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Tree House, No Kill or Not – What's Gone Wrong


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This was one of the toughest WGN radio shows I’ve ever done because for so many years I was a very public cheerleader for Tree House Humane Society. Arguably, no one spoke more often in public platforms about Tree House, from emceeing events like Lights of Love for more than a decade, to drumming up awareness, enthusiasm, and money for the organization.

Tree House frequently took cats others wouldn’t or couldn’t – and was proud of that

And, it was so easy for me to be enthused for all the good Tree House did. But, be clear: Tree House didn’t do good, it’s the people who worked there and volunteered there who did good. And cat lives were saved, often cats that others couldn’t or wouldn’t save. Once you were a Tree House cat, you were protected.

For many years, people would hug me because of my association with Tree House (I was on their board for 12 years). Today, people increasingly ask, “What went wrong?” Here’s just a small part of the story.

On Steve Dale’s Pet World, you can hear me discuss with Leona Sepulveda Less, past humane education coordinator for the organization. She left Tree House because she had a baby but had intended to come back as a volunteer.

Leona Sepulveda Less

Leona explains the phone calls she received from employees about one cat named Little Miss Solid Gold, announcing the shelter’s acting executive director planned to euthanize her.

There are lots of questions there, and I go through them here:

  • I thought Tree House was no-kill in the first place. At one time, I thought no-kill was stated in the mission statement, and the words “no-kill” appeared all over marketing materials, including fundraising materials for the new facility, enticing people to give dollars.
  • Why was Little Miss, who was ultimately considered dangerous because she bit people, adopted in the first place?
  • Once adopted, instead of receiving behavior advice (which Tree House once did, and at no charge) the frustrated new owner, who was bitten, returned Little Miss. There are various reports regarding how the cat bit and why. No matter, the bond with owner broke, so it’s no surprise the cat was returned. It’s unknown if that adopter knew about Little Miss’ previous aggressive behavior. Also, would the owner have returned this cat to “no-kill” Tree House knowing the euthanasia could even be possible?
  • Little Miss was returned to the shelter, but soon relocated when the facility Little Miss was returned to was shut down (another Tree House issue in and of itself, as they closed the Ashland Avenue locale and the spay/neuter clinic).
  • Predictably, all this upheaval didn’t go over well with Little Miss. After all, Little Miss was a cat. Cats don’t usually love change so much, and this was a lot of change. She soon bit a staff member, who reportedly required a hospital visit as a result. The specific circumstances under which this occurred depends who you ask.
  • Word leaked that, in response to the bite, Tree House intended to euthanize Little Miss, and an enraged staff notified Leona, as she explains, who was integral in sharing this information. The story soon spread via social media to a stunned animal welfare community.
  • A hastily arranged protest occurred in an attempt to save the cat. Clearly a peaceful event, as at least one protester brought a young child and another had a dog. The shelter board and management responded, not by communicating with this small group of protesters, but instead by calling the Chicago Police. Police only told protesters, “It’s hot outside, be sure to hydrate.”
  • Meanwhile, staff knowing all about Little Miss and her history offered to adopt the cat in order to save her life. Protesters showed up with carriers, and similarly were willing to sign paperwork to adopt. Tree House management and board adamantly refused. I assume they were worried about legal technicalities of some sort. Tree House could have transferred all ownership and responsibility to at least one known rescue that actually works with cats who have behavior issues. All offers were turned down, or oddly not even acknowledged.
  • After all this occurred, Tree House posted an explanation on Facebook from a veterinary behaviorist (absolutely an individual with credibility), supporting the recommendation to euthanize Little Miss. Why was this statement released so late in the game? And this still does not explain why all others who were willing to take the cat were denied.

Leona wonders out loud what this means for future cats landing at Tree House. What will their fate be if they display anxiety of any kind? And how will those outside the shelter even know if word doesn’t leak?

The original location on Carmen Avenue is closed.

Tree House raised money for the new facility explaining that donor dollars would go to a low-cost veterinary clinic at their new location. But, apparently this facility may not happen, says Leona.

For many years, I read the touching Rainbow Bridge at Lights of Love, a community event filled with love that is no longer the same.

I explain that one of the most significant reasons that I departed the Tree House board was because the board was determined to fire three employees, the lead management, all three known and respected in animal welfare. I personally felt this unwavering determination was unfounded, and particularly during a capital campaign, made poor business sense. Firing people isn’t, I admit, easy for me to do and I don’t take such an action lightly.

I talk briefly about how programs have dissipated or changed at the shelter, important ones, like TNR, for example.

Tree House has always been an innovator. They were a no-kill shelter before the term “no-kill” even became common, and one of the first no-kill, cat-only shelters in America. Examples of creativity and innovation are many at Tree House, from their Cats at Work Program (relocating community cats to deal with city rat issues) to Kitten Socialization Classes (I know this well, as I personally brought this to Tree House).

Tree House may have a beautiful new building, but a building doesn’t make for what happens inside. And what a facility says they do and what they actually do, as Leona suggests, may not be the same. And, like all organizations, the culture comes from the top.

What happened here was one of the greatest disappointments of my career. So much promise is now gone.

For more on the detail of what went wrong, this blog from Sandra Townsend explains in two parts:  Part 1    Part 2

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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