High Society

It's flush with money and has a grand new building, but the Humane Society of Missouri is doing little to prevent the growing euthanasia rate for unwanted animals

On the second floor of the Humane Society of Missouri's sprawling headquarters at 1201 Macklind Ave., a woman wanders the halls with a big black dog in her arms. She pokes her head into an office, searching for someone who can point her in the right direction. She's flustered, and it shows. "I am just trying to get my dog's shots," she mutters.

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."

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