Photo by Dermot Connolly
Chris Higens (at left) president of the Animal Welfare League Board of Directors, and Diane Spyrka, the interim executive director, hold Ralphie, an elderly dog that had been cared for at the shelter at 10305 Southwest Highway since his owners surrendered him more than a year ago.
By Dermot Connolly
Activists who had planned to hold a “Reform-iversary” protest and candlelight vigil tomorrow evening outside the Animal Welfare League shelter in Chicago Ridge, allege that little has improved since the rallies for management changes began there last year.
Reform AWL activists had planned to hold the event outside the shelter at 10305 Southwest Highway, where similar protests have been held regularly since they began on Jan. 25, 2018. But due to weather forecasts predicting bitterly cold temperatures, it has been postponed until a later date.
Last January, the site was under a self-imposed quarantine due to an outbreak of dog flu the previous month. The animal-rights activists who formed Reform AWL maintained that the outbreak of illness was just a symptom of larger problems at the facility, which has a veterinary clinic in addition to housing more than 400 animals at any one time. Most are stray or abandoned dogs and cats awaiting adoption, but rabbits, birds and other animals are also there.
Last May, longtime director Linda Estrada resigned, one of the key demands of the protesters who claimed she provided substandard care, and even did veterinary work without a license. Following an investigation, the Illinois Department of Finance and Professional Regulation recently issued an order for her to "cease and desist the unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine in the state of Illinois based on her unlicensed practice while employed at Animal Welfare League." Several other investigations by state and federal agencies are underway.
“That cease and desist order proves the board of directors was wrong when they defended her against those claims, saying they never happened. It doesn’t say a lot about their openness and transparency,” said Chicago Ridge Trustee Ed Kowalski, who has been leading efforts on the local level to get to the bottom of the controversy.
The board of directors appointed Diane Spyrka as interim director when Estrada left. She remains in that role, and continues as manager of the AWL shelter in Chicago. Chris Higens, president of the unpaid AWL Board of Directors, says she oversees the shelter day-to-day on a voluntary basis, while the search goes on for a full-time director.
“These protests don’t help the search very much,” said Higens on Friday, while conducting a tour of the facility. “There are also director openings at the Anti-Cruelty Society and other similar agencies,” she said, explaining why it has taken so long to find a suitable replacement for Estrada.
Higens said $200,000 in improvements have been invested in the shelter since last year, including the addition of new medical equipment and updating the ventilation system. And she asserts that the ongoing protests “are taking food out of the animals’ mouths” because donations are down.
Kowalski said village inspections found rodent infestations as well as other code violations last year, which have since been cleared up. But he added that the ventilation improvements, among other things, were “long overdue.”
Some former employees and volunteers who say they were fired without cause in recent months assert that the situation for staff is as it was before, and place a lot of the blame with Higens and her husband, Bill, who volunteers there. They point out that since Estrada left, the number of volunteers coming in to walk and socialize dogs has been reduced, and is detrimental to the animals.
“The treatment of the staff and volunteers is a big issue,” said a former employee who asked for anonymity. She was recently fired from her job as a receptionist.
The woman said she would bring dogs out to sit beside her while she worked, helping to socialize them. And she asserted that limiting volunteers to only walking dogs from 1 and 5 p.m. weekdays only hurts the animals.
"Current volunteers have been restricted from speaking with clients, showing adoptable dogs to clients, and from even entering the main lobby in the adoption area,” the woman said. “These dogs require mental and physical stimulation. The volunteers play with them, exercise them, and they also get human and animal interaction with the other dogs in the other runs. It's imperative that these dogs get out as often as possible, and Chris and the board are completely putting a stop to it."
Higens acknowledged that volunteer hours have been cut, but cited safety reasons and said dogs do get out enough.
“We are very busy on Saturdays, with visitors looking for pets. It is difficult bringing the dogs through the hallways safely. We are closed on Sundays, with minimal staff, and can’t risk volunteers getting hurt,” she said.
Another woman who volunteered for six years walking dogs on weekends blames Bill Higens for her being fired in December.
“He acted like he was the director” questioning other volunteers, and stopping conversation between them, said the woman, who did not want her name used for fear of being sued. She figures he reported her to his wife for “answering him back.” Both women said they felt Chris and Bill Higens did not make them feel welcome there.
“I’m sure if the dogs could talk, they would say they need the volunteers,” she said.
Photo by Dermot Connolly
Dozens of dogs are awaiting adoption at the Animal Welfare League shelter in at 10305 Southwest Highway in Chicago Ridge.
Higens said most complaints are coming from “disgruntled former employees or volunteers, who left or were fired for one reason or another.”
She said some volunteers tried to sneak animals out to rescue organizations.
“We can only place animals with rescue organizations licensed in Illinois who let us know where the animals go,” Higens added.
But Kowalski said the board of directors also treated him “with complete contempt” during the investigation process, and accused him of overstepping his authority. He called “a bald-faced lie” the claim by Higens and media liaison John Fanning that the village is interested in the property for development.”
He noted that the AWL property does include at least one vacant lot.
“We (as a village board) don’t get involved in real estate. If developers ask about vacant property, we can let them know where it is,” Kowalski said.
“We have said from the beginning that AWL is necessary. They are a valuable part of Chicago Ridge,” said Kowalski, adding that the village plans to discuss how to resolve the ongoing issues at a village board meeting in the coming months.