Who Pooped on the Scoop?
When a black Labrador named Moose lost his life last month after eating a bowl of antifreeze-laced cat food, the Arizona Republic was there. The front-page coverage--including a huge color photograph capturing Moose's last moments with his wheelchair-bound mistress--was so touching that Republic readers responded by the thousands.
But Republic readers haven't learned about Bear, another black Labrador that recently died under suspicious circumstances--this time, in the custody of the county dogcatcher.
Bear escaped from his Scottsdale home one morning in August. He was picked up by a Maricopa County Rabies/Animal Control officer, placed in a cage in a county truck and pronounced dead on arrival at the east-side pound in Mesa.
Sue Goodpasture, the dog's owner, suspects Bear was beaten.
The day of the death, kennel supervisor Debbie Nichols told Goodpasture's husband, Kim, that the dead dog had a tightening of the abdomen--a possible sign of internal bleeding. That could mean the dog was beaten, but it also could mean it was hit by a car. Or it could have been rigor mortis.
The county's official activity report says the dog suffered no obvious injuries. The truck's cooling system was functioning.
No physical evidence was taken. County Rabies/Animal Control officials refuse to comment.
But Goodpasture has witnesses.
Steve Williams, a neighbor, and his children watched as the dog was apprehended. Williams says the officer went berserk, hitting the dog repeatedly with a snare, then chasing it into an alley where Williams' kids, 8 and 10, watched the officer beat the dog until it was almost unconscious, then load it into the county truck.
Williams says, "The man lost his temper, and he lost it completely. My daughter said he had fire in his eyes. And my little girl is 10 years old, but she's very, very smart."
Goodpasture filed a claim with the county for $1,150, but all she really wants is for other animal owners to know how Bear might have died. She called Gail Tabor, an Arizona Republic reporter who often writes about animals.
Tabor interviewed Goodpasture during the first week of September, but no story ever appeared. Goodpasture says Tabor told her she wrote the story, but that her editors refused to run it.
Bear's demise wasn't the first story about Rabies/Animal Control that Tabor's editors had killed.
In August, after weeks of dogged reporting, Tabor wrote a story about allegations ranging from mismanagement to unsanitary conditions to inhumane euthanasia practices at Rabies/Animal Control, a department with 113 employees and a $5.4 million annual budget, run under the county's Department of Public Health Services.
Her story included criticism of a pilot program sponsored by PetsMart---the pet-supply superstore chain based here--to sterilize pound animals and adopt them out through PetsMart stores.
PetsMart, which has a contract with the county to provide adoption services, has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the sterilization/adoption project, which it hopes to replicate in other markets.
The program is a stroke of marketing genius for PetsMart. Who's going to walk out of a pet-supply store with a puppy and no merchandise? And, in a county with one of the highest pet-euthanasia rates in the country (70,000 animals killed each year), it could provide a much-needed service and make good public-relations sense--provided the state's largest daily paper doesn't print a story critical of the new program.
Here's how the program works: The county takes the animals in. A second organization under contract with the county, the Animal Foundation, sterilizes them. PetsMart offers them for adoption through its in-store "Luv-A-Pet" centers. Fees paid by people adopting pets go to the county and to the Animal Foundation to offset sterilization costs.
Any program as ambitious as this one is bound to have a few start-up kinks, and this one is no exception. Pound employees have been tremendously overworked by added responsibilities the program has foisted on them. The county is allowing animals to be sterilized before they have adopters, when the contract between the county and the Animal Foundation stipulates they'll be sterilized after adoption; at least 500 pound animals sterilized for the program have been put to death because of illness or lack of space. There are concerns about postsurgical care of sterilized animals.
Goodpasture claims Tabor told her that PetsMart might have played a role in suppressing her stories--that "PetsMart has this big program going on with Rabies/Animal Control, and PetsMart is a big advertiser with the Arizona Republic."
There are several species of animal lovers. You've got your dedicated old-school breeders and trainers, who might see their dog as man's best friend and source of income; your soft-hearted family dog or cat owner; your fur-eschewing, vivisection-denouncing animal-rights activist. Any and all are capable of making a politician's life miserable. They are frequently at odds with one another and are capable of astonishing obsession over their, er, pet issues.
Gail Tabor's euthanized stories have provided grist for the animal-kingdom mill. Although not a word has appeared in print, the tale of Tabor's nonstories has spread like parvovirus among Valley animal activists, county officials and Republic employees.
Except, apparently, for top Republic brass. Bill Shover, director of public affairs for Phoenix Newspapers Inc., insists he never heard the tale of Tabor's dead stories, and that executive editor John Oppedahl didn't, either.
Republic city editor Steve Knickmeyer didn't return calls from New Times.
