Attempt to make Delaware a no-kill state fails with dissolution of Safe Haven

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  October 2013: (Actually published on November 20,  2013.)

GEORGETOWN–A nationally heralded attempt to make Delaware a no-kill state ended ignominiously on November 14,  2013 with the closure of the Safe Haven no-kill shelter in Georgetown,  the euthanasia of 19 pit bulls who flunked behavioral screening,  and the evacuation of 22 more dogs,  mostly pit bulls and pit mixes,  by the American SPCA. The Safe Haven shelter just 17 months earlier had taken over the biggest animal control contract in Delaware,  accounting for more than half of the total impoundments and killing in the state. “We were contacted in October by Safe Haven to help care for dogs put in jeopardy by the facility’s imminent closing,”  ASPCA president Matt Bershadker told ANIMAL PEOPLE.  “We addressed basic needs that were not being met,  including feeding and providing clean water,  cleaning cages,  and exercising the dogs.  We also evaluated each of the 105 dogs so that Safe Haven’s board of directors could make educated and informed decisions about their placement options,  or lack thereof.  Importantly,  these animals and more had been available for adoption from Safe Haven for the past year and a half. “With help from Delaware’s sheltering and rescue community,”  Bershadker said,  “the ASPCA assisted in placing 86 dogs through adoption and relocation to other shelters and rescue groups.  Some dogs had behavioral issues so severe, and so potentially dangerous to other animals and humans,  that adoption was simply not an option.  Therefore 19 were euthanized.  As the owner of these animals,  Safe Haven was responsible for the ultimate decisions regarding each dog.  It was their responsibility to make the right decisions,  and they did. Afterward,  said Bershadker,  “Two dogs were adopted directly from the facility.  The remaining 22 dogs were transported to shelters and rescue groups throughout Delaware,  and in Vermont,  Maine,  New Hampshire,  and New Jersey,  where they can be housed,  cared for,  and eventually be made available for adoption.” Three pit bull rescuers who tried to adopt some of the dogs who were euthanized said they were turned away by police.  Delaware State Police master corporal Gary Fournier told media that the ASPCA called them to keep the peace.

2010 law boosted no-kill hopes

On July 24,  2010 Delaware Governor Jack Markell endorsed into law the Delaware Companion Animal Protection Act.  Creating a set of operating standards for animal shelters,   the act was authored by state senate majority leader Patricia Blevins of Elsmere and pushed through the state house of representatives by Melanie L. George of Bear.  The Companion Animal Protection Act established a minimum 72-hour holding time for impounded animals,  required that photos of impounded animals be posted on websites,  and obliged shelters to submit to the state agriculture department annual reports detailing their animal intake,  numbers of animals killed by species,   and numbers of animals sterilized,  lost or stolen,  returned to homes,  and transferred to other agencies. The Delaware Companion Animal Protection Act was hailed by Nathan Winograd,  founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center in Oakland,  California,  as “The most sweeping, progressive companion animal protection legislation in the United States.  The law was modeled on the No Kill Advocacy Center’s Companion Animal Protection Act,”  Winograd blogged. The CAPA draft promoted by the No Kill Advocacy Center evolved out of the 1998 California legislation called the Hayden Act,  drafted by Winograd when he was director of law and advocacy for the San Francisco SPCA.  Never fully funded or implemented and now suspended,  the Hayden Act required California animal control shelters to make healthy animals available to rescue groups,  regardless of whether the animals were deemed  adoptable. Winograd credits the Hayden Act with a substantial role in reducing shelter killing in California from 588,000 in 1997 to 410,739 in 2012.  However,  as ANIMAL PEOPLE spotlighted in April 1993,  many California animal control shelters had already been partnering with nonprofit agencies to rehome animals in rapidly increasing numbers for at least 10 years before the passage of the Hayden Act.   In addition,  the annual volume of shelter killing in California had already been falling for 25 years. The Hayden Act did not require nonprofit shelters to meet any animal care inspection standards before receiving animals from animal control agencies.  This weakness of the Hayden Act was exposed when the operators of three California “no-kill” rescue networks were convicted of running dogfighting rings soon after it passed.  At least 20 nonprofit “no kill” animal shelters and rescues in California have been successfully prosecuted for mass neglect just since 2010. Meanwhile,  the No Kill Advocacy Center promoted a similar bill in New York state in 2010 and 2011 called Oreo’s Law,  after a pit bull who was thrown from a building in New York City,  rehabilitated by the ASPCA,  and then eventually euthanized by the ASPCA after intensive attempted behavioral intervention failed to remediate a tendency to attack his trainers without warning or provocation.  Oreo became a cause celebré for the No Kill Advocacy Center and pit bull advocates,  but Oreo’s Law was almost unanimously opposed by New York state humane societies and animal control agencies,  and was also influentially opposed by pro-pit bull and pro-no kill senior campaigner Stephanie Feldstein. “Like Oreo’s Law sought to do,”  Winograd blogged,  “the Delaware Companion Animal Protection Act mandates collaboration between shelters and rescue groups.  A shelter cannot kill an animal if a rescue group is willing to save that animal’s life.  But that is just the beginning.  It also makes convenience killing illegal—shelters can no longer kill an animal when there are available cages,  or the animals can share a cage or kennel with another one.” The Delaware Companion Animal Protection Act was endorsed not only by the No Kill Advocacy Center,  but also by all four major nonprofit animal sheltering organizations then operating in the state,  and by Safe Haven,  whose $4.1 million shelter was then under construction on a 13-acre site. Animal control killing in Delaware had dropped from 13,500 in 2005,  a rate of 15.8 animals per 1,000 human residents,  to 4,929 in 2011,  a rate of 5.4 per 1,000 people.  Total animal control intake had dropped to 15,388.

