Alderman Lopez, Are You Kidding? Lopez Statement on Susan Russell’s Dismissal


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Susan Russell, executive director of Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC) for just over two years was asked to resign Friday (June 29). When she refused to do so, she was fired by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

I’ve described the background and offered my view of the city’s explanation, an explanation yes. A valid one, not so much.

Long time critic and by far the most vocal critic (really the only consistently harsh critic) among the 50 Chicago Aldermen, Ray Lopez (15th ward), issued a statement (below).  I feel compelled to comment on, as there are several inaccuracies. Lopez is the self-proclaimed ‘dog alderman.’ In fact, the general public and even his fellow aldermen need to know, the overwhelming majority of shelter professionals, rescue volunteers and veterinary professionals have little respect for him greatly because of his unsubstantiated attacks targeting Russell and animal control, and his attacks on the veterinary community. And his pronouncements regarding “no kill.”

I’ve broken down his comments; my own comments following his.

I appreciate that the Alderman now thanks Russell; he ought to. However he also tried to fire her almost from the start. Lopez and I were at breakfast when Russell was barely two weeks into the job, and talked about wanting to write a press release to call her out. I suggested that instead he try to help. He never wrote that release – but he certainly issued many communications to the media about her nearly from the start.

Lopez received “inside information” all along and many of us know who his “sources” were, and he believed them and schemed. He even organized a bizarre protest, calling for Russell’s dismissal and asking her to “stop killing animals,” which were his exact words. (The criticism now, from the Mayor is that she’s not euthanizing enough).

First off, if an Alderman is dissatisfied with an City department leader’s performance, the appropriate thing to do is simply handle the issue with intragovernmental affairs and the Mayor’s office, not to organize a public rally complete with picket signs. Around six people turned up for his”protest” of Russell. And as many media reporters also showed up, not so coincidentally. At every turn, Lopez has sought to shine a media spotlight on Russell with stories which have been incomplete or downright incorrect, and what the public may not know is the ‘hard time’ he’s given her in hearings at City Hall. I’ve witnessed this for myself.

When I contacted Ald. Burke’s office, in truth, he didn’t know much about details of the resolution, it just sounded good. I’m unsure why Alderman Burke would blindly go down a rat hole with such a novice Alderman. I suspect Burke’s efforts and best intentions were to mentor Lopez.  It really sounded good, so many Aldermen jumped on board; who doesn’t want to see fewer animals killed? However, Lopez never consulted with Chicago’s animal welfare or veterinary community, or the Executive Director of Animal Control or Friends of Chicago Animal Care and Control, so the folks needed to implement whatever he had in mind were taken aback by his resolution, including Russell.

A public official can’t “make” any city “no kill” without a plan, without a general agreement from those who will carry the plan out and with resources to carry that plan out. I told this to Lopez, who was surprised at the cool response to his idea. At that time I assumed at that time that his heart is in the right place, and was grateful for what I assumed was an animal loving Alderman, making companion animals a priority.

Lopez did not convene the workgroup – I did.

The invite for the experts in the workgroup came from me, my email address. Here’s the TRUTH. After guesting on my WGN radio show, Lopez and I went out for breakfast. I told him that in the past I gathered experts together, at first to fight a proposed breed ban – around 15 years ago, at the request of then Alderman Shirley Coleman. The group (which Cynthia Bathurst of Safe Humane Chicago later co-chaired with me) reported ultimately to then Alderman Gene Schulter, and we even had a name “Task Force for Companion Animals and Public Safety.”

This workgroup meeting which Lopez refers did not occur prior to Russell being hired. In fact, she was in attendance.

I offered to gather experts to talk about Lopez’s concept and the hope was to make some changes, to ultimately work together to craft a plan, and deal with his insistence on using the term “No Kill,” which Russell wasn’t crazy about and not hardly alone in her feelings. The majority  in the room found the term “No Kill” divisive for several reasons.

In the statement above Lopez says The Cook County Veterinary Association was in attendance; they were not. And that is because no such group exists – it’s the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association. Also, Tree House Humane was not there. Important? Not really – and the intent isn’t to nitpick but this demonstrates a lack of attention to detail, which is consistent.

For whatever reason during the two work group meetings, Lopez was in my view (and the view of most in attendance), disrespectful to some (mostly those who expressed disagreement with any of his notions, even if the views were based on fact), especially the veterinarians, including one particularly well respected nationally renowned veterinarian. I later privately called Lopez out for his demeanor, as I was embarrassed.

I have no clue what defining animal shelters means. Chicago didn’t do that, nor did our meetings. And humane treatment of impounded animals? If the suggestion is that previous to these meeting animals weren’t humanely treated, that’s crazy. Ald. Lopez, aside from creating drama, has not done anything to date to improve the lives of Chicago’s homeless animals. The problem is that the public may believe him. I am unsure of the grants he speaks about; maybe I am missing something . Of course grants within the rescue community have existed, and continue to but Chicago doesn’t provide any grants. Just unsure of what he means.

