Yukon News story ' What would Mae Bachur do?', Wednesday, September 22, 2010:
The Yukon Humane Society has lost its way, worries its founding president.
The society, which runs the Mae Bachur Animal Shelter, is taking its “no-kill” policy too far by making great efforts to save aggressive and seriously ill dogs, says Andrea Lemphers.
“You can’t save them all,” she said.
In trying to do so, the society’s board misunderstands the intentions of the shelter’s namesake, said Lemphers.
She considered Mae Bachur a friend and paid her weekly visits over a period of five years. During these talks, Bachur was always clear that the shelter, which was built with money from her estate, should focus on animals fit for adoption, said Lemphers.
But just how you define “adoptable” and “treatable” is a matter of controversy among no-kill shelters around the world, with Mae Bachur being no exception.
Who is to say that an animal is experiencing irremediable suffering? What behavioral and health problems merit euthanasia? And when do you abandon saving one animal in order to free up resources to save others?
Such questions have produced heated debate among the society’s board members, have spilled over into the opinion pages of local newspapers, and even created a Yukon celebrity, Trevor the dog, who gained national prominence thanks to a ongoing court battle over whether he should be euthanized.
The shelter’s overcrowded state may be one consequence of the society’s strict no-kill rule. It currently holds close to 40 dogs and 25 cats. It was designed for 18 dogs and 17 cats.
In some cases, three small dogs may share one kennel.
One incontinent dog has been in and out of the shelter for several years. One cat has stayed there for almost a year.
Veterinarian bills have grown in recent years, as the society has committed to increasingly complicated surgeries. Dogs have had rotten gums repaired and legs and tails amputated. The society has spent up to $10,000 in donations on some animals.
The society itself is bleeding money. It posted a $30,000 deficit this year and $50,000 deficit in 2009. The organization’s auditor has warned the society will run out of money in less than two years.
Yet the society’s new board, elected in August, are committed to redoubling efforts to maintain a strict “no-kill” policy. “It has to be a foregone case for us to give up,” said Jordi Mikeli-Jones, the society’s new president.
But they need help to make it work. “We’re overloaded. It’s a problem,” said Mikeli-Jones.
Foremost, they need more adoptees to take in shelter animals. They also need more foster homes to temporarily put up animals - particularly dogs that are elderly, those with medical problems and whole litters of puppies.
They also need more dog walkers and visitors willing to periodically visit the shelter and comfort a cat. And more volunteers to staff the bingo events that provide a big chunk of the society’s revenues.
Overcrowding at the shelter has been made worse in recent weeks when several kennelled dogs gave birth to litters of pups, and by the appearance of more “river pups” - young dogs periodically found abandoned by the Yukon River.
Crowded conditions helps spread infection. Parvovirus is a big worry with puppies.
It causes a painful death by dehydration, after much vomiting and diarrhea. The shelter has seen two parvo outbreaks in recent weeks and is in the midst of a third.
It’s a bad idea to tie-up an animal outside the shelter during the night. When the shelter’s full, as it is now, these animals are taken to the city pound. There, if they go uncollected for several weeks, they’re killed. The shelter rescues animals from the pound when it can, but there’s no room to spare now.
Shelters are to animals what prisons are to people. Dogs and cats grow depressed after being cooped up in a kennel or cage for too long. They stop eating and sleeping. Their hair begins to fall out. Their heads droop.
All dogs spend part of every day in the yard, but, without enough volunteers, some dogs go a full week without a proper walk.
To Lemphers, these are all signs the shelter’s strict rules are harming the quality of life of the animals it holds. To Mikeli-Jones, it’s a sign they need more help to make it work.
In Lempher’s view, Bachur would not have approved of the board’s persistent efforts to save Yukon’s most famous dog, Trevor.
The Rottweiler-German shepherd cross was taken from an abusive owner by the city’s bylaw officers, then taken by the society and adopted out. Then Trevor began to bite people.
The owners complained, sparking a long-running court battle between the humane society and the city as to whether Trevor should be euthanized.
The case has grabbed national headlines and dragged on for more than a year, yet shows no sign of being resolved. The case will be heard again in court October 5.
Bachur “would not have liked the fact that so much money was spent, especially on Trevor, that could have gone to a lot more animals,” said Lemphers.
But the society has only spent several hundred dollars on Trevor, said treasurer Rachel Westfall. That’s largely thanks to the donated time of lawyers and dog-trainers. The society’s only cost so far, she said, was to pay for an assessment of the animal.
“His costs haven’t been extraordinary at all,” she said.
However, the city’s legal bills on the case have exceeded $25,000.
Another contentious case is that of Hunter, a pitbull-lab cross. He was also returned to the society after biting his owner and, after a divisive board meeting, euthanized in August.
A vet who inspected the dog believed it had a cancerous tumour on its tongue. The animal was bleeding from its mouth. The vet concluded the animal would suffer, with or without surgery.
Westfall quit the board over the matter, although she was re-elected shortly afterwards during the society’s annual meeting. She felt euthanizing the animal broke the shelter’s “no-kill” policy.
Only a handful of animals at the shelter have been euthanized for behavioral problems in recent years. The shelter places approximately 500 animals in homes each year.
“Mae would have agreed to the euthanasia of those two animals. I know that she would have,” said Lemphers. “Some animals do need euthanasia. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. And if people strongly believe they should not be put down, they have every right to adopt that animal into their own home.”
But because Trevor is deemed a dangerous dog, any potential owner of him will need to meet a long list of court-ordered requirements. They will need to live in the Yukon, have a fenced yard and keep the animal muzzled in public, among other rules.
And it’s contested whether Hunter was eligible for adoption after he bit his owner. Perhaps he shouldn’t have, said Lemphers. “There has to be a limit. And biters shouldn’t be adopted out.”
“Nobody takes that decision lightly,” she said of euthanasia. “That’s a terrible decision to have to make. But it has to be done.
“These are public safety issues, and you just can’t afford to have a dog kill a child or maim a child or attack somebody. That person would have every right to a lawsuit.
“The shelter never set out to rescue everything. It was never intended for that.”
Contact John Thompson at