The wildlife program that might make Milwaukee famous
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2006:
MILWAUKEE–The Wisconsin Humane Society handles 5,000 wild
animals of as many as 145 species per year, among total intake of
about 18,000 animals. Almost as much cage space houses recuperating
wild creatures as houses dogs and cats.
Present trends indicate that Wisconsin Humane will within
another few years receive more wild animals than either dogs or
cats–indicative of the success of local initiatives to reduce dog
and cat overpopulation.
Among major U.S. humane societies, only the Progressive
Animal Welfare Society, of Lynnwood, Washington, in the greater
Seattle area, appears to have as rapidly transitioned into
addressing the issues that will affect the most animals– and
people–in a post-pet overpopulation environment, in which
relatively few dogs and cats are either at large or killed for
reasons other than incurable illness, injury, or dangerous behavior.
PAWS now handles about 4,500 wild animals of 170 species,
compared with about 4,000 dogs and cats, but most of the PAWS
wildlife workload was acquired through a 1999 merger with Olympic
Wildlife Rescue, which was already among the largest wildlife
rehabilitation centers in the world. Unlike the Wisconsin Humane
program, which is entirely on the same premises as the dog-and-cat
facilities, the PAWS wildlife program works from both a rescue
center in Lynnwood and the former Olympic Wildlife Rescue
headquarters in McCleary, on the Olympic Peninsula.
Despite the size and groundbreaking aspect of the Wisconsin
Humane wildlife program, wildlife received barely a mention in the
announcement when 12-year Wisconsin Humane executive director
Victoria Wellens in October 2006 received the American Humane
Lifetime Achievement Award. This could be interpreted as either
reflecting the low profile of wildlife work within most humane
societies, or as indicative of the magnitude of Wellens’
contributions to dog and cat work.
Recently elected first president of the newly formed National
Federation of Humane Societies, Wellens may have the shortest tenure
in animal work of any Lifetime Achievement Award winner, but her
leadership ability was evident almost immediately.
Wellens arrived at Wisconsin Humane just as the San Francisco
SPCA created a furor by introducing the Adoption Pact, an agreement
with the San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control that
guarantees a home to any healthy and non-vicious dog or cat. The
Adoption Pact culminated a five-year phase-out of San Francisco SPCA
involvement in animal control, while the DACC was created, followed
by five years of aggressively escalating dog and cat sterilization.
Despite the success of the San Francisco experiment, other
big-city humane societies were hesitant to try to emulate it. The
American SPCA dropped the New York City animal control contract in
1994, but no other major humane societies had done so before Wellens
led Wisconsin Humane in a disengagement from animal control that made
the San Francisco and New York disengagements look comparatively
Unlike the San Francisco SPCA and the American SPCA, which
each had only one municipal animal control contract to turn over to a
newly established city agency, the Wisconsin Humane Society had
contracts with 19 different municipalities. For a time they appeared
inclined to go in as many as 19 separate directions, but in 1996 the
municipalities formed the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control
Both MADACC and Wisconsin Humane built new shelters, opened
in August and December 1999, respectively. The MADACC shelter, at
just under 22,000 square feet, is a traditional animal control
facility, operating in more-or-less the traditional manner–although
the workload is already markedly reduced.
The Wisconsin Humane shelter, at 40,000 square feet, was
among the first big-city shelters designed to resemble shopping mails
rather than traditional kennels–or “animal jails,” as visitors
often perceive them. Critics complained at first that Wisconsin
Humane was purportedly leaving the majority of stray and abandoned
animals to be housed briefly and then killed in relatively cramped
surroundings, while giving the animals with the best adoption
prospects relative luxury. That criticism was short-lived, as
adoptions rose and shelter killing fell.
The Wisconsin Humane shelter debuted about a year after the
San Francisco SPCA unveiled Maddies’ Adoption Center, a year before
the opening of the present Oregon Humane Society shelter and others
that pioneered the “mall” concept. The main entrance literally
resembles a shopping mall. Major departments are accessed through
“storefront” doorways. Now emulated by new shelters worldwide, the
mall atmosphere was then so unique that American SPCA vice president
of national outreach Julie Morris called it, “A stunning example of
the cutting edge in animal sheltering,” devoting an entire page of
ASPCA Animal Watch to it.
