From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1994:

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana–
Legislation In Support of Animals recently
gave the New Iberia City and Parish Council
until January 1 to make a firm commitment
to reforming their pound––or else.
“We have reached the limit of our
patience,” said mild-mannered LISA
founder and executive director Jeff Dorson,
sounding a lot more like Clint Eastwood than
he looks.
The ultimatim brought a three-part
expose of pound conditions in the local
newspaper. On December 10, New Iberia
reached an amicable agreement with LISA to
better separate animals in the pound, house
fewer per cage, provide fiberglas resting
boards, clean the cages more often, hire an
answering service to handle off-hours emer-
gency calls, and promote adoptions through
the New Iberia Humane Society.

The last time a municipal govern-
ment pushed LISA to the limit of its
patience, the Vermilion Parish Police Jury
came out of a three-year legal scrap with a
criminal conviction for cruelty and neglect.
Probing allegations by a private rescue group
called Vermilion Animal Aid, LISA found
in May 1991 that the Vermilion Parish
Rabies Control Board, appointed by the
Police Jury, was using unfiltered, uncooled
diesel fumes to kill animals; had spent only
$191 the previous year for animal food,
leaving impounded animals to starve; had an
adoption rate of zero; and was crowding as
many as 40 to 50 animals at a time into its
five four-foot-square steel cages. LISA lost
an initial appeal for a permanent injunction
against the abusive conditions, but attorney
Judith Gardner won a precedent-setting
appeal in May 1993, and then secured the
long-sought permanent injunction on
October 18, 1993, when Judge Jules
Edwards found the Police Jury guilty as
In Louisiana, when Legislation In
Support of Animals speaks, judges and reg-
ulatory agencies listen. The tiny LISA staff
is known for doing quality investiga-
tions––and for performing in the clutch.
“We faced a crisis in 1990,”
Dorson recounts, “when the City of New
Orleans cut funding to the Louisiana SPCA,
which carries out animal protection work in
the New Orleans area. Animal control ser-
vices were suspended. Prior to this time,
we had been critical of the Louisiana SPCA,
especially in the areas of code enforcement
and emergency services. In January of
1990, however, even the most basic ani-
mal pickup services were suspended as well.
“Almost immediately after the
budget cuts were announced, our office
began to receive calls from the police and
from local citizens, seeking assistance with
animal-related problems. We were a group
in its infancy, with no savings account, no
shelter, and very few active members,
forced to deal with the problems of a city of
half a million people without animal rescue
or control. We put together a rag-tag team
of volunteers to respond, and the work was
Many other animal protection
groups have taken over city animal control
services to improve handling and care of
strays, beginning with the Women’s
Humane Society of Philadelphia in 1872.
But rarely if ever before has a non-shelter-
ing group been abruptly asked to fill in for
the sudden loss of an established animal
control provider.
Astute enough to realize LISA had
been handed a unique opportunity as well as
a potentially crushing job, Dorson and
LISA vice president Dana Dell quickly rose
to the challenge.
“We had two rooms of our apart-
ment set up as the LISA office, with one
phone line,” Dorson says. “Out of those
two rooms, we attempted to function as an
emergency rescue squad. We mobilized
about a dozen trained volunteers, scattered
across the city, one or two of whom would
agree to be on call at night. For six months
the calls poured in, usually late at night.
We would often go into high crime areas to
rescue a hit dog, cat or other animal. Our
volunteers had nothing to work with but
their personal vehicles and rudimentary first
aid kits. We probably responded in some
way to at least 1,500 calls for assistance.”
One call, which came around 10
p.m., concerned a dog “who had been
trapped in a canal for close to a week and
who could not escape, because the steep
sides of the canal were cement. The dog
had been struggling to keep his head above
water for days, and he looked as though he
would not last much longer.” Dell and vol-
unteer Karen Whittington went to the scene
with a policewoman. The police escort was
deemed necessary because the canal was
located in the Desire Housing Project, con-
sidered, as Dorson puts it, “one of the most
dangerous areas in New Orleans,” if not in
the whole U.S., due to heavy drug activity.
“Dozens of residents came out of
the projects,” Dorson continues, “amazed
that these women would come into that
neighborhood to help the dog. They had to
walk for several blocks through weeds and
mud to reach the terrified dog, who was
weakly paddling away from the commotion.
