Thursday, February 11, 2010

Local Newspaper Breaks 2 Decades of Silence

The following article was published late February 7, 2010, finally reporting what many volunteers and staff had known for years- that truckloads of animals were being brought to the Society afterhours, where they were killed. This allegedly was a regular occurrence over the past twenty years.

Questions are raised about the Humane Society's longtime practice of euthanizing hundreds of animals a month

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10:46 PM PST on Sunday, February 7, 2010
By MARK MUCKENFUSSThe Press-Enterprise

Volunteers and donors to the Humane Society of San Bernardino Valley said they were surprised to learn that the organization had been euthanizing close to 10,000 animals per year. Most of the euthanasias were performed after hours by a small group of people. Former employees said even some who worked at the Humane Society were unaware of the activity, which has gone on for years.

Those contacted for this story said that if they questioned the practice, they were told not to worry about it. If they persisted, they said, they were fired. A letter by a former veterinarian for the agency complained of "truckloads" of healthy animals being euthanized.

A video purportedly showing dogs and cats being brought to the organization's San Bernardino clinic after hours for euthanasia surfaced on You Tube in November.

Sue Dawson, then the Humane Society's president, said the agency became concerned about the safety of its employees because of the video and stopped the nighttime euthanasias. She defended the practice as a necessary service to prevent animals from wandering the streets.
Other longtime supporters of the Humane Society felt differently.

"I find this disturbing," said Sue Herbert, of San Bernardino. Herbert volunteers for the organization as head of a committee that addresses legislative issues involving animal care and control. She has worked with the Humane Society for three years.

Like many supporters contacted for this story, Herbert said she was aware the agency provided euthanasia but had no idea how many dogs and cats were killed there each month.

The 30-year-old nonprofit organization provides public education, low-cost spay and neuter surgeries and vaccines, in addition to euthanasia for unadoptable or owner-surrendered animals. Its $3.5 million annual budget is controlled by a board of directors. It does not operate an animal shelter.

The video on You Tube was produced by Last Chance for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal advocacy group that has national reach. It was posted by another animal rights group, then taken down later the same day at the request of Last Chance for Animals.

"I don't feel what they're doing is wrong," said Chris DeRose, president and founder of Last Chance for Animals.

The video has brought attention to what had been a little-known practice at the San Bernardino clinic.

"I suspect a lot of people don't have any idea what goes on," former Humane Society board member Cliff Alexander said recently.

He left the board three years ago and expressed concern at the time over the large volume of after-hours euthanasia, he said.

Unwanted Pets
Dawson said the Humane Society of San Bernardino Valley last year euthanized about 800 animals a month, 500 of which are brought in after hours by staff and animal welfare organizations. That rate, about 9,600 a year, is nearly equivalent to the number of euthanasias performed by San Bernardino County's two animal shelters, which euthanized a combined total of just over 10,000 animals last year. The San Bernardino city shelter euthanized 12,400.

Animal rights advocates, who initiated the investigation by Last Chance for Animals, as well as former Humane Society employees have expressed concern about the after-hours euthanasias and the fact many of the animals were being brought from outside San Bernardino County by independent animal welfare operations.

The volunteers bring the animals they cannot place to the Humane Society to be euthanized at no cost, Dawson said.

Those involved in the work could not provide figures for the percentage of animals adopted vs. those euthanized. People familiar with the operations say the majority of the animals surrendered are destroyed.

Supporters of the practice say it's a needed service to help control animal populations. "I know that it goes on," Dawson said. "I know the reasons why it goes on. Many of these individuals work. They do this animal-welfare rescue work in their off times." Even Dawson seemed surprised by the number of animals being put down. She initially estimated 500 animals a month but, after a review of records, said the number was 800.

Questions Raised
Mary Sheets, a former executive director of the organization, was among those who said the killings struck her as clandestine and unusual.

"I was concerned about the amount of euthanasias we were doing after hours," Sheets said. "It seemed a little suspicious to me. It seemed very secretive. My question was, are we doing the right thing?"

At the same time Sheets was asking questions, she received a letter from Janet Troxel, a veterinarian then working for the Humane Society.

"Over the past two years," Troxel wrote, "several employees, including myself, have witnessed truckloads of healthy, young, well-adapted puppies, dogs and cats being brought in after hours by so-called 'no kill' shelters and 'no kill' rescues, only to be killed." In a phone call, Troxel confirmed she had written the letter but said she did not want to comment further.

When Sheets asked Dawson about the practice, she said she was told not to worry about it.
"If you ask too many questions you get let go," Sheets said. Jill Willoughby, who worked as a recovery nurse for animals being spayed and neutered, said that happened to her.

"I was fired because I didn't agree with their euthanasia policy," Willoughby said. "They didn't attempt to find homes for the animals that were brought in."

She frequently saw healthy, socialized animals being put down, she said. In one case, an animal hoarder brought in about 75 dogs during regular hours, many of which were in poor condition but some of which seemed fine.

"There were dogs that were really friendly and people were interested in adopting," she said. "And they wouldn't let them. They euthanized the whole lot of them."

Willoughby said she was reprimanded for rescuing a dog that had come in with a broken leg and was treated by a staff veterinarian. When she took home a Rottweiler that had been abandoned and undergone emergency surgery, she was told to return it. Instead, she said, she took the animal directly to a rescue group.

"I knew if I returned it, they would want to euthanize it," she said.

She was fired a week later. Her severance letter said her vision for the Human Society was different than that of the administration, she said.

Dawson declined comment on Willoughby's claim.

Willoughby said she believes the public perception is that the Human Society helps rescue and find homes for animals. That idea was even promoted, she said, when funds were being raised for the current building, which opened in 2006.

Potential donors were told the Human Society would create rehab kennels for injured or abused animals. But the kennels are rarely used, Willoughby said.

Jeanne Terwilliger, marketing director for Arrowhead Credit Union, took the helm as president of the Humane Society in recent days. She said the eight cages are often empty. "They were never meant to be for full usage," Terwilliger said. The cages, she said, are primarily for holding animals recovered in cruelty cases until the case is resolved. "They are designed to be a comforting location for animals that have gone through a traumatic experience," she said. Terwilliger said the Humane Society is "not in the adoption business." Some donors said they had a different view of the organization. Betty Cowan, of San Bernardino, said she has donated occasionally over the years and was under the impression that part of the money was going toward animal rescue.

"I wasn't aware they put that many dogs and cats down," Cowan said. "That's a lot. ... If this is what they're doing, they're going to lose support from people."

Sheets said that when she was executive director she was concerned about the money being spent on drugs to euthanize animals from out of the region. "Why would the Humane Society of San Bernardino be using their controlled substances for animals coming from out of county?" Sheets asked. "People donate so the funds can be used in the San Bernardino area and hopefully for spay and neuter services. That was the primary focus."

Dawson defended the need for keeping potential stray animals off the street. "I would like to think we are all in this because we have a deep concern for animal welfare," she said. Rescuing an animal "means a lot of things to a lot of people. It means getting an animal out of a bad situation. That can take many forms."

Volunteer Herbert said that even though she was concerned about the number of euthanasias, she also recognizes there are too many animals and not enough homes. "It's a very sad situation," Herbert said. "This is really why we have to have mandatory spay and neuter laws."

Reach Mark Muckenfuss at 951-368-9595 or

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