Greater Birmingham Humane Society under fire for high kill-rates

Greater Birmingham Humane Society
[Photo Credit: Alabama Newscenter]

The Greater Birmingham Humane Society (GBHS), whose mission is to “promote respect for life through education and prevention of cruelty to animals and people,” has come under fire in the last year for what many deem “unnecessarily high” euthanasia rates.

Proponents’ view

The allegations originally came about in October of 2017, when a grassroots group, the No Kill Movement (NKM) posted a blog post featuring a Facebook video where GBHS CEO Allison Black Cornelius held a sign that read “120 in 6.5 hours,” dated June 27, 2017. In the video, Cornelius explains that the shelter had bested their previous record, taking in 120 animals in one day. She then implores video viewers to donate to the shelter, while panning a room full of kittens who had been surrendered earlier in the day.

According to the NKM, after the filming of the video, a staff member referred to as “Ruth” was ordered to kill all of the kittens in the room.

“All of them were healthy or treatable,” Ruth said. “And, there were foster homes available for them.” Stella Burton, who was the foster coordinator when this took place, and who was present during this exchange, corroborated Ruth’s story.

Cornelius denied the allegations, saying “I never ever did anything of the sort. It’s not sort of untrue. It’s not ‘oh you misunderstood me’ or maybe they took something out of context. It never happened,” according to WBRC FOX 6 news.

But NKM founder Mike Fry tells a different story, saying his organization “has received numerous complaints from former GBHS staff members and volunteers.

“I’ve been doing this work for about 20 years and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Fry told WBRC.

GBHS Chairman Art Edge ultimately admitted that the kittens were killed, but denied the order came from Cornelius.

But regardless of who ordered the kittens killed, the shelter’s euthanasia numbers remain the same.

The GBHS is required by law to issue monthly reports on the number of animals taken in, treated and euthanized in the shelter. In the May 2017 report on the shelter’s website, the total number of animals taken in that month was 1,538, while the number of animals euthanized was 687. According to the report, 26 of those euthanasia’s were due to overcrowding, while 32 animals who were euthanized were considered treatable-rehabilitatable. The report also states that the euthanasia rate was  51 percent while the Live Release rate was 49 percent for that month.

According to blogger Donald Watkins:

From May 2017 through April 2018, GBHS killed 289 healthy animals solely because of “overcrowding”. These killings were administered at a time when GBHS had a long list of fully vetted, qualified, and publicly acknowledged “Shelter/Rescue Partners” that were capable and willing to house and care for these animals.

When the number of animals killed in the “Treatable-Rehabilitatable” category (i.e., medically contagious, physical condition, unweaned, etc.) is added to this twelve-month total, the overall number of kills in two of the three “Unnecessary Euthanasia” categories skyrockets to a staggering 1,093 dogs, cats, and other animals. “Treatable-Manageable” is GBHS’s third category of “Unnecessary Euthanasia”. The total dogs, cats, and other animals killed in this category for the same twelve-month period is 108.
GBHS admits to killing 6,621 dogs, cats, and other animals in the “Unhealthy-Untreatable” category during this twelve-month reporting period.

“We realize this topic generates a great deal of passion and emotion,” GBHS told Alabama Today. “We simply ask that conversations to be productive not personal, feedback be based on facts, and an acknowledgement that the problem of pet overpopulation is not created by shelters.  By working together to change policies relating to improving access to affordable spay/neuter, appropriate licensing of pets and breeders, and changing laws and perceptions of how our community handles feral and stray cats will we start to see change.”

Animal Control

When Cornelius took over the humane society in 2014, one major source of income she sought was a government contract to take over the animal control in unincorporated parts of Jefferson County. The GBHS won the contract, and has been taking care of Jefferson County, including Birmingham’s stray animal problems since.

“They wanted to be animal control and they have continually misrepresented their outcome statistics, making people falsely believe it is safe to bring their pets there. Then, they complain when people bring their pets to them,” one local advocate told NKM.

According to Watkins, the GBHS received $1,032,829 in FY17 “derived from animal control contracts with various local government agencies.”

But GBHS disagrees, saying people the perceived high euthanasia rates are because people comparing shelters that serve very different animal populations

“Bottom line: The majority of these people are comparing shelters that serve very different animal populations and their respective outcomes when measuring live release and euthanasia rates among shelters,” GBHS told Alabama Today.

Rural shelters are different than urban shelters. Small city shelters do not face the same challenges as large city shelters. Dual shelters (shelters that take owner surrenders and run animal control and impoundment) are different than single-purpose shelters. Shelters run by a government entity are different than those run by for-profit contractors or 501c3 organizations.

The GBHS is an open intake shelter.

We provide animal control and impoundment for Jefferson County and several cities within it, and we also take in pets surrendered by their owners. We turn no animal away regardless of the pet’s age, appearance, health condition, behavior, or breed.

GBHS’ live release and euthanasia rates cannot be accurately compared to qualified intake shelters. GBHS measures necessary euthanasia (euthanasia required due to behavior and untreatable conditions) and unnecessary euthanasia rates (euthanasia mostly due to lack of space). GBHS has a very low unnecessary euthanasia rate compared to other animal control providers in the nation.

GBHS responds

Alabama Today reached out to GBHS asking questions to get their side of the story, the following answers were received straight from the shelter:

Is the organization taking any steps to change the rates?

GBHS is one of the largest shelters in the nation and serves more than 20,000 animals each year. During peak summer months, GBHS takes in as many as 120 animals per day. There is only so much space, so much money, and so many housing options to accommodate these animals. We are actively working to improve our operations as evidenced by the following:

  • Since 2008, GBHS has increased live release rates from 20% in 2008 to 62% as of June 1th, 2018.
  • GBHS has been working with a national funder and animal welfare organization for the past three years on a major surrender prevention program and community cat diversion program. We were asked to track 3 years of data and completed this in May of 2018. Starting in July, GBHS is implementing a major expansion of our surrender prevention program, which helps owners keep their pets by providing veterinary care, spay/neuter, food, flea/tick treatments, and humane outdoor housing. We are also launching a community cat diversion program to keep cats out of the shelter and provide free spay/neuter for community cats.
  • Since the summer of 2014 GBHS has doubled adoptions, tripled out of state transport, expanded surrender prevention services, increased spay/neuter surgeries, and provided at-cost vet care to more than 50 rescue partners.
  • GBHS has partnered with animal welfare advocates to advance legislation to reduce the overpopulation of animals and to stop puppy mills. While the effort was defeated, voters held the elected officials accountable that continually block these efforts.
  • GBHS started an externship with Auburn vet school April 1, 2015. We have trained hundreds of vet students and become the #1 externship rotation at Auburn. The Tuskegee College of Veterinary Medicine joined this program last month. This program increases our ability to provide emergency vet services and spay neuter to our community’s most vulnerable pets.
  • GBHS has trained more than 100 law enforcement personnel resulting in a more unified response to animal cruelty cases. Educating the public on reporting cruelty situations along with productive partnerships with law enforcement has increased the number of cases opened and increased conviction rates among those who commit crimes involving animals. Swift intervention and punishment sends a strong message that our community will not tolerate cruelty to animals.

All of these efforts are wonderful, but each requires funding and policy changes to make them happen. GBHS has successfully competed for increased grant funding and has experienced an increase in donations based on these improved outcomes.