The $130,008-a-year executive director of Chicago’s chronically troubled Animal Care and Control shelter was fired for “warehousing” dogs in conditions that made dangerous dogs more dangerous, City Hall sources said Monday.
Sources said Susan Russell’s fate was sealed by her underlying philosophy that every dog, even those deemed dangerous, could be rehabilitated.
Russell’s refusal to acknowledge what one source called the “downside of that business” resulted in the city pound, 2741 S. Western, operating beyond capacity since mid-February.
As a result, “warehoused” dogs were “stored in offices and inhumane conditions,” a City Hall source said. That exacerbated dangerous behavior, and “multiple volunteers and staff members,” including Russell, were bitten by dogs.
Despite a 58 percent increase in biting incidents over the last year, Russell on Monday disputed the warehousing charge and said the mayor’s office was looking for an excuse given the public outcry over her firing.
She said she has “never put two or three animals in a kennel,” and kennels are “cleaned every morning and spot-cleaned” during the day.
“In an open-admissions shelter in a big city that is trying its best to save animals, you’re going to have your kennels full of dogs and cats . . . And if a dog was in an office, that’s not unusual for shelter directors, either,” she said.
“If you are going to save healthy and treatable animals, you’re not going to nightly make a list . . . and put them down. I wholly disagree that this city should be euthanizing animals without trying to find them a second chance.”
City Hall sources, though, argued that dangerous dogs were adopted out, only to be returned. The most egregious example: a dangerous dog that killed another dog in its adopted home.
Other shelters were losing confidence in the city’s ability to distinguish between dangerous dogs and those that could be safely adopted, the sources said.
“When dangerous dogs are adopted, there is an unreasonable level of risk” and liability for Chicago taxpayers, said a source familiar with the rationale behind Russell’s firing.
“We talked to her about the shelter being overcrowded. But she refused to listen [or] do anything about it. She was focused on driving up live outcomes and adoptions.”
Russell said “anyone would feel badly” about that dog-on-dog attack. But she did not feel responsible for it. It happened because the “dogs were not properly separated,” she said.
“When animals are introduced to one another properly, usually when you’ve had a good meet-and-greet, that should go well. That means keeping the animals separate for probably about a month. And we counsel people on that. And then, gradually bringing them together in the home,” she said.
Russell said every dog — and every cat, for that matter — has the “capacity to bite.” But that “doesn’t mean that a dog was sent out of the facility as a dangerous dog.”
“It did happen [that an adopted dog killed another dog]. But that can happen in any shelter. You’re not gonna be able to predict every behavior of a dog when it leaves the shelter.”
Russell said it was the mayor’s chief of staff, Joe Deal, who fired her late Friday, without explanation.
She accused the mayor’s office of shortchanging the city’s inundated army of animal control officers — in terms of budget, staffing and publicity needed to push adoption to reduce the shelter population.
The fired director also maintained that the mayor’s office “needed some excuse” for summarily firing her because there has been “quite a reaction to my firing.”
Her supporters were so incensed, they took to Facebook to organize a rally on her behalf at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the city pound.
“I’m shocked and extremely disappointed. Susan did an incredible job, considering the shelter is underfunded and understaffed,” said Heather Owen, executive director of the “One Tail at a Time” dog rescue.
“She’s leaving the shelter with the lowest euthanasia rate ever. The city just continues to ignore the department and not give it the resources it needs to succeed.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has named Kelley Gandurski as acting executive director of the Commission on Animal Care and Control until a permanent replacement for Russell can be identified. A former city attorney, Gandurski served as Russell’s deputy director and general counsel.
“There were some issues that were involved. The good news is, the deputy, Kelley, who’s quite capable, is ready to step in without missing a beat,” Emanuel said.
The mayor said he grew up with pets and had five dogs.
“Theses are not just pets. They become important family members. It’s also important, though, to have an Animal Care that’s run appropriately, humanely and done in a way that meets all of our standards.”