Monday, January 18, 2010

FROM PUPPY MILLS TO ZOOTOO: Former CMHS director speaks, Pt. 3

With hindsight and reflection since she left the post in November, former Central Missouri Humane Society (CMHS) director Patty Forister spoke candidly with the Columbia Heart Beat about the humane society's past, present, and future.  We first spoke to Forister in August 2008, for a story called Dog Days: Humane Society Faces Closure.

This section continues from parts 1 and 2. 

Columbia Heart Beat (CHB):  The Missouri Department of Agriculture regularly brings puppies from busted puppy mills to CMHS.  But they don't pay anything, and the society always takes the puppies, increasing an already huge burden.  Why?   

Forister:   When the Agriculture people bring puppies, there's a huge emotional component that affects everyone. Dirty, sometimes sick, sometimes skinny to the point of starving, the puppies are in a desperate, desperate situation.  The kind of people who work at an organization like CMHS can't say no to that.  They just can't, and it's one of those human issues you won't see well enough to understand unless you actually work there. 

CHB:  Wouldn't it be fair then to get full compensation from the Department of Agriculture?  It's a huge state agency and it seems like they are taking advantage of your good natures. 

Forister:  Absolutely, the Department of Agriculture should fairly compensate CMHS.  I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be the same kind of full and fair partner that the city and county should be.  But you're back to that same problem of trying to sell a dysfunctional contract template to another government agency.  CMHS doesn't have fair, workable, equitable animal control contracts.  Until they figure out how to write and negotiate them, I don't see the situation changing. 

Columbia Heart Beat (CHB):   Given what you know about Columbia -- progressive, people love animals, lots of young people, three major colleges/universities, and a generally liberal population -- why the enormous resistance on the part of the Columbia City Council and the Boone County Commission to get CMHS financially squared away?  To be full and fair partners in the animal care mission? 

Forister:   Think about it.  For thirty years, the city and county have been getting animal shelter services by grossly undercompensating CMHS.  Why would they want any change?  Consider that the city and county don't have to pay CMHS staff; they don't have to pay CMHS utilities; they don''t have to pay for insurance, food, and daily expenses; and they have not had to build a new animal shelter, which would be a multi-million dollar undertaking.   But in that thirty years, the city and county have grown -- alot.   This undercompensation arrangement has put CMHS into a bind.  They've had to pick up the slack, in a way that could bankrupt them if they don't turn it around. 

CHB:  Changing the subject somewhat, you got to know ZooToo founder Richard Thompson about as well as anyone in Columbia.  But as you know, he came across poorly -- some people would say as a flaky con artist -- when his first million dollar makeover in St. Louis melted down.  Yet you continue to believe in him.  Why? 

Forister:   The Richard Thompson I came to know is very aware, dedicated, and passionate.  He and I would meet at the shelter and discuss the road ahead.  On the very first tour, he immediately wanted to see the euthanasia room, where we put animals to sleep.  Then he wanted to know where we put the euthanized animals.  I knew what he was getting at -- I knew right where he was going.  I started to show some emotion and I got quiet -- I think it was obvious, and he put his arm around my shoulder and hugged me.  That was the first time I knew he understood our situation.   

CHB:   So where was he going with his questions about euthanasia?  What was he getting at?

Forister:  We had to put the euthanized animals in the dumpster.  Of course, we bagged them up, we put them in disposal bags, garbage bags.   But we threw them away.  That's one of the first signs of an underfunded animal shelter.   The minute he knew that, and he knew how awful I felt about it, Richard Thompson knew what was going on.   

The conversation paused.  Burial, cremation and contract animal disposal services are more common ways to dispose of euthanized animals. 

CHB:  If Richard Thompson is a compassionate man who really wants to help, why the widely-reported problems with Randy Grim in St. Louis, whose Stray Rescue shelter was the first "winner" of ZooToo's so-called Million Dollar Makeover?  

Forister:   I think Richard is a visionary and idealist in the purest sense of those words.  I honestly think he may lack the know-how to work with a board of directors, which requires a lot more than just a vision.  What he really wanted to do was use the ZooToo contest as a means to rally the community.  

Any winner of the million dollar makeover will have come from years of struggle coupled with community neglect.  It's just the nature of what and who Richard seeks to help -- those shelters most deserving because they are struggling the most.   But the problems that got those shelters to that struggling place are often wider and deeper than I think Richard first imagined.  Correcting them takes more than idealism and money -- a lot more. 

CHB:  Many people think Thompson should have written CMHS a million dollar check.  What do you think?

Forister:   Of course, if he had done that, would it have helped?  Sure.  It would have created the opportunity to explore lots of new options.  But would a million dollars build a whole new shelter?  Solve all the organizational problems?  Would it make CMHS a better fundraising agency?  Would it correct the inequities with the animal control contracts?  No.  In fact, a million dollar check might make those problems worse because then people would say, "see, it's all fixed.  It's all taken care of." 

CHB:  What do you hope comes out of ZooToo, if not a million dollars?

Forister:  I hope that ZooToo provides a springboard for a full, complete, and long-lasting makeover.  I hope it inspires people to engage in the shelter.  I think that's always been Richard's intent -- that he not just write a check and leave, but write a check and leave something lasting behind.      

NEXT TIME:  What's next for the Central Missouri Humane Society? 

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