If everything we do should be for the animals, I now have a question for Mayor Emanuel as well as Ald. Lopez. If the live release rate increased  considerably to today’s over 90 percent for cats and dogs….and that happens in just over two years – then we are saving animals. Isn’t that the primary mission? What is there to complain about? Of course, I am the first to agree, we can always do better, though the No Kill standard in many communities is 90 percent. Community is the key word, “No Kill” communities create a coalition, agreement among partners – it can not be mandated by a public official.

Lopez continues to push the No Kill agenda. Meanwhile, Russell had achieved what Lopez said that he wanted all along, and despite Lopez’s interference.

I don’t care what you call it – call it No Kill, if you want. But what I have been saying for YEARS is that we need to craft a real plan which includes “safety nets,” some City supported and some by private groups – so people don’t feel the need to give up their pets. Lopez could have been helpful with several of bullet points below. However, he’s taken ever opportunity to criticize, of thought one media outlet why mysteriously considers his word credible. The animal welfare community now knows better.

  1. More dollars for animal care and control (yes to some extent that has occurred but Chicago remains under funded). However, this is hardly Lopez alone that created more funding, Alderman Nick Sposato and others are as responsible.
  2. Finding a way that more pets can be permitted in condominiums and rentals and without paying fees some can not afford for the privilege: Chicago needs far more Pet Friendly Housing, especially in some neighborhoods. One group which is affiliated with Lopez that might have helped has, to my knowledge done nothing, however Anti Cruelty Society is working on this issue.
  3. Number one reason animals die is behavior. CACC needs a full time qualified behavior professional (not just a dog trainer, and full time – some who are very qualified and talented do generously help out when they can) to assess dogs, help to rehab others, provide enhanced enrichment programs for cats and dogs and also training; and provide advice in the community so people who have adopted a pet may not need to return that pet or may feel compelled to relinquish a pet in the first place.
  4. With PAWS Chicago and Anti Cruelty Society and others, we do pretty well targeting zip codes requiring the most low cost spay/neuter but we need to do better.
  5. I’ve talked for years about some way to intercept animals at the door of CACC, and having nothing whatsoever to do with me, Chicagoland Rescue Intervention and Support Program (CRISP) has been doing just that – intercepting some animals before they are given up to animal control. This program is amazing, and so are the volunteers who park just outside CACC and provide resources where people can turn instead of giving up their animals. Sometimes CRISP is able to immediately divert animals to rescue or their own participating shelters.
  6. More Chicago facilities do need to help relieve the pressure on CACC by pulling at a least a few more animals – some pull none. It’s an elephant or large dog in the room which many don’t talk about – but we need to talk about.
  7. Make some tweaks in the system we currently have regarding finding lost pets. Many excellent suggestions were made at the working group meetings, but Lopez is apparently uninterested in ideas from experts.
  8. When there’s domestic violence, that violence typically starts with animal abuse. Victims often won’t leave their situation unless there is a place to flee with the family pet. In Chicago we have not a single such place. Pets can be fostered through some shelters – and yes that is better than no answer, but what we really need is to replicate what New York City is doing and that is to allow pets in housing for victims of domestic violence.
  9. Humane education to Chicago’s young school children is where all this begins and that is a part of what Safe Humane Chicago (and other organizations) effectively try to do. Even if the City could offer Safe Humane Chicago say $10,000 (hardly much money for even a City with little dollars), more young people could be impacted in a more profound way.
  10. Work together to rebrand dogs we call pit bulls (they are of course only mixed breed dogs), and like the overwhelming majority of animals at CACC, they’re at CACC to no fault of their own – a message which the public can’t hear too often. For whatever reason, when the director wants to deliver messages, especially regarding dogs referred to as pit bulls, her voice had been muffled by the City.
  11. Let the executive director do her job! The City has been micromanaging a department they know little about for years. No matter who the executive director is – if the job is to save animals, the task is FAR more difficult with City interference at every step of the way. But the Mayor’s office mission is clearly very different than the executive director’s.

At the very least many of us had begged Lopez to simply encourage the Mayor’s office to let Russell do her job (as described in numbers 9 and 10 on the list). Instead, he participated in the attempts to micromanage CACC

You can’t do it all at once, and others have additional ideas. I’m unsure what Lopez, the self-professed animal advocate has really done, except to interfere.

And GET THIS: Lopez’s solution, according to a recent appearance with Alderman Nick Sposato (38th Ward) on Chicago Tonight on Ch. 11, is to prevent fewer animals from going into CACC.

In response, the expression on Ald. Sposato’s face was priceless, as he pointed out the law in Chicago (like nearly every city in America), is that the municipal facility must take any animal, all 15,000 that appear at the door.

If CACC is no longer open admission, I do have one question for Ald. Lopez. “While I suppose you prevent any possible overcrowding, then where do propose all the animals go?”

No comment on this one – except to say that I hope this time around really helps and receives and listens to advice from others in the community (not just those he agrees with) rather than obstructs or creates divisiveness.

 

 

 

 

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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