Could a scrappy animal advocacy group’s contractual coup hasten a new era in animal control for Southern Nevada?
If you’ve seen a 10-year-old, 18-pound black-and-white English cocker spaniel with fear issues, call me. When the dog was at the Lied Animal Shelter, which is operated by municipal contractor the Animal Foundation, she was given the name Cindy Lou and ID No. A830787. I wanted to adopt her, but she’s not there anymore, and shelter operators say they can't tell me where she went.
I learned about Cindy Lou on a rescue group’s Facebook page. I had lost my own 13-year-old salt-and-pepper cocker, Aja, a little more than a year earlier and didn’t think I was ready to commit to another pet. But after hearing from a friend how rewarding it could be to adopt a senior dog, I scanned a couple spaniel rescues’ Facebook pages looking for one. That’s when I saw Cindy Lou. I went to the Animal Foundation’s website, entered the ID number and there she was, peering back at me with her head cocked, silky black ears slightly perked. I showed the photo to my husband. “Go get her now,” he said.
We went to Lied the following day. But when I gave the worker in the dog-adoption area Cindy Lou’s ID number, she informed us curtly that the dog was “on hold” and not up for adoption. She rebuffed my questions, pointing me instead to the many other dogs that were available. Later that day, an Animal Foundation worker named Ryan called and told me that Cindy Lou had behavior issues and was still being evaluated. Knowing that the Animal Foundation euthanizes nonadoptable animals, I told Ryan that I’d fostered many dogs, including a couple with behavior issues. I’d be happy, I said, to work with Cindy Lou. I could cover medical expenses, if needed. The following day, he called to tell me she was being “released to rescue” because of her issues. Citing protocol, he said he couldn’t tell me which rescue she’d go to, but he'd pass along my information. There was nothing else he could do for me. On Monday, March 16, Cindy Lou’s profile disappeared from the Animal Foundation website. No rescue organization contacted me about her.
It’s a coincidence that, during the same time, I was reporting this story about the conflict brewing between the Animal Foundation and animal advocacy group No Kill Las Vegas over municipal sheltering services. I expected to simply go to Lied and come home with a dog. But my personal story dovetailed unexpectedly with the news story, illustrating the kind of problem No Kill and its supporters say they have with the Animal Foundation. Are there logical reasons to keep a behavior-challenged animal out of the hands of even the best-meaning potential adopter? Sure. Are there plenty of other animals in need of help? Definitely. But the lack of a resolution left me unsure of Cindy Lou's fate.
A 6-to-1 vote at the March 17 meeting of the Clark County Commission put an end to No Kill Las Vegas’ brief but fierce attempt to wrest the county’s $1.7 million annual animal-shelter services contract from the Animal Foundation’s control. But in the months leading up to that decision, NKLV rallied impressive public support for its cause. As story after story like mine of Cindy Lou surfaced — pets with minor health problems being put down, breed-specific rescue groups given preferential access to lists of adoptees — political leaders began to see that many constituents aren’t happy. The Animal Foundation may have gotten the contract, but the fight for fewer euthanized pets in the valley feels far from over.
Go, Vegas dog
At a coffee shop near Bryce Henderson’s day job, where he sells memberships to a car repair history database, he recounts his own Cindy Lou-type tales from the time he and his wife, Jennifer Henderson, were involved with the Animal Foundation. He smiles as he remembers how happily it all started. Soon after the pair of animal-lovers moved here in 2008, they began looking for opportunities to help the valley’s huge homeless pet population. That year, Clark County alone impounded 17,843 animals; 10,757 of them were euthanized.
One now-famous dog avoided this fate: Arbor, the Hendersons’ black border collie mix. Bryce recalls coming home from work one day to find a painting in the living room. “Jennifer said Arbor had done it, and I didn’t believe her,” he says. “Then, she showed me the video.” Soon, the world would see Arbor paint. Jennifer, described by her husband as a “stay-at-home dog-mom,” started a Facebook page under the name Go Vegas Dog and began posting photos and videos of the amazing things she taught Arbor to do. It caught fire. The dog appeared on Good Morning America and in newspapers around the world. Arbor has garnered 550,000 Facebook followers — more than artist Gerhard Richter.
