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Published: Monday, 10/22/2007

Toledo Area Humane Society feels growing pain

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Greg Bloomfield of the Toledo Area Humane Society says the building is overcrowded. Greg Bloomfield of the Toledo Area Humane Society says the building is overcrowded.
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People would line up every Saturday morning pushing grocery carts full of puppies.

Once a week, at least 25 people brought squirming, yapping litters to the animal shelter.

You don't see that kind of pooch parade anymore, said Greg Bloomfield, president and chief executive of the Toledo Area Humane Society.

Twenty-five years ago, when he stumbled into a career in animal care at a Columbus-area shelter, such carelessness toward dog breeding was common.

"Spaying and neutering rarely came out of the mouth of anyone," he said. "Today, I would say the average person realizes, in owning a pet, it must be trained, taken to the vet, spayed or neutered."

It's something he likes to remind himself of when he looks around the crowded Humane Society building, where a dozen cats lounge in cages in the reception area because there is simply no room for them anywhere else.

"I oftentimes have to look back at the way things were and look at the way they are today in order to give me drive to keep going through tomorrow," he said.

He's a tall, rangy man with thinning reddish hair going silver, and a face more weathered than his 53 years seem to deserve. If you look closely, you can see the scar on his neck where a rogue German shepherd attacked him many years ago. Then he'll show you the teeth marks on his arm earned when he forced his forearm into the dog's mouth to spare his neck.

Even after that attack, he remained committed to sparing the necks of thousands of dogs and cats in his care.

And almost upon his arrival in Toledo seven years ago, he started improving the lives of Lucas County dogs and cats, people who've watched his career here say.

"He came in and, in short order, really changed a lot of things," said Judy Lang, who served 25 years on the humane society board. "He just got it done."

His leadership extends beyond Toledo.

"He was really instrumental in maybe the first change to the humane laws in Ohio in a long time, and those were positive changes," said Tom Skeldon, Lucas County dog warden.

Mr. Bloomfield came here from a Humane Society in Washington state. Before that, he was the No. 2 person at the Denver Humane Society, an organization that took in some 40,000 animals annually, compared to Toledo's 5,000 or so. At those places, he learned the methods he was able to employ here.

Among the changes he instituted: the hiring of a veterinarian and creating an on-site surgical suite to care for animals the shelter takes in; an emphasis on finding homes for older animals; the establishment of a cageless cat room; the provision of toys for dogs and cats in the shelter's care; obedience training; a behavior help line, and even grief counseling for pet loss.

Perhaps most important, his work has resulted in an "adoption rate that is truly one of the highest in the country," Ms. Lang said.

The Humane Society of the United States, which is not affiliated with the Toledo Area Humane Society, says 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats are in shelters ever year. About half of those animals are euthanized.

The Toledo Area Humane Society, its 24 employees, and some 300 volunteers, found homes for every one of the 700 adoptable dogs to come to the shelter on Indian Wood Circle in Maumee so far this year.

Overall, 86 percent of adoptable animals coming through the Humane Society found homes so far in 2007.

But it's the other side of that equation - the adoptable animals that are euthanized, and the animals that are not adoptable because of behavioral or health problems - that now focuses Mr. Bloomfield's attention.

The biggest challenge is feline - society's attitude toward cats and their out-of-control numbers.

Mr. Bloomfield initiated what he calls a "marketing" approach to pet adoptions, bringing animals to consumers with the society's Pet Adoption Waggin'. All adopted pets come with a guarantee: If they get sick within 15 days of leaving the shelter, the Humane Society will treat them.

While that went a long way to solving the adoption problem for dogs, for cats, it's not enough. For one thing, there are just so many of them.

By the end of September, the shelter had taken in 3,142 cats and kittens. That's almost triple the number of dogs the shelter received in the same time period. Nearly 1,000 of those cats were considered unadoptable: either too sick to respond to treatment or too unmanageable. Of the adoptable cats, 622 had to be euthanized, 738 were adopted, and more than 300 await homes.

