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In for a Pound?

The ouster of Durham's popular shelter director raises concerns about the future of animal protection


Jake grew up on the streets of Durham, begging food from passers-by but never letting anyone close enough to touch him.

Amy Darrah watched him out her window for six months while she worked at Tar Heel Linen Service on Club Boulevard. She talked softly to him, fed him, offered to bring him in out of the weather, but he was too afraid. Finally, she watched as animal control officers captured Jake and drove him down the street to the Animal Protection Society (APS), where three out of every four animals that go in never come back out.

Six months later, Jake lives the life of a spoiled companion animal. He's sweet-natured and beloved by Darrah. If it weren't for shelter director Deborah Courtney, he'd be dead.

"He would not be alive today if she hadn't given him a chance," Darrah says. "She sees things other people don't see."

The fact that Jake was wild and that Darrah doesn't live in Durham County made the adoption unlikely under existing shelter policies. But Courtney worked to tame Jake and lobbied the shelter board to make an exception to the residency rule.

In her seven months as head of APS, many who worked with her say Courtney looked at homeless animals in a way that often challenged existing shelter philosophies. Her approach also saved lives. The average number of animals put to death at APS each month dropped by nearly half during her tenure--from 449 to 240.

But at the end of June, Courtney's animal-first approach got her fired--a move that's raised concerns in the Triangle's animal-care community.

"Dr. Courtney's progressive thinking has been a breath of fresh air," Raleigh dog trainer and rescuer Dawn Schiffhauer told APS leaders in a June 28 letter protesting the dismissal. Schiffhauer, a shelter volunteer, called for Durham County authorities to investigate, saying, "I am deeply concerned by this turn of events and the future direction of the shelter."

APS board leaders, who are running the shelter while they search for a replacement for Courtney, have instructed shelter employees not to speak to the press about the leadership situation there. But local animal rescuers, volunteers and veterinarians who worked with Courtney have been writing protest letters and spreading the news of her firing.

Clearly uncomfortable with questions about Courtney, board President Patty Croom calls the termination "a personnel issue" and declines to elaborate. But other board members say the 28-year-old veterinarian was fired over veterinary bills in excess of the shelter budget--some of which, they say, were allowed to languish unpaid.

"We just don't have the money to be spending thousands of dollars on an animal," says Durham County Commissioner Becky Heron, a founding member of the 30-year-old nonprofit that runs the shelter and a member of its board. "And we had bills that were 60 to 90 days overdue."

Courtney says the bills were late because she was told to wait for the APS board treasurer to write the checks. Since her budget only allowed for $2,000 in vet expenses, she collected private donations and solicited pro bono work from colleagues to treat adoptable dogs and cats.

Volunteers, veterinarians and former staff members who worked with Courtney say the real issue behind her firing was the chasm between the way she viewed the shelter's mission and the way her bosses did.

"She's very passionate about good animal care. That's the kind of person you want there," says Durham veterinarian Chuck Miller. He says the local vet community has long been "very concerned" that the shelter's adoption policies are too strict, leading to more animals being put down. "We thought things were going to change," with Courtney's hiring, Miller says. "This came as a real slap in the face."

Others who worked with Courtney feel the same.

"Change takes courage," says Barbara Shumannfang, a professional Durham dog trainer who began volunteering four days a week after Courtney impressed her at a conference. "This is clearly a person with management skills. This is the person you want to be the executive director, someone who is going to take the shelter in the right direction."

As word has leaked out about Courtney's firing, shelter board leaders have downplayed her contributions, stressing that her tenure was short in the context of the 11 years the nonprofit has run the shelter with $300,000 in county funds and $60,000 in private donations.

Board members also downplay Courtney's qualifications.

"Deb had no administrative experience," says shelter board Vice President Susan Teer, a 30-year APS veteran whom insiders credit with Courtney's ouster. "We were hoping that we'd have an administrator and the veterinarian part would be icing on the cake. Sometimes the shoe just doesn't fit."

For her part, Courtney says she considered her post at APS a dream job. "I wanted to have significant influence over adoption policies, public relations and addressing overpopulation, which I couldn't do just as a veterinarian," she says.

After graduating from North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999, Courtney completed a year-long shelter internship under the auspices of Purdue University in Indiana. Her work there led her to apply for the APS director's job in Durham when her predecessor, Cindy Bailey, left last October for personal reasons.

