Sunday, December 7, 2008

The previous life of Jere Alexander - part 2

(all photos by Jere Alexander)

Part 1 here.

In 2007, Fulton County in Atlanta, Georgia, opens up the bidding for the running of their animal services. In Jan. 2008, it is announced that Barking Hound Village Foundation, owned by David York who has worked with Jere Alexander in the past as well as on this particular bid, has won the contract over the previous service provider, Southern Hope. Jere is offered the job of Director of Animal Services once BHVF take over.

Jere describes her reaction to the offer:

I've worked with this guy on nonprofit stuff before and know a lot about how he works and what to expect — I fully expect it to be the hardest job I've ever done, with many clusters and frustrations and sadnesses. I wonder about going into a job every day again after I've become so used to unstructured days. I wonder about dealing with the realities of abused animals and euthanasia in huge numbers. I worry about the fanatics too and the compromises that will have to be made to do any kind of job at all. I wonder if I'll miss reading and thinking in the way academic life allows. But the thought of doing something hands-on, being able to implement some sanity instead of just bitching, it has me freaking drooling, chomping at the proverbial bit, wired and pumped and awed like nothing I've felt in a long time.

Between January and the take-over of FCAS, Jere works through some doubts, as would anyone about to embark on a new career.

On Feb. 21:

I'm still getting used to all this shelter talk. what i want to note right now is how often i've heard the word "euthanasia" used in the last few days, as i've been in meetings with shelter employees and administrators. more than i've ever heard it before in my 39 years of life up until now. and it's always said with this reverence, this solemn expression, which makes me think it holds some bizarre interest or fascination. i suppose the doleful gesture that goes along with the mention of euthanasia is is preferable to acting like it's nothing, or stuffing one's face with fries or something. but i'm registering some kind of fetishization with it. or maybe it's just my own heart stopping each time. i just want to ponder this while i'm still new enough that it's all so jarring.

Different people have different relationships with their jobs. On the one hand, you've got people who treat their jobs as merely a 9 to 5 chore, a means to make some money so they can go out and buy stuff. There's nothing wrong with that. I've been in that situation myself. On the other hand, you've got people who want to make a difference at their jobs. There's nothing wrong with that, at least not on the surface. What happens, though, in the second case, is that more often than not, the changes someone tries to implement create a backlash from those who are set in their ways. But more on that later.

Here's an example of where Jere stands on change:

I'm now privy to a bunch of emails going around among shelter directors in the area debating changes in legislation governing euthanasia. There's a bill afoot regulating euthanasia procedures and finally outlawing the gas chambers. Yes, they still gas dogs and cats in Georgia! Is that freaking nuts or what? And some of these in surrounding counties are saying the gas chamber still has a place in the world, "at least for aggressive animals." I haven't heard the entire spiel on that yet - I can't imagine how anyone anywhere would try to justify that torture.

It angers me that an attempted justification is for aggressive animals, when many shelter animals are deemed aggressive who are no such thing, just stressed or mishandled. And if the problem is that the animals can't be handled, then they need better-trained employees, not a freaking gas chamber. I'm not even sure of the logic but it seems that they are supposed to suffer for being aggressive? The gas chamber death is so bad that they may as well be kicked to death. I hate to even post these links (don't watch unless you are prepared to be sickened), but if you have any doubt, just watch this and this
[I've not brought the links over - Fred]. Any Georgians out there should really contact their local representatives to support the proposed change in the law.

These people defending gas chambers are the same people who are charged with protecting animals. They are paid to be humane workers. And it's interesting to notice that they also demonize irresponsible pet owners to the nth degree. How on earth can they claim any sort of moral high ground?

Taking over the job as director of a county pound can't be an easy task to begin with but an uncooperative outgoing director makes it that much harder. This is where a job that held so much promise already starts to turn sour even before Jere steps through the doors.

The transition was supposed to happen in June. Instead, for some unknown reason, Southern Hope announces it's going to pull out 3 months early and Jere and the BHVF transition team have to scramble to make the new Mar. 8 deadline. It doesn't help that the embittered current shelter administration of Southern Hope is apparently making it as difficult as possible for the new people to transition in, using tactics such as locking out the new admin team.

March 5, three days before the handover:

tonight though, before we are under contract, i want to document that the current shelter management has turned off the phones, cut off the supplies, stripped the place of inventory and records, crashed the software system, and worst of all, instructed the employees to load the place up with animals. a couple of employees placed frantic calls to the county saying that they have no puppy or dog food, cat litter, necessary medications, bleach to clean, and other supplies. i'm so saddened at how the animals are being treated as pawns in this game. we still haven't been allowed on the premises, even though we start operating the place on saturday.

Despite attempts at creating a chaotic transition, in the end, it's still out with the old administration and in with the new. The main body of staff, however, remain.

Here are some images from the first week:

The previous staff neglected to take this puppy out of the building from the day it was impounded 3 months earlier. This is its first time outside:

Under the post title Worst Day of My Life:

Jere: the little guy on the left was brought into the shelter yesterday, and the guy wanted to "swap" him for a bigger dog.