The Hendersons leveraged their dog’s talents for animal causes. They used Arbor’s television appearances to highlight the value of rescues. They used her social media to help owners find lost pets. Through her, they partnered with the Animal Foundation to promote its adoptable animals and events. One such event, though, was the beginning of the end of that partnership. Bryce Henderson recalls: “We fostered a dog, Zeke, for (the Animal Foundation’s) 2013 Best in Show fundraiser, and we really bonded with the dog. We knew all the dogs had to be returned for the show, but we thought maybe they’d make an exception. So we talked to Andy (Bischel), their director of development, and he said, ‘No, no exceptions. The dog’s coming back here. You can bid on him at the show.’ … Here we are, willing to provide a good home for Zeke, and we’ve already been fostering him. But that wasn’t important to them. They wanted Zeke to be in the show and try to get as much money for him as possible. We even said we’d make a large donation — I can’t remember how much exactly. But they weren’t interested.”
Incensed, the Hendersons took to Go Vegas Dog’s social media and encouraged Best in Show attendees to withhold applause for Zeke so as to minimize bids on him. As their post made the rounds of the rescue community, outraged members began pestering the Animal Foundation and event sponsor Zappos. The Animal Foundation’s spokewsoman, Meghan Scheibe, says Zeke had already been promoted as a show participant, which is why he needed to be in the show. But the Foundation worked with the Hendersons and Zappos to make sure they got the dog, she says. And in the end, they did.
The incident characterizes the hard-charging approach of No Kill Las Vegas, which the Hendersons went on to found in January 2014. The previous November, after the Animal Foundation had banned them from further volunteering at Lied, they’d joined with Animal Help Alliance to stage a protest of euthanasia policies at the shelter. AHA founder Dori Gilbert expected a couple dozen people at the protest, Bryce says; he and Jennifer put the word out to their network and 400 showed up.
“We had a rally, we raised awareness, and people felt really empowered,” he says, “I think because so many in the community had given up. They felt like there was nothing they could do against the Animal Foundation. … So, about a month after that, we filed the paperwork to be a nonprofit (business) in the state of Nevada.” (NKLV has applied for, but not yet received, 501(c)3 tax-exempt status.)
NKLV began with the intention to bring about change at Lied, Bryce says. Their demands were simple: more cooperation with rescue groups, more transparency with the public, less-stringent criteria for deeming pets “adoptable,” and better marketing and promotion of those pets — all with the goal of saving more animals’ lives.
But soon after forming, NKLV learned that the Animal Foundation’s municipal animal services contract was up for renewal in June 2015. The group shifted its focus to replacing the Animal Foundation with an organization that would implement a no-kill approach. Their marketing prowess, coupled with the easy sell of their vision, garnered widespread support. During public comment at the March 17 Clark County Commission meeting, NKLV volunteer Ginny Schwartz held up a fistful of papers saying they contained the signatures of 12,800 locals who supported the cause.
But what is it they’re supporting, exactly? What does a no-kill community look like, and what would it take for Southern Nevada to get there?
The 90 percent
The Animal Foundation has tried going no-kill before. The last attempt culminated in overcrowding at Lied, a disease outbreak and the mass euthanasia of more than 1,000 animals in 2007. The foundation’s board of directors called in outside experts to help clean up the mess, and a management turnover ensued (the board remained largely intact). Assistant Clark County Manager Christine Robinson was hired as executive director. As she and her new team struggled to get a handle on pet overpopulation —
aggravated by the housing crisis and economic recession — the number of homeless animals being destroyed each year soared, from 10,757 in 2008 to 14,869 in 2011 for Clark County alone.
The 2007 incident made an indelible first impression of no-kill on the minds of many locals, who still see it as an unattainable goal pursued by hoarders and fanatics. But animal welfare experts insist that elsewhere the practice has evolved beyond that. Groups like NKLV today embrace a definition of no-kill that allows for euthanizing animals too sick or too vicious to responsibly be sent home with families.
“Several groups have analyzed the national data and found that, on average, the pets that can’t or shouldn’t be adopted out represent about 10 percent of the total population,” says Diane Blankenburg, CEO and principal consultant of the Humane Network, based in Reno. Blankenburg and her business partner Bonney Brown left the Nevada Humane Society in 2013 after helping to lead Washoe County’s no-kill effort for six years. During that time, the life-saving rate rose from around 70 percent to more than 90 percent, where they kept it for four years.