Safe Haven won & lost contract

The Delaware Humane Association and Faithful Friends,  both of Wilmington,  were already no-kill,  as was Safe Haven,  which had originated as a fostering network.  The Delaware SPCA,  with shelters in Stanton and Georgetown,  had announced intent to go no-kill in 2009,  but had agreed to continue to house animals for the city of Wilmington,  as it had since 1892,  until mid-2012.  When Wilmington was unable to find another animal control housing contractor by mid-2012,  the $345,000-a-year contract was extended to mid-2013. The Kent County SPCA,  of Camden,  the last open-admission animal shelter left in Delaware,  held the animal control sheltering contracts for all three Delaware counties.  But Safe Haven,  a month after opening in mid-2012,  won the Kent County  contract with a bid of $868,000,  reportedly about $130,000 more per year than the Kent County SPCA had received. Safe Haven supporters believed that they could increase dog adoptions and the use of neuter/return feral cat population control enough to permit doing animal control on a no-kill basis. Safe Haven already provided food for about 600 cats in managed colonies,  executive director Anne Gryczon told James Fisher of Delaware OnLine.   But the Kent County SPCA received about 7,000 cats per year,  of whom nearly half were killed.  To accommodate an additional 3,500 cats in neuter/return programs would have required increasing the Safe Haven neuter/return outreach effort almost sixfold. To increase adoptions enough to rehome all incoming dogs,  Safe Haven would have had to achieve a higher dog adoption rate per 1,000 people in Delaware,  above 10,  than any city or state ever has.  And that would have had to be accomplished irrespective of whatever behavioral or physical problems the dogs had. Executive director Gryczon had in 2005 left the Humane Society of Henderson County under fire from PETA over alleged overcrowding.  The Safe Haven debacle seemed to follow much the same script. “In the first six months,  animal control officers brought in 140 dogs and Safe Haven just couldn’t keep up,”  reported Shirley Min of NewsWorks.  As fundraising and adoptions fell far short of hopes,  overcrowding at the shelter increased,  and the Safe Haven board and staff turned over repeatedly.  Gryczon was replaced by Cindy Woods;  Woods was replaced by Bob Burakiewicz. “Board member Rick Kirchhoff said the shelter was not prepared for the influx of animals and the associated costs,”  wrote Rachel Swick Mavity of the Cape Gazette.  “When the shelter opened last year,”  Mavity continued,  “it received an $800,000 donation from the estate of a no-kill supporter.  Kirchhoff said that money paid for the first year of operation,  but is now gone.” “We are paying a lot to kennels for dogs that we don’t have space for at the shelter,”  admitted newly appointed board member Rich Garrett.  “We are up against a big challenge to keep the doors open and the lights on.” Safe Haven lost the Kent County animal control contract on June 30,  2013.  “Prior to making a motion to cancel the contract,”  effective September 30,  2013,  “Kent County Levy Court commissioner Eric Buckson told Safe Haven representatives he thinks the problem is their business model,”  wrote Sussex Countian reporter Sarah Lake Rayne. “It doesn’t work.  It’s not going to work.  The numbers don’t lie.  You have to acknowledge it’s not going to add up,”  Buckson told his fellow commissioners.  “You can’t plan a budget around what you hope will come in.” Continued Rayne,  “According to Dave Hughes, a long-time volunteer and husband of board member Rita Hughes,  there are currently about 170 dogs in the shelter’s care,  most of them pit bulls and almost all of them were picked up by dog control in Kent County.  