What Is Going On at the Chester County SPCA?

Out in the rolling hills of horsey, happy Chester County, they’re fighting like cats and dogs over household pets.

Illustration by Danny Hellman; photograph by Christopher Leaman

Illustration by Danny Hellman; photograph by Christopher Leaman

The allegations were shocking: mass killings of dogs, sadists abusing innocent creatures, maimed and ill animals suffering in squalor. They surfaced repeatedly on Facebook, on websites with names like Justice for Chester County Animals, and in mainstream publications like the Inquirer and the Delaware County Daily Times.

A puppy mill? A dog-fighting ring?

Not exactly. An animal shelter in the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania: the Chester County SPCA.

In the past year and a half, the CCSPCA has seen three different executive directors, had its board dissolved and reformed, had board members leave en masse, called police to remove volunteers from the premises, seen donations and adoptions drop, and been the subject of more bad press than Rolling Stone magazine.

Also in the past year and a half, the CCSPCA has hired a full-time vet, opened a low-cost clinic, established a code of conduct, instituted a slew of new “best practices,” hired a well-regarded animal-behavior expert, increased its rate of adoptions, and slashed its euthanasia rates to record lows.

So which is the Chester County SPCA: a clean, well-lighted place that’s a haven for animals, or a death pit for family pets?

It all depends on whether you think putting those pets to death is ever justified.

IF YOU ASK LESLIE CELIA, she’ll tell you the CCSPCA is a hellhole. Celia, a retired graphic designer who originally moved to West Chester to work at QVC, volunteered at the shelter for years. True, in the summer of 2013, she was fired from her volunteer job when she raised a stink after an animal she had grown fond of was euthanized. But that autumn, in a show of reconciliation under the new board of directors, Celia was allowed to return.

At first, she says, the situation seemed better. But then tensions began to grow, and she felt the environment was hostile. That’s when she fell in love again, with a pit bull named August who had open wounds, most likely from a dog fight, and had been quarantined for six months.

At the shelter last March, she went to visit August in quarantine. (She says she didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to.) The next thing she knew, a cop was telling her to get off the premises and that if she returned, she’d be charged with trespassing. It was the second time within a month that police had been called to the tranquil 3.8-acre property on Phoenixville Pike in rural Chester County. The first time, the altercation was between the then-executive director, two members of the board, and two other volunteers who also wound up banned.

Celia says she knows what the problem at the CCSPCA is: “There’s a difference of opinion on where animals ought to be as part of our lives. Some people feel animals have rights.” But some people, she says darkly — and she means the management and current board of the SPCA — “aren’t in it for the animals. For some people, this is all about control.”

Celia was one of the concerned citizens who dialed up reporters repeatedly about the shelter. She’d told one reporter there were “bloodbaths” in the facility because of dogs fighting in the kennel. Based on information from her and her allies, the Inquirer had written that the CCSPCA was a “kill factory.” The Daily Local News had reported allegations of animal abuse, management problems and staff upheaval, quoting a former board member as saying, “The inmates are running the asylum.” Why wasn’t there a full-time vet on staff? Why weren’t animals being checked for microchips? Why was the shelter bringing in kittens and puppies from other states even as it sentenced local pets to death?

Among Celia’s allies is Tom Hickey, a former member of the CCSPCA board who serves on the state’s Dog Law Advisory Board and founded a nonprofit called Savingpuppies.com. “We’re seeing reports of mass killings of dogs they advertised as great dogs, great pets,” says Hickey, who with his silver hair and bulldog build could be a lawyer or legislator. “We hear allegations dogs aren’t being fed properly. You can’t hear yourself think in there, it’s so noisy. The dogs are barking and upset.”

Another former board member, Chesco attorney Steven Bazil, mentions a CCSPCA dog, Diego, that he’d offered to take home: “I saw him languishing, showing signs of depression.”

“Diego’s dead now,” Hickey says. “They killed him.”

Bazil agrees, sadly: “Diego’s dead.”

“We have documents,” says Hickey. “They’re euthanizing animals every two minutes at night. I’m not sure you can even do it humanely at that rate.”

“They’re running it as a business,” says Bazil. “They want to make more profits. You don’t have to feed or house the dogs if you’re just killing them as soon as they come in.”

IF YOU ONLY KNOW about the Chester County SPCA from what you’ve read in the papers or online, you’d never take a stray there. You wouldn’t donate to the organization. And you certainly wouldn’t go there to adopt a pet.

That’s exactly what Celia, Hickey and Bazil want you to think.

