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Statehouse Scrap
How legislative wrangling gave rise to rumors and dissension among animal activists

  Animal Behavior

Will rivalries among Knoxville's animal activists inhibit them from doing what's best for unwanted pets?

by David Madison

The day begins with a body toss. Dressed in surgical scrubs and wearing back support belts for heavy lifting, animal shelter staffers form a firemen's line. It begins in the shelter's walk-in freezer and leads to the back of a pick-up truck that's headed for the county landfill.

One by one, the frozen corpses of unwanted cats and dogs thump into the truck bed. Each is stored in a red plastic bio-hazard bag, which is slipped on the animal immediately after it's put to sleep. As the shelter staffers pass the bodies along, the bags open slightly, revealing stiff paws and frosty tails.

The sheer number of destroyed animals heading for the landfill reveals something more: Knox County has too many pets and too few loving homes. In 1997, the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley (HSTV), which owns and operates the county's only shelter, euthanized 9,793 of the 15,151 animals it took in. On busy days during the summer, the shelter's freezer sometimes fills with more than 100 dogs and cats.

That's too many, say both critics and allies of the HSTV. In an effort to save more of the county's unwanted pets, two new organizations have begun to solicit support for building their own alternative, no-kill shelters. One cluster of activists, the Animal Foundation of East Tennessee, hopes to work with the HSTV by providing an escape route for animals headed for the euthanasia table. At its no-kill shelter, as at others around the country, any animal that's deemed adoptable—meaning it's not deathly ill, vicious or seriously injured—would be kept until a new owner can be found. Some pets remain at no-kill shelters for years.

The Knox County Humane Association also plans to set up a no-kill shelter where all "adoptable" animals can live until the Association finds them a new home. Unlike the Animal Foundation, the Humane Association has openly criticized the HSTV and its executive director, Vicky Crosetti. The outspoken group was founded by two of Crosetti's most vocal detractors: Summer Henry, a 24-year-old animal activist who boards strays on her family's 75 acre farm, and Phil Hamby, publisher of The Knoxville Journal.

It's The Journal that's continually dogged the HSTV with a steady stream of negative press. The paper has compared the HSTV's authority to Nazi oppression and described Crosetti as "rude" and "dictatorial."

HSTV's executive director certainly has a strong personality. She's lauded by supporters for her dedication and drive, and credited with vastly improving the HSTV shelter.

But Crosetti's style and manner has driven employees away from the shelter and motivated members of the public to write Mayor Victor Ashe and the County Commission. More than half of the HSTV's $1 million annual operating budget comes from the city and the county, but Crosetti is not a public employee. Her non-profit group, which was founded in 1885, has locked up public support for a local shelter because it's been the only game in town for as long as anyone can remember.

The HSTV's facility in South Knoxville is 42 years old, overcrowded and a dreary place to visit. It has all the charm of a Mexican jail, and some say Crosetti manages the shelter with about as much Southern grace as Judge Judy. Under Crosetti's direction, the HSTV shelter has a reputation for being a to-the-point, no warm fuzzies kind of place.

The shelter's bleak quarters have added to Crosetti being villainized by former employees, former supporters, and those currently backing Hamby and Henry's new Humane Association. As the Association's Lee McCord puts it, "It's been a building, growing thing for years."

Some of the HSTV's critics are those who have been denied a pet because of the Society's strict adoption policy. Others have heard the slew of rumors about Crosetti and the HSTV shelter. There's the one about her supporting animal research, and another about pets being treated cruelly by shelter staffers performing euthanasia.

No matter what people believe about the HSTV, one thing unites both skeptics and supporters: a common passion for animals. This pro-pet zeal is what makes people whisper rumors, write the mayor, and organize their own groups. Whether these organizations wind up doing all they can to benefit homeless dogs and cats may depend on whether Knox County animal lovers can find a way to get along.

Not all criticism of the HSTV has come from outsiders. In fact, the most recent rift came from within. Active supporter Donna Christensen found a mixed-breed golden retriever in a parking lot near Downtown West. The 39-year-old Farragut woman took the dog home, then spent $200 having it neutered, wormed, vaccinated and treated for fleas and ticks.