Hughes also said after the meeting that Safe Haven’s 86 cats are gone,  as the shelter’s former interim director Cindy Woods moved them all to a new location on Saturday night without notifying the board.  Hughes said Woods also fired seven employees under the assumption they would all receive unemployment.  Hughes said Woods quit the next day and some of the fired employees have returned to work.” The Kent County SPCA was hired to resume doing animal control housing for Kent County,  effective October 1,  2013,  but Safe Haven notified county administrator Mike Petit de Mange at 3:30 in the afternoon on September 19 that it would not accept any more dogs after 4:30 that day. “There needed to be an immediate change so there wasn’t a gap in dog control service,  so we called the KC/SPCA,  which wasn’t supposed to start for more than a week,”  Petit de Mange told Ashton Brown of the Delaware State News. Noted Brown,  “Safe Haven’s dog control contract specified a monthly payment of more than $72,000,  paid at the start of every month,  so Safe Haven had already been paid for September.  When the contract was terminated,  about $24,000 should have remained.  Safe Haven did not report if there was any money from the contract remaining. “We paid them for a full month of services which we didn’t receive.  It remains to be dealt with,  but there are legal courses of action to solve these problems,”  Petit de Mange told Brown. “They actually carried out the contract longer than I expected,”  said KC/SPCA executive director Kevin Usilton.  “I knew this was coming.  The millions of dollars spent on this shelter could have saved thousands of animals.” The Safe Haven board by the end was down to just two members,  Lynn Lofthouse and Beth West,  who become board president just a month earlier. “We’re very sad,”  West told Shirley Min of NewsWorks.  “It was very sad to let the employees go because they were so dedicated to what they were doing.  A lot of the donations dried up with all the bad publicity that we got,”  West said,  “and we had so many dogs in here it was unbelievable.  A whole series of factors ultimately led to this,  but it’s just not feasible to continue.”

Wilmington left scrambling

The city of Wilmington,  meanwhile,  was to have taken over animal control duties from the Delaware SPCA on July 1,  2013,  but at the last minute persuaded the Delaware SPCA to remain on the job for another six months.  Delaware SPCA executive director Al Mollica told Andrew Staub of the Wilmington News Journal that the charity would lose money on the deal.  Mollica told Staub that the Delaware SPCA could house 80 to 90 dogs at a time,  and that more than 90% of the dogs filling that space were pit bulls impounded from Wilmington,  who would remain at the shelter for an average of 75 to 80 days,  at average cost of about $1,200 apiece. “John Matlusky,  chief of staff to Mayor Dennis P. Williams,  said the city will begin taking over enforcement duties in September and hopes to have a temporary shelter set up by the start of 2014,”  wrote Staub.  The city actually began taking calls to animal control on November 1,  2013. Marian’s Dream chief executive Esther Mechler,  who founded Spay USA in 1990,  was a close observer of the Safe Haven attempt to lead Delaware to no-kill animal control. “The no-kill movement has denied the existence of overpopulation and downplayed the importance of prevention of unwanted litters,  focusing all their attention on adoptions,”  Mechler told ANIMAL PEOPLE.  “Anyone who wants to get to true no-kill,  or as close as is feasible,  should watch what is happening in Delaware.” ––Merritt Clifton

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