Adam Lamb wishes you wouldn’t.

Lamb, rail-thin and terrier-quick, moved here from Florida last September to become the new executive director of what then was surely one of the most dysfunctional animal shelters in the United States — its third executive director in less than a year.

He’s giving me a tour of the SPCA, a modern, low-slung building fronted by a wall of windows. One of those windows looks onto a big cage of kittens near the front door, where visitors won’t miss their antics. “They’re fun to watch,” says Lamb, face pressed to the glass. Beside the kitten window is a colorful display of leashes and bandanas for sale. One room in the shelter holds rows and rows of cages of cats, each cage with a hiding spot for when its inhabitant is feeling antisocial. In another room, uncaged cats sit perched on chairs and scratching posts, watching one another with unblinking eyes. “Long-timers,” Lamb says of the communal room. “It’s more as if they’re in a home this way. We’re going to put a drop-cam in there for the website.” The world can’t get enough cat videos.

On the other side of the reception area is a brand-new low-cost, full-service veterinary clinic where anyone can come to have animals spayed or neutered, vaccinated and treated for ailments. There’s also a “quiet room” where would-be adopters can hang out with critters they’re thinking of taking home, without staff present — “So they can make a good decision,” Lamb explains.

Lamb and his partner have two French bulldogs at home, “one from a shelter, one from a friend,” as well as three children they adopted out of foster care. “Children and animals are what matter to me,” Lamb says. “They can’t speak for themselves, so you have to speak for them.” He opens a door onto a wave of eau de canine. “This is our main hub of dogs,” he says above the din inside, where the inhabitants seem to be speaking for themselves just fine.

We walk along the rows of pens. Pit bull. Pit bull. Pit bull. Some kind of spaniel, maybe? Pit bull. Lab mix. “Everyone’s available for adoption,” Lamb calls above the barks. “They’re all spayed and neutered and microchipped.” Each of the 67 pens in the ­concrete-floored room holds a food bowl, but not for long. Lamb is instituting an Open Paw program in which the dogs will be fed their kibble by hand: “That way, they associate people with something positive.”

Lamb tosses a treat to a pit bull named Dotty. He doesn’t have a college degree; he worked his way up through the ranks of shelter life, from a vet tech in high school to director of operations for SPCA Florida before moving here. He has a ton of connections in the animal-welfare community. They all warned him about this job.

Lamb has read the bad press about the shelter he’s now in charge of. He knows the accusations Hickey, Bazil, Celia and others repeatedly make. “The biggest issue that organizations like ours run into is that they’re full of passion,” he says as an office cat clambers into his lap in the CCSPCA administration building. “While I respect where anyone comes from, we’re going to do what’s in the best interests of the community and the animals.”

For almost 70 years, the Chester County SPCA was basically “a small core of little old ladies,” Lamb says. It threw a few fund-raisers, took in strays and “surrenders” — pets whose owners can’t or won’t look after them anymore — and did its best to adopt out the animals in its care. Starting in the 1990s, though, a movement in the humane community began promoting so-called “no-kill” shelters. The no-kill philosophy holds that nearly every animal is adoptable — it’s just a matter of finding the right owner/pet match — and that euthanasia, long a staple in shelters to control overpopulation, should only be used in the rare instances of animals that are terminally ill or are too dangerous to adopt.

In 2010, the neighboring Delaware County SPCA announced that it was going no-kill. (SPCAs are private nonprofits, not government entities.) It also announced it would stop taking in strays, so it could hold down its euthanasia rates. It’s a decision more and more shelters are making thanks to animal-welfare activists.

Under its new no-kill banner, the Delco shelter went from euthanizing 2,325 pets and adopting out 1,845 in 2009 to 137 euthanizations and 3,087 adoptions in 2012. In that same period, the Delco shelter’s budget grew from $1.6 million to $2.2 million. (Going no-kill is great for donations.) Animals taken in there today are treated to classical music and such perks as aromatherapy and reiki-like “treatments.”

But with the Delco SPCA no longer accepting strays, municipalities in that county had to find someplace else to take the hundreds of dogs and cats that are lost or abandoned and roaming their streets. That someplace turned out to be the Chester County SPCA. Delaware County pays CCSPCA a minimum of $30,000 a month, or $250 a head, to take in its strays. That adds up to just over 15 percent of the CCSPCA’s annual $2.4 million budget. (There are 40 staffers and more than 100 volunteers.)