Christensen's family planned on keeping the dog, naming him Rex before deciding to give the animal up. When she took him to the HSTV shelter, Christensen says the staff was enthusiastic about Rex's chances of finding a home. But two days later when Christensen called the shelter to check on Rex, she was told he'd already been euthanized. This angered Christensen, who now says, if given the chance, she'd take back all the money she's helped raise for the HSTV and donate it to another group.

Though touching, Rex's story is no more tragic than the almost 10,000 others that end every year with a body toss and trip to the landfill. It's here that Knox County literally buries the problem of pet overpopulation. As a recent fund-raising letter from the HSTV explains, 2,000 animals will be turned over to the Society during July alone. The HSTV shelter is equipped to handle only 200 of these pets, while the group's two adoption centers in West Knoxville can take in a total of 40.

The HSTV admits it can always do more to help promote adoption. But by placing 30 percent of its animals, the HSTV is on par with the average adoption rate for shelters nationwide. In other words, most shelters like HSTV's—which has never turned away an animal—typically put down at least 60 percent of the cats and dogs they take in. Alternative, no-kill shelters often screen animals and admit only those that have a chance of being adopted.

In Las Vegas and San Francisco, aggressive spay and neuter programs and expanded shelter space have significantly decreased the number of animals destroyed each year. Summer Henry with the Humane Association wants her group to emulate programs employed by these cities. She also hopes to encourage more adoptions by attracting those who may be turned down or turned off by the HSTV.

"I would like to briefly detail an unpleasant experience in which I was recently involved," wrote Henry in a letter to the HSTV's past-president, Dr. Pat Hackett. The incident occurred last summer after Henry adopted two Blue Heeler puppies from the HSTV's satellite office at PetSmart. When HSTV staffers made a routine follow-up call to Henry's veterinarian, the puppies had not yet been registered in the vet's computer.

"I offered to verify that the two dogs were in fact at the clinic," continued Henry, describing her first clash with the HSTV. "At this point I was put on hold and Vicky Crosetti picked up the phone and began interrogating me in a highly abrasive manner." Henry then criticized Crosetti and the HSTV for euthanizing dogs with kennel cough, a common and treatable ailment, because it's the "quickest and cheapest method of dealing with the animals."

"Bullshit!" responded Crosetti. "That is absolute bullshit."

And so began the mounting rivalry between Crosetti and Henry, the HSTV and the Humane Association. While Henry insists the Association is not a "hate Vicky group," the bad blood is easy to spot. Henry fuels her activism with horror stories fed to her by The Knoxville Journal and former shelter employees.

None of Henry's HSTV contacts would speak on the record about their experiences working for Crosetti and the Society. Other former employees were equally reticent, citing a mutual fear of reprisal from Crosetti. Of the half-dozen former HSTV staffers interviewed by Metro Pulse, only one, Damon McKenna, wanted to be quoted.

A former shelter assistant who spent two years delivering fatal injections to dogs and cats, McKenna says he was fired after voicing job-related complaints to Crosetti.

"I wrote a letter to her and I was fired for insubordination," says McKenna, who claims to have always scored high during HSTV staff evaluations, but like other employees, was driven out for complaining. "You don't speak up to her or you'll be fired. I saw a ton of people leave because of her."

McKenna moved 300 miles above the Arctic Circle to Barrow, Alaska, where he now works at a veterinary clinic. He plans to someday return to Knoxville, but unlike other former employees who asked to remain anonymous, McKenna isn't worried about burning a bridge with Crosetti.

"I stand behind the Humane Society. They do great work. The only problem is Vicky," says McKenna. "Vicky will come back to the back yelling and screaming at people. She's on a power trip."

He says that while working at the shelter, Crosetti's coarse management style contributed to the already high stress level and was a damper to morale. At one point, McKenna claims Crosetti compared euthanizing dogs and cats to "flipping burgers," a charge Crosetti vehemently denies.

The HSTV director and its board president, attorney Mark Siegel, say they can't comment on why McKenna left the shelter, where turnover is high and the pay is pitifully low.

"Do you know how much we can afford to pay people? I mean, we are not competitive with Burger King," explains Siegel, adding, "The dismissals that I'm aware of have been few and far between for pretty egregious behavior. I don't think it's appropriate for me to give examples of specific things that have caused people to get fired, but you know, I mean obviously people get fired for things like theft, or violation of written policy of the organization or sexual harassment."

