Gimme Shelter

Can the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley and the New Municipal Animal Center work together to save more lives?

The animals come into the new Knoxville-Knox County Animal Center on Division Street each day in a never-ending stream.

There's the untrained, adolescent golden retriever—a former Christmas gift— that the harried West Knoxville mom tells the staff is simply "too hyper" for her young children to deal with any longer. Then there's the female Jack Russell terrier that the local backyard breeder drops off with the explanation that, after producing five litters of puppies sold through classified ads in the past three years, the dog is no longer healthy enough to reproduce for a profit. There is always a full complement of half-grown cats, many turned in by UT students who never thought to ask their landlords whether they could have an animal in their apartments. And every week, the local animal control officers bring in a fresh supply of scrawny mutts—many of them part Rottweiler, Chow, or pit bull—that they find roaming the streets and alleys of Knox County's less-affluent neighborhoods in search of a discarded sandwich or french fry.

According to Knoxville-Knox County Animal Center Director Randy Keplinger, the number of cats, dogs, and the occasional rabbit, pig, or pet bird that has passed through his facility's doors since the beginning of this year is well over 7,000. The municipal Animal Center—today the community's primary animal control portal—has remained filled to its maximum holding capacity of 250 to 275 animals throughout June, July, and August, meaning that as many as 50 dogs and cats—most of whom are healthy and friendly—must be euthanized every day simply to free up kennel space.

"I keep telling my employees to hang in there," says Keplinger. "We all know it will get better again when the weather cools off, but when you go from handling 855 animals a month to 1,355 a month, well, it really stretches you."

But Keplinger, along with many others active in Knoxville's animal welfare community, is hopeful that his enthusiastic stewardship of the newly-opened Animal Center, along with the radically new mission of Knoxville's Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley, will create an environment in which, as he puts it, "we are adopted, spayed, and neutered right out of business."

FIGHTING LIKE CATS AND DOGS

The new Knoxville-Knox County Animal Center first opened its doors on January 1, 2001 after a notably contentious and, some would say, hostile standoff over funding between local government and the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley (HSTV). For decades, the HSTV—a non-profit agency first chartered in 1885 as the Knox County Humane Society—had overseen all of Knoxville's animal shelter needs as part of a longstanding contract with the city and county. Via their Vestal-based primary animal shelter location, as well as satellite Adopt-A-Pet locations, HSTV handled the intake, adoption, and euthanasia of up to 16,000 animals per year, as well as spending its time and money aggressively promoting spay/neuter education and responsible pet ownership initiatives in the community.

Despite HSTV's tangible success in increasing the spay-neuter rate in the area, upping adoption numbers and decreasing the percentage of animals requiring euthanasia, the group's director, Vicky Crosetti, became increasingly controversial over the years among many in local government, media, and community groups. Crosetti, originally from Jamestown, N.Y., came to Knoxville after working as a director of animal control in Middle Tennessee. Her innovative adoption policies—including stricter screening of potential adopters—and her occasional in-your-face style of discourse won her a local reputation among many as a coldly inflexible bureaucrat. Regionally, however, Crosetti is recognized as a leading expert in the professional animal sheltering community. In fact, some of Crosetti's most-criticized policies—including one requiring all pre-existing animals in a potential adopter's home to be spayed or neutered prior to adoption of a pet from HSTV—are increasingly seen as standard procedures for reputable shelter operations across the country.

In 2000, however, long-simmering tensions between Knoxville and Knox County governments and HSTV finally came to a head with Crosetti's request that the HSTV's $556,000 annual budget be raised by another $100,000. In a move that surprised many, the city and county decided to end their contract with HSTV, and instead to build and manage their own, jointly-operated community animal shelter. Through perhaps the most remarkable display of Knoxville-Knox County governmental cooperation in recent memory, the two municipalities were able to get the $1.5 million, 9,000 square-foot temporary Animal Center staffed, built, and operational within only a few months of the decision to end the HSTV contract. Plans are now under way for a $5.3 million permanent city-county Animal Center facility to be opened within the next 18 months. The temporary facility will then be turned over to Knox County for use as a garage for the Parks Department.