But a shelter can’t reach this goal alone, says Holly Sizemore, director of national community programs and services for Best Friends Animal Society, which runs a no-kill sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, and advocates for an end to pet homelessness nationwide.
“When the government commits, when the public commits, when other organizations commit — and then they all come together to determine where the gaps are and how each one can fill them — that’s when no-kill happens,” Sizemore says.
For instance, in Reno’s case, the Nevada Humane Society was backed up by progressive municipal animal-control policies that the county marketed and enforced effectively. Blankenburg says Washoe County implemented programs such as a mandatory pet ID with technology that allowed workers to look up pets and return them to owners while still in the field, greatly reducing shelter intakes.
“The way we look at it, on a simplistic level,” Blankenburg says, “is that you want to decrease the number coming in and increase the number going out alive.”
The first part of this equation is the municipalities’ responsibility, and Southern Nevada is way behind other metropolitan areas in this regard, Sizemore says. Clark County funds shelter services at an annual rate of $7 per household, according to a Best Friends study. That’s lower than Albuquerque ($27 per household), Los Angeles ($12), Salt Lake County ($29) and San Antonio ($20) — all of which have much higher life-saving rates than Clark County’s dismal 49 percent (Salt Lake’s is 92 percent).
During the Feb. 17 and March 17 county commission hearings on the Animal Foundation’s contract extension, commissioners listened to hours of testimony by dozens of citizens, rallied once again to action by NKLV. They expressed outrage over the current modus operandi and a desire to move toward a no-kill future. Between the two sessions, commission chair Steve Sisolak called a meeting between NKLV and the Animal Foundation in hopes they’d find common ground; Best Friends and the Humane Network mediated. By the end of the March 17 discussion, the commission seemed more open to NKLV’s ideas. Commissioner Tom Collins was shocked that a proposed, potentially 20-year contract with the Animal Foundation might have been signed without a public vetting if NKLV hadn’t objected to it; Commissioner Susan Brager questioned closed lists, such as the one Cindy Lou was on, and other practices that could cloud the Animal Foundation’s accountability. Addressing the problem of public investment, Sisolak said, “As we have resources available, we should start trying to allocate them to assist with adoption. I think that would be beneficial to the entire community. I think we need to put more money toward spay and neuter.”
So, many in the community are on board with no-kill ideals. The attitude of the County Commission indicates public officials may be coming around. The last piece left in the puzzle, then, is the shelter.
Tipping the scale
For a quiet spot to talk, Animal Foundation Director of Operations Carly Scholten chooses the break room in the modular building on the Lied campus where the Animal Foundation has its offices. The floor creaks as she weaves between stacks of file boxes and pet supplies piled around cubicles. “Would you like one?” she asks, as we take a seat on either side of an oval kitchen table holding a plate of tangerines.
The past year of NKLV’s anti-Animal Foundation campaign — the relentless onslaught of public criticism, accusations of corruption and greed — are only hinted at around the corners of Scholten’s steady brown eyes. Though her background is in shelter management, she conducts herself more like a well-polished public-service provider, unpacking arcane policy with the ease of a utility manager or systems engineer.
Scholten says the Animal Foundation has a good working relationship with some 70 local rescue groups, and the shelter’s overall statistical trends show it’s moving in the right direction. Intake and euthanasia totals have dropped — by 28 percent and 53 percent, respectively, from 2010 to 2014 — and around three-quarters of the dogs checked in at Lied check out alive, either through adoption, rescue or return home. (Unadoptable feral cats, a huge problem in the valley, spike overall euthanasia rates, the Animal Foundation says.)
“Of the 11 things listed that the No Kill Advocacy Center says a shelter has to do to be no-kill, we’re doing 10,” Scholten says. “The only one we don’t do is a trap-neuter-release program for feral cats, and we’re looking into that. … Unfortunately, at this time, euthanasia is used as a means of animal control in Las Vegas. It will be, I’m afraid, until we can reduce intakes enough to tip the scale.”
But to get to the heart of why the Animal Foundation deserves to keep its contract with Clark County, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, Scholten notes a technical distinction: “One effort we made was to clarify the difference between the services that the Animal Foundation provides through our government partners and those that we provide as a nonprofit.”
