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Marking their territories 

Animals on the losing end of a bitter humane society feud

click to enlarge The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region euthanized 3,382 cats in 2001. The Colorado Humane Society, the citys current contractor, aims to drastically decrease that number this year. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region euthanized 3,382 cats in 2001. The Colorado Humane Society, the citys current contractor, aims to drastically decrease that number this year.

Devin Boots loped into the Colorado Humane Society shelter in Colorado Springs and gave people a jolt. A sleeveless T-shirt exposed gigantic tattoos of flames and human skulls on the 21-year-old's upper arms. A thick silver ring pierced the flesh above his left eye. A Nebraska ball cap, turned backward, was tugged down hard onto his head.

A tough-looking exterior masking a kind heart.

On this warm and sunny late spring day, Boots had come to the shelter to pick up his new kitten.

Soon he'd paid the adoption fee, finished the paperwork and brought his tiny orange fur ball -- a tabby with six toes on each front paw -- out of the shelter and into the sunlight. His girlfriend, 18-year-old Shilo Minter, smiled.

"We're going to name her Casper," said Boots, gently stroking the kitten's head. "My girlfriend says I talk to myself a lot. When I start doing it she says, 'Are you talking to Casper again?' like the cartoon ghost. Now I really can talk to Casper."

And he laughed.

The couple had begun their search a few days earlier at the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, which served Colorado Springs for nearly 50 years before its contract was terminated by the city last fall. The agency now shares the posh, $6.3 million animal shelter facility just south of downtown with the Englewood-based Colorado Humane Society, which was awarded the city contract.

"We went to Pikes Peak Humane but couldn't find the kitten we wanted," said Minter. "They told us the Colorado Humane had a lot more kittens in the back of the building. They were very nice about it. It didn't seem like they were in competition or anything. They were very quick to tell us about the other group and to send us back here."

And then the tattooed and eyebrow-pierced Boots, who said he wanted a kitten because his girlfriend is about to start college and he thinks he'll be lonely, cradled his new pet, gently scratched her chin and headed for his car. A 6-week-old kitten that was born in an alley and had spent most of its life staring at a pretty bleak future through the bars of a very small cage suddenly had a chance at a real life.

The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region and the Colorado Humane Society had worked together with the spirit that gave birth to such organizations. A spirit that embraces animals, that puts their welfare ahead of the politics and territorial fights. And because of that, on that day in May, a kitten found a home.

But mostly, in Colorado Springs and unincorporated areas of El Paso County, endings aren't always so happy.

In its 2001 annual report to its donors and benefactors, the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak region listed two key shelter statistics for that year:

21,743 animals taken in

click to enlarge Pikes Peak Humane Executive Director Wes Metzler. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Pikes Peak Humane Executive Director Wes Metzler.

897 animals euthanized

The first number, identifying the number of animals that were adopted as pets, was correct. It was filed, as required by state law, with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. The second figure -- the number of animals euthanized -- was not correct.

In 2001, according to its own report filed with the Department of Agriculture, the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region actually killed 7,213 animals. The numbers are numbing: 3,131 dogs, 3,382 cats and 700 more listed in the "other" category, mostly rabbits and ferrets, euthanized, tossed into Dumpsters and hauled away to a landfill with the city's garbage.

The Colorado Humane Society now runs the animal control program for the city. The Pikes Peak Humane Society is still in charge of animal control in unincorporated El Paso County. The two nonprofit groups share space in the 4-year-old, $6.3 million eye-catching rock and glass and vaulted ceiling animal shelter on Abbott Lane.

Very uneasy space.

The new deal

The Pikes Peak Humane Society held the contract for animal control in Colorado Springs for 50 years. Last fall, the city awarded the contract to the Denver-based Colorado Humane Society, ending a bitter feud between the city and its longtime animal control provider. The battle between the city and Pikes Peak Humane began three years ago.

