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Animal rescue community demands answers after mayor fires ACC director

Protesters gathered outside Animal Care and Control in support of Susan Russell. Russell was fired by the mayor's office Friday. | Yvonne Kim/Chicago Sun-Times

About 200 people gathered outside Animal Care and Control on Tuesday to demand the mayor’s office put “lives over politics” and reinstate the shelter’s executive director.

Susan Russell was fired without explanation Friday. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new acting director Saturday, city hall sources saying Russell “warehoused” dogs in inhumane conditions that increased dangerous behavior and biting incidents.

“We are here every day. We walk these pavilions. We see these cats, we see these dogs and we can tell you with 100 percent certainty that that did not happen,” said Kristen Gerali, founder and president of Alive Rescue.

Gerali added that the only time dogs were housed together were if they were nursing moms or arrived as a bonded pair.

Citing the highest live release rate in years, the animal rescue community said Russell was the best director ACC has seen. Karen Ortolano, a director at the Illinois Animal Welfare Networkers Association, told the Sun-Times that Russell has been a “godsend to Chicago animals.”

“She’s the hardest working, most compassionate, ethical individual that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” Ortolano said.

Protesters held signs condemning the mayor’s office for firing Russell. | Yvonne Kim/Chicago Sun-Times

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), an outspoken supporter of Russell, told protesters he has been “pleading” with the mayor, who he said shows no signs of reinstating Russell and believes she is not euthanizing enough “aggressive and sick dogs.”

Russell was appointed to executive director in 2016 after serving as a volunteer at the shelter. Since, the euthanasia rate has almost halved from 2015 to 2017.

Russell, who was not at the protest, responded to criticisms in a Facebook post Monday, emphasizing that ACC is an open shelter that aims to keep treatable animals safe and healthy, while warranting euthanasia for animals that are “irremediably suffering or considered behaviorally unsafe.”

Heather Owen, executive director of One Tail at A Time, said there has been “a mixed message” from politicians, who once opposed Russell for over-euthanizing animals and now say she’s not euthanizing enough.

Though she is pessimistic about Russell being reinstated, Owen said she at least hopes for a progressive leader with a proven track record to take on the role.

Ruth Abbey, who rescues cats with Hyde Park Cats, said Russell’s tenure has transformed her experience with ACC.

“She has made a dramatic difference to my life. She has made a dramatic difference to the life of cats,” she said. “The mayor’s made a big mistake by angering crazy cat women like me.”