Katherine McGowan, the organization's PR manager, is unfazed. She calmly gets up from her desk and escorts the woman downstairs to the Humane Society's state-of-the-art veterinary center, with a staff of 14 full-time veterinarians, dozens more technicians, an isolation ward, a radiology lab and two surgery suites, complete with glass windows for visitors to watch. Upon her return, she explains: "We are a big building -- and people get lost."
It is easy to understand why. The massive, 110,000-square-foot building -- the size of two football fields -- can seem like a maze to an outsider, with elevators and long corridors, a 200-seat auditorium for lectures and catered banquets, spacious administrative offices and conference rooms, two classrooms for the thousands of schoolchildren who come each year for field trips, a huge training room for obedience classes -- as well as the kennels and holding areas with a capacity for 500 animals.
In the new facility, opened in January 1998 at a cost of $11 million, it seems no detail was overlooked. There are no dark and dreary cages here; the floors gleam and the walls are painted soothing shades of beige. The adoption center is built around a vaulted, light-filled "mall" with glass-paneled rooms on either side with signs like "Cats & Kittens" and "Rabbits & More." Classical music and the odor of cleaning fluid seem to erase the usual sounds and smells of animals, and skylights allow the sun's rays to beam in on large planters filled with trees and lush foliage. In the room for male dogs, each of the 34 kennels features a special trapdoor so that the dogs can be removed while their cages are cleaned with high-powered hoses. There are "get-acquainted rooms" in which potential adopters can spend time with prospective pets and "adoption interview rooms" to screen would-be pet owners.
The Humane Society brochure boasts that its building is "the preeminent animal welfare facility in the United States." It replaced an older building, across the street, that was just one-third the size of the new one. The old headquarters has been demolished -- and construction workers are busy creating a $600,000 pet-memorial park in its place, complete with tall columns, a walking path and a columbarium for the mementos of dead pets.
The Humane Society of Missouri has come a long way since it was founded in 1870. Now the fourth-largest humane organization in the country -- in terms of its budget -- it has a staff of 140 and total assets of $55 million. It estimates it finds homes for 10,000 pets each year, provides vet services in more than 81,000 patient visits, has an investigative unit that handles complaints of cruelty and operates a satellite facility in Maryland Heights and a 165-acre farm in Union where neglected and abused farm animals are rehabilitated.
But for all its wealth and resources, the Humane Society is having surprisingly little impact on the most significant animal-welfare problem -- the number of unwanted pets that are killed each year. In the St. Louis metro area, the number of animals euthanized each year has been rising, contrary to the national trend downward. In 1998, for instance, 44,262 animals were euthanized in the metro area, an increase of 418 from the year before. Over a five-year period, figures from just five of the larger agencies -- the Humane Society and animal control for St. Louis city and county, Jefferson County and Madison County in Illinois -- show the number of dogs and cats euthanized increased by 5 percent from 26,860 in 1994 to 28,217 in 1998. The Humane Society of Missouri is not the only animal-welfare organization in the metro area, but with its behemoth of a building and an annual operating budget of $8.6 million to match, it far overshadows more than a dozen smaller organizations here.
Critics say the organization could be, and should be, using its vast resources to tackle the overpopulation problem. The organization performs few low-cost spay-and-neuter surgeries for the poor. It does not ensure that every puppy and kitten that leaves its shelter is spayed or neutered. And its educational programs do not demonstrably affect the pet-overpopulation problem.
But hardly anybody in the local humane community will publicly criticize the Humane Society, both because the organization does a lot of good work and because they're afraid of alienating the largest animal-welfare group in town.
Edward Throop, chairman of the Human Society's board and its interim director, concedes that the organization's efforts in recent years were focused on its new building, not reducing the number of animals being killed.
Kent Robertson, the Humane Society's former executive director, agrees: "It takes a lot of work to raise $11 million and build a 90,000-square-foot facility, and it took about every ounce we had. Part of what was happening there the last five or six years was keeping our head above water to raise money for that building and build that new building, which we felt would allow us to go ahead with more programs."
Throop concedes that the issue of pet overpopulation needs attention.
"We need to dig into it," he says. "I think we were embroiled in making the move across the street and this new facility. It took us a year to absorb and get used to it.
