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Maya D

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Review for Michigan Humane Society, Bingham Farms, MI, USA

Rating: 1 stars  

I'm not sure that I know what "Open Admission" means anymore. This article represents a turning point when employees and volunteers began to notice a shift in focus from helping animals to numbers and money.

Critics: Humane Society goes astray

Fees, limits on dropoffs lead some to question if organization is losing its focus

John Wisely / The Detroit News

Wednesday April 12, 2006

Has the Michigan Humane Society lost touch with its original animal welfare mission?

ROCHESTER HILLS -- The Michigan Humane Society promotes its mission with pictures of cats and dogs and the slogan "Someone here needs you."

But many critics, including some former staffers and volunteers, say the state's largest animal welfare group is retreating from a mission it has pursued for more than 100 years: caring for stray animals.

"I would ask them what the mission statement is now," said Linda Gardiner of Shelby Township, who worked for four years as an administrative assistant at the Humane Society's Rochester Hills shelter before leaving last year.

The group's leader said the Michigan Humane Society remains committed to homeless animals, but in response to Detroit News questions, he acknowledges it has sent mixed messages and even instituted a fee to people who repeatedly drop off strays. He also reiterated to his staff that they must accept any animal in need.

But questions over the fate of strays loom large in the animal welfare community. More than 240,000 stray animals land in Michigan shelters each year and about 55 percent are euthanized. Some animal advocates say care of strays is best left to government-run shelters. Others say the independent, privately funded humane societies have historically offered strays a second chance and now may be drifting from that work.

Group gives mixed messages

The Michigan Humane Society, the state's largest, operates three shelters in Wayne and Oakland counties on a $12 million annual budget. Officials there insist they still take strays and if any were turned away, it was a staff mistake. But executive director Cal Morgan acknowledged his group has contributed to the confusion.

"That message has been mixed in terms of how we handle people that come up to the counter," Morgan said.

Sue McNeary said the kitten that wandered over to her Pontiac home last fall had matted fur, a famished frame and a case of fleas. But she said the staff at the Humane Society's Rochester Hills shelter turned it away.

"They said it was too sick," said McNeary, who eventually gave the cat to a rescue group. "They suggested I take it to Oakland County."

Morgan clarified the policy for staffers and volunteers in an April 6 memo.

"It is the policy of the Michigan Humane Society to accept any and all animals in need during regular business hours," Morgan wrote. Morgan said the Michigan Humane Society hasn't even discussed closing its doors to strays.

However, since mid-September, it has been urging people to take stray animals to local animal control facilities, to increase the odds of reuniting them with their owners by limiting the places pet owners must search, Morgan said.

Larry Olbrecht, manager of county animal control, said since October, monthly animal intakes to his facility are up 15 percent over the same months a year earlier.

A former Humane Society adoption counselor said the Humane Society previously asked people to take animals to the animal control office only when they had bitten someone.

"They may be saying it's not a change, but that's a change," said Brian Stouffer, 45, of Troy, who volunteered for eight years before quitting in August. He and others worry that forcing animal Samaritans to navigate multiple animal control jurisdictions may make them give up on homeless critters.

"If someone brings in a stray and we tell them put it back in your car and take it over here, that's a real pain," he said.

Under Michigan law, shelter operators who accept strays must keep them at least four business days to allow owners a chance to reclaim them.

In addition to its shelters, the Michigan Humane Society operates clinics, conducts education seminars and cruelty investigations and lobbies for animal rights. Except those under contract, humane societies are not legally obligated to accept strays. Most do, but some have stopped. The Capital Area Humane Society, which serves Ingham, Clinton and Eaton counties, quit taking them four years ago, said chief executive officer Stephen Heaven.

"They are doing the right thing" by referring people to animal control, Heaven said. People who lose pets need a simple way to find them, he said.

Stray fee alienates some

The stray fee adopted last fall irked animal advocates. An internal memo obtained by The News dated Sept. 15, 2005, applies to private individuals who surrender more than three strays in 12 months.

"After an individual has surrendered three animals to MHS, a sliding scale fee in $10 increments will be assessed for subsequent animals surrendered to the MHS," said the memo from Steve Horn, chief administrative officer.

Critics argue the fee discourages people from helping strays.

"I don't think the solution is to charge people $10 per cat," said Chad Gilchrist, 34, of Hazel Park, a former shelter staff supervisor for MHS who quit last year.

Other Humane Society officials said fees could discourage people from dropping off animals.

"We know that people will dump it on the side of the road," said Tanya Hilgendorf, executive director of the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Washtenaw County, which levies no fee. "Our whole job is about giving these animals a second chance."

Morgan himself seemed confused about the fee policy.

"I'm not aware of anything that says there's a fee," Morgan said in an interview last week. But when asked about the September memo, Morgan said the policy was aimed at people who were known to drop dozens of animals at a time, even though another section of the memo addresses "placement groups." He said he doesn't believe the fee has ever been levied.

"We're always going to be committed to animal welfare on every level, strays, owner surrenders, etc," Morgan said.

Some animal welfare advocates disagree.

"I don't think they should be charging people to drop off strays," said Sherry Wozniak, 34, of Livonia, who said she donates about $100 to MHS in a typical year. She said the Humane Society is synonymous with investigating animal cruelty and caring for strays and it risks misleading people if it doesn't accept stray animals.

"With the impression they are giving, if they are changing that policy, they should let people know," she said.

Others are more skeptical.

"They have lost touch with the animals," said former staffer Linda Gardiner. "They have lost sight of what it's supposed to be."

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Role:  Volunteer