The escalated Wisconsin Humane emphasis on sterilization
helped to cut the numbers of animals killed in greater Milwaukee area
shelters from 20.0 per 1,000 human residents in 1995 to 10.5 in 1999,
and only 4.1 a year later, in the initial year of a five-year
contract that gave Wisconsin Humane the first right of refusal on any
animal deemed adoptable by the MADACC staff. During the five-year
contract, Wisconsin Humane accepted about half of the animals
offered by MADACC, keeping the Milwaukee area rate of shelter
killing between 4.7 in 2001 and the low of 4.1, reached again in
However, after Wellens briefly experimented with adopting
out pit bull terriers and Rottweilers who passed behavioral
screening, dangerous incidents involving some of the dogs persuaded
her to suspend pit bull and Rottweiler adoptions. Because 74% of the
dogs coming to MADACC in recent years are pit bulls and Rottweilers,
MADACC executive director Len Selkurt chose not to renew the
exclusive agreement in 2005. The shelter killing rate rose to a
six-year high of 4.8 per 1,000 humans.
Despite the pit bull and Rottweiler abundance, dog and cat
sterilization has markedly reduced the numbers of dogs and cats found
at large in Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs. Wildlife has
taken advantage of the growing opportunity to slip through yards and
bed down under bushes or in crawl spaces without being barked at.
Native predators now compete with feral cats for prey–and sometimes
eat the cats, too, contributing to the reduction of the cat
population. The presence of urban coyotes in Milwaukee became
recognized in 2004, when three were hit by cars, two were trapped,
and a hue-and-cry broke out over coyotes eating pet cats. Osprey
nested in Milwaukee County for the first time on record in 2005.
Bald eagles nested in Milwaukee County in 2006 for the first time
The “Tweety & Sylvester” argument over the role and impact of
feral and free-roaming cats in urban ecosystem is still hot in
Wisconsin, a decade after University of Wisconsin at Madison
wildlife biology professor Stanley A. Temple produced an estimate
that cats kill about 39 million birds per year in Wisconsin alone.
Often debunked, but still amplified by birders’ web sites,
the Temple claim would have it that the Wisconsin cat toll on birds
is nearly 40% of the national total projected in 2003 by U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Management Office biologist
The Wisconsin Humane web site includes a guesstimate that
there are 190,000 feral cats in Milwaukee. Applying four different
approaches to estimating feral cat numbers, based on food
availability and animal control trends, ANIMAL PEOPLE found the
numbers converging on a probable peak feral cat population for the
Milwaukee area at between 62,000 and 70,000, and indicating a summer
high of 21,000 to 30,000 in recent years.
Wellens is seeking to amend a Milwaukee ordinance that
inhibits use of neuter/return by subjecting people who feed or
release cats to fines. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Humane feral cat
program has sterilized 850 feral cats in the past five years, and
even that relatively small number appears to have been enough to keep
MADACC cat intake stable at just over 7,200 per year, suggesting
that even modest expansion of neuter/return could bring a steep
Wellens and Wisconsin Humane had their most visible role in
bridging concern for wildlife and concern for cats in April 2005,
when the 12,031 attendees at the annual state-wide caucuses of the
Wisconsin Conservation Congress voted 57% to 43% in favor of a
proposal to allow hunters to shoot feral cats. But the vote split
along regional lines. Fifty-one caucuses mostly in the sparsely
populated northern and western parts of Wisconsin favored shooting
cats. Twenty caucuses in the densely populated Milwaukee, Madison,
Racine, and Green Bay areas rejected cat-shooting. Governor Jim
Doyle made clear the next day that no authorization to hunt cats
would get past his veto.
Wisconsin Humane demonstrably does as much bird
rehabilitation–or more– than anyone else in the state.
One currently prominent Wisconsin Humane campaign, Wisconsin
Night Guard-ians for Songbirds, WINGS for short, urges owners of
high-rise buildings to turn off their lights rather than lure
migrating birds into window collisions. The Wisconsin Humane web
site promoted WIINGS in fall 2006 beside announcements for National
Feral Cat Day.
