In our nearly two-month investigation, we sent hidden cameras through areas of the St. Joseph County Humane Society the public usually does not see, after former employees told us that was the only way we would get a true feel for the state of the Humane Society.
They say the director's opposition to euthanasia is what causes the overpopulation problem.
The facility has a no-kill policy for adoptable animals, and makes a point to only put them down if they are suffering.
The director says even if that is why there are so many animals, it is an approach she stands by.
We contacted the Humane Society for a visit last week, but earlier that morning, we sent a hidden camera through one last time.
Again, we saw animals living in close quarters, including a stack of carrier cases with cats inside with food, water, and litter boxes. Former employees told us the animals may live in them for days, even weeks.
Another area humane society director said that was unacceptable.
“This is somebody who has trouble with euthanasia issues,” said Gail Marsh, the Director of the Michiana Humane Society in LaPorte County, as she referenced an image shot by our hidden camera.
“You know if you can't find homes for these animals, it’s OK to put them down, but don’t make them live like this, it's not OK,” Marsh said.
Dr. Carol Ecker, a retired veterinarian with more than 40 years of experience in Michiana, works without pay as the director of the St. Joseph County facility.
Dr. Ecker was more open than her former employees had anticipated; they told us we would need to go in undercover
“Some of these animals have been here two years,” Dr. Ecker said, as she showed us through the adoption area.
She took us through the entire facility, including the quarantine area; and even she was vocal about how bad it was.
“To the person who comes in here and thinks 'my God,' I can imagine this is not something they think is right. But you know, the other alternative is euthanasia, and I’m not willing to do that,” Dr. Ecker said.
When asked if she thought “it was right,” Dr. Ecker said, “No. I mean, it's not right for the public to dump these many animals on us, no I don't think that's right.”
Dr. Ecker was quick to point out the poor condition of the nearly 70-year-old building, and the need for a new one.
“You can see this is just a horrible situation, but the animals are fed and cared for regardless of the fact that it's an old building. That’s what people don’t understand,” Dr. Ecker said.
Most of the areas were similar to what we had seen earlier in the day, except the treatment room, with the stacked carrier cases.
Dr. Ecker may have forgotten she was wearing a microphone, when whispering to her employees in the corner of the treatment room, as we followed her from the previous room.
"Where'd you put the cats?" she asked, in a hushed voice we did not hear in person, that sounded like it came out of the corner of her mouth. She then continued on with the tour.
The stacked carriers, that had been in the room on all three of our previous visits, were gone.
To recap: that same morning of May 13th, our hidden camera captured carriers stacked up against the wall in the room; and about six hours later, on our guided tour, they were nowhere to be seen.
Two days later, we sent a hidden camera through again, at the same time of day as our afternoon visit on the 13th, and the carriers were back in place.
When asked about stacked carriers in the building, before she knew we sent hidden cameras through the facility; Dr. Ecker told us they were only used temporarily at the beginning of the day to check animals in, and that cats may stay in them for as long as a day.
Dr. Ecker says they are housing almost 500 animals, and the building is only made for about 300.
She says that does mean a lot of extra work for employees, which can be tiring, but says the former employees who spoke out were probably not part of the team.
“I think we've had people that left here that were lazy, that didn't want to work. I can tell you that. The staff that works here now work their fannies off,” Dr. Ecker said.
Even with an overpopulation problem, Dr. Ecker says she will not change her approach, and says her staff and board of directors stand behind her on that.
“I agree we have too many animals here. I'd be the first one to agree, but I’m not willing to euthanize these animals just because there are too many… I bring it back to the staff every once and a while and say what is it you want? It’s your choice. I mean we can lighten your burden and euthanize or we can treat these animals,” Dr. Ecker said.
“I think it's the best approach out there. We all decided as a group we were going to save everything that we absolutely could. Instead of putting down adoptable animals, we're gonna house them and work the extra hours to make it work,” said Melissa Bishop, an employee at the Humane Society who has worked there for nearly two years.
Other area humane societies choose to use euthanasia as a form of population control.
“I believe that every humane society would like to reach the point of being a no-kill facility. But until our communities are all working together, all the components, that’s not possible,” Michiana Humane Society Director Gail Marsh said.
Dr. Ecker says the point of community cooperation is vital.
“It's not just our problem, it's society’s problem; and once people get that in their head that they’re part of the problem, then they can be part of the solution… Right now it's not good, I mean living in a small carrier is not a good thing, living in a cage is not a good thing, but at least they're not dead,” Dr. Ecker said.
Dr. Ecker says public education on animal care could prevent the overpopulation problems from the beginning.
She says spaying and neutering are major solutions.
She says the community can help on the other end as well, by adopting more animals or donating to the Humane Society to help pay for a new facility.
They have had plans to build a larger facility for years now, and Ecker says they have 2 million dollars in the fund, but still need a lot more.
Ecker says the new facility would be able to hold around 500 animals, as compared to the 300 the current facility supports.
The St. Joseph County Humane Society receives funds from the city of Mishawaka and St. Joseph County for animal control services, but Dr. Ecker says they operate mostly on donations from the community.
Humane societies are typically independent entities, so organizations like the Humane Society of the United States have little or no structural control over the local agencies.
The St. Joseph County facility is managed by a board of directors.
Here is a list of the working board, provided by Dr. Ecker:
Carol Ecker DVM, President
Professor Michelle Whaley, PhD, Vice President
Nancy Deneen, Treasurer
Cindy Miller, Secretary
Dr. Ecker asks contact to the board members be through mail addressed to the shelter, marked personal.
The shelter’s address is: 2506 Grape Road, Mishawaka, IN 46545