Tabor refuses to speak to New Times. But sources close to her confirm that her account of dissension and disarray at Rabies/Animal Control was finished, but never published. Tabor's editors asked her to revamp it a number of times--first to split it into two stories, then to put it back together as one. She did.
And still, it never was printed.
Tabor saw another opportunity to get her scoop into print when she heard about the eminently newsworthy demise of Bear. But that story also was spiked.
With its soft-pedaling of major stories including the downtown stadium and Governor Symington's financial irregularities, the Arizona Republic has earned a reputation for serving the community more like a lapdog than a watchdog.
The newspaper's hardest-driving reporters are frequently heard to complain that their editors are trained to roll over and fetch for big business and elected officials.
But suppressing news about trouble at the pound? This seems to be a new low--perhaps as low as the bottom line, and PetsMart's advertising contract.
To date, the only significant news coverage the PetsMart sterilization/adoption program has received in the Arizona Republic is a mundane story Tabor wrote when the program debuted in June.
But Republic readers were treated to advertising purchased by PetsMart--including a full-color, four-page "advertorial" section featuring articles written by a Phoenix Newspapers Inc. ad promotions writer. The inside pages included columns by local animal-shelter employees. But the front page of the promotional package, which appeared in the Sunday, October 1, edition, sang the praises of the PetsMart adoption program.
The ad supplement cost PetsMart about $80,000. That's just a drop in the advertising budget for the chain, which has 260 stores in 32 states, including 11 in the Valley. PetsMart reported sales of $250 million in the recently completed third quarter of 1995.
PetsMart spokeswoman Cozette Wasserman says she was in the middle of putting the October 1 supplement together when acounty official called and warned her thatTabor was preparing a critical story.
Wasserman says she and the Republic special-sections staff discussed the story; she expressed her concern to the staff. And she called Tabor.
"I absolutely told her we didn't want to see anything negative come from this because it's a model program. It's the first, we hope, in many, many counties across the country," Wasserman says.
Mark Hansen, president of PetsMart, says he was aware Tabor was working on a story that raised questions about the adoption program. He says he spoke only to Tabor--not to anyone in management at the Republic.
Hansen says, "I know that there was a lot of dialogue and that, in the end, the paper decided not to run the story, which probably meant that the editorial group probably thought there wasn't as much there as maybe they thought at the first, or something like that."
In the end, Wasserman says, "We were thrilled because there were several [county] Board [of Supervisors] members, I knew, who called the paper. There were a lot of people in high places that were concerned about the story and called the paper. I know Gail wasn't happy about that."
Hansen laughs out loud at suggestions that PetsMart used its muscle as an advertiser to keep Tabor's stories out of the paper.
"I wish we had that kind of clout," he says.
Mary Herro, founder and president of the Animal Foundation, says she's still waiting for Tabor's stories to appear. She assumes Tabor justhasn't finished reporting yet; the reporter never did tour the foundation's spay/neuter clinics in the Valley, Herro says.
It was Herro who first got PetsMart interested in providing sterilization/adoption services. Her Las Vegas-based, nonprofit foundation runs low-cost, high-volume spay/neuter clinics in Las Vegas, Maricopa County and, soon, in Dallas.
Herro is no stranger to negative press. When she opened a low-cost ($15 to neuter acat, up to $30 to spay a dog), high-volume (one veterinarian performs about 45 surgeries a day) clinic in Las Vegas in the late Eighties, she encountered fierce opposition.
Every time the foundation opens a clinic in a new community, Herro must appease local veterinarians, who worry about competition and the Animal Foundation's unorthodox practices, such as placing animals side by side on blankets on the floor during recovery.
The Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board initially indicated that it would deny the Animal Foundation's license, but later relented.
Herro just won a contract to run the privatized pound in Las Vegas. She initially got PetsMart involved in Las Vegas; and now, in Phoenix, PetsMart has built a private clinic for Animal Foundation across the street from its Bell Road store. The superstore chain is involved in plans to open a clinic soon in Dallas.
Herro loves Maricopa County. "We've never had this united front before," she says. "Usually, there's a lot of different agendas and interests."
But there are. Gail Tabor tried to expose them.
As long as there's been a pound in Maricopa County, people have bitched about it.
In the Seventies and Eighties, there were complaints that conditions for animals--and for the people who worked at the pound--were substandard. Almost all of the cats and dogs that wound up at the pound were killed. The method--a decompression chamber--was deemed so vile that the Legislature passed a law mandating that animals be euthanized by injection. Employees reported that the pound administrative offices were so dirty that mice ran across their feet. Hazardous chemicals--tick dip and disinfectants--were used without proper ventilation.
Treva Slote, executive director of the Arizona Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says, "It was horrible for the animals, but at least they died. The things that the people went through--the stress, the horrors--were just unbelievable."