“Having wildlife advocacy and dog and cat advocacy under one
roof has really helped us,” Wellens emphasizes, because when a
public issue presents a potential conflict among the interests of
different species, the department heads can be quickly meet to
develop a mutually acceptable response. From long experience at
working together, the Wisconsin Humane department heads have
developed a level of mutual understanding and trust rarely seen
between cat and bird advocacy group leaders.
Wellens is personally credited by staff with developing a
cooperative atmosphere that was markedly lacking before her time,
when disputes between factions within the Wisconsin Humane board and
shelter staff frequently spilled into news media.
Wellens came to Wisconsin Humane with a background in child
welfare work that also helped her to create a uniquely
child-friendly atmosphere in the Wisconsin Humane shelter. There
are, for example, no sharp corners on any of the shelter furniture.
All of the educational materials are developed in-house, and are
designed to school library standards.
But observers believe Wellens’ ability to resolve disputes
was the key skill she brought to the job. Although most of the key
personnel remained in their positions, infighting and factionalism
soon disappeared–and so did friction with other charities.
Wellens credits her predecessor, Leon Nelson, with
introducing the Wisconsin Humane wildlife program circa 1983.
Wellens credits the growth and development of the program to
husband-and-wife team of Scott and Cheryl Diehl. Cheryl Diehl was
among the founding staff. Scott Diehl joined the team a year later.
“Integrating our wildlife department into our mission is key to our
service delivery,” Wellens told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “When people have
conflicts with wild animals in their yards, and call the humane
society for help, they need expert advice, not just ‘That’s nature’
or ‘call an exterminator.'”
Demonstrating “be kind to animals,” Wellens believes,
requires having wildlife staff who can do hands-on rescue as
required, including in emergency situations for the Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources.
Wellens points out that, for example, Wisconsin Humane
personnel are experienced at capturing animals inside buildings.
When a deer bounds through a window, the deer is leaving DNR
territory, where a fractious animal might be shot, and entering the
bailiwick of humane officers.
The advice that Wisconsin Humane dispenses to citizen callers
often differs little, if at all, from the advice offered by nature
centers, but the pitch is different because it is presented as part
of being kind to animals, instead of as the perspective of wildlife
managers, acculturated to promoting hunting, fishing, and
trapping, and conservationists, whose chief concern is preserving
native biodiversity rather than preventing suffering.
The unspoken message conveyed by humane societies that do not
offer wildlife help may be that wild animals are beyond humane
concern, Wellens worries, seeking to set a different example.
Wildlife may be hunted, trapped, poisoned, or harassed in many
ways that would be illegal if done to dogs and cats, and humane
societies that refer callers to wildlife agencies may be
inadvertently indicating that they think this is acceptable.
“We consider public education that helps to prevent the need
for wildlife rehabilitation to be the most important of our goals and
most critical part of our mission,” Scott Diehl told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
A call to Wisconsin Humane, for example, or visit to the
Wisconsin Humane web site, <www.wihumane.org>, will provide quick
access to an around-the-clock tip line “to humanely resolve most
kinds of wildlife/human conflict to everyone’s satisfaction,” Diehl
said. The tips are just a button click away from tips on coping with
typical dog and cat behavioral problems.
Scott Diehl is also proud of the cooperative relationhips
developed between Wisconsin Humane and other southern Wisconsin
wildlife rehabilitation centers. Among their collaborative
activities, Diehl mentioned relocating orphaned animals among the
different centers to ensure that the orphans are raised with their
Unlike dog and cat programs, which are self-funded, in part
with revenue from adoptions and other services provided to pets, the
Wisconsin Humane wildlife program has few funding sources of its own.
Subsidized by the dog and cat programs, the wildlife work consumes
about 15% of the total program expense of the organization.
Wellens and Diehl both point out that raising public
awareness to create a funding stream for wildlife rehabilitation and
education is probably the biggest challenge they face, and will be
an even bigger challenge for other human societies, much less
experienced, as they inevitably find themselves drawn more into
handling urban wildlife.
But Wellens sounds confident in pointing out that everything
the humane cause has ever done required developing public awareness
of a new approach to solving problems. Helping the public learn to
live peacefully and mutually respectfully with wildlife, she
believes, will be no more than just the natural next phase of
growing into the “be kind to animals” mission.