"Why is such a large organization just now deciding to get into it? Because I just now decided we ought to get into it. I don't mean to sound dictatorial about it, but I think we were just chugging along having a good time doing what we think we need to do."
The Humane Society's McGowan blames the pet-overpopulation problem on irresponsible pet owners, impulse buyers who don't understand what caring for a dog or cat entails and those who failed to get adequate training for their pets, leaving them frustrated and more likely to relinquish the animals at shelters.
"The most important reason is that people don't realize the tremendous responsibility they have when caring for an animal," she says. "We like to think we're doing everything we can to make this a better world for animals. It doesn't happen overnight, and we can't do it alone."
Ask someone familiar with animal-welfare organizations nationwide about dramatically reducing the pet-overpopulation problem and they're likely to point to San Francisco. That city's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) has reduced euthanasia to such levels that it is now a no-kill shelter. Nathan Winograd, director of the SPCA's community programs, says no adoptable cat or dog has been euthanized in six years -- and a "10-year-old dog with three legs is still an adoptable dog" -- and the number of deaths in treatable dogs and cats with medical problems has dropped 69 percent.
"We expect that within the next five years, no dogs or cats in San Francisco will die unless they are nonrehabilitatable, meaning there is no way to cure them," says Winograd.
He says San Francisco, which had one of the highest euthanasia rates in the nation two decades ago, reached the low levels with a variety of innovative programs: low-cost, high-volume spaying and neutering; an aggressive adoption program open seven days a week; a mobile outreach van that takes adoptable cats to all areas of the city; and an extensive dog-training and vet clinic with sliding-scale fees -- allowing the poorest pet owner to pay for services with things like blankets or tennis balls. It encourages landlords to allow pets in rental property by guaranteeing it will pay up to $5,000 to repair any damage caused by one of its adopted pets. It has a pact with the city's animal control to take any healthy dog or cat and guarantee its placement. Animals at its shelter are housed in "living room" settings.
Two key components to its "recipe," Winograd says, are the low-cost spaying and neutering and early spay/neuter for kittens and puppies at eight weeks of age. His agency has been doing early spay/neuter since 1979. "Our dogs and cats come out of here altered," he says. "You cannot be a shelter and not spay or neuter your animals and then complain the public is not spaying and neutering its animals. You lead by example. If they are too young to be altered, we keep them in a foster home until they are old enough."
The San Francisco SPCA actually pays people $5 for every cat they bring in for spay/neuter. It also pays $5 for every rottweiler or pit bull brought in for spay/neuter. It offers free spay and neuter for the pets of the homeless and the elderly. Spaying and neutering a dog for others costs $30.
"What we found is if you reduce the cost of a spay or neuter, if you cut it in half, you will double the number of people who spay or neuter their pets," says Winograd. The SPCA averaged 9,022 surgeries last year; 84 percent of them were free.
As a result, San Francisco has the lowest euthanasia rate of any major city in the nation. Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, a publication for animal-welfare organizations, compiles euthanasia statistics for cities across the country. San Francisco's rate is 3.4 pets per 1,000 population; the national average is 18.1, according to 1997 data, the most recent available. Denver is relatively low at 9.4, as are Seattle at 7.8 and San Diego at 8.0; Rutherford County, Tenn. is the worst at 84.8 per 1,000 population.
Clifton says there are reasons some cities are faring much better than others. "Places that have low-cost spay/neuter and have had it for a long time are uniformly doing better than other cities in their geographic area," he says.
St. Louis is average, at 17.8, although this rate is five times San Francisco's.
Unlike the San Francisco SPCA, the Humane Society of Missouri does not offer free spay/neuter to the poor (although it does offer free pets to the elderly), does not ensure that all animals leave its shelter "altered," does not have a program targeted at persuading landlords to allow pets, and does not have a pact with any animal-control agency to take their healthy dogs and cats and guarantee placement.
The Humane Society of Missouri does not perform spay/neuter until an animal is at least 4 months old and allows new owners to take puppies and kittens home with their reproductive systems intact as long as the owners promise to spay/neuter the animals later. Surgery is included in the adoption fees ($60 for cats, $75 for dogs).
As a result of the organization's reluctance to spay/neuter sooner, about 3,700 -- or 37 percent -- animals leave the shelter each year without being spayed or neutered.
