. They didn’t want shelter employees taking press calls. And they wanted a monitor on site at New York Avenue.
The Humane Society, too, wanted some changes. “[T]he contract proposed by WHS would remove the District’s ability to oversee WHS’s operations as a District contractor, and would allow WHS to operate as an independent agency,” wrote then–Department of Health attorney Andrew Hoenig in a May 2, 2002, e-mail.
The fight over oversight helped slow down contract negotiations, which dragged on for the next two years, eventually prompting the Sept. 4, 2003, walkout.
Starting last spring, Humane Society officials refused to extend their contract with the city for longer than a week at a time. “Our vehicles were falling apart….The staff was going to walk. We weren’t trying to force the District’s hand. That was the best we could do,” says one official. In public, however, society officials blamed the city for yanking their chain.
By the summer of 2003, Humane Society negotiators were gumming up the works again, fighting two standard contract provisions, says former City Administrator John Koskinen. Both clauses let the city make changes or terminate a contract in case the city runs out of funds, to accommodate a change in the law, or if the contractor fails to do its job. The charity’s negotiators asked for terms that “we don’t give anybody,” says Koskinen. He adds that the September walkout was simply an act of brinkmanship. “The city has no interest in causing chaos [at the shelter],” says Koskinen.
A month after the walkout, Huckaby told the D.C. Council Committee on Human Services that the organization just wanted a little elbow room. “What we are asking the District government for is perfectly reasonable,” he said. “We just want the flexibility we need to operate the shelter.”
No one challenged Huckaby on his definition of flexibility. The animal-welfare community at this point had joined hands with the Humane Society. Practically every witness at the council hearing, from the rabbit-rescue lady to the director of Friendship, was a Humane Society booster.
The Humane Society had nothing to fear from anyone on the dais, either. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, in particular, didn’t take on the Torquemada role the way he had at the height of that summer’s Office of Property Management scandal. Instead, he channeled Dr. Phil. “I think this is a relationship issue,” Graham said, likening the city’s relationship to the Washington Humane society to a marriage. He dismissed the Humane Society’s only rival for the contract, the Humane Society of Canada, as a “mail-order bride.” Graham argued for staying with the first wife.
Graham knew that the Humane Society had run the shelter for so long that it hardly had competitors. And he remembered what had happened in 1995, the last time the District strayed by hiring another local group—Animal Link—to run the city shelter.
Just as it did last year, the Washington Humane Society in 1995 walked out of the animal shelter over the terms of a new contract. Animal Link came in. The Humane Society soon began accusing Animal Link of substandard animal care. The Humane Society, which retained its authority to enforce animal cruelty and neglect laws, even seized a dozen animals from the New York Avenue facility, citing poor medical care. Animal Link officials accused the Humane Society of theft. Within four months, the Humane Society was back in the shelter.
When the current animal-shelter contract went out for bid, in 2001, the Humane Society made sure the field stayed small. The day after the Washington Times reported that a local animal activist was planning to bid on the contract under the name of the National Capital Humane Society, Humane Society officials reserved and later registered that name with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs “to assist in the protection of the Washington Humane Society’s good name,” agency documents show. The activist later withdrew the bid for financial reasons.
When Washington Humane Society workers packed up the D.C. Animal Shelter in September, they were careful not to leave a mess for their successors in the Health Department. In fact, they were careful not to leave much behind.
Humane Society workers removed all the chairs from the facility, as well as many filing cabinets. Also gone were refrigerators used for storing medicines. Every computer in the place disappeared. “The actual ownership of many items is still in question,” wrote Keller in a Sept. 9 memo to a superior. The agency and the Humane Society have yet to decide which items belong to the city and which belong to the Humane Society. For months, D.C. workers were forced to revert to using paper logs.
And more than just equipment was missing. Cages and dog runs were empty, too. The day before, Humane Society board member Andrew Weinstein had boasted on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, “We’ve launched last week an emergency effort to place as many animals in good foster homes….I stand ready and willing to take as many animals as my apartment will allow.”
Keller was left having to account for the missing animals’ whereabouts. “I have asked several times for an inventory listing the animals and the locations where they were placed. The animals are still considered District property until the adopter pays the fees to the District,” she noted. “To date, I have not received an inventory list and I have received many complaints from the public because they have not been able to find animals that they placed applications on.” The animals have yet to be accounted for, says Health Department spokesperson Vera Jackson.
In the days following the takeover, about 30 people called the shelter inquiring about the status of their adoption applications or animals they had seen available for adoption on the shelter’s Web site, says Jackson. Without knowing the whereabouts of the animals, shelter staff invited the callers to pick out a new pet.
Humane Society officials insist that they offered the Office of Contracting the option of leaving their staff and equipment in place, but the agency refused. The health Department was left in the dark. “I am not aware of any offer to keep staff or certain equipment in place,” Jackson writes via e-mail.
As far as the Washington Humane Society was concerned, its territory was marked: Contractual fine points couldn’t change the fact that the shelter belonged to them. As Keller reports in a memo written the day after the walkout, “a WHS employee came to the Facility, removed a dog from a cage, accepted a check from an adopter made out to the WHS, removed the check from the Facility…and verbally harassed staff.”
