As Seattle Humane campaigned over the past decade to build a $30 million facility, its leaders pledged to take in more at-risk animals and coordinate more adoptions.
“Your gift doesn’t just fund a new building; it helps us to change the face of animal welfare forever,” a marketing flyer read. It promised to increase adoptions by 60% and grow the number of critters taken in from “high-kill shelters or no-shelter communities” by more than 40%.
But the palatial shelter — the largest nonprofit animal shelter in the Puget Sound region — hasn’t lived up to those promises.
In fact, not long after the 2017 opening of the three-story building in Bellevue, Seattle Humane was coordinating fewer adoptions than smaller nonprofit shelters, a Seattle Times analysis of tax documents and animal shelter data found.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, shelters across the state saw a drop in animal intakes and adoptions, according to data reported by roughly 60 shelters to the independent data service Shelter Animals Count, an industry standard. But Seattle Humane’s decline stood out with a 64% drop in intakes, twice as steep a drop as other shelters across Washington.
The Seattle Times spoke with more than 30 current and former staffers and volunteers who described a nonprofit plagued by chaotic policies and a toxic work environment, and shared internal documents illustrating their concerns. Many asked to remain anonymous for fear of damaging their careers in the animal shelter industry.
“I loved that job. Free medical insurance. Eight weeks’ vacation. And even with that, I couldn’t stay,” said Deidre Mayer, a former dog care lead who quit in 2019 after four years at the shelter. “It was sickening to watch.”
Tensions came to a head in the summer of 2019, when the shelter’s decision to euthanize a dog with scant notice to staff or volunteers became a catalyst for an internal revolt. The CEO at the time resigned 13 days after the dog’s death.
Christopher Ross, who took over as CEO of the nonprofit in January, and board chair Leanne Webber attributed staff frustration to a lack of leadership at the time, adding that the tone at the top has since changed. “That’s not who we are anymore,” said Ross.
But Seattle Humane, which still employs senior managers from its tumultuous period, keeps struggling to perform at the levels of other nonprofit animal shelters in the Puget Sound region, even as shelters were met with an increased demand for pandemic puppies.
Seattle Humane is a fundraising powerhouse capable of raising more in donations — which provide 90% of the shelter’s operating budget — on a single night than some of its peers do in a year. Despite Seattle Humane’s financial advantage and its spacious shelter, its tally of animal intakes and adoptions was a fraction of those accomplished by smaller shelters in the region at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Humane Society of Tacoma & Pierce County, for example, which has far fewer resources than Seattle Humane, coordinated more than three times the adoptions during the first 10 months of the pandemic, records show.
Seattle Humane recently announced new plans for transforming its shelter in Bellevue into a “pet-centric community center” and focusing on other services. It already offers more support for pets and owners, including a veterinary clinic and a pet food bank, than other shelters.
It is changing the way it measures its success in response to the changing needs of the community, not in response its recent track record, Ross said.
Still, with its $30 million shelter and a larger staff and volunteer workforce than any shelter in the region, some expected Seattle Humane to fulfill its promise to increase adoptions and intakes.
“An awful lot of people have no idea that they are doing so little,” said a longtime donor who requested anonymity because they still volunteer at the shelter. “People give millions of dollars to this organization. For that, things should be much better.”
Seattle Humane’s fundraising campaign to build a state-of-the-art facility repeatedly advertised in the past decade that with the new building, “the number of dog, cat and small critters placed into loving homes will increase from 7,000 to 10,000” a year.
Donations poured in, fueling the first major fundraising boon in at least two decades. Donations, the shelter’s primary revenue source, topped $92 million in the 2010s, nearly quadrupling the amount from the prior decade.
It started a new era for Seattle Humane, founded in 1897 to take in animals before government agencies developed animal control. When the city of Seattle and King County both started open-admission municipal animal shelters in 1972, Seattle Humane moved to Bellevue and focused on adopting out animals, with more selective admissions than the government shelters.
Seattle Humane doesn’t have government contracts, and doesn’t accept many strays. Most of its animals come from other shelters across the country, or are surrendered by owners.
In late 2017, Seattle Humane vacated its old shelter with concrete open-air kennels and chain-link fence doors.
Inside the new, 57,000-square-foot, three-story building is an adoption lobby with decorative orbs hanging from high ceilings, indoor kennels and adoption rooms, and a veterinary center with surgical suites, sterile recovery rooms and a community clinic. It has capacity for 165 cats and 170 dogs, a 35% increase from the previous building.