Under the post title keep calm and carry on, i guess:

No doubt the shock of trying to deal with all the animals in despair hits Jere hard but perhaps worse is the reaction to her ideas for change. At the end of her first week she posts:

that's a gunshot victim in the bottom left corner, shot by the police. sweet dog, too.

i've never been so discouraged. no-one wants the system to change. there is pressure from every direction: employees, boss, county, rescues, and annoying people who call themselves allies. pressure to maintain the status quo. i was hopeful initially at some new policies i was able to implement. but now the choice i'm facing is to kill animals in mass quantities or to walk out. i was prepared for opposition and difficulty, but i didn't comprehend the extent of the insanity, incompetence, inertia, ignorance, 20 hour days, and personal attacks. i just don't know how this is gonna work. how on earth can i manage a slaughterhouse?

"no kill" are dirty words in these parts. who knew?

The second month on the job brings with it the resignation that a broken system isn't going to be fixed quickly.

Under a posting titled There is no God

Someone put a wire around this dog. She came to us full of gangrene, still wagging her tail.

On April 13, Jere writes: i'm still struck by how i should be writing, keeping a record of every single thing i see and think during this time. i've witnessed the most horrific cruelty and blatant injustice. the little bit of hope and faith i had in humanity, in God, is slipping away. but i have a glimpse sometimes, a half-second of insight, into how interesting all this could be if i had the ability to step back and make something good come out of it, something that would expose all this, something artistic and enduring. there's also something keeping me going, alongside this soul-crushing system, and that seems to be the people who care, and there are a few sweet souls, and the dogs, cats, possums, foxes and deer who come to us in all states of illness and injury, beauty and glory.

Most people, when taking on a challenge that may be rewarding but is at the same time long and arduous, will ask themselves if such a task is worth it. The possibility of success is of course only given to those who decide to continue to do the work. In May, Jere's mood begins to turn around. She consciously or subconsciously decides that the fight for improvements in her pound is a worthwhile task. The month is not without its low points but there are bright spots as well.

Posted under formerly, the gas chamber - we had a fun saturday night of painting and girl talk:

May 8

Posted under aliens have landed

Jere starts to flex her intellectual, legal muscles again as well. Here is a May 10 posting on dog politics, BSL specifically:

we met with a legislator who raked his aids over the coals for the crazy proposed revision to the animal control ordinance. it was such the eye-opener for how all these laws get made. it's all about the aids: what they feel and what their friend's neighbor's daughter saw one time. the politicians do not even read anything, and none of them really understand the issues regarding animals, or what the laws mean in terms of enforcement. at least this guy understood that this radical change in the law would be a political train wreck for his career.

it was wild listening to the little white rescue woman argue that people who can't pay their light bill shouldn't have pets. and this black man respond that was just like people saying black people shouldn't have babies. it's such a fundamental political divide. luckily, this time, he was the one with the power.

but it's still about that power. how it will look, and what constituents it will play to. it's not about animal welfare or even public safety. i have learned and i want to shout it to the heavens: the best thing going for pit bulls is that BSL is RACIST. i'm afraid that this argument is all that can save them now.

But also on May 10 there is this:

then today i heard some things about how some of our staff used to behave in prior years. these folks who were in charge of humane care and law enforcement - they would torment animals before they were euthanized. poke caged raccoons with sticks. instead of breaking up a dog fight in the kennels, they would stand around and watch to see who would win. when they had the gas chamber, they would toss a couple of fighting dogs in there and watch them go at it until they died. one officer was seen beating an uncooperative dog in the head with a boot - and he's still working there.

And on May 11:

i knew a dog came in to the shelter with an embedded collar, which is nearly a daily occurrence. but this is a new one on me: a link of chain was actually pierced into the dog's neck a long time ago. our vet just emailed me this. every time i think i've seen everything, i am proven so, so wrong.

Despite the daily horrors, Jere manages to move the pound forward. May's euthanasia rate, though still at a whopping 40%, is the lowest in its history but Jere takes no joy in this.

In July, things come to a head with some of the staff members, especially the kennel manager who makes two gross errors. The first one is a questionable deal which results in a Boxer being tranfered out to a rescue that later refuses to relinquish the dog despite the fact that the original rightful owner wants the dog back.

The second mistake by the kennel manager results in the wrongful euthanasia of a dog whose owner was coming by to pick it up. I've summarized the complicated events leading up to this dog's death into one sentence which might make it seem less consequential but imagine this:

Your dog is at the pound. You phone to say you are going to pick it up. You show up and find out your dog has been euthanized. Imagine if this was your dog, dead.

How would you feel?

What would you do?

Jere fires her kennel manager.

I suspect there was more to the firing than this. I suspect bad blood had already started to flow between the old school mentality of the kennel manager and the new fangled ways of Jere Alexander. The death of the dog was just the icing on an already rotten cake.

Over the next couple months there are hints of further employee problems. Nasty employee written anonymous e-mails start circulating around about the current FCAS management. They natter on about childish things, like demeaning people's appearances, and are obviously meant to further undermine staff-management relations.


