Image via Shutterstock In 2012, the taxpayer-funded Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (otherwise known by the punchy acronym MADACC) put more than 1,780 dogs to death within the walls of its small, unassuming facility on West Burnham Street. It equates to about a third of those that passed through its doors, a cycle of […]

Image via Shutterstock

In 2012, the taxpayer-funded Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (otherwise known by the punchy acronym MADACC) put more than 1,780 dogs to death within the walls of its small, unassuming facility on West Burnham Street. It equates to about a third of those that passed through its doors, a cycle of extermination that prompted a loosely connected group of animal lovers to declare all-out war on the agency. And what a fight it’s been.

Critics of MADACC have directed a tsunami of blog posts and a hurricane of emails to public officials such as Milwaukee Ald. Jim Bohl, who’s not insensitive to the cause. “Who could argue that killing that many animals is not too high?” he says.

But the battle has been a long time coming. MADACC’s kill rate has remained stubbornly buoyant for years as agencies in some other cities have driven theirs as low as 10 percent. Some critics, in turn, have resigned themselves to a recalcitrant standoff with the animal control group. And some of them have been barred from agency headquarters, even those who say they’ve had success finding homes for pit bulls, a breed that’s notoriously difficult to place.

The fiercest of these exiled activists have turned up at the agency’s administrative committee meetings to demand change. Among the most prominent of the anti-MADACC contingent is Cassie Richardson, an Air National Guard veteran of the Iraq war and the founder of a Baraboo rescue group that placed 75 pit bulls before being barred from MADACC for a time. There’s also Marissa Saad from Milwaukee, another banned volunteer who claims to have led successful programs that resulted in numerous adoptions, including many pit bulls. Major players in the resistance’s Web campaign have included Milwaukeean Rick Grainger, who’s spearheaded email protests, and Kathy Pobloskie, a no-kill advocate and author of Wisconsin Watchdog, a blog that connects many of the critics.

Dave Mangold, another activist from Milwaukee, says MADACC blocked him from attending volunteer orientation after he became an outspoken critic of the “court case dogs,” animals kept in cages while their owners await trial, sometimes for years.

“As a public agency, you have to have thick skin,” Bohl says of the group’s response to criticism, though he acknowledges that MADACC critics have at times been “pretty harsh.”

Smoothing the tension has fallen to the organization’s new director, Karen Sparapani, who formerly ran the smaller Elmbrook Humane Society. Under her watch, the shelter became the state’s first no-kill facility, making her the darling of local animal lovers and a safe hire for a MADACC board hoping for a new era of relative tranquility. She’s already reinstated some barred volunteers and mended some strained relationships. Even Pobloskie wrote that she felt a “positive energy” while attending a MADACC meeting and implored her readers to support Sparapani, a woman she and other activists consider one of their own.

But how long will the honeymoon last as Sparapani grapples with the unusual demands of the flashpoint shelter? And could MADACC ever become a no-kill facility? For most supporters of the idea, that’s a distant hope.

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For much of MADACC’s history, there was little controversy, even though its kill rate for dogs sometimes approached 50 percent. In 1999, the agency was created by the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council, a board filled with local government leaders who created a new force for animal control when the Wisconsin Humane Society said it wanted out of the responsibility.

Some 12 years later, in 2011, the volunteer group Friends of MADACC paid the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California-Davis to conduct an assessment of the Milwaukee program. The experts produced a 134-page report that was critical of what it deemed a serious lack of policy and procedure at the shelter, as evidenced by vet techs performing unsupervised medical work and employees misdiagnosing animals. The findings, though also stuffed with recommendations – such as playing more soothing music within the shelter – set off anti-MADACC protests that caused some volunteers to back away from the organization.

“We’ve been called murderers, as if we were sticking the needles in the dogs,” says Laura Nigbur, president of the Friends group. “It’s been hard.”