The local folks joined in the effort. Karen
eventually had to go down over the cement
wall, balancing on a slippery submerged car
to reach the dog. Dana held onto Karen to
pull her and the dog up, and she waited
with the dog in the weeds as Karen and the
policewoman walked back to get the police
car. Dana said she heard numerous gun-
shots ringing out through the project as she
waited. Luckily, everyone got home safely,
the dog was given veterinary treatment, and
was adopted into a good home.”
That episode and others like it
earned the respect and cooperation of the
New Orleans police department. Eventually
LISA representatives were even invited to
accompany police on crack house raids, in
case guard animals were discovered. During
the execution of one crack house search
warrant, Dorson remembers, “a huge
female Rottweiler lunged at an officer, who
was forced to shoot her. Moments later,
eight orphaned puppies were found in a
back room. Stepping around the hand-
cuffed suspects, we loaded up the puppies
and brought them home. After the story
aired on the evening news, we received
over 300 phone calls from people wanting
to adopt the orphans, whom we had named
after players with the New Orleans Saints
football team.”
Despite the stress and danger,
Dorson reports, “Only one of our workers
reported an injury during this time.” The
LISA treasury took a beating however, as
“We spent thousands of dollars providing
these services, and we were never able to
recover any costs.”
Not that LISA didn’t try. “In
August of 1990,” Dorson explains, “we
sued the city to restore funding for animal
control. Although the suit was dismissed,
it helped to pressure City Hall into restoring
needed funds within a few months. Around
this time,” Dorson adds, in a bit of an
understatement, “our relationship with the
Louisiana SPCA also began to change. The
board of directors decided to change their
administration,” and brought in veteran
shelter administrator Joel Warner after con-
ducting a national talent search. “Almost
overnight the Louisiana SPCA improved,
and it is now very well managed. Earlier
this year, it received our Gold Star Shelter
Award for being one of the best shelters in
the state.”
Confirms Warner, “We give Jeff
Dorson and LISA a lot of credit. A lot of
credit. It was pretty much a @ # $ %h o u s e ,
and he stepped in there and showed every-
body what had to be done.”
The power of words
Warner comes on like the tough
cop he is––a professional in humane law
enforcement. Dorson by contrast is a mild-
mannered 35-year-old ex-tennis instructor
and English literature major. Dell is a 27-
year-old aspiring poet and novelist, whom
Dorson met in 1989 and married in May
1993. The key to their success apparently
lies in their knack for using words to orga-
nize information and inspire volunteers
––and in their willingness to lead by exam-
ple, working 80-90 hours a week for LISA
without salaries. Neither has been paid
from the $60,000-a-year LISA budget since
1992. The money comes mainly from
donations by the 800 LISA members.
“To create an income for our-
selves, we are planning to open a vegan
deli or coffee house within the next few
months,” Dorson says, but meanwhile
LISA activities keep both Dorson and Dell
busy fulltime.
Dorson founded LISA in
Minneapolis in 1986, worked for People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in
1987-1988, and transferred operations to
the opposite end of the Mississippi River
later in 1988, when LISA was incorporated
in Louisiana.
“LISA was originally formed to
function as a lobbying group,” Dorson
explains of the somewhat misleading title.
The group does do some legislative work.
Dorson cites having drafted and secured
passage of “a bill banning bear-wrestling
matches in our state, and a bill prohibiting
attendance at dogfights. Both activities are
now misdemeanors under Louisiana law.
We also helped win a resolution to grant stu-
dents in the Louisiana public schools greater
access to alternatives to dissection.”
But the legislative success has
come only since the six-month stint as New
Orleans’ defacto animal control agency.
Mostly, LISA works to improve animal
care and control facilities throughout
Louisiana, and to secure prosecution of ani-
mal abusers.
Cleaning up pounds
“We were not long in operation in
Louisiana,” Dorson acknowledges, “when
we began to receive numerous complaints
about serious substandard dog pounds.
There is no statewide agency to monitor
shelters in Louisiana, and approximately
half of the parishes are without animal con-
trol. Even in many areas where there is ani-
mal control, humane laws are often not
enforced, and citizens often report that law
enforcement officials, unfamiliar with anti-
cruelty laws, tell them that nothing can be
done to help animals in distress. Animal
pounds are often little more than trash
dumps for homeless animals.”