But internal documents obtained by The Times show that Seattle Humane had not reached the 7,000-animal adoption baseline it declared during the successful fundraising campaign.
Adoptions hit an all-time high in 2018, but were still well short of its advertised goal for its previous, smaller building. The next year, the number of animals adopted fell to 5,668 — exactly one more than in 2015.
Ross called the campaign pledge “obviously aspirational,” adding that reaching 10,000 adopted animals was “always a marketing line.”
“I have no idea who created that, but it was a rally call to try to invigorate donors,” said Ross.
Despite a marginal change in adoptions since 2015, Seattle Humane’s spending on adoption services spiked nearly 70%, and its overall expenses rose to $10.7 million in 2019.
That is in part due to the cost of the new facility, Seattle Humane leaders said. The nonprofit added staff and raised the base pay for employees from $12 to $16, although top executives did not get significant increases. Ross earns $200,000 a year.
Former staff and volunteers said Seattle Humane is not putting its financial and human resources to good use. Many attribute the nonprofit’s dip in intake and adoption numbers to wrongheaded policy changes and promotions based on favoritism, which several said had a negative impact on the well-being of dogs.
“I constantly watched how young, adoptable dogs deteriorated, to the point that we started having euthanasia talks about them when we could have started training them months before,” said Cameron Mansoori, former dog care supervisor at Seattle Humane who quit in 2019.
Seattle Humane relies on more than 2,000 volunteers for day-to-day operations, but in 2019 it outraged a portion of them with a series of new policies.
One change raised concerns about exposing unqualified volunteers to aggressive dogs. Another tasked new volunteers to clean kennels for months before they could work with dogs on behavior training. Both changes were announced without consulting volunteers.
Sara Dobyns, a volunteer for nearly a decade, emailed leadership criticizing program changes implemented without input from volunteers. The director of volunteer services responded: thanks for her work, but they should “part ways.” Other volunteers would soon be forced out or quit.
“They could be doing so much for the dogs,” Dobyns said. “Such a dysfunctional place. They misrepresent themselves to the general public.”
Although Ross contends the tone from the top has changed since he took over in January, some senior leaders have hung on throughout. Staff, donors and volunteers who spoke with The Times were particularly critical of a cluster of managers promoted from its cat department without experience working with dogs.
Staff described managers bringing employees and volunteers to tears, with people using empty rooms — a nursing room, kitchen, closets — to cry. Several who spoke to The Times anonymously described fear of retribution for questioning management.
“If you raise an option that goes against a certain group of individuals, it becomes unbearable,” said a former staffer who quit last year and asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation.
In summer of 2019, Seattle Humane decided to euthanize Trudeau, a 7-year-old black Labrador mix, to the shock of several staffers and volunteers. His death, combined with frustrations with management and program changes, fueled an internal revolt.
Trudeau’s owner had surrendered him to Seattle Humane the previous year. The Lab had acted aggressively toward other dogs but was affectionate toward people, said Donna Rowland and John Bensley, a couple who fostered Trudeau in 2019 and considered adopting him.
“He was very docile, a very lovable dog at home with us,” Rowland said.
Seattle Humane wouldn’t offer behavioral training for Trudeau unless they adopted him first, the couple said. But when he lunged at another dog, injuring Rowland, Seattle Humane ordered the couple to return him.
The shelter euthanized him three months later, on the eve of July Fourth, giving only two hours’ notice to volunteers and staff, listing “extreme stress” as the reason, according to internal documents provided to The Times.
Seattle Humane advertises its lifesaving rate as “one of the highest the country,” touting a euthanasia rate of about 1% and no kills for lack of space or time limits. A 2017 Seattle Humane promotional video called “Saving the Unsavable” describes rescuing animals that are “unadoptable, unfit, too old,” among other conditions.
But at a tense July 2019 town hall meeting with Seattle Humane’s board, volunteers and staff accused the nonprofit of ignoring those ideals with Trudeau.
“The decision to euthanize Trudeau, its timing and the communication surrounding it are symptoms of the terrible mismanagement at Seattle Humane,” Karen Sparks, a donor and years-long volunteer at the time, wrote to the board. “Trudeau was not out of options; Seattle Humane may not have found an option for him, but they did exist.”
