Sheltered from reality

by Mike Kroll

It is hard for most Galesburg residents to remember when animal control was a controversy in town. In the not-to-distant past animal control services were handled directly by the city to the displeasure of many. The city operated what they euphemistically called a "shelter" in Kiwanis Park and employed animal control officers. Many were disappointed in the lack of responsiveness of the animal control officers and the "shelter" was a run-down building where captured animals spent their last few days in poor conditions before being destroyed. Furthermore, little effort was made to find new homes for the collected animals. Al-in-all animal lovers in Galesburg were appalled. To add insult to an already poor situation the then financially strapped city wanted to reduce animal control expenses even further.

Into this situation rose the Knox County Humane Society. An eclectic group of animal lovers who couldn't stand to see this situation persist. Led by Cathy White, Jeff Seiberlich and Erin Buckmaster this group approached the Galesburg City Council with a proposal to take over animal control duties for a monthly stipend of $9,750 in 1995. To some on the City Council this was seen as a welcome solution while others were bothered by the group's announced conditions that city animal control ordinances be changed placing higher expectations (and licensing costs) on animal owners as well as limiting the number of pets one could legally own.

While few in the community questioned the group's intentions many of us were skeptical of their probability of success but time has erased those doubts. You never hear of anyone complaining about animal control in Galesburg any longer and almost all evidence that a controversy ever existed is now long gone. That animal control contract is now a decade old and the monthly cost has risen to $14,538 (six percent per year) but no one has questioned whether the city is getting a good value for that money. Just as all of us have an ingrown, unstated belief that the laws of physics will always apply so too do we simply assume that the Knox County Humane Society will handle animal control is such a manner that we need not concern ourselves with the matter. That is why it came as such a surprise to many when letters to the editor started appearing questioning the motives and decisions of the KCHS board.

The Humane Society holds its monthly board meetings on the second Tuesday evening of each month. This Tuesday evening saw their March meeting held in a small seminar classroom on the Knox College campus and I attended my first ever KCHS board meeting-- it was without question one of the weirdest meetings I have ever attended.

The small room was packed. In addition to an estimated 12 board members and 3-4 staff members of the animal shelter there had to be another dozen or more spectators (including myself) and the leadership of the Humane Society clearly took note of the unusually large crowd. Board president Wil Hayes began the meeting promptly at 6:30pm. Hays acknowledged the size of the crowd and rearranged the agenda to put one of the issues he presumed accounted for the extra attendees on the top of the agenda.

This topic concerned an apparently controversial new shelter policy of testing incoming dogs for heartworm and cats for Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and feline leukemia. Both tests cost approximately $9 per animal. As explained by the KCHS's veterinary technician Megan Miller these tests are currently given to any incoming dog or cat that is under consideration for inclusion in the society's adoption program. Those animals who are not placed into the adoption program or otherwise reclaimed by their owners are destroyed by the shelter staff. Miller acknowledged that many factors enter into the decision as to which dogs and cats are adoptable but that since it was impractical to save all animals it just made sense to give a preference to healthy ones.

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners: "FIV and [feline leukemia] infections are major causes of illness and death in cats. Both viruses are spread contagiously from cat to cat, and surveys show that up to 15 percent of sick cats are infected with one or both of the viruses. But even healthy cats may harbor infection and spread viruses to other cats. In some cats, signs of disease may not become apparent until weeks, months or even years after they first become infected with FIV or FeLV. FIV and FeLV affect cats in similar ways, primarily by interfering with the immune system’s ability to ward off infections. Bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi found in the everyday environment — where they usually don’t affect healthy cats — can cause severe illness in FIV and FeLV infected cats. Research to date has shown that FIV and FeLV only affect cats."

Although there was much discussion of asymptomatic FIV positive cats apparently doing just fine in the homes of some attendees diagnosis of either disease in cats is apparently fatal. In addition, infected cats can easily transfer the diseases to other cats through even playful bites, saliva transfers during mutual grooming or contact with infected fecal matter. Placing an infected cat into the adoption program not only risks inadvertent adoption of a unhealthy animal but puts otherwise healthy cats at great risk, inside or outside of the shelter.