"Back then, the city started asking Pikes Peak Humane specific questions about what we were getting for our money," said City Manager Lorne Kramer. "We were not getting good answers."

Talks continued, but last year, as tax revenues declined, Kramer told all city departments to prepare for a 15 percent budget cut. Tom Albertson, the fiscal and planning manager for the city police department, which oversees the city's animal control contract, began a series of what Kramer called "endless meetings" with Pikes Peak Humane executive director Wes Metzler and his staff.

"We needed to reduce costs and still continue core animal control services to the city," Kramer said. "When Tom and his staff went to Pikes Peak Humane and told them about the planned cuts, Wes responded by saying, 'We can't do business with you if we have to take these kinds of cuts.'"

Albertson said some of the early meetings with Pikes Peak Humane "went very well." But ultimately, he said, "They dug their heels in and said, 'Our bid is not going to go any lower.'"

From Kramer: "Pikes Peak Humane does a lot of philanthropic work. They raise a lot of money and have a lot of benefactors. That kind of work is very noble. But we needed the best return on our investment. They didn't offer us that.

"There's a perception out there that we made this change frivolously. But the truth is we put in a lot of effort to try to preserve a 50-year relationship with Pikes Peak Humane."

Metzler has a different view of the process.

click to enlarge At the $6.3 million facility, the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region is housed in front; the new city contractor, the Colorado Humane Society, is housed in back. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • At the $6.3 million facility, the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region is housed in front; the new city contractor, the Colorado Humane Society, is housed in back.

"The city said it needed to cut back, and we got to work trying to do that," he said. "We thought we were making real progress. We went back to the drawing board to see what we could do, sharpened our pencils and cut our costs as much as we could."

Colorado Springs Police Chief Luis Velez was also at the meetings between the city and Pikes Peak Humane. Animal control comes out of the police department budget. He rejects Metzler's claim. A document submitted by Pikes Peak Humane seems to back Velez. Called a Last and Final Offer, it listed a bottom-line offer from Pikes Peak Humane of $1.4 million -- the same amount they received last year.

"The budget was the driving force in the decision," Velez said.

"We tried for two years on various levels with Pikes Peak Humane to come to some kind of resolution. We asked them repeatedly to tell us what they could deliver on our budget. They kept coming back with a figure of $1.4 million. We told them we had, at most, $900,000. At the final meeting, they stuck to their bid of $1.4 million and then, even at that figure, they said they'd have to reduce services, cut back the number of hours of operation, cut back on their response to barking dogs and things like that. There was no attempt on their part to reduce their bid. And that was pretty much the end of it."

Rolling in dough

Last October, a few weeks after that final meeting with the organization, Kramer had seen and heard enough. He threw open the bidding process for all comers, a formal process known as a Request for Proposal. The half-century relationship with Pikes Peak Humane had, for all intents, come to an end.

Under the new contract, Colorado Humane will be paid $895,000 this year -- which includes $200,000 in one-time capital costs -- and $690,000 in 2005. The city holds eight one-year options.

But there was more to the breakup than money.

"I really felt like the move was designed to get rid of us and put us in our place," Metzler said. "Lorne said at one meeting, 'We cannot have a nonprofit organization telling us what level of service we need and how much it's going to cost.'"

Informed of Metzler's comments, Kramer smiled.

"To be honest, some of what Wes said is true," Kramer offered. "There were some issues about who was in charge of the city budget. At one meeting, we asked for access to their fiscal records and they felt that was none of our business. We needed basic animal control. They didn't want to do that."

If Kramer had seen Pikes Peak Humane's financial records, he might have gasped.

According to its tax records, Pikes Peak Humane listed 1998 expenses of more than $2.4 million, with revenue from its contracts and private donations totaling nearly $6.2 million.

In 1999 its expense figure jumped to $2.8 million, with revenue exceeding $4.4 million.

click to enlarge Mary Warren, who directs the Colorado Humane Society. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Mary Warren, who directs the Colorado Humane Society.