LISA responded by drawing upon
what Dorson sees as the fundamentals of
working for social justice: demonstrating
the power of individuals to make a differ-
ence through organization, and creating
institutions equal and opposite to those
responsible for maintaining the status quo.
“We trained ourselves to respond to cruelty
complaints, filing charges and monitoring
cases through the court system,” he
explains. “We also began teaching cruelty
investigation workshops for small groups,
to enable them to carry out similar work.”
Most important, “Since there were no shel-
ter inspectors in Louisiana, we declared our-
selves the inspectors of these public facili-
ties, after studying acceptable standards of
shelter operation. Since then, we have
inspected over 60 public and private shel-
ters, improving many facilities and pro-
grams, and we have been recognized as
experts in this field. We work with at least
a dozen attorneys who generously donate
legal services to our group, most notably
Gretchen Pisciotta, Judith Gardner, and
Caroline Norton.” It was Pisciotta who
filed the suit against the City of New
LISA reinforces its shelter inspec-
tion reports by compiling and publicizing
annual lists of the best, worst, and most
improved shelters statewide. The best
receive increasingly prestigious awards. The
media takes notice, and so do judges and
public officials. As early as 1989, LISA
horse rescues in cases where the Louisiana
SPCA refused to act and a series of raids on
several appalling parish pounds got major
publicity. Always, LISA invites police and
public officials to join in inspections.
Always, the group extensively documents
findings. Always, good faith efforts win
public praise––and attempts to hide prob-
lems bring legal battles that cost offending
parishes far more than a clean-up would.
The Town of Franklinton provides
a case in point. In 1990, LISA revealed
severely substandard conditions at two
pounds in Washington Parish. Management
of the Bogalusa pound was promptly turned
over to a newly formed humane society,
and condit ions were substantially
improved. Franklinton officials announced
plans to build a new, improved shelter. The
existing pound was closed; LISA volun-
teers evacuated 19 dogs from the three
dilapidated doghouses that comprised the
site, where the group’s inspection report
found “virtually every available space con-
taminated by feces and urine,” and noted
heaps of skulls and bones from dead dogs.
Pending completion of the new
Franklinton facility, impounded animals
were supposed to be boarded and euthanized
if necessary by a local veterinarian.
However, in July 1993, LISA received a
citizen’s complaint that Franklinton animal
warden Earl Varnado had gunned down
three stray dogs––two of them wearing col-
lars––in front of a number of children,
including a two-year-old girl. Suspecting
the case wasn’t an isolated incident, LISA
investigated, discovering that Franklinton
had been cutting costs for at least a year by
having Varnado simply take strays to a
wooded area where he shot them in the
head. Varnado was paid on a bounty basis:
$5.00 per animal corpse allegedly removed
from city streets. Although records indicat-
ed he rarely if ever picked up live animals,
he also got $25 a week for “cleaning and
feeding dogs.” Bruised by local media,
Franklinton signed a Consent Decree agree-
ing to abide by its 1991 pledge a few days
before Pisciotta was to go to court for LISA,
seeking a permanent injunction.
LISA doesn’t intend to stop with
shelter reform. LISA is also building in
other directions with the aid of an experi-
enced board whose members include former
Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union
development director Linda Dell; former
Jefferson SPCA president Pam Casey;
environmental law student Callie Solano;
physics professor Ira Nirenberg; and artist
Sherry Branch, founder of the vegetarian
group Nothin’ Dead. LISA’s newly formed
Vegetarian Network recently drew 300 peo-
ple to a first-ever New Orleans Vegetarian
Festival; the festival is now slated to
become an annual event. Another LISA
project, the Southern Animals in Research
Commission, plans to sue Louisiana State
University, seeking access to Institutional
Animal Care and Use Committee meetings.
At deadline, attorney Carolyn Norton was
expected to file the papers any day.
“I am keen to establish pro-animal
institutions from the ground up,” Dorson
explains of his and LISA’s approach.
“Governments and institutions are only
granted the power to rule from the bottom
up. It is easy to forget that the institutions
that oppress animals are invested with
power from individuals. These same indi-
viduals can divest them of power and/or
shift the power to another structure.”
––Merritt Clifton
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