RANDY KEPLINGER: A MAN WITH A PLAN

Randy Keplinger, the Animal Center's executive director, is to Vicky Crosetti what Sen. Fred Thompson is to his colleague Hillary Rodham Clinton. Keplinger's laid-back, amiable persona contrasts sharply with Crosetti's hard-driving, love-her-or-loathe-her reputation. Despite their differences in style, however, Keplinger and Crosetti are actually long-time friends and great admirers of one another's work.

"I was absolutely thrilled when I heard that Randy would be taking the lead position with the new shelter," says Crosetti.

Keplinger reciprocates by noting that although he and Crosetti may have a few "philosophical differences," they both have the same goals.

"There is absolutely no difference between Vicky Crosetti and me when it comes to saving an animal's life. We both have the exact same agenda, which is to work to stop the killing," remarks Keplinger. "And personally, I like Vicky a lot."

Keplinger, who lives in Oak Ridge and raises horses on the side, came to the new Animal Center directorship in December of last year after serving 23 years with the Oak Ridge Animal Shelter. During his tenure there, which included starting out as an on-the-streets animal control officer, Keplinger succeeded in modernizing the Oak Ridge shelter's operations by hiring a full time veterinarian and volunteer coordinator, and he was able to significantly lower the shelter's overall rate of euthanasia. He says he was excited at the prospect of bringing his ideas to the brand-new Knoxville-Knox County center.

One of the things Knoxvillians may find a little different at the new Animal Center as opposed to HSTV, says Keplinger, is that he wants to be "a little more flexible" in deciding who can adopt a cat or dog from his shelter. As an example, Keplinger recounts an experience the Animal Center staff had recently in which a man wanted to adopt a dog but noted on his application that he planned to keep the animal tied up in his yard, a definite no-no for potential adopters because it is considered cruel and can lead to an aggressive animal. Instead of turning the adopter down outright, however, a Center adoption counselor suggested that he purchase a chain link kennel run, a suggestion the man appreciated and on which he followed through. As a result, he was able to provide a good home for his new dog. In another example, Keplinger says that if someone came in to the Animal Center around Halloween and wanted to adopt a black cat, something that has been disallowed at HSTV in the past due to fears of ritual cruelty to animals, Keplinger's staff might make a few extra phone calls to the adopter's veterinarian or personal references to check the situation out, but they wouldn't automatically deny the adoption as a matter of policy.

"We aren't going to send an animal home with someone who is clearly inappropriate, but if a potential adopter writes something on his application that we can maybe help them with so that they can adopt successfully, we will try to do that," explains Keplinger.

Since taking over the new Animal Center, Keplinger has stayed busy meeting with the quasi-governmental board of directors who will be overseeing the operations of the Center, and he's been working with them to decide how the permanent Center will be designed and operated.

"We really want to have a state-of-the art facility here," he says. "But we aren't going to re-invent the wheel. We've been looking at the more progressive animal shelters in the United States, including in Milwaukee, to see what they're doing that we might want to try. We may also take a trip down to Florida to see a great shelter operation there."

According to Keplinger, some of the potential innovations being considered include skylights, so that animals and visitors enjoy a more natural source of light, as well as placing living trees inside the building to both deaden the noise of restless dogs and create a more inviting setting for potential adopters. For cats, Keplinger would like to see 12-by-12 multi-cat rooms with perches so that visitors can observe more of the available cats' personalities. And the Animal Center's first satellite adoption site will hold its grand opening Sept. 22 and 23 at the Pet Supplies Plus location on Broadway.

One of the more unfortunate but necessary improvements planned for the permanent shelter will be an on-site crematorium to dispose of the animals euthanized at the facility. Currently, dead animals are frozen at the temporary shelter and then transported by the truckload to a local landfill for disposal. Keplinger managed an on-site crematorium at the Oak Ridge Animal Shelter and considers it the best disposal option for Knoxville.

HSTV AND VICKY COSETTI: A RADICAL NEW VISION

With the end of the financial relationship between the HSTV and city and county governments, some Knoxville insiders and community leaders assumed that HSTV would no longer play a leading role in the sheltering and adoption of Knoxville's animals. Indeed, some assumed that Crosetti might leave town, never to be heard from again. But that wasn't to be. Crosetti, who continues to head up the freshly energized HSTV, sees this new era in the fight for Knoxville's companion animals as an exciting and promising one. And it's one she doesn't intend to miss.