In 2000 -- the first year in its posh, $6.3 million shelter facility (for which the city kicked in $3 million) -- expenses were over $3 million, with reported revenues slightly over $4 million.

Listed expenses jumped to $3.6 million in 2001, as revenue dipped to $3.7 million. And in 2002, Pikes Peak Humane claimed total expenses of more than $4 million with revenues exceeding $4.5 million.

Among the big items on the 2002 expense form was $1.9 million in salaries. Metzler was paid $79,942. Finance Director Susan Vervaeke was paid $60,961 and Assistant Finance Director Leslie Yoder got $58,858. Shelter manager Bill Hoffman was paid $52,120.

Other 2002 expenses included $132,000 for postage and shipping -- mostly soliciting funds. Peaks Peak Humane also listed $193,046 that year for "computer costs," $60,884 for "computer consulting," $80,130 for "vehicle maintenance" and $50,106 under "public relations."

And a total of only $124,744 -- about 2.7 percent of its total revenue that year -- for "animal care."

Bob Warren, the director of development and communications for the Colorado Humane Society, which now has the city contract, shook his head at the figures. Operating out of its main shelter in Englewood, and serving a much larger animal and human population, his organization listed expenses of $700,000 in 2000 and slightly more than $1 million in 2001 and 2002.

"What did that beautiful, expensive new building get for the animals of Colorado Springs?" Warren asked. "Here's what it got them: it got them killed. All the euthanasia numbers are worse, drastically worse, since they moved into that palace."

Won't turn tail

The two animal groups share similar backgrounds.

Formed in 1949, the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region was contracted by the City of Colorado Springs to handle animal control in 1952. Its first facility was in the Cragmoor neighborhood, in an old greyhound kennel. In April 2000, it moved into its current facility, built with $3.3 million in private donations and $3 million from the city.

The Colorado Humane Society was established in Denver in 1881, just a few months after that city had beaten Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Boulder and Golden in an election to become the state capital. Colorado Humane became the first large animal shelter group west of the Mississippi River. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Colorado Humane Society was also given the duty of investigating cruelty and abuse of children.

Now, they are bitter rivals.

"The euthanasia statistics from Pikes Peak Humane tell the story," said Warren. "It's why we won't turn tail and run from this situation, even though we desperately want to. The bloodshed between the two groups is hard to deal with. It's hard on our employees. And it's hard on the animals."

Meanwhile, Metzler, the director of Pikes Peak Humane, maintains that "this building was not designed to house two agencies. It was designed for one. It would be a lot easier if they were in a building across town."

click to enlarge Bob Warren, director of development and communications for the Colorado Humane Society. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Bob Warren, director of development and communications for the Colorado Humane Society.

Which isn't likely. In return for the $3 million it gave toward construction of the opulent shelter, the city received a pre-paid 20-year lease that secures the use of 60 percent of the facility. Now, the Pikes Peak group operates out of the front of the 8th Street headquarters, while the Colorado Humane Society is relegated to the less visible back of the building. They will likely be neighbors until at least 2020.

Mary Warren, a hard-nosed, softhearted woman who runs the Colorado Humane Society (and is married to Bob) says she understands the resentment from Metzler's organization.

"We moved into their home," she said.

The war began as a battle in Douglas County in 1998. Both groups bid on that county's animal control contract. Pikes Peak Humane won. Today, it earns $315,000 a year from that contract. The bitterness between the agencies intensified in 2002 when the City of Pueblo put out a bid request. Colorado Humane once again lost out to the Pikes Peak group, which got the contract for $725,000 a year.

Bob Warren says the real losers were pets.

Grisly numbers

In 2002, when animal control was conducted by the City of Pueblo, its shelter took in 4,899 animals and euthanized 989 of them -- about 20 percent of the animals that were taken in were ultimately killed.

