Cashing in on Casualties?

Humane Society's new fees have other pet rescue groups scrambling.

When the Humane Society of Southern Arizona abruptly announced last week it would be charging $25 for each dog or cat dropped off at their shelter, it triggered a mild flap that has escalated into what HSSA considers to be a welcome debate over the cost of animal care.

"I welcome this debate, because we're not the bad guys here," says Susan Wilson, executive director of HSSA.

"I don't understand the hatefulness this move has created; it's nuts. We're a private organization. What is it people want from us? Is the ability to drop an animal off at the Humane Society a right?"

The fear is that HSSA has suddenly jettisoned its compassion for championing the welfare of the community's animals at risk and substituted, what critics say, vexingly misplaced priorities.

"We are starting to see more shelters, for a variety of reasons, putting in fees for both relinquished animals and strays, and it does cause us some concern for a variety of reasons," says Kate Pullen, director of animal sheltering issues at the Humane Society of the United States. "HSUS has always maintained that one of the 'seven basics' that shelters should be providing is the ability for an animal to be relinquished without a fee."

But Wilson says they haven't backpedaled on the seven suggested shelter guidelines recommended by HSUS because they are "suggested" and times have changed since the guidelines were created in 1996.

"If it costs us to provide euthanasia and we charge for it, nobody objects. If it costs us to send animals out to be cremated and we charge for it, nobody objects. If it costs us to run the spay/neuter clinic and we charge for it, nobody objects," notes Wilson. "Why are people objecting if it costs us to care for the animals?"

Wilson says that decreasing the number of animals at the shelter "didn't even enter into the discussion" when HSSA's board of directors voted unanimously to fashion the new fee policy. Instead, it was done for economic reasons since Tucsonans weren't exactly flooding their coffers with donations to offset the skyrocketing demand for services.

Still, after the fees kicked in on Friday, the shelter took in almost half the number of animals they normally do.

Shelters can rack up some serious expenses: food, maintaining the facility, medical care and state-mandated spaying and neutering for all adoptable pets. Only some 50 percent of HSSA's $1.1 million annual budget comes from public donations and adoption fees.

Across town at the Hermitage No-Kill Cat Shelter, such expenses extend the life of the cat and include cat-related medical issues like screening for feline leukemia. Even Hermitage has been discussing the policy sea change of charging surrender fees.

"We are a no-kill facility so any cat that comes through our doors is guaranteed not to be put down until that cat finds a home, or we will keep it forever," says Lori Poppa, facility director at Hermitage. "From our point of view, that should be worth something to somebody."

The area's other high traffic shelter for unwanted pets and strays is Pima Animal Care Center (formally Animal Control) which--with triple the budget of the Humane Society--deals with not only animals that are dropped off, but lost and impounded pets from animal cruelty cases. For PACC, the storm has begun building. The Friday and Saturday prior to HSSA's new fees, four animals were dropped off at PACC. The Friday and Saturday after the fees went into effect, that number jumped to 37.

"We are anticipating an increase based on the numbers," says Michele Romero, PACC Enforcement Support Supervisor.

Wilson thinks the fear that new fees at HSSA will increase such desert dumping is "unfounded."

"Those people who pack up an animal and take it to a shelter aren't suddenly going to become those creatures who dump," notes Wilson.

PACC is working--like the Humane Society--to become a no-kill shelter, holding adoptable animals as long as they can. When time runs out, FAIR (Foundation for Animals in Risk) steps in.

Created in 1996, FAIR's 150 foster homes take in more than 150 dogs and cats per month from the county. FAIR says they have about 400 animals in their system at any given time and adopt out about 10-15 percent of them each weekend. Their primary focus is PACC's ill animals, since under county rules, sick animals are deemed unadoptable.

"If we don't get them, under the guidelines of the county, they have to be euthanized," notes C.T. Friesen, FAIR's volunteer adoption site director.

The weekend after HSSA announced it's new fees, FAIR scrambled to print posters to recruit more foster homes and step up their adoption push.

"Not a doubt about it," says Friesen. "We anticipate a significantly larger number of animals coming into Animal Care and the heat will be on for FAIR to take more animals."

Nevertheless, Wilson says HSSA is in sync with a trend at other shelters, like San Diego and San Francisco. In Phoenix, both the local Arizona Humane Society and the county animal control agency charge surrender fees of $20--less than the HSSA.

AHS has another distinction from Tucson: It phased-in the fee, rather than announcing it as mandatory three days before it took effect.

"Education is always the best way to counteract what people may think is going to happen," says Adams. "When we first implemented it, it was a voluntary fee. Over the years, we gradually tightened up on the ropes and finally ended up saying it's mandatory."

Like in Phoenix, the HSSA assures that fees will be waived in certain situations if the people can prove financial need. But this does not impress the HSUS' Pullen.

"I think it's how you do it. If your Web site and your phone message É (say) there will be a fee, it is a very good tool to prevent certain animals from coming in your door," says Pullen. "If you prevent them from coming in the door in the first place, you're never in a position to waive the fee, because you're not seeing those people."

This all comes full circle to exactly what the "mission" of the Humane Society is.

"It goes back to your mission: Are you responsible for just the animals in your brick-and-mortar facility, or does your mission say 'we are concerned and care about the animals in our community'?" asks Pullen.

There's a final irony to this flap: HSSA may actually be ahead of the curve. Wilson is one of 12 executive directors asked to sit on the Humane Society's National Companion Animal Advisory Group to meet in the fall. First on the agenda: Reconsidering national shelter guidelines against charging surrender fees.

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