Clipping an angel's wings
by Mike Kroll
It is hard to imagine something more positive in the life of an animal than catching the attention of Cathy White. When she is not sleeping or teaching English or public speaking at Carl Sandburg College you can make book that White is doing something somewhere to improve the lives of cats and dogs or other pets. Cathy's husband and family wanted to do something special for her birthday last year. You know, on the order of a nice trip or a cruise. But she would have none of that and insisted that they spend the $5,000 earmarked for this present to support the spay-neuter program of he Knox County Humane Society instead. The White home has become a rescue ranch of sorts for a never-ending stream of local cats in need with Cathy making sure that all those needs are met out of her own pocket.
Cathy has devoted her life to animal welfare. She was one of the co-founders 17 years ago of the Knox County Humane Society and served as president for ten years. In1995 the Humane Society contractually took over responsibility for animal control in Galesburg after repeated presentations to the city council by society members White, Jeff Seiberlich and Erin Buckmaster. The society had already purchased a building at the former Galesburg Mental Hospital and rehabilitated the structure into an animal shelter. In recent years White and other local volunteers have invested thousands of hours toward the welfare of these animals and finding good homes for them through an Adopt-a-pet program instigated and staffed by White, her daughter Julie and others.
In most organizations someone who has selflessly devoted herself to the cause such as Cathy would be honored and held up as an example, but the KCHS isn't like most organizations. The organization White founded and led for a decade unceremoniously gave her the boot at their August 9th meeting. That meeting's agenda began with a closed session to discuss removing White and a proposal to create rules for the “firing” of volunteers. By a 6-2 vote (only board member Tina Guardalabene joined with White in voting against her own dismissal) Cathy was removed from the board.
I spent nearly all of Tuesday night speaking with White at her Galesburg home. Cats greeted me at her door and a bright white male cat took a special interest in me as we sat down in Cathy's living room. “That's amazing,” White pointed out in reference to the cat. “We just took him in after his 'mother' became too ill and had to go into a nursing home. He has been very shy since arriving here and spends most of his time hiding yet he immediately took a fancy to you. Wouldn't you like to take him home as a pet? That gray in his coat is soot from the fireplace. Somehow he got into it and got all dirty but when he is clean his coat is a clear bright white...”
Cathy never hesitates to place a needy pet into a loving home and I had to explain to her that this was a match that couldn't happen. My wife is adamantly opposed to pets in the house and I told White I would be sleeping in the back yard if I brought this cat home with me. I reminded her that we were talking about the Humane Society; she had somewhat reluctantly consented on the interview.
White explained what transpired that night. “It was horrible! They voted me off the board at the beginning of the meeting and then dismissed me. I intended to complete the meeting and wanted to participate in the upcoming discussion of firing volunteers. The other board members were surprised that I didn't simply get up and leave. Wil Hayes [board president] turned to me and said, 'You're no longer on this board and I have things to do here,' indicating that my presence at the meeting was not welcome. Even though I knew this was coming (the agenda listed “Removal of Cathy White as board member” as the first item!) and many of these board members have worked hard in recent months to induce me to resign my primary emotion was not one of anger but sadness.”
“The entire character of this organization has changed in the last five years or so. I got involved in this because I love animals, all animals. I realize I don't have the temperament to make some of the hard decisions that the Humane Society has to make but I also acknowledge the realities that make such actions necessary. It would be unreasonable to expect to operate a 'no-kill' shelter given our resources but I believe we can run a 'low-kill' shelter while simultaneously assuring the best possible quality of life for the animals in our care. The humane care and placement of animals in good homes has always been my personal focus and I believe that was the group's motivation in the early years. Today I'm afraid the welfare of the animals is no longer the boards first priority.”