Adam Lamb was still in Florida when the Delco contract was signed, but he lives every day with its consequences. “When I first got here, everybody said the solution to the problems we had was to get out of the contract. But I think that’s a disservice to the community,” he says. “Someone has to take those animals in.”

CCSPCA is what’s called an “open admissions” shelter. Besides the Delco strays, it takes care of every Chester County animal that comes along: cats hit by cars, dogs involved in court proceedings, hamsters, rabbits, the occasional llama, dogs that bite, cats that piss all over the house. By contrast, say proponents of open admission, no-kill shelters pick and choose what animals they’ll accept. That’s how they keep their “live release” numbers so high — the holy grail is 90 percent.

Julie Landy, the CCSPCA’s community engagement manager, used to work at a no-kill shelter. “Although I applaud what they do,” she says, “they have the ability to say no to what’s really needed. When I left, I felt like it was false comfort there.”

Penned in at a desk beside Julie and staffer Teresa Meade is Cheez-It, a three-month-old pit bull. Found tied to a tree in Chester, Cheez-It has a non-­contagious form of mange that’s left his coat patchy and bare. “Some people have soft spots for dogs that look funny,” Meade says. “But he’ll be much more adoptable when he has fur.” So she’s fostering him at her house until he’s more presentable. She also has a dog she adopted from here, who arrived with chemical burns all over his body. “He had big caution signs on the cage,” she remembers. “I came in and said, ‘Oh, you’re it, aren’t you?’”

Meade has worked here for two and a half years. “At first it was, oh, this will go away,” she says of the negative publicity that has plagued the CCSPCA. “Then it became constant. It affected the entire shelter. People wouldn’t set foot in here. It’s so easy to believe the bad.” Quietly, she starts to cry. “When people call you killers, it inhibits adoption. That means we have less space for animals, which leads to more euthanasia. It just feeds into more of what you’re trying to prevent.”

LESLIE CELIA, TOM HICKEY and Steve Bazil want the Chester County SPCA to go no-kill, the way the Delco shelter did. In the summer of 2013, not long after Celia was fired as a volunteer, she and Hickey were among a group of animal lovers who appealed to State Senator Andy Dinniman to clean up the CCSPCA. “They were down to, I think, four board members,” Dinniman recalls. “I stepped in when I saw the organization was about ready to fall apart.” Without the Chester County SPCA, he says, a million residents in Delaware and Chester counties would have been without an animal shelter.

Dinniman didn’t have any authority to reform the board. But he’s a big dog-lover — he cries when he tells me about his poodle Henry’s kidney condition — so with the help of a couple of politically connected friends, he put out a call for people willing to sit on a new board of directors. Seats were divvied up between residents of Chester and Delaware counties, since animals would be arriving from both. “We put together what we thought was an excellent board,” he recalls, and pauses. “I didn’t realize that just because people love dogs and cats, that doesn’t mean they’ll agree on the right course of action to help save animals.”

It didn’t take long, Dinniman says, for a “schism” to develop among the new board members, who included Hickey and Bazil. Sticking points included whether certain dogs should be euthanized and how to determine if a dog was safe for adoption — a serious consideration with animals that have been neglected or abused. The board voted on a new executive director, but some members and volunteers were second-guessing the decisions made by her and the staff. “I felt all of them were very serious in their concerns,” says Dinniman, “but they had very different views of what’s appropriate.”

That’s not surprising. All of us bring our own beliefs and prejudices to the topic of animal welfare. When my 10-year-old mutt needed a cancer operation, I happily paid the $3,000. My father-in-law thought I was out of my mind. “Where I come from,” he told my husband, “we shoot dogs that get sick.” Is leaving a dog chained outdoors animal cruelty, or just what you do with dogs? Your view depends on a lot of factors, including how and where you were raised.

According to Northeastern University sociology professor Arnold Arluke, who studies human/pet interactions, no-kill proponents wreak havoc in shelters because they accuse their more pragmatic brethren of not caring for animals in what they deem the “right” way. As Arluke writes in his book Just a Dog, to the no-kill crowd, “Open-admissionists are what no-killers are not. One kind of shelter worker is cruel, the other humane. One is to be blamed, the other not.” It’s pretty easy to see how that makes for uneasy coexistence — even if Teresa Meade says plaintively, “I wish there were less of a divide.”

No-killers (open-admission advocates object to that name just as abortion-rights activists object to “pro-life”) tend to fixate on individual animals, like August and Diego, and become emotionally entwined in their welfare, Arluke writes:

This means they will “fight the good fight” for every animal that comes their way, expending as much time, labor, and money as necessary to ensure that the animal … is cared for, loved, and, hopefully, adopted.

