Photo by Dermot Connolly
Protesters demonstrate on Jan. 27 outside the Animal Welfare League at 10305 Southwest Highway in Chicago Ridge, calling for new management at the shelter, where adoption of dogs and cats has been temporarily suspended due to an outbreak of illness.
Animal rights activists, rescuers and some current and former volunteers are calling for new management to be installed at the Animal Welfare League shelter in Chicago Ridge.
The site, which could be housing as many as 1,000 animals at any time, is one of the biggest shelters in the Chicago area. It accepts cats, dogs and other animals turned in as strays, or surrendered by owners, as well as sick and injured wildlife.
Assertions of bad management there have been discussed for years on social media. But activists started holding protests outside the shelter last week, when an outbreak of illness among dogs in the shelter led to a temporary suspension of adoptions of dogs and cats.
What was initially thought to be "kennel cough," a common occurrence in animal shelters, apparently turned into an outbreak of more-serious canine influenza. The protesters blame director Linda Estrada for allowing the illnesses to spread. The suspension of adoptions had originally been limited to dogs, but was expanded to include cats as well.
As of Jan. 30, a Change.org petition calling for an investigation into the management of the facility was signed by 12,430 people.
Employees and volunteers standing outside on the morning of Jan. 27, during one of the protests, stopped everyone going in. They said the shelter was only open for people bringing in pets with “medical emergencies” to be seen by veterinarians on staff.
“Today, our objective is to expose continuous years of animal neglect and waste, fraud and abuse of the administration,” said Chris Jastczemski, of Palos Hills, one of the organizers of the protest at the site on Saturday morning.
She was among dozens of people carrying signs calling for the resignation of Estrada and her board of directors. Some signs also included photos of dogs that allegedly died at the shelter due to lack of care.
“We don’t want to close this shelter. There is a need for it in this area. But there is gross mismanagement,” said Julie Freeman, who works with Small Paws rescue in Carol Stream.
She was there with Terri Crotty, of Wags to Wishes in Joliet. Both women said they visit the Animal Welfare League site to “pull” animals they believe would otherwise be euthanized because they are either sick or just waiting too long for adoption.
“If we talk, we’re blacklisted here,” said Sandi Rusek, who works with Pet Harbor, which lists stray dogs online.
She was among those whose said the Animal Welfare League does not post found animals on its website, or others, so owners have little chance of reuniting with their pets.
Tracy Caccavella, a licensed wildlife rehabber from Oak Lawn, said she gets called to the shelter to pick up orphaned or sick wild animals such as rabbits or squirrels that are found and turned in.
But she maintains that the staff led by Estrada does not take precautions against spreading infections when moving in and out of isolation rooms.
“They are not using wearing shoe covers or masks in the isolation rooms. Why are they not taking these standard precautions,” she wondered. She also claimed that animals sometimes get too much medication, causing minor problems to worsen.
Asked to respond to Caccavella’s complaints, Peggy Price, an employee watching the protest on Saturday, said staff may have been moving between isolation rooms. She also denied the assertions of protesters that Estrada is a “bully,” who would fire employees or volunteers who speak out against her.
“We’re all here because we care for the animals. I wouldn’t be here if I was treated like that,” said Price.
Several protesters suggested that Chicago Ridge village officials should look into the situation.
“This is a needed facility, but we need transparency. Everyone on the board needs to go. These protests are a long time coming,” said Shannon Gaglione, of Naperville, a former volunteer.
“The village needs to get involved. This is a holocaust of animals,” said Terry Maderak of Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood, claiming that too many animals are dying from illness or being euthanized.
Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar, after touring the facility on Jan. 29, said the village does not have personnel qualified for inspections.
“That is for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. And I saw the latest reports from IDA inspections that gave the facility good marks,” said the mayor.
Photos of dogs lying in their own excrement or blood have been circulating online, some taken in 2015. While Tokar and others who have toured the facility have said they found it in good condition, the activists assert that there are back rooms that visitors aren’t allowed in.
Tokar said euthanasia isn’t as common as the activists say either, and is used mainly on dogs that have been found to be aggressive and unsuitable for adoption.
“They say it is cheaper to feed and house the animals than euthanize them, which costs about $300,” said the mayor.
“I looks to me like there are tons of volunteers, more than employees. I don’t think (Estrada) is a bad person. She has a good heart and they are doing the best they can. We are trying to bring the two sides together to resolve this,” said Tokar.