It’s unclear how many animals Seattle Humane has euthanized over the years. The figures the nonprofit reports to Shelter Animals Count don’t align with internal reports provided to The Times by a staff member.
Last year, the shelter euthanized 51 cats and dogs, according to internal reports, but it reported 36 externally. Other data reported to Shelter Animals Count by Seattle Humane do match internal reports.
Seattle Humane disputes that it is minimizing euthanizations. The internal reports include owner-requested euthanasia, as well as some deaths that were counted because of “incorrect coding,” Seattle Humane spokesperson Brandon Macz said in an email. “We stand by the data that has been voluntarily reported to (Shelter Animals Count),” he said.
The fallout from the internal revolt corresponded with a decline in Seattle Humane’s adoptions and intakes, even as a group of volunteer leaders submitted a report to the board documenting a plummeting number of volunteers.
“They are willing to fire people for asking honest questions. They should be able to answer them,” said Stephanie Seek, a donor and volunteer for 10 years.
Seattle Humane’s board, stunned by the town hall meeting, commissioned an independent assessment of programs and facilities for dogs. It has not been released, and Seattle Humane declined to share it with the Times. “There’s nothing in there that’s controversial or pointing to failures in the system,” said Ross.
Macz said Seattle Humane implemented “a number of those” recommendations, including increased kennel space and better communication surrounding euthanasia cases.
Ross said that after opening the new shelter, Seattle Humane “had some big speed bumps along the way, but it is regaining its footing.” His predecessor held the job less than a year, dying of cancer, amid a time of high staff turnover.
But intake and adoption data shows that Seattle Humane’s performance problems persisted beyond the shelter’s rocky 2019.
Seattle Humane closed its doors to the public and to animals in March 2020. Most of the animals were sent to foster homes, leaving kennels and play areas largely empty. No volunteers and only minimal staff were allowed back in the building for the next 15 months.
Other shelters also scaled down operations but fared far better at meeting a surging demand for pet adoptions in the pandemic.
Auburn Valley Humane Society, Camano Animal Shelter Association and Homeward Pet Adoption in Woodinville managed to coordinate a combined 1,858 dog and cat adoptions between March and December 2020, roughly two-thirds more than the 1,123 coordinated during that time period by Seattle Humane — whose net assets are 13 times larger than the three shelters combined.
Seattle Humane leadership attributed the pandemic performance to a decline in pet transfers, which typically come from crowded shelters or disaster zones across the country. That pipeline slowed during the pandemic, Macz said, and other shelters took in high numbers of strays, driving up intake numbers when transfers slowed, he added.
Only in June, after more than a year since the shutdown, were volunteers allowed back into the building.
Linda Geis, a former senior volunteer and donor, said the shelter “did good things” in the pandemic, such as providing pet food to struggling families. “But we have one of the biggest, state-of-the-art facilities in the country, and we could not find a safe way to attend to dogs? Other shelters found ways,” she said.
In defending the shelter’s performance to date, Seattle Humane leaders pointed to an expansion in other services, including veterinary care, but did not provide specific numbers documenting an increase since the shelter’s performance problems first started.
The leaders did provide figures for recent community programs, including a new one that offers temporary shelter to pets while owners are between homes (which served 62 people), and another program that has helped 855 pets be adopted via a national third-party online platform.
Several staffers, donors and volunteers said they were critical of Seattle Humane because they want accountability and change. “We ultimately want Seattle Humane to save the lives it could with the resources it has,” said Kim Reno, a 10-year volunteer who has fostered hundreds of cats.
After struggling to meet its ambitious advertised adoption goals, Seattle Humane leaders announced recently that it plans to transform the new shelter into a community center and focus on vet care and services to pet owners.
The new plans are aimed at filling gaps in services that smaller nonprofits can’t fill, said Webber, the board chair.
“We’re not going to hide the fact that we have significant resources here,” she added. “We’re very fortunate, so we have a responsibility to put those to the best use and I think that’s what this is leading us to do.”
In September, Seattle Humane’s impressive fundraising machine was at work again at a virtual fundraising event called Tuxes and Tails. While Seattle Humane touted its future plans, leaders didn’t mention its past performance problems.
“This new chapter leverages everything about what we do here at the shelter, our sphere of influence in the community and the great work that we do every day, and it amplifies it and takes it to the next level,” Ross said during a speech that night.
In less than two hours, Seattle Humane raised $1.3 million.