“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman,” the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said.
Brandeis made his famous remarks about transparency in a 1913 Harper’s Weekly article titled, “What Publicity Can Do.”
People concerned about the treatment of dogs at an Animal Welfare League shelter in Chicago Ridge are showing how their publicity about conditions has prompted legislators to respond and federal and state authorities to investigate the facility.
Recently, people who experienced issues with animals adopted from the facility began sharing their stories on social media. A Facebook group started, and soon former volunteers shared stories and photos showing alleged unsanitary conditions.
A movement was underway. Demonstrations were held outside the facility at 10305 Southwest Highway. In mid-February, Chicago TV news crews recorded residents and activists appearing at a Chicago Ridge Village Board meeting and pleading for action.
“Chicago Ridge has been awesome,” said Nikki Ornsby of Joliet, a leader of the group Reform AWL Chicago Ridge. “They’ve honestly done all they can do. They’ve kept their word. They’ve been great to us.”
We spoke Tuesday night outside the shelter, where about two dozen people gathered for a candlelight vigil. They chanted phrases in unison, including “Save the animals,” and called for the league’s board and director to be replaced.
Also on Tuesday, authorities with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Illinois Department of Finance and Professional Regulation made unannounced visits to the center. They interviewed Linda Estrada, executive director, and reviewed medical and financial records, state and federal lawmakers told me.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture also is conducting an investigation and has inspected the facility several times, said state Rep. Kelly Burke , D-Oak Lawn.
“The department has not shared the inspection reports with me, citing their policy not to release the information until the docket has been closed on the case,” Burke said.
“They also won’t share whether the department has required corrective actions or has fined the shelter. They did not give me a firm date on when that docket would close but indicated it might be very soon.”
Burke said she received about a dozen phone calls, letters and emails from constituents about the situation.
“The emails and letters detail some alarming conditions and practices,” she said.
Chicago Ridge officials in a Feb. 21 letter called upon people to contact state and federal legislators and authorities to investigate the facility.
“Our village’s only regulatory authority for the Animal Welfare League rests with our building and health enforcement departments and as we have always done, we will continue to enforce our health and building codes to the fullest extent allowed by law,” the letter said.
I reached out to legislators that the village encouraged people to contact. U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski , D-Western Springs, said he heard from several constituents.
“I am deeply concerned about what I have heard,” Lipinski said Wednesday in a statement. “It was good to see the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation come to investigate AWL this week.
“I will continue to work to make sure that every agency that is responsible for ensuring the safety of animals at the AWL — both federal and state — is thoroughly doing its job and that the welfare of all animals at AWL is protected.”
Representatives of the DEA and the IDFPR said the agencies do not comment on active investigations.
The state Department of Agriculture is responsible for licensing animal shelters and enforcing the Animal Welfare Act. The agency’s five field investigators and one field veterinarian inspect facilities annually as part of the license renewal process and, as warranted, in response to complaints.
“Unannounced inspections are conducted randomly,” Morgan Booth, the department’s public information officer, said in response to my inquiry.
“During the 2017 calendar year, there were 54 investigations into animal shelters,” Booth said. “There were no licenses revoked or applications denied for that same time period.”
When I asked Booth how many animal shelters are licensed by the state, she referred me to a list on the department’s website. I lost count around 500.
I left three phone messages for Estrada and twice emailed the league’s marketing representative in recent weeks, but did not receive responses.
The league says on its website it was founded in 1935 at 6224 S. Wabash St. in Chicago. The league continues to operate at that location, which it calls “the only humane society on the South Side.” The second location, in Chicago Ridge, opened in 1974.
The league says in its mission statement, “recovery is the answer, not euthanasia for animals that come to us injured, neglected or abused.” In an urgent appeal on its website for donations of canned pet food, the league said it is currently caring for 1,000 homeless animals.
The league offers adoptions, veterinary care and other services. As customers and former volunteers began publicizing stories and photos alleging neglect, the league on Jan. 20 announced it was “offering only limited services” at its Chicago Ridge location.
Dog adoptions were put on hold and the facility was no longer accepting stray or owner-surrendered dogs due to an outbreak of suspected kennel cough, the announcement said.
Among questions I asked the league in an email is whether those services have resumed, and the current status of operations.
Earlier this month, retailers Petco and PetSmart said they were no longer partnering with Animal Welfare League to offer in-store adoption programs. The retailers had previously housed some dogs in their stores as part of a nationwide policy that seeks to increase the chances for adoption through greater visibility of animals.
Demonstrators have stressed they want the facility investigated and a change in leadership, but they also want the center to continue operating in Chicago Ridge.
“We need Animal Welfare League in this village,” Ornsby said. “We don’t want it to close.”
As a nonprofit, the league is required to publicly file information about its finances. In its most recent “Form 990,” for the 12-month period ending Sept. 20, 2016, published on its website, the league said it had annual income of $6,751,330 that included $798,338 in contributions and grants and $4,962,817 in revenue from programs and services.
“The organization provides food, shelter and medical care for unwanted, stray or lost animals,” the league said in the filing.
The league reported noncash contributions of 94 units of pet food and supplies with a fair market value of $215,830.
It reported expenses for the year of $6,911,092, for an operating loss of $750,021. Assets were reported as $14,583,674.
Compensation reported for employees included $83,702 for Estrada. Compensation for veterinarians was reported as $125,794 for Leo Paul and $101,348 for Mohammadreza Zariffard. Chief financial officer Kehinde O. Solola received $121,486 in compensation.
The filing reported that two sons of Estrada, the executive director, were on the payroll as kennel supervisors. Anthony Estrada was compensated $51,234 and Mark Estrada was compensated $53,205.
The league noted in the filing that as a charitable organization it was exempt from paying federal taxes to the IRS .
Regarding governance, the league said in the filing that during an annual meeting, life members of the organization vote on a slate for the board of directors.