If a single dog owner fails to follow through and that animal becomes pregnant, the pyramid effect can be staggering. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates that one female dog and her offspring could spawn 67,000 puppies over a six-year-period; an unspayed cat and her offspring could produce 420,000 kittens in a seven-year-period.
"Most animals are spayed or neutered before they leave, except for puppies and kittens," says the Humane Society of Missouri's McGowan. "They are supposed to come back. If it comes to our attention that they haven't done that, we will send a letter reminding them of the importance of spaying and neutering."
Many humane organizations nationwide advocate early spay/neuter, in which puppies and kittens undergo the surgery as early as 8 to 10 weeks of age. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a national organization, endorses early spay/neuter at 2 months of age and 2 pounds. The HSUS supports early spay/ neuter at 8-16 weeks of age, finding that "existing clinical studies indicate that the known advantages of early-age spay/neuter outweigh the potential disadvantages."
The Metro East Humane Society does the surgery at 8-10 weeks of age; so does the Animal Protective Association (APA), located on Hanley Road.
"From my perspective, we are not working on behalf of animal welfare if we do not spay and neuter everything that goes out," says the APA's executive director, Claudia Shugert. "I do not want to allow people the opportunity for mistakes.... We've been doing this since the '80s, and it seems to be a slow catch in this particular community."
Even the St. Louis city pound changed its policy about a year ago. It had allowed adoptive parents to leave with a pet and a list of vets who would perform the surgery; the cost was already paid for in the adoption fee. But everyone wasn't following through. "We found they didn't have the staff to follow up, nor did we have the staff to follow up," says Rich Stevson, program manager of the pound on Gasconade Street, called the Animal Regulation Center. "Now we transport it to the vet and you pick it up from the vet."
The Humane Society of Missouri is still determining whether early spay/neuter "is in the best interest of the animal," McGowan says. "We're not confident it is the best thing to do for the animals at this time."
The Humane Society's spaying and neutering services cost $55-$75, depending on the size and gender of the animal. Its Spay/Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP) offers a 60 percent discount to low-income pet owners. But in 1999, of the 8,500 surgeries performed, only 62 pets surgeries were covered under the SNAP discount.
By comparison, the nonprofit Pound Pals, a volunteer organization that helps find adoptive homes for pets at the city's pound, provided $12 spay/neuter services -- plus vaccinations for one year -- to 176 cats and dogs with a tiny annual budget of just $2,900.
About four years ago, not long after St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon took office, a group of representatives from the city and Pound Pals approached the Humane Society about selling its old building across the street on Macklind Avenue. The city's pound on Gasconade is housed in a 1940s building with a number of problems and a poor location off Interstate 55 -- and the old Humane Society building would have been a dramatic improvement. But it was not to be.
Stevson says the city's pound really needed better facilities. Walk into the pound and you find it old and dark and rather depressing. There are no skylights, no atrium. Several dogs share each kennel; there is no isolation ward, no way to separate dogs suspected of having parvo or some other communicable disease. Dogs and cats share the same room; though the kitten cages are lined up in a single row facing a far wall so they can't see the dogs, they can certainly hear them. The euthanasia equipment sits out in the open, a mini-gas chamber housed in the same room as the adult kennels.
"Basically we have outlived the building, as far as I'm concerned," Stevson says. "We need housing for animals that have bitten someone. We need isolation. We are an open-air facility, and that can contribute to some airborne disease. One of our biggest concerns is having air-conditioning in the kennel area. It becomes very warm in the summer months due to the humidity we have here in St. Louis. It is a problem not only for the animals but for the employees." The pound handled 6,500 animals in 1999, adopting or returning 1,600 on a budget of $670,000. Stevson has requested another $600,000 in funding for the past two years to air-condition the kennel area, create an additional 1,200 square feet for an isolation area and to move the euthanasia chamber out of the public eye. The city has yet to approve his request.
Ray Feick, one of the founding members of Pound Pals, says buying the old Humane Society building seemed like the ideal solution to the city's problems when the idea was raised in 1997. "It just seemed like an absolutely perfect blend," Feick says. People looking for an animal for adoption would have two places to look in one stop -- those who had lost a pet could check two places at once, and animals with health problems at the pound could be treated across the street at the Humane Society (animals with health problems at the pound are routinely euthanized). Dogs and cats brought into the pound would find better living conditions, Feick says.
