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

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."

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