It has also been said that the media is the most powerful entity on Earth because it controls the minds of the masses (Malcolm X). My own experience with the media as it relates to animal welfare advocacy has been a mixed bag. I have found some media outlets and journalists to be incredibly professional and entirely focused on neutral reporting which serves a public purpose and educates the public. I have found that other media outlets and journalists are not at all focused on neutral reporting, almost as if they are afraid to speak out on matters they know may be unpopular. Their bias is demonstrated in how they report on facts either in unexpected ways or incomplete ways. When it comes to how tax dollars are spent, some media outlets have no issue reporting on pot holes in the road or citizen complaints about law enforcement. But reporting on how animal shelters function? That's a whole different topic which seems to be off limits for some reason.
One of the people speaking out in Birmingham is Phil Doster, a long time contact of mine. I had hoped that Phil's comments would end up being reported locally. Since they have not, I offered my website as a platform for Phil. Phil is down on the field of play and is getting dirty, knowing full well that many people in his area will be made uncomfortable by his words. I hope you take inspiration from Phil, that you speak your personal truth in your efforts to help animals and that you stand your ground when people try to bully you. The First Amendment is a powerful tool, but we have to have the courage to use it.
So I've been asked my feelings about the Greater Birmingham Humane Society and current leadership, and when I tried to prepare a fair, but critical response, the overwhelming response was that it is not sensational enough. That was never my intent in writing about my experience. I expect us to hold non-profits, especially those with an executive that makes over $160k annually as a base salary, to a high standard of integrity and responsibility. Furthermore, and forgotten in a lot of the conversation, is the fact that it is extremely painful and difficult for former staff to step forward and talk about how they were treated. Many are sensitive and compassionate people who were treated with incredible disrespect and tossed aside when they were no longer useful to specific executives. Below is my experience. You can dislike it if you'd like, but I ask that you consider the people and animals in the shelter, as well as the community that this charity is intended to help.
As a former staff member of GBHS, I have a few things to say about animal shelters, the public, and the current leadership of that organization. I would consider this less of a whistle blowing, and more of a personal account and call to action.
Four years ago, I served as a Cruelty Prevention Officer at GBHS. My role was to build relationships in the community, across all racial, socioeconomic, and cultural lines, in an attempt to help people and their pets coexist happily, humanely, and with as little stress as possible. There are many times that our assistance, education, and compassion were received with open arms. Other times it was a bigger challenge. The dogs and cats in some of the most inhumane situations were often the most expressive. The fact that animals “speak” in their body language and actions has always been profound to me, because it is not built on deception. Pets do not lie or misrepresent themselves. We did a lot of good as an organization, and I was as proud as I’ve ever been to be a part of it.
In the summer of 2014, Allison Black Cornelius and her consulting firm BlackFish was hired by GBHS to work with our leadership team. I was immediately impressed with the structure of our meetings and the openness that positive communication was bringing. She preached transparency and integrity, and the staff responded strongly to that.
Just a few months later, Ms. Cornelius was named the new leader of GBHS, giving herself the title of CEO. This is when I felt the change in our operation. Immediately it seemed that we became more frantic as an organization, concentrating more on public appeal than on serving the community. As a caveat, I am fully aware that fundraising is necessary to run any non-profit, but I felt that often the mission was lost in an effort to present more favorable images to the public. That is a difference in opinion that I voiced… but not very loudly. That was my first error. Many within the organization took issue with Ms. Cornelius’ leadership style. To the public, it appeared as if she was playing herself and the shelter out as a victim and an underdog. Behind closed doors however, she came across as loud, foul-mouthed, and direct. It was more than that though. From my perspective, Ms. Cornelius has a way of beating down those that work for her. Far too often, I saw the light extinguished in passionate animal advocates and humane shelter heroes. I, myself, started questioning why I was even involved in humane sheltering. I often wonder how many compassionate, brilliant people left the world of animal welfare as a result of Ms. Cornelius and what I now feel were her gas-lighting tendencies. It’s often not until you escape a situation that you recognize how you were manipulated.
During this period, Ms. Cornelius and the GBHS Board decided to make a concerted effort to win the bid to run the Animal Control facility for Jefferson County. I was supportive, as I had worked for the vendor that was in place, BJC Animal Control Services, and was dismayed at the lack of transparency on numbers and operations. That being said, the staff and caretakers at BJC were some of the most compassionate and humane that I’ve met. Individuals from BJC were villainized by GBHS leaders in staff meetings and to the public. With strong public support, GBHS won the bid and took over Animal Control in January of 2015.
As we took over Animal Control, I was moved to Director of Impoundment, overseeing the shelter staff and the care of animals coming to the shelter. It was a critical change for animal control, as we saw a dramatic increase in the amount of pets being returned to their owners. The staff worked diligently towards that goal. Allison Black Cornelius claims that nobody at GBHS wants to see pets euthanized, and I never observed anything to contradict that. I have many complaints about GBHS, but shelter workers, even the few who make decisions on euthanasia, are never happy about making such a difficult call. To that end, the shelter and staff worked twice as hard to make sure pets went back home. As we were working to reduce intake via education, and reduce euthanasia by returning stray pets back to their homes, I started seeing Ms. Cornelius making pleas to the public to help GBHS keep their Animal Control contract. I heard intake statistics being relayed to the public that were not consistent with the numbers we would see when running our reports. Even estimating numbers for the rest of the year, the information being disseminated vastly exceeded what was actually entering the shelter. Our euthanasia rate had improved with huge efforts, but not to the dramatic extent that Ms. Cornelius claimed publicly in press releases and visual media. I can’t speak to whether this was done maliciously or if it was a clerical/unintentional mistake, but it happened frequently and did the same disservice to animal advocates and the public trying to get a grasp on how many animals truly enter the shelter.
Shelters, particularly in Alabama, were created to protect the population from potentially dangerous stray animals that may potentially carry a zoonotic disease such as rabies. Over the years, society and animal care have evolved, creating the need to not only protect the citizens, but to do what is best for people AND their pets. My concerns, and those of so many Birmingham advocates, citizens, and city and county leaders, is that without accurate statistics, how are we as a community going to improve our treatment of animals and reduce the risk of so many of them being euthanized. My hope is that we, as a community, will ask hard questions of the GBHS board and its CEO. I know what I witnessed in 2015, and I hope that it was an anomaly that now has a better check and balance system. According to the peculiar and inconsistent manner in which statistics are reported via the GBHS website, it appears that some months see around 25% of the animals euthanized, while lately, 50% or more of the animals coming to the shelter are euthanized. As horrific as that sounds, it isn’t unethical or deceitful. What may be deceitful is the history of misleading the public and failing to be transparent, the chief complaint about BJC that allowed GBHS to win their contract. As a non-profit that is here to serve the citizens and pets of the Greater Birmingham area, I would hope that the GBHS board would be as dedicated to promoting the facts as the public is.