McKenna says that while he worked at the shelter, he witnessed one employee injecting Fatal-Plus—the chemical used to euthanize pets—directly into a dog's heart. This causes unnecessary pain, says McKenna, who claims the same employee would curse at the animals while he euthanized them. That staffer, says McKenna, was never fired. Other former employees report that Crosetti did terminate a euthanasia tech for inappropriate behavior.

Dealing with burn-out, and the unsuitable conduct it inspires, is a challenge shared by all shelters. Carol Moulton, former director of animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, says shelter workers often suffer from "compassion fatigue."

"It comes from fighting so hard to get somewhere you end up getting surly and resentful," says Moulton, noting the common side-effect of "compassion fatigue" is rudeness. And as a June 3 staff memo indicates, this is clearly an issue at the HSTV shelter.

"Telephone manners are the most important aspect of our jobs since this is the first contact the public has with us," writes Adoption Counselor Supervisor Rhonda Long. "If you are on the phone when the public comes in, greet that person or let that person be aware that you will be with them a.s.a.p. DO NOT roll your eyes, make circular motions around your head to indicate that the person on the phone is not quite right, or any other rude gestures concerning telephone calls."

Given all the outrageous things staffers hear and see at the shelter, it's not surprising that some employees become jaded. There are days when animals arrive locked in the trunks of cars, hot and weary. It's illegal to transport pets this way, but it's not illegal to dump animals at the shelter for frivolous reasons. HSTV staffers have heard them all: He sheds, she scratches the furniture, he no longer matches the furniture (someone really said this about a cat they'd owned for years) or, as the information card for a mellow, reddish-brown mutt named Roscoe explained recently, "digs the flowers, too active."

Day after day, shelter staffers watch pet owners wiggle out of their commitment to perfectly good animals. The constant barrage of lame excuses tends to wear on the employees' patience.

McKenna says he was especially disappointed to see his boss, Shelter Director Crosetti, give up one of her own animals. Last year when she broke her ankle after slipping in a grocery store parking lot, Crosetti says she could no longer handle her large German shepherd named Zeb. The dog was put up for adoption and placed in a new home.

Of course, most dogs aren't as lucky. Owner-surrendered animals are the first to be euthanized, sometimes immediately after being brought to the shelter. To cut down on the number of dogs and cats being turned over to the shelter, the HSTV carefully screens each person who applies to adopt a pet. The screening process is so rigorous, it's raised the ire of many who complain about the shelter's strict policies.

Describing her experience at the HSTV shelter, one constituent wrote Mayor Ashe in 1998 to say, "Instead of encouraging those interested in saving a life through the adoption process, the shelter seems intent on making people feel bullied and intimidated."

This is a common complaint, repeated in other letters to Ashe, where critics of the shelter describe the facility with words like "negativity," "frustration," "hopelessness." Two other words that also come up when the public speaks out about the HSTV shelter: Vicky Crosetti.

Sitting in a trailer the shelter uses for office space, 46-year-old Crosetti comes across as strong-willed, yet congenial. She responds to points raised by her critics in a deliberate tone, rarely pausing to rephrase her sometimes pat, sometimes thoughtful answers.

Crosetti knows that flack from the public comes with her job. From nearly the beginning of her tenure in Knoxville, The Journal has steadily challenged Crosetti, claiming that its coverage is driven by tips and complaints from the public. But since taking over what was then known as the Knox County Humane Society, Crosetti has made several improvements.

"When I came here, the staff was half the size it is now, there was no volunteer program whatsoever. There was no foster program at all," explains Crosetti, who moved to Knoxville in 1990. "Animals weren't even being vaccinated when they came in the door against infectious disease."

Still, Crosetti's positive impact on the Humane Society was shadowed by reports of her being fired from her previous job as director of the Williamson County Shelter.

"I think it was a case of her not being from around here," says Siegel, describing why Crosetti's former supervisors in Franklin, Tenn. let her go.

Indeed, Crosetti is not from Tennessee. She grew up in upstate New York and Pennsylvania before moving with her ex-husband to San Francisco and then Franklin where she worked as an executive recruiter. While in Franklin, Crosetti says her career in animal care began when she stopped at a convenience store one afternoon and saw what she thought was a rat run across the parking lot.

"It turned out to be a Chihuahua that I took home," says Crosetti. "At the time, I was very discouraged to find out that the animal shelter where I was living was inadequate, to say the least."