He attended meetings about the proposal with former Humane Society director Kent Robertson and two members of its board, an alderman from that ward and the mayor's wife, Janet Harmon, who had been involved with Pound Pals early on. "It was a meeting to say this will work for the benefit of the animals. It is a good move all around," Feick recalls. "This is a way to sell your building and make money on it, to provide a better facility for the animals ... and bury the hatchet between these two entities." (The hatchet involved a dispute about 20 years ago when the Humane Society tried to take over the city's pound services with a private contract approved by then-Mayor Jim Conway. When Vincent Schoemehl became mayor, however, he rescinded the contract, saying the city could do it more cheaply.)
The old Humane Society building had problems, such as asbestos, but the city was still interested. The Humane Society was not.
Robertson contends that the old facility the city wanted was "not going to be good for anybody. It was code-deficient and had all kinds of problems and needed to be demolished."
"The Humane Society would have no part of it," Feick says. "First they told us they were going to use the building as a quarantine area for large confiscations. Fairly quickly we heard they weren't using it at all. Then we were told they were going to tear it down and make this a pet memorial." Feick is still rankled by the rebuke. "I just couldn't believe this is a place that calls itself the Humane Society and they would rather build a memorial to dead animals than see that living animals had a better place to live and a better opportunity to be adopted. I was just livid."
Janet Harmon recalls the Humane Society's reaction: "We sort of floated a balloon and they just weren't interested. Part of it is, some of their board people are sensitive about the city pound and how it would affect their image. I think they wanted their own complex," she says. "The city has to deal with strays who bite people. The Humane Society is a volunteer organization. I think they were concerned it might somehow damage their own image. People might get them confused."
Ed Throop, who has served as interim director of the Humane Society since Robertson's departure last year, says that decision was made before his time -- he joined the board about three years ago. But he says he understands why the organization wasn't interested: "I wouldn't want to have the pound across the street from us. That would be bad. It would just cause confusion."
Less worried about such "confusion" is the Metro East Humane Society, which exists right next to the Madison County animal-control facility.
Throop, a millionaire businessman who grew up in Ladue, was asked to find a new use for the old property, and he and his family donated $2 million to construct and maintain a pet-memorial park named in his late mother's honor.
"We wanted to give the park to the entire community," Throop says. "We wanted to have the theme that it be pet-oriented, so it's a place where you can take your dog. It's a growing park. Over time we will continue to embellish it with benches and memorabilia."
One of the newest methods aimed at reducing pet overpopulation comes in the form of a 26- or 36-foot spay/neuter mobile, a surgical van on wheels that can travel to low-income and rural areas that are underserved by veterinarians. Houston was the first to run a van, in 1994, and a spay-mobile is in use in the New Orleans area as well. Animal organizations in New York City and Los Angeles are each getting two, and Boston; Raleigh, N.C.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Austin, Texas; and Columbia, S.C., have each ordered one. A base unit costs about $85,000, plus the staffing of a vet and a veterinary technician.
Neither the Humane Society of Missouri nor anyone else in St. Louis has such a mobile unit.
Bob Christiansen of Napa, Calif., a former dog trainer who has written extensively about animal-welfare issues, recently toured the country in a mobile spay/neuter van, speaking with animal-welfare organizations in 36 cities, including St. Louis. He strongly believes mobile vans can combat euthanasia rates by offering low-cost surgeries in poor areas, by parking at a church or fire station where people can bring their pets. As many as 50 surgeries can be performed in a single day. He advocates partnering with local governments to help subsidize the cost of spay/neuter.
"What I believe, and what a lot of the research has proven, is if a spay/neuter costs over $10, it's not affordable to the type of people we are trying to reach," Christiansen says. "A lot of these people do not have transportation. They can't take their dog or cat on the bus. They have to walk miles to a vet clinic."
Truly low-cost spay/neuter is not widely available nationwide, he says. "A lot of organizations will say they have a program for low-income -- "All they have to do is come in here and beg and plead and we will give it to them.' Then you ask how many they've done, and it isn't many. I don't call that a program," Christiansen says.