"Our board always had a plan in case we didn't renew our contract with the city and county," explains a relaxed-sounding Crosetti. "We always wanted to do what we can do now, which is concentrate on adoption, education, and spay-neuter programs. [HSTV] has been here for 116 years and we plan to be here a lot longer. The enthusiasm for our new mission has been tremendous."

According to Crosetti, private donations to HSTV have been increasing steadily since the government contract ended. The organization now has an operating budget of $850,000 annually and a staff of nearly 20, including a full-time fundraiser. HSTV also retains ownership of the 17-acre animal shelter in Vestal that was donated to the organization in the 1970s, and it continues to operate its popular Adopt-A-Pet centers. As a result, the agency has been able to work with well in excess of 2,000 animals since the beginning of this year.

The most meaningful change for Knoxville, however, is that HSTV has radically changed its mission to proudly proclaim itself the community's first "no-kill" animal shelter. According to Crosetti, HSTV's definition of a no-kill shelter is one in which no physically healthy, temperamentally sound animal is euthanized to make space for another.

"To that end, we generally take in those animals that are going to be adopted fairly quickly...However, I should point out that for 50 years, our Humane Society took in every animal brought to us," Crosetti says. "We acted responsibly in that we did not become a no-kill organization until there was a place for the remaining animals to be housed lawfully and humanely [at] the new municipal facility. "

Another Knoxville area non-profit, calling itself the "Knox County Humane Association" has stated publicly that it plans to raise funds to build the area's first no-kill shelter, but it appears that HSTV has beaten them to the punch. (The Knox County Humane Association lists as one of its primary organizers Phil Hamby, publisher of the Koxville Journal, who has in the past repeatedly and aggressively attacked Vicky Crosetti in the pages of his publication. Currently, the organization's only viable presence seems to be its web site at www.knoxpets.com.) Crosetti, on the other hand, is rapidly making a name for herself as a leading voice on this issue. Recently, she was a featured speaker on no-kill topics at this year's annual four-day Conference of Homeless Animal Management and Policy held in Hartford, Conn.

NO-KILL: NEW PARADIGM OR JUST A BUZZ-WORD?

The growing, national "no kill" movement, to which the HSTV now subscribes, began in San Francisco in the '80s when a visionary animal welfare activist named Richard Avanzino took over the management of the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' shelter, a facility with a high rate of euthanasia. Avanzino soon ended the SPCA's contract with the city of San Francisco and declared his ambitious—some at the time called it absurd—goal of becoming a "no-kill" shelter, meaning that no adoptable animal would be euthanized.

Under Avanzino's plan, enough money would be raised to care for and house any animal that was not terminally ill or injured or was not aggressive or otherwise temperamentally inappropriate for adoption, until a loving, permanent home could be found. Today, San Francisco is the largest and most-successful "no-kill" community in the nation, with the third-lowest per-capita rate of animal euthanasia, according to statistical analysis by the advocacy group Animal People (Knoxville ranks 76th in the same survey). But that doesn't mean every animal is saved. The city's Animal Care and Control agency still euthanizes more than 4,000 dogs and cats that have been deemed "unadoptable" each year. However, compared to much-smaller Knoxville's more than 8,000 animal shelter deaths last year and 3,495 by June of this year, this still marks an astounding achievement.

In the two local facilities' cooperative effort to take advantage of HSTV's new no-kill policy, the Knoxville-Knox County Animal Center has been able to transfer more than 400 animals into the care of HSTV since the beginning of the year, secure in the knowledge that the animals would be adopted out rather than euthanized. According to Crosetti, HSTV is also playing a critical role in relieving the chronically over-burdened Animal Center staff of otherwise adoptable cats and dogs that simply need time, space, and veterinary care to recover from a treatable illness, such as heartworm infestation. Without HSTV's involvement, these animals would likely be euthanized due to the constant pressures of space and staffing facing the Animal Center.

The idea of no-kill shelters is catching on around the country, with areas as diverse as Pittsburgh, Austin, Texas, and Clyde, N.C., recently forming geographic coalitions—including humane societies, local governments, foster home volunteers, and animal rescue groups—all working to eliminate completely the euthanasia of adoptable animals in their midst. The no-kill movement received a significant boost in 1998 when the billion-dollar, California-based Duffield Family Foundation created the $200 million "Maddie's Fund"—named after the Duffield family dog. Maddie's Fund has as its expressed purpose the goal of creating a "no-kill nation" within the next decade by funding a variety of innovative spay-neuter and animal adoption programs across the country.