Life and death issues like this touch the very core of animal lovers and this was definitely the case here. During the course of discussion one visitor asked flat out whether a positive test for heartworm or FIV was a death sentence for an animal. While shelter staff offered potential hope for heartworm infected dogs Miller confirmed that infected cats would be destroyed. Opposition to the policy appeared to center on saving the lives of infected cats, not one word of opposition to disposing of sick dogs was mentioned. As Seiberlich, the society's Finance Director put it, "This is both a practical and moral issue. We know we can't save every animal and it would be immoral and counterproductive to be placing infected cats in adoptive homes."

This animated discussion was perhaps illustrative of the ongoing discord amongst board members that has led to recent letters to the editor. As a group that was founded by what one city council member once referred to as "bleeding heart animal lovers" approaches its tenth anniversary there are bound to be some of what President Wil Hayes called, "growing pains." A conflict has emerged over the last year or so as some board members have taken what they see as a more business-like and pragmatic approach to running both the society and the shelter.

"Every group that originates from the heart needs to eventually go through an evolution and that is what is happening to us right now," said Hayes. "As we transitioned into more of a business doing good just wasn't enough of a justification ford decision-making. Our organization is now looking forward to becoming a permanent fixture in the community and that sometimes means that we need to make some hard decisions."

As one of the co-founders of the group Cathy White clearly finds herself in the softer, less business-like group of board members. White still is pained every time any animal must be destroyed and has dedicated most of her available time to seeing that as many animals as possible get placed in adoptive homes. Over the years she has donated countless hours, as have most board members, toward operation of the shelter when funds were tight and needs great. Like many other volunteers White has also been generous with financial funds as well. "Operating the shelter is the most important thing we do and I believe that it should be overseen by a committee rather than just one person," she stated emphatically at the meeting.

Operation of the shelter is overseen by the Administrative Director, currently Ned Anderson. Anderson is a longtime board member but has held this position for just the last year. It would appear that his personal style has contributed greatly to the rift and he only exacerbated it Tuesday night. Prior to Anderson's assuming this position administrative services were overseen by a committee that included members of both board factions but Anderson never created a new committee upon his election.

"It's not my style and the bylaws don't require me to appoint a committee," explained Anderson. "I've been in business for 50 years and I make all my own decisions and that's the way I have chosen to do this job. I answer to the board and I did create a nominating committee as required by the bylaws but I see no value in an overall administrative services committee."

During discussion at Tuesday's meeting White pushed for the creation of such a committee and moved that it meet monthly, apparently a reasonable request. Anderson was vocal in his opposition to the idea and even told other board members that he alone would decide what information he thought was reasonable to share with other board members regarding operation of the shelter. "If I don't think you need to know about I'm not going to talk to you about it!" His attitude at the meeting bordered on belligerent toward his fellow board members yet no one seemed to question him. In my experience this was very atypical board behavior.

Unlike every other vote taken that night this divided and contentious issue was decided by a show of hands, yet some board members present chose not to cast votes. The issue was defeated by what I counted as a 4-3 vote and the meeting continued. During this portion of the meeting the agenda called for discussion of the nominating committee progress in filling the five open board seats. The KCHS board bylaws call for 15 board members and establish a nominating committee to take applications from persons interested in serving. Hayes announced that this discussion would be moved to the executive session later in the meeting.

On Wednesday morning I tried to talk with Nominating committee chair Ray Keegan but he declined to speak with me. I was able to discuss the process with Anderson. He said that two written applications had been received but neither fit within the parameters sought by the committee. "We're not discriminating against anyone but I would like to find two or 3 business people to help balance out the board. We need more practically minded people on this board and while I won't speak against any of our existing board members by name too many of them are living in the past. We have sent out letters soliciting people we want to target for board membership." Since the discussion took place in private we have no way of knowing the status of these recruitment efforts or why neither of the two existing applicants are being considered.

"We're not a potted plant board," noted Seiberlich. "We're a working board and everyone on this board needs a specific job to perform. Unfortunately, some of those jobs are not well served by those who are otherwise excellent volunteers in the shelter but not everyone understands this. This isn't a glamorous board and we don't attract those simply looking to pad their resume as you find on many other boards. Finding the right board members of the Humane Society just isn't an easy process."