He believes a number of issues contribute to the euthanasia problem: a lack of low-cost spay/neuter; shelter animals that aren't presterilized and have accidental litters; veterinarians who aren't performing early/ spay neuter; animal organizations spending as little as 5 percent of their budgets on proactive prevention programs; and governing boards that are ill-equipped to think in progressive ways.
"If I wanted to indict any one group, it would be the boards of animal-welfare groups," he says. "They really have the power to change things, and they don't use the power as much as they could be. Unfortunately, a political structure exists that doesn't make for progressive action or programs. Probably lethargy is the biggest enemy of them all."
He was struck by the rising euthanasia figures in St. Louis. "I question whether there are programs in (St. Louis) that are reaching the people who need it most." He was surprised that more people from the Humane Society didn't attend the seminar he held here. "There was only one or two people who attended the seminar from the Humane Society. I thought it would be of more interest to them."
If kill rates aren't declining, he says, a group needs to rethink its approach. "I always say that if we have the same management this year that we did last year and our numbers are going up, then we can pretty much figure that the numbers are going to continue to be the same if we continue to do the same thing."
The Humane Society of Missouri's auxiliary, a fundraising arm, broached the idea of purchasing a mobile spay/neuter van a few years ago -- but at the time, the Humane Society passed on the offer because it was embroiled in its capital campaign and plans for the new headquarters.
Robertson says that the idea of a spay/neuter van was tabled because of the annual cost of a vet and a veterinary technician to staff it.
"We have some money put away. We're an auxiliary of the Humane Society, and anything we do has to go through them," says Burt Wilner, president of the auxiliary. "We approached Kent Robertson at one time, but they put it on a side burner for a while. They'll be discussing it again."
Some people locally wonder whether the Humane Society's education program, which cost about $120,000 in 1999, is getting its message on pet overpopulation across.
Dr. Ed Migneco, president of the Greater St. Louis Veterinary Medical Association, says one of the biggest reasons for the area's euthanasia figures is education -- a lack of it. "People just don't know to get their animals spayed or neutered and how prolific dogs can be," he says. "A lot of men with male dogs don't want to get their dogs neutered, yet they let their dogs run loose."
Migneco, who works closely with the Humane Society and doesn't want to offend them, nevertheless says, "What exactly does the Humane Society do for education? Personally, I don't see it. I'm playing devil's advocate here -- I don't want to be anti-Humane Society."
"I don't claim to be all-informed," he adds. "I sure don't see any education coming out of the Humane Society. Maybe I don't look in the right places? It seems like they have a better forum than I do where they could reach a larger audience."
Migneco says many people don't realize the importance of spaying and neutering, not just for reasons of pet overpopulation but also for health reasons. Female dogs, if spayed before their first heat, face a decreased risk of breast cancer, and the surgery eliminates the possibility of uterine and ovarian cancer. In male dogs, neutering reduces the risk of prostate cancer and the incidence of dog bites.
He admits that veterinarians, too, must do more to stem pet overpopulation: "I put a challenge out to other vets: There is probably more we, as an organization, as a group, could do."
Liz Rudder is president of Operation S.P.O.T., also called OpSPOT, for Stop Pet Overpopulation Today. Formed in '93, it is a local coalition of 15 organizations, including animal-control agencies, veterinarians and animal-welfare groups like the Humane Society, and focuses on reducing euthanasia. It is compiling a low-cost spay/neuter database, due out in April, after sending questionnaires to 200 animal-welfare organizations and veterinarians to find out what is available.
"Nobody knows right now what is available," Rudder says.
She disagrees with critics of the Humane Society's education efforts and says its programs are one of its greatest strengths. Volunteer docents lead tours of the building and teach about 30,000 schoolchildren each year about the importance and responsibilities of pet ownership. It also offers a camp in the summer. "They are, hands down, the best educational service," Rudder says. "They do a lot of work with adults, too, sending volunteers out to talk about humane issues. By virtue of their size and strength, they can be in the news a lot more. They can get issues to the forefront."
The euthanasia rate's not going down "has nothing to do with the Humane Society of Missouri," she says. "It has to do with public perception of animals as throwaways. Until the education gets around to enough people, they're hitting the kids big with responsible ownership. That will eventually make a difference. People keep trying to lay the numbers on the agencies. It is not the agencies, it's the people. People keep bringing unwanted animals in the front door. It is easy to fault them but you have to look at some strengths."
