Critters Never Win? Sometimes They Do

The age of reform hits the county pound

Last year, a diminutive gray-haired bureaucrat and former housewife named Susan Smitak took over a job few would want or could stomach. She replaced Dr. Thomas Kelly as director of Maricopa County Rabies-Animal Control--the infamous county pound.

It's not the most glamorous job in the universe, but Smitak has earned high marks from animal lovers for widespread reforms aimed at bettering the plights of her employees as well as the animals.

Smitak, who spent the last ten years at the county Department of Health Services as an administrator, entered Pound Hell last spring. Kelly resigned after 25 years as director in early 1989--after the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors chastised him for sending his dogcatchers on personal errands, like picking up materials for his woodworking avocation, when they should have been out collecting stray pooches. At press time, Kelly was unavailable for comment to New Times.

When Smitak took over the reins, employee morale was knee-high to a chihuahua, and a small group of animal lovers who watchdogged the pound was furious with what was called Kelly's "catch and kill" policy, says Liz Lopez, an animal advocate who has served on the pound's public advisory council for ten years.

Smitak herself says that when she walked into the pound, conditions were as bad for the employees as they were for the animals. "`Squalid' is a kind word to describe it," she sniffs. "Mice regularly ran across my feet as I sat at the desk. It was degrading and shameful that people were expected to work in that environment. I flinch a little when I talk to you about this. "The employees were working with hazardous chemicals and the air vents had black goo hanging from them."

Smitak says the employees should be happier after the place got a thorough cleaning, new carpet and paint and the addition of vents to filter out the fumes of tick dip and disinfectant.

But what about the animals? Smitak has launched an ambitious neutering campaign. She even persuaded the City of Phoenix to help pay for neutering of poor people's pets. The pound snuffs out about 1,000 unwanted pets per month, but Smitak says she hopes that the spaying and neutering will lower that number.

A dog-and-cat owner herself, she claims to favor adoption over euthanasia and has launched a public- relations campaign to alert the public to her kennel orphans. Pound pets are advertised once a week on Channel 12, and Smitak has encouraged programs to place dogs in nursing homes so they can be buddies to old folks. She's also trying to encourage qualified animal lovers to offer foster homes to unwanted animals until they can get adopted.

Although Smitak isn't personally too fond of ferrets, she's also figured out a way to save the lives of those weasely little creatures, which had been routinely nuked at the pound during Kelly's heyday. She's worked out a deal with a ferret fan named Lana Leicht, a computer operator at Motorola who owns a ferret named Foo Foo. The agreement works this way: Smitak doesn't want ferrets at the pound, so when a pound employee hears of a wayward ferret, he calls Leicht. Leicht or one of her fellow ferret aficionados then collects the furry creature, fixes it and adopts it out. "I've been able to save hundreds of ferrets' lives," Leicht says happily.

Smitak says she has plenty of reforms in the hopper. She hopes to build a third county pound in north Phoenix with bond money in 1991. She hopes she can solve the dilemma of greyhound breeders and racers, who often bring their retired racing dogs to the pound to be euthanized without allowing them to be put up for adoption. The pound puts about 400 to 500 greyhounds to sleep each year. Smitak says that if she refuses to allow the owners to euthanize the dogs, the pound can't allow other dog owners to euthanize their pets. On the other hand, she says, the greyhounds "are perfectly healthy dogs" and could be adopted out.

The emphasis on adoption is not always welcome by about a dozen employees who preferred the Kelly regime, says Lopez, the animal advocate. "They'll just have to buy in or bow out."

But Lopez couldn't be more ecstatic. "It's like we're turning the pound into a pet shop," she gushes.

 
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