The Morris Animal Refuge euthanizes a greater percentage of animals than other Philadelphia shelters. Critics say it doesn't have to be that way.
Aversa joined the Morris staff in February of last year. While poring over previous grant applications, he realized the numbers simply didn't add up. Hornbeck says she recalls Aversa approaching the board with documentation that appeared to exaggerate the number of animals the shelter adopted out, while downplaying the rate of euthanasia. Aversa also complained to board members that DePaul resisted efforts to increase adoptions at the shelter.
Board members confronted DePaul with the apparent inconsistencies. He threatened to quit unless the board fired Aversa. The action caused a huge rift among members.
"Some of us said, 'Let him quit,'" Hornbeck says. "But there are certain board members who believe Jim is indispensable."
In a dramatic showdown this past September, six of 11 board members voted to fire Aversa. Kathleen Parkhurst is among those who resigned following the controversy. "It's just a shame no effort is made to get animals adopted," says Parkhurst, who served on the board for seven years.
Clearly, DePaul prefers to keep employees on a short leash. If a staffer refuses to go along with his ideas, they're "outta there," Hornbeck says, pointing to Lewis Haskell as an example.
DePaul hired Haskell as a kennel attendant in 1995. Within a couple of years he worked his way up to adoption coordinator. Haskell says he had a terrific relationship with his boss until May 2002. That's when lower-level staff members began expressing concern about what they perceived as unjustifiably strict adoption policies. They wanted to implement changes that could lead to fewer animals being put down.
DePaul had never held a staff meeting the entire seven years Haskell worked at the shelter, Haskell says. Finally caving into pressure from employees, DePaul distributed a memo on March 26, 2002, announcing plans to soon hold a meeting. Because of time constraints, he wrote, "not all items will be discussed."
Reading this, staffers decided they needed to get organized. They hung around one night after the shelter closed and powwowed about "the three most pressing topics we wanted to raise at the staff meeting," says former kennel attendant Janel Reilly.
It seemed innocuous enough. But the following day, DePaul asked Haskell if the entire staff had gotten together.
"I said yes, we met. Then Jim fired me for insubordination," Haskell recalls.
And that meeting DePaul had promised? Just for the record, Reilly notes, it never did happen.
Former board member Hornbeck recalls accompanying two friends to Morris because they both wanted to adopt. When they asked to take dogs out of their cages, shelter staff told them contact is forbidden until their applications are approved.
"And they were with a board member!" Hornbeck says. "What better recommendation do they need?"
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah is a leader in the no-kill movement. Spokesperson Bonney Brown is baffled by Morris' policy of not allowing potential adopters to play with animals before approving the adoption application. "You need to see how a person bonds with an animal before the adoption," she says. "That's a really important part of the process."
Brown says well-run shelters go out of their way to help people take home pets.
"If people are given a hard time at shelters, they may think it's easier just to go to a breeder or pet store," she says. "And that's not good for the humane movement. You have to strike a balance between finding a good home and euthanizing."
Shelter consultant Arms says refusing to allow potential adopters to hold animals "is the most silly and absurd rule I've ever heard." He adds, "It is fine to screen people, but you don't want to alienate the public."
Aversa, Morris' former development director, says he was driven to tears because Morris' adoption policies resulted in so many unnecessary killings.
He would take animals out to public events and, naturally, potential adopters would get attached to a particular dog or cat. But Morris forbids people to specify an animal on an application.
Geek Invasion 2013