Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Every Saturday, Washingtonians visit the D.C. Animal Shelter and stroll up and down aisles of cages seeking soul mates. “I’m not complete without a pet,” said Patricia Jackson last weekend, as she and her two kids looked at puppies. “I wanted something that was already out there that I could give a loving home to.” But unless the District finds some help soon, the New York Avenue NE shelter might shut its doors to strays, abandoned animals, and pet-seekers at the end of next week.

The Washington Humane Society, which has run D.C.’s shelter and other animal control services since 1980, told the District last week that it can no longer keep the shelter open. For years, the D.C. government has been granting the society only short-term, 120-day contracts, and the organization has finally concluded that this unreliable funding prevents it from keeping qualified employees. On Oct. 12, the Department of Human Services (DHS) told the society it could grant only a two-week contract extension, during which the group would have to bid on yet another 120-day extension. This was the last straw.

The society accepted the two-week contract “to wind down our services,” says society Vice President Ann Lewis. In an Oct. 13 letter to DHS Director Vernon Hawkins, Lewis and society President Susan Bury stated, “The extreme lack of predictability and the inability to hire supervisory staff have exhausted our resources.” The city also still owes the society $300,000.

“This is a painful, tragic decision,” says Lewis. “We are not unwilling to continue; we are unable.”

“We told the city in August that we would only accept a yearlong extension,” she continues. If the city reverses its decision during the next week and offers a yearlong contract, the Humane Society would take it, Lewis adds. The group might also bid on a yearlong contract.

The Washington Humane Society’s withdrawal is the culmination of a three-year battle over the shelter that has involved DHS, the society, and even the U.S. Humane Society. In 1992, around the time D.C.’s budget woes began in earnest, DHS began granting the society only short-term extensions while it reviewed the animal control arrangement. Then, in February of this year, the society threatened to shut the shelter, citing a $250,000 shortfall in city payments. The shelter and other animal control services cost the District about $700,000 per year. The prospect of kittens and puppies starving in alleys appalled many Washingtonians, and they pressured the city to pay its bills to keep the shelter open.

This summer, the U.S. Humane Society injected itself into District affairs by proposing to build a model shelter in Washington. Officials at the local humane society—which is unrelated to the national organization—objected and eventually scuttled the plan.

It’s unlikely that the shelter will close at the end of the Washington Humane Society’s two-week contract, at least not for any significant length of time. A group of animal activists and ex-society volunteers is waiting in the wings. For months, this dissident group has been trying to force D.C. to open the shelter contract to competitive bidding. With the Humane Society leaving, the group is eager to take its place. “We think we can run it effectively for less,” says Dee Atwell, who leads the group. “Our ultimate goal is to charge the city half” what it now pays the Washington Humane Society, she says. The group would continue to operate the shelter in the New York Avenue building, which the city owns.

Atwell has submitted a bid for the 120-day contract and hopes DHS will approve it quickly. She hopes she and her colleagues can begin working with the Washington Humane Society before it pulls out. “It all depends on whether the city wants us in there [next] week,” she says. District officials were unavailable for comment last week. Neither Atwell nor Lewis know if other organizations plan to bid on the contract.

Atwell and her allies promise a radical change in the shelter’s philosophy if they take over. They believe they can run a shelter that is not only more efficient than the current one, but more humane. “[The shelter is] an abominable place,” says Phyllis Herskovitz, a former Humane Society volunteer who is working with Atwell. “If it weren’t for the few volunteers, [the Humane Society] would kill everything.”

Herskovitz says the shelter would often euthanize an animal even when adoption applications were pending. “They’d rather kill than do the paper work,” she says. Herskovitz says that she has personally adopted about 20 pets from the shelter, and that the Humane Society fired her when it discovered she was giving other animals to friends.

Gerald Eichinger, a veterinarian and ex-volunteer at the shelter, was outraged by the Humane Society’s practice of euthanizing all but one of each litter of puppies and kittens brought to the shelter.

Humane Society Executive Director Mary Healey does not deny Eichinger’s charge, but explains that the society does not kill out of blood lust. The shelter lacks the space to hold animal families until the young are weaned and eligible for adoption. One of the offspring is kept alive so the mother’s milk doesn’t dry up and cause health problems.

Atwell—who never worked at the shelter but says she is motivated by the horror stories of Herskovitz and others—says her group will operate a “no-kill” shelter. All animals will be adopted. In contrast, the Humane Society says it euthanizes about 65 percent of the 12,000 animals it processes at the shelter each year. “We’ll be much more aggressive about adoption,” says Atwell.

Humane Society officials say the organization’s adoption rates are better than the national average and are steadily improving. And they are skeptical about Atwell’s plans. “There’s no such thing as finding homes for all these animals,” says Lewis, who maintains that running a no-kill shelter would condemn many animals to life in a cage. “That’s the real detriment to these animals. They can become depressed, aggressive, or sick.” Private charities can run no-kill shelters because they can select which animals they accept, Lewis says, but the D.C. animal shelter must accept every animal that comes over the transom.

Still, the rival group asserts that it can run the shelter better, and that dozens of volunteers will return if the shelter’s stewardship changes hands. “It will be like the prisoners running the prison,” says Eichinger.