"We have a tremendous cat problem in our community that is going to have to be addressed," Mr. Bloomfield said. "I feel we have a very good handle on the dog problems, in respect to overpopulation, or the ability to find homes. The cats, we have no control over whatsoever."

It's a problem for many communities, he said. Ohio has no laws that require owners to treat cats responsibly, to have them spayed, to keep them safe, he said.

"We're reading into this that people don't place cats in the same standards that they place dogs. Because of that, they allow cats to roam freely outside. Those cats go outside and if they're not neutered, they reproduce."

The average outdoor cat lives three years, Mr. Bloomfield said. They are killed by dogs, cars, raccoons, people, coyotes, accidental poisoning, or in their quest for a warm place to shelter in winter.

They carry disease. They kill wildlife. They dig up gardens. They have late-night noisy battles. They spray under windows. They can make unpleasant neighbors. They starve.

He acknowledges that some cats do adapt to living outdoors.

"But that's not what we would desire to be the life of a companion animal. If you own it because you want it to be part of a family, then make it part of your family. What value is it to have a cat that you never see?"

Education is part of the solution not only for cat owners, but for all pet owners, he said.

If people knew how to care for animals and understood what was involved in having a pet, there would be fewer surrendered animals and fewer unadoptable ones that had been poorly trained, neglected, or abused.

A lot of people, he believes "want to do the right thing for the animal. They just don't know how."

To help fill that gap, the Humane Society hired an education outreach worker this year.

"We want to spend a lot more of our resources getting out and reaching kids and changing their minds about the [pet care] customs they've been taught that are probably incorrect," he said.

"Kids do what parents show them. If the parent doesn't know how to properly care for the dog and cat, then neither will the kids. We want to reach the kids and, through them, try to get to the parents."

One thing parents need to learn is not to buy the charismatic dog breed they see in the next cute movie.

"Every time there's a new dog star out there, we start seeing the breed more and more," he said.

The latest fad in animal drop-off, however, doesn't come from the screen, but from commerce: designer dogs, like the Labrador-poodle or Labrador-golden retriever mixes, and so-called "pocket pets."

"The golden doodles, the labradoodles, people will go to these pet stores and they'll pay $2,000 for one of these puppies, and they don't get an education when they buy," he said.

When the puppies turn out to be a nipping handful, the owners surrender their expensive status symbol.

But "the biggest thing we're seeing right now, the newest problem we're having, is these pocket pets. Last week, we had 20 small mammals - hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits - come in.

"People are going to the local pet supply stores in town, buying these things, and six weeks later bring them in to us because they don't want them anymore. We're going to have to probably build facilities to accommodate them."

In fact, it's more than just the room full of small mammals that is motivating the Toledo Area Humane Society to build.

The 25-year-old building that houses the society today is some 9,500-square-feet, and can barely hold the animals that arrive daily.

The dog kennel area has no natural light, and dog runs aren't connected to the outdoors. There is nowhere near enough room for cats.

Natasha Bailey, director of operations, says the area where animals are dropped off is an absolute bottleneck, with no room to maneuver.

Mr. Bloomfield said the Humane Society will mount a capital campaign to replace the building with a 25,000-square-foot facility, but where, when, and how much were questions he couldn't answer yet.

"We're researching a number of things," he said. "I'm just breaking the ice."

The fact is, Mr. Bloomfield says, humans need dogs and cats.

"God, we need them. There are so many things they do."

He remembers taking dogs to a nursing home - one of the services the humane group provides.

During each visit, he'd see a lady pacing the hallway, never looking up, never connecting. One week, the dog he walked stopped right in front of her.

Suddenly, "she dropped to her knees, hugged this dog around its neck, and started crying."

The nursing staff said that was the first reaction they'd seen from this patient in the weeks she'd been at the home.

"That dog opened her up," Mr. Bloomfield said. "It's unequivocal love, and a dog will give you that, if you give him just a little."

Contact Jenni Laidman at: jenni@theblade.com or 419-724-6507.



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