Pet Peeves

After stubbornly refusing for more than a year to sign off on efforts to obtain a $10 million grant that could end the euthanasia of dogs and cats in Maricopa County, Arizona Humane Society Director Ken White has buckled under pressure from Valley animal welfare groups and media scrutiny and agreed to join the effort.

White officially gave his support Tuesday, joining with a coalition of 12 animal welfare organizations in Maricopa County that has worked to get the grant from Maddie's Fund, a California nonprofit devoted to ending euthanasia of homeless animals. The money would fund a five-year, community-wide program to increase spay-and-neuter efforts and finance foster, adoption and education projects. To get the funding, all animal welfare groups in a community must participate at least minimally.

In the struggle over the controversial grant for Phoenix-area pet agencies, the interests of animals have been overshadowed by rhetoric, especially from White, who consistently voiced his adamant opposition, citing dubious reasons for his resistance.

Humane Society representatives were repeatedly invited to coalition meetings, but none ever attended. In two years, a representative of the county Animal Care and Control agency hasn't even been able to set up an appointment with White. But last week, shortly after the Arizona Animal Welfare League announced a press conference and New Times requested an interview with White, which he declined -- unceremoniously escorting the reporter off Humane Society premises -- White decided it was finally time to talk with some of the grant backers.

On August 1, White initiated an August 6 meeting with Betty Welton, director of the Arizona Animal Welfare League and a member of the Maricopa County Maddie's Fund Coalition. At the meeting, White finally expressed his support of the grant. The meeting came just three days after the Humane Society released a statement announcing that White had reached an "understanding" with Maddie's Fund president Richard Avanzino, and that the next step was for the local coalition to accept the terms of that understanding.

For his part, Avanzino says he was not part of any agreement with the Arizona Humane Society, saying that the Humane Society's press release, issued last Friday, was "not a fair representation" of his telephone conversation with White. He simply answered White's questions regarding the terms of a Maddie's grant, he says, which have not changed in the year and a half that the coalition has been seeking White's support.

Ed Boks, director of Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, was dubious about the quick turnaround.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said last week. "It's one thing to put out a press release saying all's well, but they really need to come to the table to work with us if they want to prove it. They have absolutely refused to meet with us for two years and suddenly after one phone call all their issues disappeared. It makes me wonder, you know?"

Prior to White's change of heart, the coalition was considering to plan a countywide "If Only" week to commemorate what Boks calls the "hundreds, if not thousands" of animals' lives that could have been saved had Maddie's grant funds been available in Phoenix since the debate began.

This week's development marked a sharp departure from White's previous stance, which he outlined in a July 28 column in the Arizona Republic. In it, he pointed out that Maddie's money cannot be used to build new shelters, treat injured animals or help animals other than dogs or cats. Plus, he argued, there is no evidence that Maddie's Fund programs work.

While Boks and other proponents of the coalition have acknowledged that Maddie's money cannot be used indiscriminately by grantees, they have countered that the fund has very specific goals -- to end the euthanasia of healthy, adoptable cats and dogs, and to promote adoptions and spay-and-neuter projects. As to the effectiveness of the program, Boks and other grant supporters disagreed vehemently with White.

The No More Homeless Pets initiative in Utah is a prime example, they say, of the success of a Maddie's grant. In the first nine months of the program there, euthanasia decreased 13 percent while the number of adoptions skyrocketed. With the project now in its second year, groups like the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary say Utah is well on its way to being a no-kill state.

Boks says he doesn't care what White's motivations are if his actions will help the animals of the community. He's just happy that the Arizona Humane Society has taken the first step toward supporting the fund and its programs.

But even though White has given in to his longtime critics, there's yet another new wrinkle in the Maddie's Fund debate: New Times recently learned that White is the top candidate for a high-paying job as director of the Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo, California. As reported last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Humane Society there was preparing to offer White a controversial $245,000 pay package. No one in Phoenix knows for sure who would fill White's position. With or without new leadership at the Humane Society, Maddie's Fund supporters remain focused on their goal -- turning Maricopa County into a no-kill community.

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Maria Luisa Tucker