Two conflicting tales about conditions at a south suburban animal shelter have battled for the public’s attention this year, casting the fate of hundreds of dogs, cats and other animals into doubt.
Protestors have found sympathetic ears in their calls for reforms at Animal Welfare League’s shelter in Chicago Ridge. The shelter’s longtime administrator left the organization in May after reports that state and federal authorities were investigating operations.
But the state agency that regulates animal care gave the shelter a clean bill of health. Now, AWL is pushing back, questioning the motives of village officials and trying to restore its reputation as a trustworthy organization.
“We’re a vital facility for the south suburban area,” Chris Higens, AWL board president, said Thursday during a tour of the Chicago Ridge shelter.
AWL’s mission includes taking in stray and abandoned animals recovered in dozens of Southland communities and trying to place them with owners willing to adopt them into their homes.
“We never refuse them,” she said of dogs and cats brought in by police, other authorities and private citizens. “Some of them have gunshot wounds, they’re abused or neglected … We’re a sanctuary.”
Problems with the shelter first publicly surfaced in January. AWL suspended adoptions and imposed a quarantine due to an outbreak of kennel cough.
Amid those reports, some customers and former workers and volunteers shared stories on social media of alleged unsanitary conditions, poor service and alleged mistreatment of animals. A group regularly protested in front of the shelter at 10305 Southwest Highway.
“We just want what’s right for the animals,” Nikki Ormsby of Joliet, a leader of the group Reform AWL Chicago Ridge, said Thursday by telephone. “We’re the voice of the voiceless.”
As TV stations covered the public demonstrations and protesters contacted legislators, Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Western Springs, asked the Illinois Department of Agriculture to account for the complaints.
In March, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by The Daily Southtown, the state agency released a report documenting findings of five recent, unannounced inspections. The agency found no health or safety violations, no evidence of alleged rodent infestation, and no animals “that looked to be in pain or suffering.”
Protests continued, however, and the village of Chicago Ridge conducted its own code-enforcement inspections. In early May, AWL announced that longtime executive director Linda Estrada was no longer employed with the organization.
More coverage: Animal Welfare League changes leadership amid ongoing scrutiny »
The league was founded in 1935 and still operates its founding shelter at 6224 S. Wabash Ave. in Chicago. The second shelter in Chicago Ridge opened in 1974. The organization questions why none of the protests allege any wrongdoing at the Chicago facility.
“We feel like we’re being booted out of here,” Higens said of the Chicago Ridge facility.
On Sept. 13, the Illinois State Crime Commission announced that at the request of AWL it was launching an independent investigation into the ongoing allegations “and to explore possible conflicts relevant to the motives behind those allegations.”
“We know that the AWL was approached by political figures who requested that they sell a major portion of their property to a real estate developer interested in putting up a medical facility,” Jerry Elsner, the crime commission’s executive director, said in an announcement.
“We know that the leadership of AWL declined the offer. We also know that after declining that offer, an unprecedented effort has been mounted to discredit the AWL and potentially put the organization out of business,” Elsner said.
AWL is accusing the village of harassment because it refused the village’s request to sell property to a developer.
“Elsner cited the discrepancy existing between state regulators who found no egregious violations with the operations of the AWL facility, while Chicago Ridge officials have issued an unprecedented amount of code violations against the same facility,” the commission said in its announcement.
Higens said AWL recently acquired a site north of the shelter where the former Nickobee’s restaurant stood at 10301 Southwest Highway. The building has been demolished and the site is vacant.
Chicago Ridge Village Attorney Mike Stillman said Friday that AWL’s claim of harassment by the village is unfounded.
“That allegation is without merit, whatsoever,” Stillman said.
Chicago Ridge Trustee Ed Kowalski said Friday the village appreciated the efforts of Lipinski, who wrote on Sept. 6 to Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Raymond Poe requesting information about state inspections of AWL.
“I thought that was a good letter,” Kowalski said.
The group Reform AWL Chicago Ridge also applauded the congressman’s intervention.
“We’re very happy he’s bringing awareness to the organization,” Ormsby said.
Lipinski wrote to Poe that he wanted to resolve discrepancies between the findings by the state and village.
“Although I am aware the Illinois Department of Agriculture previously conducted an investigation that resulted in no major findings, officials from the village of Chicago Ridge and others found exactly the opposite in the following months,” Lipinski wrote.
“(The village found) fire, safety, and building code violations; uncleanly and unsanitary conditions (including signs of long-term rodent infestations); and potentially serious breaches in standard medical practices in the treatment of animals,” Lipinski wrote.
Ormsby said she believes the state lacked thoroughness in its inspections.
“We’re questioning why the state Department of Agriculture did not do its job,” she said. “They’re seeing all the clean and efficient parts of the operation. We think they’re being walked through and not seeing the actual unsanitary horrors.”
On Feb. 27, AWL announced that authorities from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulations made an unannounced visit that day to the Chicago Ridge shelter. Representatives of the agencies would neither confirm nor deny whether investigations were being conducted.
In addition to providing shelter and adoption services, AWL also offers veterinary services. A waiting room was crowded with owners and pets during a visit Thursday.
The shelter bustled with staff and volunteers caring for animals, cleaning and disinfecting cages and floors. AWL invited me to tour the facility immediately, without advance notice. I walked through within hours of the invitation from John Fanning, of Crestwood-based Fanning Communications, who is working with AWL.
“We’re like a ‘M*A*S*H’ unit,” Higen said, comparing operations to the mobile army surgical hospital unit depicted in a popular movie and TV series. “It’s not pretty … Everybody gives it their all.”
The facility houses hundreds of animals at any given time. The noise and smell can seem overwhelming. Dogs and cats typically do not like being kept in cages. Some are isolated because of temperament or suspected illness or infection.
The vast majority — up to 80 percent — of dogs at the shelter are pit bulls.
“Nobody wants them,” Higen said. She said AWL partners with some rescue organizations, but that some rescue groups take in dogs at no cost then charge to place animals in homes.
Ormsby disputed Higen’s claim, saying rescue groups have told her AWL is no longer working with them.
Ormsby said reformers do not want to see the shelter closed, but want board members replaced and a change in mentality among leadership.
Higen said the private, non-profit organization would continue to select its board members and officers as it always has — through elections.
The ongoing public dispute over AWL is taking its toll on operations, Higen said. Earlier this month, she said, PetSmart Charities informed the organization it was suspending adoption services offered through PetSmart stores.
“Animal Welfare League was terminated from the PetSmart Charities In-store adoption program on Sept. 10 for violation of the program’s policies and procedures,” said Christina Martinez, senior manager of corporate communications for PetSmart and PetSmart Charities, in emailed statement. “The organization may no longer facilitate adoptions at PetSmart stores.”
Martinez did not respond immediately to a request to elaborate on the violation.
Higen said PetSmart Charities had provided “90 percent” of pet food donated to the shelter. An IRS Form 990 filed in July by Arizona-based PetSmart Charities stated that it provided $35,510 worth of services to AWL during the one-year period ending Jan. 28.
The charity reported it provided nearly $50 million in support to 2,900 animal welfare groups nationwide last year. Higen said protesters who profess to care about animal welfare have made it more difficult for the shelter to fulfill its mission.
“We now have to buy our food when we used to have it donated,” Higen said. “Once a month, we used to give away pet food to low-income residents of the area. We’ve had to stop doing that.”