Courtney took the helm of an organization that faces an overwhelming task. The Durham shelter takes in an average of 432 cats and dogs each month, and sometimes more than 700. They are strays off the streets, pets surrendered or abandoned by their owners, victims of neglect and abuse seized by county animal control officers.

Of the 5,182 animals that entered the shelter between July 1, 2000 and June 30 of this year, only 763--about 15 percent--were adopted. During that same period, shelter workers euthanized 3,928 animals--76 percent--killing an average of 11 dogs and cats every day. The remaining animals were reclaimed by their owners, died of natural causes or remained in the shelter at the end of June.

Durham isn't the only place with a pet overpopulation problem. Across the Triangle, only one in nine animals in shelters finds a permanent home. And 75 percent of all shelter animals are euthanized, according to AnimalKind, a local nonprofit group that runs a spay/neuter awareness campaign.

"Euthanasia is the leading killer of cats and dogs--not getting hit by cars, not cancer, not old age," says AnimalKind executive director, Hope Tyndall. "We have to be innovative to solve this problem."

Supporters say Courtney did just that--initiating a host of new programs aimed at helping more animals find homes. She recruited volunteer dog trainers like Shumannfang and began evaluating the temperament of each dog before putting it up for adoption--an increasingly popular practice aimed at making more permanent matches between dogs and new families. She set up a committee to review adoptions and consider appeals when people were denied. And she instituted a "matchmaking program" where people looking to adopt a particular size or breed could sign up to be called if a similar animal became available.

"A lot of the things Dr. Courtney was trying to bring to Durham are progressive, look-to-the-future kind of things," says veterinarian Mary Ann McBride, who, as founder and director of the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program of North Carolina, works closely with 20 area shelter directors.

Durham has a good shelter, McBride says, but leaders there just weren't ready for Courtney's ideas. The conflict between "old school and new school," she adds, ultimately led to Courtney's dismissal.

When Courtney arrived last December, the Durham shelter had a reputation for being clean and well-run, and for treating its canine and feline residents humanely. But it also had low adoption rates, compared to shelters in neighboring counties.

Critics blame those rates on an over reliance on traditional methods and an unwillingness to try new approaches.

"Instead of placing an animal, they will put it down and say, 'Hey, euthanasia's not a bad word for us out here,'" says Miller, the Durham vet who performed pro bono work for Courtney. "They say, 'The rules are the rules, and we make the rules.'"

Board members defend their adoption criteria, which are based on guidelines set down by the national Humane Society. They say the shelter stresses quality over quantity of adoptions, noting that they are legally and morally responsible if an animal goes to a bad home. "We want all our animals to be well-fed and comfortable," says Teer. "Even if they are euthanized next week, for some of these animals these will be the best few days they ever had."

But others in the animal-care community say problems at APS aren't limited to policies on who gets to adopt.

For example, the Durham shelter has limited weekend viewing hours--9:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday--even though weekends are a prime time for people to look for a new pet. By comparison, shelters in Orange and Wake counties are open most of Saturday, and the Orange County shelter is open half-days on Sundays.

In Orange County, shelter Director Pat Sanford credits the high volume of weekend shelter visitors and satellite adoption centers for their adoption rates, which are the highest in the state. Orange averaged 33 percent over the last year, compared to Durham's 15 percent, according to both shelters' monthly reports. One of the Orange shelter's adoption centers is at the Durham PetsMart store. PetsMart invited the Durham APS first, but leaders declined to use the space.

Supporters applaud Courtney's willingness to challenge the way things were done in the past. Under her leadership, adoption rates did go up--from 10.6 percent before she was hired to 18.8 percent.

APS leaders say they will pursue the temperament evaluation program Courtney created. And they point out that the shelter has come a long way since the nonprofit group took control 11 years ago, when the county was selling homeless animals for research experiments, among other cruel practices. County officials recently approved an $800,000 renovation project that will add new kennels and office space to the shelter.

"Given the current resources, we're moving in the right direction," says Kim Willis, longtime chair of the county animal control advisory board, which makes recommendations to the commissioners on animal-care issues.

But many worry that Courtney's departure is a lost opportunity to bring positive change to Durham's animal shelter.

McBride, the SNAP founder, told APS members just that in a letter urging them to reconsider their decision to fire the popular shelter director.

"The innovative new programs she was trying to implement were incredible," McBride says. "They were worth trying to work through their differences." EndBlock

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