As the weeks roll on to the end of summer, Jere writes about how she is starting to experience a sense of numbness to all the euthanasia.

i guess it was bound to happen, but i'm finding that killing animals isn't having the same impact on me that it used to. one night a week or so ago, i had to make the list by myself. i hate that prospect more than anything, but we were just drowning in dogs and everyone else had split. somewhere in the process, my brain detached from my heart. and it just didn't seem like that big of a deal any more. did i just say that? of course, it can't be any of the dogs i "know." i can't look at them too long. i hate to even admit any of this, but maybe it's important to be honest about how people deal with this. i've come unglued so many times that now i just shrug and move along.

and so my good friend who came to work at the shelter, she is having such a hard time. she comes to me and emails me with her sadness. and i suck at comforting her. because what can i say? if she has a plan or particular attachment for a dog, she can put a hold on her and we'll wait. everyone gets adopted, eventually! it's just a matter of how long can we keep them. but she doesn't do that, she comes in my office and weeps. and being further down this path than her, and with more responsibility. i feel like it's not even me wanting to say, "buck up! don't be so tender." but i think that's a reaction to feeling so much guilt, and guilt driven home by her pain.

And then later, in the fall, there are nightmares:

i was dreaming that i was driving in an unknown place, trying to find my way home. hub was following me in another car for some reason. then i saw two emaciated grown dogs walking slowly in the middle of the road. they looked kind of like ones we had in the shelter recently, one brown and one red, all too familiar. i looked at them but then averted my eyes, and had to swerve around them to pass. then i saw another one, skinny and shepherd-like but with a grey muzzle. he was standing in the road, barely moving, and he looked through me as i drove by. i thought about stopping, but then thought, no, they'll only get put down at the shelter. i felt very torn though, like always. then traffic got heavier and started moving along a little better. then i saw another few dogs, of different sizes, walking in slow motion along the side of the road. then everywhere i looked there were more dogs. all trying to find their way, just like me.


on wednesday night, i had an awful dream about the beautiful presa that we had at the shelter. i was driving somewhere and saw him hanging off an overpass, or bridge, or something like that. there was a rope around his thick neck, and his huge body hung limp. then thurs night, i dreamed that i came in and saw our sweet office dog and something terrible had happened to her. she was thin, her fur was thinning and you could see her pink skin, and she was very upset. like all the work we had done making her happy and comfortable with people was erased and her trust had been betrayed again.

In the next post, we'll take a look at the people and events which ultimately defeat Jere Alexander's attempts at turning a high kill shelter around into something more civilized and humane.

Continued here.


Ian said...

God bless this woman.
Her soul must hurt.
I can barely read this or look at the pictures.

Tangi Adopt A Rescue said...

I can hardly read through the tears. This earth sure cannot be made by a loving god.

Joanne said...

People who do those kinds of things to animals are sub-human and mentally ill. There is no reason and no excuse for that kind of treatment of any living creature. And worst of all, the atrocities and cruel, cruel acts committed by people in charge of the animals. Sick and disgusting...I don't know how they look at themselves in the mirror or what they think they see. I remember once walking through the mall on the way to work and I saw a sign with a saying.."If you want to feel good, do good". It stopped me dead in my tracks and I stood there for a good couple of minute amongst the morning rush thinking about that. What greater act is there than to show kindness and compassion to someone weaker, smaller and less able to fend for themselves, homo sapiens or not. If you cannot do that, you do not deserve to live among civilized humanity. You are more savage than the animals you hurt and taunt and kill needlessly. Who kills millions of creatures a year that are innocent of any crime whatsoever. We give chance after chance after chance to repeat offenders...who kill and abuse over and over and over again and yet for the simple fact of being deserted, abused or homeless, we "humanely" euthanize them. What kind of oxymoron is that? What euthanize...we kill them by sticking them with euthanol and stopping their little hearts while they look into our eyes for us to protect them. And we call ourselves humanity...ha! now there is a joke and a disgrace!!!!

Anonymous said...

Those pictures are so hard to loook at. Harder still because they are real. I'll never understand how people can be so depraved and cruel.

Thank god for advocates like Jere Alexander!


Anonymous said...

This is an older blog posting, but I was sickened when I read about the smear campaign FoxNews began against Ms. Alexander. The more I read, the less likely their 'accusations' seemed...a woman who devoted her life to understanding dogs in academia, as well as her personal and professional life. A woman who attempted to rehabilitate pit bulls, only to be accused by the media of engaging in dog fighting.

I sincerely hope Jere gets a kick ass defense attorney and sues the sh!t out of all of them. Atlanta is so ridiculous with its "start up the lynch mob!" reactionary reporting, but this situation really just sickened me.

Thanks for this post. I'll be giving more money to Barking Hound Village in the future.

Fred said...

The quality of reporting at many news outlets is certainly abysmal and I think many more people are starting to realize that.

What gets me fuming about this particular situation, which isn't over yet, by the way, is how so many people who consider themselves animal welfare advocates get such a self righteous kick out of spewing hatred and lies than actually doing any concrete good.