Donna Alexander, longtime head of Cook County Animal and Rabies Control and a familiar face to many pet owners, has died at 61.
Dr. Alexander, who as a teenager appeared in the famed “Breck Girls” ad campaign for the shampoo, was found dead Tuesday in Bedford Park, where she’d been staying at a hotel while her Chicago townhome was being repaired after being damaged in a fire.
The cause was cancer in her bile ducts and liver, according to her mother Kathryn Edna Alexander.
Dr. Alexander had been told she probably had only four months to live when diagnosed three years ago. But, thanks to surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, “We had three more years to tell one another how much we loved one another,” her mother said.
Dr. Alexander was such a hands-on veterinarian that Cook County government canceled its reduced-cost rabies vaccine clinics Tuesday and Wednesday because she was the one who administered the shots.
“She went all over the county in her mobile van, and she did all of the shots herself,” said Martha Martinez, a chief administrative officer for the county government.
Vaccinating about 4,500 animals against rabies every summer, “I think she had it timed to a minute per shot,” Martinez said. “She stood out there in the heat and the sleet and the rain.”
Whenever there was an outbreak of canine flu or police needed to clear out the homes of animal hoarders, or even the time in 2008 that a cougar was shot in Roscoe Village, Dr. Alexander was the one fielding calls from reporters and answering questions from the public.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle praised her for heading her department since 2007 with passion. And the Anti-Cruelty Society said that, while previously working for at Chicago Animal Care and Control from 1984 to 1999, she “pioneered the spaying and neutering of juvenile animals as young as eight weeks of age.”
That helped “spark historic decreases in animal euthanasia,” according to the society, which also said, “Dr. Alexander was instrumental in establishing legal protections and policy guidelines for feral cat colony caretakers, which resulted in a huge increase in spay/neuter of feral cats in the county,” helping to bring an “enormous reduction in the number of kittens surrendered into the care of animal welfare organizations.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978 and veterinary medicine degree from Penn in 1982, according to Becky Schlikerman, a county government spokeswoman.
At 17, she had been a “Breck Girl” — part of the famed ad campaign touting Breck shampoo that also featured women including Christie Brinkley, Kim Basinger, Brooke Shields, Cybill Shepherd, Cheryl Tiegs and Jaclyn Smith. Dr. Alexander was one of the first African-American “Breck Girls.”
“It was thrilling at the time,” she said in a 1987 Chicago Sun-Times interview. “I appeared in magazines like Seventeen, Glamour and Mademoiselle and even did a few modeling jobs afterward.”
The ad came about after she’d won New Jersey’s Junior Miss competition while a senior at East Orange High School. She was the first African-American girl in the United States to capture a state Junior Miss title and the first to compete in the national pageant, according to the Courier-Post newspaper in Camden, New Jersey.
Her parents were educators in Newark, and, growing up, young Donna had a large extended family on her mother’s side in North Carolina, where she enjoyed spending summers with horses and other animals.
“We always had a cat and a dog,” her mother said.
She came to Chicago 37 years ago because her fiance was moving to the city. After they broke up, Dr. Alexander decided to stay, her mother said.
When she got her bleak cancer diagnosis, Dr. Alexander found a new home for her dog, Leroy Brown, but still would visit him, according to her mother.
“She always wore animal socks, and whenever she would be in a meeting or waiting for a meeting, somebody would be, like, ‘Oh, we like your socks,’ ” Martinez said.
Her sister Joyce Walker and father William Alexander also died of cancer. A Chicago memorial will be held at a later date, her mother said.
Rabies vaccinations were, “pardon the pun, her pet project,” Martinez said. So, to continue the program, “We are looking to find an alternative veterinarian to help us for the rest of the summer.”