Despite its obvious appeal to the general public, however, the no-kill movement has its critics. Some animal welfare activists claim that the concept is nothing more than a buzz-word. Skeptics point out that no-kill shelters such as HSTV's have the luxury of turning away difficult-to-place animals, relegating them to city animal control agencies where they will be killed—albeit by another facility. These other animal shelters, which are forced to euthanize the animals that no one else wants, are generally public facilities like the Knoxville-Knox County Animal Center. These shelters then get all the bad press, as well as fewer donations and volunteers. Some shelters required to continue euthanizing animals have even received anonymous threats of violence from individuals who want them to go no-kill.

Randy Keplinger says that he strongly supports the theory of a no-kill community, but the reality is that Knoxville has a long way to go, even with HSTV's new mission.

"We already get flack because we don't call ourselves a no-kill shelter," remarks Keplinger. "It's easy to give yourself a popular name. It's much harder to deal with the reality of pet overpopulation on a daily basis, like we do. What people need to understand is that here at the Animal Center, we are literally the very last alternative. That's not an easy position to be in. "

THE ADOPTION OPTION: NEW STRATEGIES ON FINDING GOOD HOMES

Despite the fact that HSTV is billed as Knoxville's official no-kill animal shelter, a number of local individuals active in what is known as the "animal rescue movement" claim that it is actually Keplinger's facility that is easier to work with when it comes to getting animals adopted out of the shelter and into their care. Representatives from several local breed-specific rescue organizations told Metro Pulse that they have never and still don't find HSTV to be particularly receptive to their role in addressing the problem of homeless companion animals. However, Crosetti vigorously disputes that assertion, saying that HSTV was the first area shelter to actively work with rescue groups and that she considers cooperation with local breed rescue representatives a high priority for her organization.

Animal rescue groups today play an integral part nationally in working with animal shelters to take in a specific breed or type of companion animal and then to network with other animal rescuers across the region to facilitate an appropriate adoption. With their networks of committed foster homes, thousands of thriving email discussion lists and web pages, and sometimes even cross-country transportation coordinators, rescue groups are often able to find homes for animals that would have been deemed unadoptable by local animal shelters. They are also an important resource for shelters because they relieve some of the problem of overcrowding.

"When we get in a particular type of purebred animal, I immediately contact a representative from that breed's local rescue group and ask them to come down and take a look to see if this is an animal they can help," explains Karen Lively, the Knoxville-Knox County Animal Shelter's "Rescue Coordinator."

Lively, who also runs the area's Border Collie rescue organization, was hired by Keplinger in part specifically to facilitate coordination with rescue groups. Toward that end, she has worked to place nearly 200 animals—mostly dogs—with recognized breed rescue groups since the beginning of this year.

Additionally, Lively has become the Animal Center's de facto web guru. The Center's web site (www.knoxpets.org) makes it easy for any potential adopter to see what types of animals are currently available for adoption at the facility by simply clicking on the up-to-date list of pets, with photos, that Lively posts on the site each week. The Center's web site has had more than 100,000 visitors since its launch in February, a number far greater than that which comes into the actual bricks-and-mortar shelter.

"Coming in to an animal shelter can be a very disturbing experience for some people. Allowing potential adopters to look at our animals on the Web first seems to encourage them to then come down and actually meet them," explains Keplinger.

Lively says the Center frequently has potential adopters come into the facility with a printout of the photo and information on a particular pet they saw on the Center's website. Additionally, Lively coordinates the posting of available animals' information on the popular national adoption website, www.petfinder.com. The Center's website receives an additional 1,900 visitors per week via this link.

As for Crosetti, she says that she is tremendously impressed by what Lively and the Animal Center staff are doing with their web site. In fact, she says that, with the new Animal Center up and running and with HSTV's new mission and freedom to operate as she has always wanted, she is more optimistic about the future of Knoxville's animals than ever before.

"This transition is absolutely the best thing that could have happened for the community and for the animals," she says enthusiastically. "I can't wait to see what we can all accomplish together."

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.