Past pound directors have arranged for grief counseling for the employees, many of whom regularly start their workday by putting dogs and cats to death.
Conditions at Rabies/Animal Control have improved, although the pound is still a grim place, and it still reeks so strongly of chemicals that visitors gag. About 60 percent of the cats and dogs who arrive at the pound wind up in a landfill rather than in good homes.
So, in the Nineties, local animal lovers have tried to address the issue of pet overpopulation by promoting sterilization, adoption and more stringent rules for animal owners.
There are no easy answers. The fur has been flying for years.
Former Rabies/Animal Control director Harvel Alishouse says, "I don't know of anything that can light up the switchboard at the Board of Supervisors level faster than Rabies/Animal Control."
Alishouse found out the hard way. Two years ago, he was asked to resign after he endorsed a draft of a pet-overpopulation ordinance favored by animal breeders and opposed by animal-rights activists. The county never passed an ordinance. After seven noisy public hearings and countless hours of county staff time, it was discovered--whoops!--that the county lacked the authority to impose such a measure in the first place.
These days, Maricopa County animal activists are split, basically, into two camps: old-timers and newcomers.
Newcomers tend to support the inclusion ofPetsMart and the Animal Foundation.
Karen Moore, a newcomer who recently resigned as co-chair ofthe Rabies/Animal Control Advisory Council, is supportive of the Animal Foundation and PetsMart.
She says, "Some folks who've been around for a while--'my way or the highway' kind of thing--are trying to undermine the program."
Old-timers tend to support Alishouse. They don't, for the most part, support the new director of Rabies/Animal Control, Lee San Miguel. They're wary of the changes that have been taking place at the pound at such a rapid rate, seemingly at the behest of outsiders from the Animal Foundation and PetsMart.
Alishouse--who was so popular during his reign that pound employees voted him employee of the year after he was forced to leave--receives unsolicited updates on working conditions from disgruntled Rabies/Animal Control workers.
"They're very spooked. They're scared," he says. They are worried that the next logical step beyond the partnership with Animal Foundation and PetsMart is privatization. (County officials deny this.)
One of the most vocal old-timers is LizLopez, also known as the Dog Lady. Forseven years, she's shown an animal available for adoption every Wednesday at 6:53a.m. on the local NBC affiliate, KPNX (Channel 12). Lopez has been active in pound issues for 16 years; until this year, she chaired the Rabies/Animal Control Advisory Council.
And she's never met a Chihuahua she didn't like.
For years, Lopez was top dog at the pound. A bulletin board at the west-side shelter is covered with Polaroids of Lopez, Channel 12 anchors and the dogs she brings in every week.
Lopez says, "One of the gals that brings me the dogs every week ... says things are so tense down there, she's waiting for somebody to come in like they do at the post office and shoot up the place."
Another old-timer is Mildred Gleeson, or Magic Mildred, as she's known to patrons of her dog-obedience classes. Gleeson is treasurer of the Arizona Dog Council, an association of dog clubs; she quickly points out, however, that she speaks only for herself and her newspaper, K-9 Counsel.
Gleeson says of Alishouse's ouster: "To the dog fancy and to the general public, it seemed as though he sided more with the responsible dog owner and not with the animal-rights extremists, and was therefore sacrificed."
Now, she says, Rabies/Animal Control is virtually leaderless. "PetsMart is telling Rabies/Animal Control how to run Rabies/Animal Control because they have that big dollar sign over their head."
Gleeson believes PetsMart should build its own kennels and adopt pound animals up front, then move them to the in-store Luv-A-Pet centers.
Tabor interviewed Lopez and Gleeson. She also spoke to Treva Slote, another old-timer.
Slote says she worked to get a spay/neuter clinic at the county pound for a decade. Then the Animal Foundation and PetsMart swept in; Slote and the other old-timers were ignored. Slote does not completely support the existing program. It was always her contention that animals should be operated on, put in sterile stainless-steel cages and then sent to their new homes.
She says, "The pound is contaminated. There is no way it cannot be contaminated, because you've got 100, 150 stray animals coming in there on a daily basis."
Slote is surprised by those who dismiss her concerns. "After all," she says, "this is a program that is [run] by a department under the Board of Health! You certainly don't want to be spreading diseases."
Gail Tabor reportedly began asking questions in July, after she heard complaints that pound employees, with no clear criteria, were forced to choose the most adoptable dogs and cats for participation in the new program.
From there, Tabor's reporting snowballed. So did the level of concern about the possibility of a negative story.
An August 9 memo to county officials from Dr. Steven Englender, director of the county's Department of Health Services, warned them that Tabor was working on a story and reported, "Based on the statements made by Ms. Tabor when requesting information and her interviews with key staff, it would appear that she is preparing an article to run in the Republic that is based on heresay [sic] rather than fact."
