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Alderman demands city stop letting rescue groups ‘cherry-pick’ purebred dogs

David R. Lee Animal Care Center at 2741 S. Western

Ald. Ray Lopez wants the city's animal shelter to stop giving breed-rescue groups dibs on animals brought into the facility. | File photo

Dog-loving Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) demanded Monday that Chicago’s chronically troubled Animal Care and Control shelter stop allowing animal rescue organizations to “cherry-pick purebred or premium” animals picked up by city crews.

Lopez said of the 14,000 dogs processed by the city last year, 8,000 were “first-picked” by animal rescue groups given dibs.

“Why do these groups have preferential choice over Chicago residents and taxpayers? There’s nothing wrong with rescue groups taking dogs. But if they’re only taking specific dogs and leaving us all the dogs nobody wants and can’t adopt out, we wind up in unsafe situations, as we’ve seen this year, where our shelter becomes inundated with leftovers,” the alderman said.

“That also leads to why we have so many pit bulls in our Animal Care and Control. All of the other dogs — the Huskies, the German shepherds and what not — are cherry-picked out before any one else has a chance to look at them and adopt them.”

But at least one rescue group called Lopez “behind the times” on the reality of what rescue groups do.

“I will tell you rescues spend A LOT of money on getting these dogs the care they need,” said Lisa Baize of Foster Pet Outreach in Peoria, which takes 100-150 dogs from the Chicago shelter every year.

Not long ago, Lopez said one of his constituents, Leonardo Cisneros, had a Husky named Smokie that got loose when somebody broke into his backyard.

Before Cisneros had even arrived at the pound, the dog had already been placed on a “Pet Harbor” website that allows rescue groups to “put a hold” on dogs they want to adopt.

“They never called to tell us they had our dog. We found out through a police officer, who found him online for adoption. They put him up online nine hours after he got loose. They already had somebody picking him up a couple days after,” Cisneros said Monday.

Noting that Smokie had a microchip, Cisneros said: “They could have called us if they were trying to find the owners. But they weren’t trying to find the owners. They were trying to give him up for adoption. We got him back — only after we went to court three times.”

After the Illinois State Crime Commission raised the issue, Lopez fired off an email to Kelley Gandurski, the city’s acting executive director of Animal Care and Control.

According to the alderman, Gandurski agreed to revisit the controversial policy of giving rescue groups first dibs.

Gandurski said Monday it’s her understanding that, from their last conversation, she and Lopez are “on the same page.”

But Gandurski told the Sun-Times she disagreed with the assertion that animal rescues get to “cherry pick.” She said many dogs are simply not suitable for pet adoption — because of behavioral or medical issues — and that rescue agencies are often best able to deal with those animals.

However, when asked about those groups being able to put a hold on an animal, she agreed rescue organizations do get first choice, and some of those animals may end up being suitable for adoption.

“We have hundreds of dogs. So it’s impossible for my medical team of, like, three veterinarians and our staff to evaluate for behavioral purposes and medical purposes every single dog that comes through the shelter all at the same time within the first three to seven days,” Gandurski said. “So we make every dog immediately available for rescue to keep the numbers down, to get rescues to pull dogs — and cats — so we get them out of here,” Gandurski said.

Each year, the Chicago shelter’s “Homeward Bound” placement program transfers about 7,000 animals a year to outside shelters.

Baize, of Foster Pet Outreach in Peoria, said her group doesn’t pull only specific breeds — and they avoid breeds they are not as savvy about, because those dogs “are best served by people that understand the breed and can rehab them and place them in proper homes instead of putting them up for adoption (just because they are purebred) and putting them into the wrong hands,” Baize wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

She’s taken some senior purebreds, and dealt with others who would never have made it to the adoption floor due to poor health, she said — one, she said, had to have 19 teeth pulled. Her fur was a “matted mess” and she had an upper respiratory infection.

“I would be happy to share some of our vet bills on these dogs,” Baize said.

Lopez argued that the city’s approach means “we’re giving preferential treatment to these groups who then, in turn, can adopt them out and charge an adoption fee or re-homing fee with no money coming back to the city, even though we may have paid for the rabies or the spay and neuter at our clinic. … [That’s] something that we should definitely start looking into,” Lopez said.

“Cherry-picking doesn’t help the city. It feeds into the reputation that, if you want to adopt a pit bull, you go to [Animal Care], where you get it for $75. Or you can go to one of these boutique rescues that specializes in particular breeds and pay a couple hundred dollars for an animal that, more than likely, taxpayers have already footed the bill for a lot for the medical issues on.”

Last month, Susan Russell was fired as the city’s $130,008-a-year executive director of Animal Care and Control for allegedly “warehousing” dogs in chronically overcrowded conditions that made dangerous dogs more dangerous.

Sources said Susan Russell’s fate was sealed by her underlying philosophy that every dog, even those deemed dangerous, could be rehabilitated and was, therefore, worth saving. Russell denied the charge and said she was blind-sided by the firing.

On Monday, Russell emphatically denied the Illinois State Crime Commission’s charge that she maintained a “secret room” unbeknownst to the general public where purebred dogs were taken so “chosen individuals” could get “first crack at the expensive dogs that they then often sell for thousands of dollars.”

“There is a rescue community that CACC works with to save healthy and treatable animals at the facility and that’s what I am aware of: a rescue community which helps the animals that come into the shelter get their second chances through adoption,” Russell said.

Russell said purebred dogs were “not necessarily” treated differently than mixed breeds.

But she added: “There are some purebred rescue groups and they do cater to some of the breeds. … If Rottweilers come in, obviously that’s their interest because they understand the breed. That’s who they work with. They would come in, look at the Rottweilers and, if it’s something they would be able to bring into the rescue, they would do so.”

The expenses that shelters and rescue groups spend on veterinary care for rescue dogs far outweighs what they pull in for adoption fees, some volunteers at shelters have said. They also say the city relies on them because it’s unable to fulfill the demand for care.

The executive director of One Tail at a Time, Heather Owen, said the alderman is barking up the wrong tree.

“I think [he] makes it seem like we come and flip these dogs for a profit … [but] it’s completely untrue,” Owen said. “[It’s] not like we’re getting perfectly happy healthy dogs … we’re taking in dogs that need a lot of care.”

Owen said her shelter spends nearly $300,000 on average a year on veterinary care for dogs — providing treatment the city both can’t afford and doesn’t have the number of personnel to handle. She said her shelter’s $300 adoption fee is often dwarfed by the cost each dog incurs, from treating everything from deadly disease to injuries to abuse.

She disputed the alderman’s claim that taxpayers are footing the bill for rescue groups and asserted that the city covers almost nothing in veterinary costs if a rescue group decides to step in, aside from usual vaccines.

“I think the alderman is uneducated on rescue processes,” Owen said.

One of German Shepherd Rescue Inc.’s directors, Shannan Meehan, said her shelter, which specializes in German Shepherds, is preferable to these dogs often sitting in a pound. More than half of their dogs annually come from CACC.

“We’re breed experts. We know the breed; we’re passionate about the breed,” she said. “We really know how to place the dogs in homes … [where they’ll get] the best mental and physical stimulation.”

Contributing: Michael McDevitt