Not long afterward, Crosetti enrolled in a two-year veterinarian assistant's program in Columbia, Tenn. She then moved back to San Francisco, where she managed a pet emergency clinic and founded the Valley Humane Society, a group that's still active today.

"It started out with eight people in my living room," says Crosetti, who worked with other volunteers trying to find abandoned animals new homes.

Crosetti eventually returned to Franklin where she ran the local shelter until her dismissal. Siegel says Crosetti was fired for all the right reasons, implying she was too aggressive, and perhaps too blunt in her management methods.

"My critics say I was fired for mismanagement," says Crosetti. "But they have no proof of that. I was too progressive in a rural county."

Since arriving in Knoxville, Crosetti has made progress in the fight to find more homes for the county's unwanted animals. A decade ago, only 10 percent of the pets taken in by the Society were adopted. Today, there are three times as many pets finding new homes.

Thanks to the HSTV's assertive spay and neuter program, no pet leaves the shelter or adoption centers without being fixed. In a back room where pet corpses were once stored inside a walk-in refrigerator—staffers say the old fridge wasn't cool enough to suppress the smell of decaying pets—there's now a surgery bay. More than any other service provided by humane societies around the country, spaying and neutering have proven to have the most impact on pet overpopulation.

But veterinarian tools and a vet's time aren't cheap. Every year, the HSTV does all it can to attract contributions to help cover the costs, while relying mostly on public assistance. Under Crosetti, the amount of public money provided to the shelter has tripled, with the county chipping in $277,000 and the city potentially giving as much as $290,000 for the next fiscal year.

The donating public has been less generous, but consistent in its support of the HSTV, giving an average of $81,000 a year since 1990. Other money is generated through grants, but if the HSTV wants to build another shelter, it needs to see a major surge in financial support. A new shelter will cost "several million dollars," says Board President Siegel, who hopes the facility can be completed in the next three to four years. Right now, the HSTV is thinking about building the new shelter on land the Society owns off Old Rutledge Pike.

Siegel believes the current shelter is unattractive, hard to find and lacks the space necessary "to move people through the process."

The Animal Foundation of East Tennessee and the Knox County Humane Association want to improve the overall process of moving animals from a shelter to a loving home. Siegel says the HSTV welcomes all the help it can get. But the HSTV isn't thrilled with the prospect of competing for donations. As Siegel says, there are "a limited number of dollars that are going to go into animal welfare programs."

"Certainly there is plenty of work to be done," continues Siegel. "It's our aim to work with all legitimate animal welfare groups that exist."

When asked if Summer Henry's Humane Association is a legitimate group, Siegel says curtly, "I won't comment on her."

Siegel also won't comment on The Journal's consistently unflattering coverage of Crosetti and the HSTV.Two years ago, Crosetti met her current board president when she retained him as a line of defense against The Journal's barrage of articles, some topped with headlines like "Ms. Crosetti has proved: POWER CORRUPTS" and "Meek-acting Vicky Crosetti may be in deep trouble."

Constantly crusading to uncover alleged misdeeds by Sheriff Tim Hutchison and other public officials, The Journal is known for its bullhorn affection for local scandal. As Crosetti's attorney, Siegel explored the possibility of suing The Journal. That never happened, but through his work with the shelter director, Siegel became interested enough in the issue of animal welfare to join the HSTV board.

Journal Publisher Hamby says "Mark's made a threat or two" about taking The Journal to court. To anyone who wants to legally challenge his paper, Hamby remarks, "If you feel froggy, go ahead and take a leap."

Brenda Berke can sense the tension between the HSTV and the Humane Association, and says she wants to steer clear of it. Her fledgling Animal Foundation aspires to provide a refuge for pets the HSTV would otherwise euthanize.

"Regardless of all the bad publicity, I think Ms. Crosetti and I can work together," says Berke, a retiree who also plans to set up a spay and neuter clinic. Berke had lunch with Crosetti a couple of months ago, and has also met with the Humane Association's co-chairs, Henry and Hamby.

"I was not happy with the meeting," says Berke, recalling her chat with Henry and Hamby. "There's so much negative publicity going on and I hope what I'm trying to do is to try and eliminate it."

For this, says Phil Snyder with the Humane Society of the United States, people like Berke should be congratulated.