The municipalities have an interlocal agreement to use the same provider for what we’ll call stray animal services here, for simplicity’s sake. Then, each one has a contract with the Animal Foundation to provide those services: basically, impounding animals collected by municipal employees or turned in at Lied. Those animals may be held for various time periods —
for instance, 72 hours for lost pets.
“During that time, they’re sheltering them, doing vet checks, having their behavior team work with them and determining what the best outcome is for those animals,” says Jason Allswang, code enforcement administrator for Clark County. “They’re taken in, their picture is taken, they’re put on the website and people can check them.”
Once the hold is over, the animals essentially become the property of the Animal Foundation. At this point, Scholten says, the municipal services cease and what we’ll call nonprofit services begin. Paid for by donations, grants and other fundraising, these services end with either euthanasia or adoption. Those that await the second fate have to be housed and cared for in the meantime.
Making their case before the County Commission, Scholten and Animal Foundation Executive Director Christine Robinson stressed this point: The municipalities fund only stray services; the foundation foots the bill for everything else, through fundraising, grants and revenue (though it has asked the cities and county for $13 million to upgrade and expand its degenerating Lied facility). The contractor owes its clients an accounting of what happens to the animals they transfer to its care, but the care itself is the purview of the foundation, not the municipalities.
“The issues and concerns — and maybe disagreements — seem to focus on what happens after the legal hold,” Scholten says. “And that’s funded by nonprofit dollars. That has nothing to do with the services we provide through the government.”
NKLV and other Animal Foundation critics argue there’s no way the contractor can draw an absolute line between publicly and privately funded services, such as veterinary care that may begin during intake and continue until adoption. More importantly, though, they say it gives the foundation exclusive control over the conduit between the public pound and the pet community. Any rescue that wants to help a pet at Lied, Southern Nevada’s only open-admission shelter, has to go through the foundation.
Even Scholten admits the situation is not ideal. “If there was another organization that was able to manage the high-volume intakes that even just the county contract would require (14,000 animals per year), and then after that provide the life-saving services that we provide, we believe that would be a better option for this community,” she says. “Research shows that communities with multiple intake and hold facilities have higher live-release rates.”
Five more years
Between the February and March Clark County Commission meetings, NKLV raced to assemble its own bid to take over the county’s animal shelter contract. The group’s board hired an executive director formerly with Best Friends and a director of operations formerly with the Animal Foundation. Bryce Henderson says they had the promise of a land lease and facility design from local developer Carl Thomas, and he estimated the operation could be up and running with $5.4 million in one year.
But when push came to shove, the group couldn’t demonstrate it had the chops to manage a huge public-service contract. Responding to Commissioner Lawrence Weekly’s question about how much money NKLV had in the bank, Henderson said NKLV had $5,000 in the bank and $25,000 in commitments if they were awarded the contract. Commissioner Mary Beth Scow asked what would happen to the animals, if NKLV were given the contract, in the year it would take to get up and running, and Henderson didn’t have a clear plan.
All commissioners but Collins voted to give the contract to the Animal Foundation.
Yet NKLV considers it a win. When the county commission finished hashing out the Animal Foundation’s proposal, it was reduced from one 10-year contract with two five-year renewal options, to one five-year contract with three five-year renewals. The commission required that the foundation hold a public meeting each year to collect feedback. And it called for the creation of a stakeholder committee to monitor community issues, such as adoption policies.
“We’re very happy,” Henderson said. “And I want to buy Tom Collins a beer.” He added that NKLV would build on its momentum by opening an adoption center, and hopefully the Animal Foundation would work with it.
“Yes, absolutely, we want to work with them,” said Scholten, who was relieved the whole thing was over. “In the end, we all want the same thing: fewer animals being euthanized in our community.”
As for Cindy Lou, Scholten says she went to a rescue on March 14. Scholten stands by her staff’s handling of the high-risk dog and says that, unfortunately, rescue groups don’t want their information shared with the public. She adds that the Animal Foundation is looking for an appropriate way to share all animals’ outcomes publicly, but hasn’t found the right technology yet.
“I completely understand your concern, based on all the things that have been said about us in the past year,” she says. “It’s not that we want to hide anything. Our focus is on practices and procedures that help keep the ones we still have alive.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect what Henderson said NKLV's potential budget would be if the group was awarded the county contract.