But in an open-access shelter, space is at a premium. “If I have a dog that’s going six or eight months without being adopted,” says Adam Lamb, “and I could use that cage to house 10 other dogs in that time and get them adopted, doesn’t it make sense to put that animal down and use that cage space? People get too focused on one percent of the animals.” Lamb isn’t unemotional; he just keeps the bigger picture in mind.

Remember that accusation that the CCSPCA imports puppies and kittens from other states? Guilty as charged, Lamb says. A different culture in the South means less spaying and neutering, and thus more abandoned youngsters in overflowing shelters. When Lamb has space, he takes in these animals as part of a program called Second Chance. “If adopters can’t find what they’re looking for at a shelter, they’ll leave,” he says — and get their puppy or kitten from a pet store or puppy mill instead of from the SPCA. “We have the opportunity to save a life.”

That’s not how the other side sees it. “I think Adam has a real product-oriented feeling toward animals,” says Celia. “He wants to bring in froufrou dogs, the ones people want to adopt.”

“He’s trying to get the right ‘product mix,’” says Hickey.

“He’s indicated a particular disdain for animals that are hard to place,” adds Bazil.

Then Hickey comes right down to it: “He’s killing all the pits.”

AS IT HAPPENS, one of the longest-term residents of the Chester County SPCA is a pit bull named Honey. At the moment, Honey is beside herself with excitement, leaping against the door to her pen. “We’ll wait,” says volunteer Arnie Milowsky, ignoring Honey until she calms down enough for him to open the door, leash her up, and take her outside.

Honey dances and strains as she’s led across the grassy lawn to Milowsky’s workspace, an old stone shed that was the original 1920s SPCA. “She’s been here since May 29th,” he tells me; it’s now November. “She’s a nice dog, but she’s a little wild.”

In the chilly shed, he runs Honey through her paces with treats and a clicker: “Sit! Stay! Touch!” Honey’s problem, he says, is that she hasn’t learned to seek attention appropriately. The technical term for what he’s doing now is “differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior”: “She can’t sit and jump.”

Milowsky used to be a corporate lawyer. He’s volunteered at the SPCA for four years: “This is what I do all day. It’s a great way to retire.” He’s been working with the shelter’s behavioral consultant, Nicole Larocco-Skeehan of Philly Unleashed, on how to best train Honey and dozens of other dogs to increase their chances of finding homes.

“Dogs that have been abused will shut down,” says Milowsky. “Maybe you just sit in the cage with them. It takes patience. You try to get them to open up and become a real dog again.” There’s a sofa in the shed. Sometimes he just sits on it with Honey beside him,
“so she can learn how to exist in a house.”

Milowsky quit working at the shelter for a few months in the fall of 2013, when the no-kill activists moved in. To him, no-kill is “too good to be true.” He worried that under the new procedures, dangerous animals would be adopted out into the community.

After her workout, Honey settles down on a rug at Milowsky’s feet. “I think she’ll get adopted,” he says hopefully. “She’s only two. She doesn’t bite. Her behavior hasn’t deteriorated while she’s been here.” Honey rolls over, begging for her belly to be rubbed.

“Arnie does a lot of volunteer work,” Nicole Larocco-Skeehan tells me. “With him, I can just say, ‘Bosco is showing some sensitivity when I touch his tail — can you work with him on that?’” She tries to stay out of the politics of the shelter, but says she’s been there long enough to know there’s no abuse of animals. Open-access shelters, she says, are “the ones actually dealing with pet overpopulation. There’s not enough space, so they have to make the hard decisions.” No one, she says, gets into sheltering out of a desire to kill animals.

THE NO-KILLERS LOOK BACK to the first two months of 2014 at CCSPCA as a watershed. “We had achieved no-kill at an open-access shelter,” Hickey says proudly. “That was our strategy. It took a monumental effort. We placed 130 dogs in two months. It was phenomenal.”

The true believers were at the shelter 10 hours a day, six days a week. “We had a 94 percent live-release rate in January and February,” says Bazil. But not everyone was thrilled. Three vets who worked part-time at the shelter wrote to the board laying out concerns that “extremely aggressive and dangerous dogs” on the floor could bite visitors through their cage doors, and shouldn’t be made available for adoption. Hickey told the Delco Times the vets were “trying to challenge us for working to save the animals.”

“Tom and people like him think they’re all that’s standing between the dogs and wholesale annihilation,” says attorney Patricia Biswanger, who just signed on for a second term as president of the CCSPCA’s (yet-again reconfigured) board. “He thinks we love to kill dogs.”