"I'd like to see more togetherness among organizations," says Snyder, a HSUS regional director overseeing Tennessee.

"On paper, they [animal welfare groups] can work well together," insists Snyder, "but when you get into the personalities, they seldom do."

Perhaps some group counseling could help mend the ties between the HSTV and Humane Association. Both groups downplay the bitterness between them. Hamby, whose newspaper compared the HSTV's authority to Nazi rule, now says, "I'll work with anyone. I don't have an ax to grind."

Of course, there are some who continue to nurse their grudge toward Crosetti.

When Knox County Animal Control officers encounter pets living in unhealthy conditions, the HSTV is called in to help remove the animals from the unfit home. Crosetti says she's found dead animals stacked in closets and pets feeding on soiled diapers. After rescuing animals from these types of conditions, the owners of the confiscated pets have come after Crosetti with lawsuits and threatening phone calls. Though this kind of retaliation is uncommon, it shows how tempers and attitudes can flare out of control when the animal welfare debate heats up.

"Animal people and animals—it's just volatile," says Jan Lowe with the Williamson County (Tenn.) Animal Shelter, the facility Crosetti once ran. Lowe says she's often frustrated by members of the public who are quick to criticize her operation, asking plaintively, "Why can't the county find more homes for these animals?"

"What they don't realize is each person would have to own four to five dogs and eight to nine cats if we wanted to place all these animals," says Lowe.

Looking to place more of Williamson County's unwanted animals, a group called Happy Tales organized five years ago, filling the paw prints of a now-defunct group known as Animal Land. With a membership mailing list of 1,700 and a modest annual operating budget of $44,000, Happy Tales can handle about 55 pets at one time. The animals stay in foster homes or at a facility inside PetSmart until they are adopted. As a general rule, the group only euthanizes cats that are contiguously ill.

Lowe says the county shelter has not noticed a decrease in the number of animals it puts down since Happy Tales came on the scene. Happy Tales director, Marcy Payne, hopes that will change as her group grows.

"The more [shelters] there are," says Payne, "the better off we're all going to be."

That's what a local veterinarian thought when he agreed to attend a meeting put on by the Knox County Humane Association. The vet, who wished to remain anonymous, says he was curious about what the Association had planned, so he decided to show up. Later he received a phone call from someone connected with the HSTV.

"Let's just say I was made to feel uncomfortable," says the vet, who emphasizes his neutrality, but can't help but notice the factions developing between Knoxville's animal welfare professionals.

Like the anonymous vet, Crosetti would also like to position herself on middle ground, even as she offers a pointed critique of the county's two upstart groups.

"When you first come into the business, it's so overwhelming, you just want to fix it and you want to do it all, but you can't," says Crosetti. "And as the years go by, you begin to accept the fact that you're not going to change human nature and you're not going to accomplish anything if you attack people."

In other states, animal groups have found ways to put personalities aside and get along. Around San Francisco, for instance, Bay Area shelters work together to increase the region's overall adoption rate by shuffling animals between facilities. If one area has too many puppies, then pups are moved to an area that has too few.

But before the HSTV and Knox County Humane Association begin to cooperate, competition between the two groups may first become increasingly intense. Next year, the Humane Association plans to bid against the HSTV for public funding from the county. It's currently applying for grants and looking at property where it could build a shelter.

Though the Association insists it's not out to get Crosetti, it does want to operate Knox County's primary shelter—an ambitious goal for any upstart group.

In a preemptive strike against any group looking to wrest away the HSTV's county contract, Board President Siegel issued a public statement saying, "We question the goodwill of people with no experience in running any form of animal facility, whose involvement in this field has been primarily in making misleading, false and sometimes libelous attacks on the HSTV. They may believe that they can provide the services and quality of care to animals that HSTV does, only better, kinder, cheaper, and without euthanizing animals, but they can't. To suggest that they can is to mislead the public."

Such fighting words are a discouraging sign of the times for some who believe squabbles within the animal welfare community could hinder what's best for the animals. Activists like Laura Turner in Nashville and Berke with the Knoxville-based Animal Foundation worry about a limited amount of funding being spread out inefficiently between several rival groups. This could cause animal welfare programs to lose support and tarnish the public image of animal activism by making the movement appear disorganized. As a plea to fellow activists, Turner warns, "We've got to look like we've done our homework and not look like cats and dogs fighting."