The city currently pays the KCHS slightly less than $175,000 annually for the contractual animal control and shelter services. No one with the Humane Society would begin to claim that this amount comes close to covering the cost of their operation. The KCHS is heavily dependent upon a combination of volunteers and donations to maintain their operations. The paid staff is small and the city money barely covers their salaries. Nearly all of the food and much of the supplies necessary to operate the shelter are donated by caring individuals and businesses. Historically much of the remaining financial costs have been met through grants secured by Cathy White. White estimates that over her tenure she has personally brought in grant dollars equivalent to about a year's city funding.
According to White two volunteers who were “fired” by KCHS board members Ned Anderson and Ray Keegan last October after they raised questions about the care of some cats at the shelter. “Janis and Kathy were guilty of caring too much about the animals. They regularly volunteered to socialize with cats and when they noticed things about cats they shared their concerns with shelter staff and [shelter director] Janet [Tolle]. Janet is so insecure in her position that she took offense at these observations and requested that Anderson eliminate these 'troublemakers.' One day these women were in the cat room when Ned and Ray walked in and Janet stood outside to block the door as the men told the women they were no longer welcome to volunteer at the shelter.”
“The Humane Society disparately needs the volunteers whether Janet or the board realize it. All of these people are devoted to the animals and supplement the level of care possible with the paid staff alone. The participation of the volunteers make the difference between providing a very basic level of animal care and quality care including socialization. The paid staff simply do not have the time to do much more than feed the animals and keep the shelter clean and it is this extra level of human care and kindness that helps make animals more attractive for adoption.”
Both of the ladies fired were long-time volunteers and one had previously left her entire estate to the Humane Society but there is no room for criticism or disagreement, however slight, with management of the shelter by Tolle and Anderson. A person's motivation of history with the organization carries no weight whatsoever when they dare to question a decision of the board. Dissent will not be tolerated and both staff and volunteers alike are forbidden from making public comments about either the society or shelter operations. Cathy White's high crime was that she felt so strongly about the welfare of the animals that she simply would not be gagged. Instead she was summarily dismissed.
Throughout the long evening (White and I spoke for almost four hours) she regaled me with stories of animals saved and her work to place animals in adopted homes. Cathy told me of the time she and her daughter picked up some large dogs at the shelter to take them out for exercise. “I told the shelter staff that I would have them back later that day but I received a telephone call from Ned [Anderson] implying that I had stolen the dogs and ordering them returned immediately! After that Janet [Tolle] kept the dog cages locked so volunteers such as myself and Julie couldn't get access. After years and years of running the Adopt-A-Pet program it was shocking that they believed I was pilfering animals from the shelter. After all, we sadly end up destroying significant numbers of dogs and cats every month because we cannot place them all so what harm would have been done had I actually intended to steal these dogs?”
Amazingly, despite everything that has happened Cathy White told me she would be happy to return to the Humane Society if they asked! She is very afraid that these recent actions have done great harm to the public perception of the society.
“While the board members were so angry at my letter to the editor in the Zephyr as well as some others by concerned volunteers in the Register-Mail they just don't understand that their actions in closing meetings to the public, firing volunteers and expelling me does far more harm to the organization than could possibly result from a little dissent within. In just the last few months three board members have quit and I was booted and the men behind my ouster admitted at a meeting that none of their friends want anything to do with this board. I have received calls from a number of people who tell me they no longer intend to donate money or time to the Humane Society and at least two individuals I know have already removed the Humane Society from their wills. I am afraid that these disputes and actions by the board will be the undoing of a group I continue to believe in. I really want this organization to survive and thrive for the good of the animals they serve. The board has done far more harm by quelling the criticism than could ever have resulted from the actions of those of us cast aside.”
For the time being White will focus her attentions on a parallel group she organized, the Guardian Angels, devoted to animal welfare. “Our goal with the Guardian Angels is to insure that all pet owners are able to obtain the medical care they need for their pets regardless of their ability to pay. We will continue to promote spaying and neutering of pets. And I am committed to making the resources of the Guardian Angels available to assist with the care of any animal at the [KCHS] shelter as long as we are permitted to do so. There remains so much to be done for the care of animal in Knox County and I won't be sidelined.”