In 2003, the first year it was run by Pikes Peak Humane, the number of animals that were euthanized jumped to nearly 50 percent. That year, the Pueblo shelter took in 8,450 animals and destroyed 4,096 of them.

The figures for the Colorado Springs shelter are better, but still abysmal.

In 1999, in its last year at its old shelter facility, Pikes Peak Humane euthanized about 4,000 animals. In 2000, the first year at the new facility, it took in 18,494 animals and killed 6,284 -- or 34 percent of them.

In 2001 the number of euthanized animals was 7,213 -- or 33 percent. There was a slight decline in 2002, when 7,046 pets were euthanized (32 percent), but last year the figures jumped: 23,261 animals were accepted into the facility, and 8,506 of them were euthanized -- almost 38 percent.

The statistics make Bob Warren furious.

"Since January of 2000, they've stuffed close to 30,000 animals into landfills just from this one facility," he said. "Three days a week the truck comes to empty the dead body Dumpster in their garage.

Citing most city and county laws that require an animal be held for five days before it is destroyed, Warren says, "It's a lot easier to euthanize an animal at five days and one minute than it is to feed them and water them and care for them until they're adopted. Pikes Peak Humane is a group of dogcatchers. They simply don't operate as a humane society."

click to enlarge While officials bare their teeth at each other, these dogs are just waiting for a home. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • While officials bare their teeth at each other, these dogs are just waiting for a home.

Mary Warren said Colorado Humane will only euthanize an animal if it is terminally ill or determined to be too aggressive to put back into the community. Comparisons to the euthanasia numbers of Pikes Peak Humane support the Warrens' outrage. Last year at its Englewood shelter, the Colorado Humane Society accepted 5,082 animals and euthanized 278 of them -- or just 5.4 percent. In 2002, it took in 5,124 animals and euthanized 288 of them (5.6 percent).

And it's not only a comparison with Colorado Humane that makes the Pikes Peak animal group's numbers stand out. In 2002, Pikes Peak Humane -- with animal control contracts for Colorado Springs and El Paso County -- euthanized 7,046 animals while serving a region of about 500,000 people.

The same year, the Denver metro area shelters, consisting of Colorado Humane in Englewood and shelters in Denver, Aurora, Boulder and Jefferson County, euthanized about the same number of animals (7,045) -- while serving a region of about 1.7 million people.

Pikes Peak Humane's Metzler said this about euthanasia rates: "They'll tell you that they have a low euthanasia rate and we have a high euthanasia rate, but I think you need to compare apples to apples. We are a place people bring old and sick animals to have euthanized. They bring them to us because we're cheaper than bringing a pet to a veterinarian to be euthanized. That's the only reason the numbers are different."

John Rogers and Debbie Wolfe disagree. They say that when the cages at Pikes Peak Humane are filled, animals are killed to make room for new arrivals.

Rogers was an animal control officer at Pikes Peak Humane for four and half years before leaving in January to join Colorado Humane. Wolfe, a kennel worker, also made the jump to Colorado Humane.

Their stories of life -- and death -- at Pikes Peak Humane are startling.

"We talked at a lot of Pikes Peak Humane meetings about the euthanasia rates," said Rogers. "We were told very simply that when there was overcrowding, when there was no more room, it was time to clean out the animals. And so they'd be euthanized. If they weren't moving, if people weren't adopting them, they were killed. There was no compassion. It was an assembly line."

And Wolfe says she was put at the front of the assembly line.

"My first day of work over there," she said, "was in October of 2003. My first job, right after I got to work on that first day, was to euthanize 43 cats. I had to finish by 11 a.m., for some reason. So we started injecting them they way we were shown, not hitting a vein or anything, just jabbing them with the needle. Some of them took 20 minutes to die. I had a hard time that day."

At Colorado Humane, she said, the process is different.

"When we have to euthanize, we hold them when we can," she said. "They're tranquilized, and the needle goes into a vein and it's over very quickly. It's a whole different way of doing it."