Both Rudder and Migneco agree that the St. Louis metro area's efforts to decrease euthanasia numbers have long been hindered by a lack of coalition-building.
"The shelter agencies have traditionally not reached out to work with each other," Rudder says. "Operation S.P.O.T. is one of the first roundtables for all the agencies to come together and talk about a problem, and that is the euthanasia figures."
Migneco, however, questions how well that is working.
"I honestly don't know if it's doing any good," he says. "Apparently not, if the numbers aren't dropping."
Even critics agree that the Humane Society does provide a host of services and programs for pet owners and that it's a leader in investigating animal-cruelty complaints.
With its annual budget of $8.6 million -- driven entirely by private donations -- the Humane Society is able to operate its large medical centers on Macklind and in Maryland Heights. It's a break-even proposition that costs about $3.05 million a year and brings in about $3.1 million in fees. Its spay/neuter surgeries are less expensive than the going rate at local veterinary offices, though its other fees tend to be competitive with those of private veterinarians.
The Humane Society spends $1.6 million on its adoption centers at both locations and brings in $374,000 in revenues. It adopted out about 10,000 pets last year and includes a microchip with every one, allowing the pet to be easily returned to its owner if it is picked up as a stray. Its Golden Friendship program allows seniors to adopt pets at no charge, and its Cinderella Program pays for medical care to injured strays that would otherwise not be adoptable. It spends another $270,000 on its large-animal rehabilitation center in Union, where neglected and abused farm animals are kept. It partners with the Greater St. Louis Training Club to offer obedience classes to pet owners.
It is also considered a leader in investigations of cruelty complaints and spends about $640,000 annually on its investigative units, which are open 24 hours a day and impound hundreds of animals each year. They also testify in court in cases involving animal abuse.
Regionally, and nationally, the Humane Society of Missouri is well known, largely for its wealth and its new facility. Whereas San Francisco is often touted as a progressive, innovative organization, the Missouri organization has a more staid reputation.
"The Humane Society of Missouri is fairly well known probably because of its size," says Jesse Winters, a Midwest regional manager with the ASPCA. "They just built a new shelter that has incorporated a lot of innovative ideas in terms of how to present animals to the public, more of a mall-type atmosphere, quieter, trying to address some of these new ways of thinking in terms of how shelters should feel and look and be more welcoming to the public. Certainly a lot of shelters in the Midwest would love to have those facilities."
In terms of its practices and philosophies, Winters says, the organization "is not considered particularly progressive, but they are not considered regressive. I haven't heard of anything innovative coming out of the Humane Society of Missouri."
She says she is not familiar with the Humane Society's pet-memorial park but notes that other humane organizations have built them -- and that they come at a price. "They cost money to operate and maintain," says Winters. "It's a choice. Do we want to memorialize animals that are no longer living, or try to do something with animals that are still living? When you have limited resources, it's a choice."
The Humane Society of Missouri is, perhaps, at a crucial juncture in its long history, and Throop says the new direction will include an increased emphasis on reducing the euthanasia rate.
The Society's longtime executive director, Kent Robertson, left last year after about a decade with the organization. He accepted the No. 2 position at the SPCA in Dallas, an organization with a budget about half the size of the Humane Society of Missouri's.
Robertson won't go into detail about why he left the Humane Society -- he says only that "it was time for a change" -- but he defends the work he did while in St. Louis. He expressed some surprise at the rising euthanasia statistics and says he believes they will begin to decline as a result of the new facility. He says the new building will not only increase the number of adoptions but also provide a better place for obedience training, addressing a key reason pet owners relinquish their pets to shelters.
Robertson further asserts that although in recent years the euthanasia rate appears to be rising, over the long term, the Humane Society has made an impact. Decades ago, Robertson says, it was handling 65,000 unwanted animals a year; now it takes in about 20,000 and finds homes for half that number.
"If the numbers in the community are going up a little bit, I don't know what it is," he says. "Things are just leveling out a little bit. I really think that if the Humane Society of Missouri continues with their education programs and some other programs -- give me a call in another year or two, and we'll be talking some very positive things."