A few weeks later, the District announced it was awarding the New York Avenue shelter contract to the Humane Society of Canada—which was tantamount to a declaration of war against D.C.’s animal-loving elite.
Beyond the negotiating table, the Washington Humane Society had plenty of well-placed friends to call on for help. Its board members have included developer Douglas Jemal and Marie Drissel, who essentially launched Anthony A. Williams as a D.C. political player. Its lawyers are from the blue-chip firm Covington & Burling. Its annual black-tie fundraiser, the Bark Ball, a mainstay of the Washington social season, has helped the organization amass $4.5 million in assets.
On Sept. 24, 2003, the Coalition for the D.C. Animal Shelter, a group co-founded in 2001 by future Humane Society board member Weinstein, circulated an e-mail urging people to strong-arm their councilmembers into nixing the contract with the Canadian group. In the e-mail, the group made sure to wave the bloody red shirt of D.C. animal-welfare politics by likening the Canadians to Animal Link. “This horrific chapter of local animal history may be repeating itself,” the group wrote.
Humane Society of Canada Chair and CEO Michael O’Sullivan didn’t help matters. Weeks earlier, he had asked Dee Atwell, an Animal Link founder and a personal friend, to attend a meeting for contract bidders that he couldn’t make, says an associate of O’Sullivan’s. When the Washington Post reported who O’Sullivan’s proxy at the meeting had been, Washington Humane Society supporters wasted no time ramping up the association. “Even more appalling…the same person who headed Animal Link during that terrible period seven years ago is now representing the Canadian group in its efforts to run the shelter today,” read the Sept. 24 e-mail. “To avert this potential disaster, we need your help.”
The mayor’s office alone was hit with hundreds of e-mails and letters. And the public uproar yielded the desired impact downtown. In a Sept. 24 e-mail to colleagues, Bullock wrote: “(I am in the dog house for referring to the facility as a ‘pound.’ Apparently that is antiquated not PC)…Bottom line is…we need to clarify whether or not they are connected to the Animal Link group. Did we do some good due diligence on this group? I hope so. This is a $10 million contract. Can someone shed some light on this please?”
Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs officials later assured Bullock that there was no overlap between the boards of Animal Link and the Humane Society of Canada. But the news came too late for O’Sullivan.
After winning the contract, O’Sullivan met with Department of Health officials, who had reservations about his readiness to run the shelter, according to agency memos. On Sept. 28, O’Sullivan reported that he had received a death threat against his family over the contract. The next day, Williams announced that he was suspending the contract with the Canadian group for further review. On Oct. 1, a Department of Health official told O’Sullivan by phone that “the voice of the people had spoken,” according to a letter O’Sullivan later sent to Mayor Williams. A little over a week later, O’Sullivan learned from a Post reporter that the District was canceling the contract with his group.
On Jan. 15, the Post reported that the District had agreed to a new three-year deal with the Washington Humane Society to run D.C. animal-control services and the city animal shelter, with two options to extend the contract for one year. The total value of the five-year arrangement is estimated at $10 million.
In the end, the city kept the right to send inspectors on unannounced visits to the shelter. And that’s pretty much where the oversight ends. Although the contract says the D.C. Department of Health still has “final authority” over animal control services, it will now have say-so only over dangerous dogs, animal bites, and suspected rabies cases. The contract also included language limiting disclosure of “critical” communications under the Freedom of Information Act.
Humane Society officials say that the new contract simply codifies much of the June 2001 memorandum of understanding, which they say has improved the charity’s working relationship with the Department of Health over the past two years. “The memorandum of understanding has been an asset for the District and the Humane Society in clarifying roles and responsibilities,” says Huckaby.
Graham calls the contract the beginning of a “bright new day.” “There’s a lot of static in this relationship [between the Humane Society and the District]….I side with the Humane Society, because they’ve been put through an odyssey for four years. Our procurement office has unnecessarily prolonged this,” says Graham. “I think the Humane Society is a very competent organization. We need to vest some responsibility in them and let them do their job.”
In practice, however, the new contract means that someone such as Jaymie Kilgore might have lost her 4-year-old black terrier Duke of Earl. On May 18, 2003, burglars broke into Kilgore’s home in Southeast and left the front door open. A month later, animal-control officers posted a notice on her door about Duke running loose in the neighborhood. A shelter employee told Kilgore to come to the shelter on New York Avenue to update Duke’s dog license and vaccinations. Kilgore brought Duke to the shelter, where she learned that Duke’s vaccinations had expired.
She was told that if she filled out the necessary paperwork and left the dog to be vaccinated, she could pick him up later. When she returned, however, a shelter staff employee refused to release Duke to her, saying she had not properly cared for Duke. Kilgore managed to get a hold of Keller, who informed the shelter workers that by law, they couldn’t impound a dog just because its license and vaccines had expired. The staff relented only after both Keller and the agency attorney told them that they didn’t have the legal right to keep the dog.
The Humane Society is expected to resume control of the D.C. Animal Shelter sometime this spring. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.