When Biswanger first joined the board as part of the September 2013 reorganization, “I felt out of my league,” she says. “It was a very impressive group.” Then the fault lines started to appear. “Some members wanted to be here all the time, oversee things, tell the staff what to do. The rest of us said that’s not what a board does. But they wanted to run the show.”

Biswanger brings up another way that the argument over no-kill shelters is like the abortion debate: “If you’re not completely on board with pro-lifers that life begins at the moment of conception, you’re a hater. It’s the same level of passion. It’s not always rational. And it doesn’t allow for some of the more nuanced cases.”

When Hickey and Bazil, among others, balked at signing the code of conduct, which required them to bring any concerns to the board rather than the press, they were voted off the board. That didn’t stop them from continuing to appeal to Andy Dinniman to intervene in the shelter’s operation. “The first couple of times they visited me,” Dinniman says, “I would hear them out.” Finally, though, he’d had enough. He told the no-killers that if they had proof animals were being mistreated, they should go to the D.A. and press charges. Then he stopped taking their calls. “Senator Dinniman doesn’t want to spend the rest of his legislative career babysitting the SPCA,” Biswanger says. “And he doesn’t have to. We’re well on our way.”

As for the no-killers’ most serious charge — that the shelter abuses animals to make them aggressive and thus unadoptable, so they can be euthanized for profit — Biswanger is incredulous: “Who do they think would give that order so we can make $250? Who on the staff do they think would take it? Do they think we hire sociopaths?”

MICHELLE MEHALICK IS slicing open a kitten — her third in a row. The small gray creature lies splayed on its back on a molded plastic form, tongue clipped to one side, a tube down its throat. Behind her surgical mask, Mehalick reaches into the slit she’s made and extracts kitty innards, which she deftly cuts apart and ties off. “This one’s done,” she announces, and a vet tech moves the kitten to a heated pad on the floor. A different tech lays another anesthetized kitten on the table, and Mehalick digs in.

Mehalick, who grew up in West Chester, went to vet school at N.C. State — “The number three vet school in the country,” she says proudly. She can spay or neuter an animal in six to eight minutes, and she does — for as much as six hours a day, five days a week: “I have dreams about the kittens sometimes.”

Mehalick started as the CCSPCA’s full-time vet last March. She’s been in private practice, but she prefers shelter work: “Here, you get to help an animal because it needs your help, not because someone is standing behind it who says, ‘This animal is valuable to me.’” She ties off the kitten’s blood vessels, then sutures its stomach slit. Nearby, a couple of techs share Skittles while they run feline leukemia tests. On the blanket on the floor, a just-spayed feral cat growls in an anesthesia daze.

Funny thing about the cats. You never hear the no-killers talk about them, even though Adam Lamb says in terms of numbers, they’re a much bigger problem than dogs, making up two-thirds of the 4,000 to 5,000 animals the CCSPCA takes in each year. The feral cat is part of another new program he’s begun, in which members of outdoor cat colonies are spayed and neutered and returned whence they came, with their ears tipped to ID them as “community cats,” not lost pets or strays. (They make it through the winter just fine.) He’s also opened a food pantry for owners who can’t afford kibble, coached staff to counsel owners in alternatives to surrender, started free dog-training clinics, and streamlined the adoption process, among other things. In 2013, the SPCA euthanized 1,785 of the 5,489 animals it took in, or close to 32 percent. Since Lamb’s arrival, the average has been 13.6 percent. In December, the CCSPCA achieved a live-release rate of 97 percent.

None of that matters to Leslie Celia. “If they hadn’t fired me, I would have quit,” she says. “I don’t go there. I don’t know anybody who volunteers there. But I understand it’s worse than ever now.”

But here’s another funny thing. Remember August, that pit bull Celia was fired for visiting? August’s in her backyard now. When the dog got out of quarantine, Lamb called Celia to see if she wanted to adopt her. He facilitated the adoption process to make sure she got a fair shake, considering her history with the shelter. After the adoption went through, he followed up with text messages to see how August was doing.

The no-killers weren’t impressed. The last time I talked to Hickey, he and Bazil were promising big new revelations of wholesale dog slaughter at the Chester County SPCA: “If the community was aware of what’s going on there, you would see a public outcry. You would have a come-to-Jesus moment!”

Or a Jesus moment, anyway.

Honey was adopted on New Year’s Eve. Originally published as “Animal House” in the February 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.