Englender listed some of Tabor's allegations and his department's responses:
* Tabor alleged that the criteria for selecting adoptable animals are not suitable.
Englender responded that the process is monitored and animals are chosen based on health, behavior and "likelihood of being adopted."
In fact, the Rabies/Animal Control Advisory Council is still in the process of creating criteria, according to member Liz Lopez.
* Tabor alleged that Rabies/Animal Control director Lee San Miguel is not a veterinarian, and therefore not qualified for his job.
Englender responded that being a veterinarian is not a requirement for the job.
In fact, San Miguel has absolutely no experience in animal control. Most recently, he was a grants writer for the Department of Health Services. Before that, he raised money to combat muscular dystrophy. Many government pounds and humane societies do require that their directors have experience in animal control.
* Tabor alleged that dogs and cats are put to death through intracardiac (heart) injections, which are inhumane.
Englender responded that intracardiac injections are used only on cats, which is accepted by the American Veterinarian Medical Association.
In fact, Dr. John Boyce, assistant director of scientific activities for the American Veterinarian Medical Association, says intracardiac injection is not recommended unless the cats are anesthetized or comatose. Maricopa County Rabies/Animal Control administers the injections to the cats while they are fully conscious.
The Humane Society of the United States also views intracardiac injections as cruel to cats.
Gil Perry, the county's east-side pound coordinator, says Maricopa County uses a guide published by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University, which recommends intracardiac injection as an acceptable way to euthanize cats.
* Tabor alleged that there are no veterinarians on staff or contract at Rabies/Animal Control.
Englender responded that the county has two veterinarians on contract to care for sick or quarantined animals. Animal Foundation, he said, has veterinarians who perform surgeries and aftercare.
Most of the remainder of Tabor's allegations focused on the Animal Foundation/PetsMart program.
Even the program's harshest critics--mainly, longtime local animal activists--readily admit it's a good idea, but they say unless logistical problems are corrected, the entire program could be ruined. New Times questioned pound officials, kennel staff, animal activists and PetsMart/Animal Foundation executives and found that:
* Pound employees are overworked as a result of processing extra paperwork and moving the animals into and out of surgery and the PetsMart-designated areas of the kennels.
Debbie Nichols, kennel supervisor at the county's east-side pound, says, "They haven't really increased the number of people we have to do the job, and yet the job duties have greatly increased."
She estimates that the workload has increased by 90 minutes a day for each kennel employee.
Other employees at both the east- and west-side shelters echo Nichols' sentiments.
* After sterilization surgery, animals are put back into cages with cold, damp concrete floors and possibly unsanitary conditions. (Kennels are sanitized once a day.)
* Since the program began in June, about 10 percent of the animals that have been spayed and neutered have wound up being euthanized--rather than adopted--because of illness or lack of space, according to preliminary numbers released by San Miguel. The county's contract with Animal Foundation specifies that animals are to be sterilized after an adopter has been located, not before.
* Just 24 hours after surgery, animals are released to the PetsMart stores. Often, they are still woozy. While the cats can stay overnight at Luv-A-Pet centers inside PetsMarts, many dogs must be shipped back and forth between PetsMart and the pound for days until they are adopted, which some critics charge is too stressful.
Alishouse says the animals don't have enough time to heal before they are put on display at PetsMart. "It's hardly a suitable atmosphere within the first 24 hours of surgery, in my opinion," he says.
* One of the program's boosters warns that sterilizing animals and then housing them at the pound for extended periods could lead to an increase in diseases including parvovirus. Veterinarian Marilyn Lieb, who represents the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association on the Rabies/Animal Control Advisory Council, warned the council at a recent meeting that surgery weakens an animal's immune system. That, combined with extra days at the pound, will lead to more disease.
PetsMart would have a real public-relations nightmare if parvo-infected dogs started spewing bloody diarrhea in Luv-A-Pet centers, she told the council.
Lieb says, "Everyone just needs to be aware of the fact that the more animals are together in groups, the greater there is a chance of transmitting diseases. And it's not avoidable."
The creators of the new program agree that conditions aren't always optimum for pound animals, but they still wholeheartedly--and sometimes defensively--believe they're doing the right thing.
Herro says, "It doesn't always work, but we certainly have made that extra effort for them [animals]. And I think if they had a chance to vote, they'd say, 'Make me more adoptable,' too."
And PetsMart president Mark Hansen says, "I guess we'll take our lumps if we have to, but the truth of the matter is, it's important to the community that this process work. Now, anybody who has a better idea, come on board."
Trouble is, the community as a whole hasn't been told that better ideas might be needed.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.