Dr. Donna Alexander, administrator of rabies control and Cook County veterinarian passed away May 29. There was a tribute to her today (June 5) at the Cook County Board , even Board Commissioners acknowledged even they weren’t fully aware of her many accomplishments. Speakers included Sgt. Mark George Chicago Police Animal Crimes Unit (retired) and Dr. Thomas Meehan, chief veterinarian Brookfield Zoo. Sandra Alfred, former director Chicago Animal Care and Control offered the most emotional and personal message. Also speaking were Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney at Best Friends Animal Society and myself.
I think all interested animal lovers should be able to hear what we had to say, as well as Dr. Alexander’s colleagues, friends and family who weren’t able to attend. What follows are first my remarks and then what VanKavage said.
From Steve Dale:
“When Dr. Alexander appeared on my WGN Radio show, she said that the Cook County Board should honor me – and now in a terrible twist of fate, I am honoring her and she is not here to hear it.
Knowing Dr. Alexander she wouldn’t want it to be about her – it was about how she could help. And help she did.
She made dozens of appearances on my WGN radio show, her most recent on May 20.
The next morning she called to tell me she had a house fire in her condo, and was now living at a hotel. I expressed concern about her, her things….and she said ‘No, no, I am calling to tell you about my neighbors’ cats.’
Neighbors’ cats? I wondered
‘I trained all my neighbors on how to get their cats into carriers should something happen. They all got out safely. And I knew you would be thrilled.’
Dr. Alexander was as hands on as major county veterinarian in America as she personally gave so many countless, thousands of vaccines over the years. When I wrote about her passing, via social media, I am told when people returned – even three years later for another rabies vaccine, Dr. Alexander would remember their pet. She knew all the dogs in her neighborhood by name, not the neighbor’s names so much, but definitely their dogs.
Our way in which we deal with community or feral cats was considered ground-breaking, and Dr. Alexander’s and her predecessor Dr. Dan Parmer’s insistence on mandating by law we include rabies vaccines was a part of that. And we need to make some changes now, which Dr. Alexander agreed.
On the very week dog flu hit Chicago, by coincidence Dr. Alexander was in the studio with me. Ultimately, thousands of dogs were sickened – and if it wasn’t for her proactive response, that number – including the dogs dying from flu would have been higher. When I suggested closing dog friendly areas in the city, I believe she was on the phone with the park district before I could even say ‘goodbye.’
So, what does a community do when the unexpected occurs to companion animals? Dr. Alexander’s approach is now a national model – even more than she knew.
About legislation she was savvy enough think hard about unintended consequences, and of course consider the science. I learned a lot from her.
She was once asked by a listener on WGN about the dog flu vaccine. ‘Why vaccinate?’ when most dogs get over the flu and only two to five percent die.
She paused and said, ‘What if that two to five percent is your dog?’ Not one to easily become emotional, she did – I could see it, as she added, ‘I’ve met owners of that two to five percent. If we have a choice that will benefit our pets – you know what I will always advocate for it. Perhaps, it’s my mission.’
No perhaps – it was Dr. Alexander’s mission. And may I say, ‘mission accomplished.’
From Ledy VanKavage:
“Dr Alexander was a force of nature. She was a rarity -a strong woman veterinarian who used to be a model.
Unfortunately, I had no idea in all the years I worked with her that she was a Breck girl. Had I known I would have thanked her for helping my wannabe Farrah Fawcett like hair in the 70s.
Dr. Alexander was devoted to making Cook County a safe and humane community for people and pets.
She was progressive enough to challenge the status quo embracing a community cat ordinance- the first in the state. Indeed, she urged the Cook County state’s attorney to defend the ordinance in the Bridgeview case, which the county handily won. The community cat ordinance which was progressive in its day has saved Cook County residents more than $1 million dollars. I know if Donna had lived she would be working on updating that ordinance today.
Dr Alexander was adept at herding cats too- she had to be since she dealt with the public and politicians daily.
She was even appointed to serve on Rep Feigenholtz’s statewide Feral Cat task force where fighting like cats and dogs ensued at each meeting. Despite the acrimony Dr Alexander helped move the conversation along until the feral cat task force officially recommended that trap, neuter, vaccinate, and return programs for community cats be funded by all Illinois counties.
Donna was a strong advocate not just for public health but also for public safety. She knew bad owners lead to bad dogs and that puts everyone at risk. Just this session, She and I butted heads over how far a reckless dog owner bill should go. Her arguments were always sound and even though we often disagreed about public safety needs versus the due process rights of owners, the result of her arguments always resulted in a better legislation. Her reasoning was always sound.
Indeed SB 2386 the reckless dog owner bill that prevent will recidivist bad owners from owning dogs is now on its way to the Governor’s desk— thanks in part to Dr Alexander and Cook County’s lobbying efforts. I know Dr. Alexander’s spirit will be in the room when the Governor signs this important piece of legislation.
Dr Alexander you truly made a difference. Your laugh, intelligence, resilience and progressiveness will be missed.
I know that wherever you are…you won’t be letting the dogs out but caring for them. Thank you for your service. The land of Lincoln is a better place because of you.”