From Rogers: "The most shocking thing about coming over here is how much everyone cares about the animals. People sit down and cry over damn near each animal we have to euthanize."

Today's war

click to enlarge The Windom family talks with a Pikes Peak Humane Society worker about seeing a perspective pet. From left to right sitting - Lisa, David, Jenn and Cheryl (mom). - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • The Windom family talks with a Pikes Peak Humane Society worker about seeing a perspective pet. From left to right sitting - Lisa, David, Jenn and Cheryl (mom).

As you arrive at the shelter facility off of 8th Street, you are greeted first by a sign for the Pikes Peak Humane Society. It operates from the front of the building. The Colorado Humane Society works from the back of the building. Their sign is on the side of the parking lot. But most everyone who arrives to leave an animal or to find a lost pet or search for a new pet walks through the front door. The Pikes Peak Humane door.

There are different versions about what happens next.

"Two organizations share a building that wasn't meant to be shared," said Pikes Peak Humane's Metzler. "There is confusion by the public. This isn't like Safeway, where you go every week and know where things are. People come to the shelter very infrequently. And I think about 80 percent of people walk in the front door first. We find out what they need, and if it's a city animal problem we tell them to go to the northwest corner and check with the people over there.

"I have instructed the staff to make sure the people check in the back. I know they (Colorado Humane) have a feeling we don't refer people to them, but the truth is we've told the staff that this isn't an ideal situation, but it's about animals and people need to know there are two agencies."

Sometimes, as in the case with Boots and Minter and a lucky kitten named Casper, it works that way.

Often, it does not. Rogers, Wolfe and Vicki Cheaney, another ex-Pikes Peak Humane worker now employed by Colorado Humane, said that in January there were clear orders from Pikes Peak Humane not to put out the welcome mat.

"It was made very plain to us that we shouldn't talk to them and definitely shouldn't help them," said Rogers. "We all heard that in one meeting of top executives, Dr. Metzler told them he'd have Colorado Humane out of business down here in six months.

"So we were given the message: Don't be rude or try to sabotage their operation, but you don't have to help them by answering any of their questions. Don't give information to them unless they request it, and don't offer any help unless you absolutely need to."

Cheaney, who is also an animal control officer, says that she worked at Pikes Peak for five years and had made some great friends. "After I moved over here I saw one of them in the parking and lot and we were talking and later he said his manager told him never to talk to me again."

Wolfe, who remained at Pikes Peak Humane for several weeks after Colorado Humane took over the city contract, told of a day someone dropped off a load of items, including pet carrying cages and cases of Pedialyte, water given to infants to ward off dehydration. Her supervisor told her they didn't need it and instructed her to dispose of it.

"I asked if I could give it to Colorado Humane," Wolfe said. "You know, to help the animals back there. Puppies and kittens could use that expensive water, and they always need cages. He laughed at me and told me to throw it in the dumpster and definitely not give any of it to them."

One lucky dog

All of which makes Ginger the poodle one lucky dog.

Ginger now lives with Tony and Carole Lance in Colorado Springs. The blond poodle had been dropped off at the Colorado Humane Society a week earlier, in mid-May, by her previous owner.

A few days later, Tony, a big man, gently held the little pooch on his lap inside the shelter. A heavy hand softly stroked the dog's ears.

"This was the first time we've ever adopted an animal," he said, "and we didn't know the city and county had different people running their shelters. So we just walked through the front door and said we wanted to look for a dog. They showed us what they had, but we didn't find the kind of dog we wanted. We asked if there were any more dogs, and the woman at the counter said no. So we left.

"That afternoon we were at PetsMart and someone told us there were more animals in the back of the shelter building, with Colorado Humane. So we drove back, went back in the front door again and asked. The woman said there wouldn't be any use checking with the people in the back because all they had were big dogs. But we went to the back of the building anyway. And we found her.

"What a way to run an animal shelter."

  • Animals on the losing end of a bitter humane society feud

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