He admits the Humane Society has been slow to jump onto the early-spay/neuter bandwagon, choosing instead to alter pets at an older age because some members of the veterinary community believe that performing surgery at 8 to 10 weeks is harmful to the immune system of a puppy or kitten. "Our veterinarians felt very strongly about that, and we followed their recommendation." He says the organization tracked whether puppy and kitten owners return for surgery, both through their own veterinary clinic and by offering refunds to those adoptive owners who take their animal to a vet for surgery. Still, the compliance rate was 90 or 95 percent -- "which is not acceptable."
Robertson also concedes that the Humane Society could be providing more low-cost surgeries for low-income pet owners but says it is hampered by funding. "It would be great to spay and neuter every animal for free, but it takes dollars to do it." It is a matter of fiscal priorities, Robertson says. Despite the Humane Society's wealth, many donors often specify exactly how they want their dollars to be spent.
The Humane Society board has hired a national firm to conduct a search for Robertson's replacement. The list has been narrowed to a handful of candidates, and Throop says that an offer could be extended in four to six weeks. Throop says he is looking for a cross between Lee Iacocca and Mahatma Gandhi: "a good businessperson with the type of acumen required to lead an almost $9 million organization."
He says the board wants someone with long-range vision -- "someone that's going to spend less time mired in the day-to-day operations and more looking forward. Kent was good at day-to-day but really had no future vision, maybe because we didn't allow him. The board may be just as guilty of Kent's failure to have foresight ... because we didn't let him. We just kept saying "Just run the place, just run the place.'"
Were there any disagreements between Robertson and the Humane Society's board of directors? Robertson won't say. "Let me just say, it was time for me to move on. It's a great organization. You won't find me saying anything bad about it."
A strategic plan recently completed by a board committee identifies euthanasia as one of seven categories to be addressed in the future. Throop says the director of the veterinary clinic also wants to double the organization's capacity to perform spay/neuter surgeries over the next four years. He says there is renewed interest in purchasing a mobile spay/neuter van that could travel to areas that are underserved by vets here, such as parts of North St. Louis.
Some board members say the organization has tried to address euthanasia in the past. Edwin Meissner, who spent decades on the board and headed up its capital campaign for the new building, says he was unaware whether euthanasia figures were going up or down, but he says: "All I know is our adoptions are going up, and that's what we like." He says the Cinderella Program, which provides money to rehabilitate injured animals for adoption, "is a step in the right direction."
Board member Bill Boever, says he, too, was unaware of euthanasia statistics. "I do know that it's been a priority of the board and the Humane Society itself to make sure more animals are adopted. If other cities' numbers are going down and ours are not, the question I would ask is, what are they doing differently?"
Throop says he wants to learn more about how San Francisco achieved its success, though he says his organization won't go off on "tangents."
"We're not going to save whales, as important as that is. We are a pet-advocacy group with a bent on education. Our vet center is pretty important. We offer services there that are just a little bit more inexpensive than a regular veterinarian."
He says the organization is considering other things as part of its long-range plan, such as whether it should groom and board animals to provide "total animal services for the community." It could also expand its animal-holding capacity into 10,000 square feet of currently unused space, but that would require raising more money for the annual budget, he says, to pay for staff, food, utilities and other costs associated with operating more pens. He wants the organization to consider hiring counselors to help families cope with the loss of a pet or deciding whether to have one euthanized.
Throop says he expects that the strategic plan will result in new ways to reduce the euthanasia numbers. Although the plan identified certain categories such as euthanasia and increased rates of spay/neuter to address, it is now up to seven "action units," led by senior Humane Society employees, who must come up with more detailed plans and how to implement them. Those action units will also be asked to consider broader issues surrounding the society, such as: "What do you want the society to look like five years from now? Do you want to have us doing what we're doing now, which is the same thing we were doing five years ago? We're bigger now, but we're doing the same thing we were doing five years ago," Throop says. "Or are there other things we can begin to accomplish?"
The process could take a while, if the strategic plan is any gauge: That took two years.
Throop also says addressing the metro area's euthanasia rate will require collaboration with other organizations. But he acknowledges that other organizations and agencies don't have the same wealth or influence as the Humane Society.
"We're the ones to tackle it," he says. "There's no doubt about it."