Under the leadership of then-executive director Dave Flagler, MADACC set about making changes, but he resigned suddenly in October 2012 without a public explanation. Ron Hayward, West Milwaukee village president and head of the MADDAC board, refused to comment for this story, calling Flagler’s departure a private personnel matter.

The transition to a new director was further compounded by the nearly simultaneous exit of Kevin Wilken, the No. 2 man at the agency, who left to take a job running a shelter in Michigan. Heading MADACC on an interim basis became the duty of John McDowell, a gruff veteran of animal control in Milwaukee, but his short tenure was rocky. He was praised by Sparapani and other shelter heads, but critics lambasted him, citing an increase in dogs put to death and the banishment of several volunteers.

“Nobody down here wants to kill animals,” McDowell says. “But it’s a complex problem.”

For one, the shelter gets many dogs that few people are interested in adopting. News reports of violent attacks have stigmatized pit bulls and pit mixes, and strays are often shunned by pet-seeking families. Forty-two percent of the dogs that MADACC took in last year were pit bulls, McDowell says, and 61 percent of those didn’t live to see 2013.

“Pit bulls are a community problem,” says Anne Reed, executive director of the Wisconsin Humane Society. “Many more are being bred than there is a demand for.”

Until 1996, local municipalities paid the Humane Society to perform animal control, an arrangement that was nixed when communities “decided they could do it cheaper themselves,” Reed says. But Paul Ziehler, West Allis city administrator and MADACC treasurer, says the society was “in a difficult position because on one hand, they were promoting the humane treatment of animals, and on the other, they were euthanizing animals. … They found those two things to be in conflict, and it was making it pretty hard to raise money.”

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The society still takes in animals for adoption, including some from other states, a practice for which the group has been criticized. Reed’s shelter in Milwaukee received about 300 pit bulls in 2012 and found homes for 175, a rate she says should be considered a success. “I challenge anyone to meet that number,” she says. “Families might come in looking for another dog, and we talk them in to a pit bull.”

The society, like MADACC, can’t hold animals indefinitely and euthanized 125 of the dogs last year. “We all have spending and levy limits,” Ziehler says. “We should do everything we can to make animals adoptable, but we can’t hold them forever when we have limited resources.”

When Sparapani rolled into MADACC for her first day of work, she found that the majority of dogs awaiting her, in cages, were pit bulls. Some of the young dogs’ ears had been roughly clipped. “They do it with scissors when they’re puppies so that when they fight, the other dog can’t grab the ears,” she says. “Those dogs will be very difficult to place.”

Many agree that MADACC is putting down too many animals, but its kill rate actually falls below the national average, a bar some say is too low to use as a standard. Austin, Texas, and Reno, Nev., have pushed their rates below 10 percent, though McDowell and others note that there are no uniform rules for reporting euthanasia statistics, allowing some shelters to pull Enron-style maneuvers.

“If you want me to change [our rate] to 30 percent by tomorrow,” he says, “I could do it. Some cities only count what they call ‘adoptable’ animals. Some don’t count injured animals, black cats or pit bulls.”

Sparapani says she recognizes the obvious, that finding a home for an undesirable animal is not always possible. But progress in convincing owners to spay and neuter their pets would mean fewer dogs in the first place, she says. Many of the animals that come into the shelter have not been spayed or neutered.

She’s considering a program modeled after ones where gun owners receive $50 for turning in firearms. Other offers of free spaying and neutering services have not fared well, she says, unless she gives owners the hard sell.

Once, while riding in a car with her husband near the BMO Harris Bradley Center, Sparapani suddenly asked him to pull over. She wanted to talk with a man who was walking an “intact” pit bull. “I jumped out of the car and told this guy how he was actually shortening the dog’s life by not having him neutered,” she says. “He was in tears. He really loved his dog. He came in.”

At the time, her shelter was offering free services to pit bull owners through a grant. “But he was the only one.”

This article appears in the July 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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