New HIHS director ready to tackle change

  • Charles Brown

HILO — The new chief executive officer for the Hawaii Island Humane Society said he sees his position as “an incredible opportunity” and described his staff as a group of “really smart people focused on making some incredible change.”

Charles Brown, a 49-year-old Pittsburgh native, has worked in animal shelters for more than two decades, “starting as a kennel cleaner and working my way up.” He assumes control of an islandwide operation that operates three shelters, in Kona, Keaau and Waimea. He also inherits animal control functions for the county on a three-month contract for $520,408 that ends Sept. 30.

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With a reputation as a troubleshooter, Brown steps into a position where the last occupant, Donna Whitaker, “stepped down” more than nine months ago amid controversy about euthanasia rates and the suspension of adoptions by the rescue group Big Island Dog Rescue until it would sign a memorandum of agreement spelling out legal responsibilities of its operation that resulted in litigation. In addition, an ad hoc committee of five animal advocates submitted to the county a ballot initiative proposal seeking an animal shelter standards ordinance.

An examination in July by the Tribune-Herald of monthly shelter reports during the past three years revealed some discrepancies in numbers, but kill rates ran between 60% and 70%.

“I think, in general, yeah, we have a really high euthanasia rate. That’s an opportunity to make a real impact,” Brown told the Tribune-Herald last week. “Ultimately, for me, it comes down to out-alive (rate) and what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.”

A July statement from HIHS touted Brown’s experience as a director of shelters in Indiana, Tennessee and Maryland. He sees parallels between the Carroll County (Maryland) Humane Society, where he was executive director from early 2015 until last year.

“They were pretty good at animal control but were pretty dismal on the sheltering side,” he said. “When I got there, they were at a 45, 46 percent out-alive rate. Within six months we were at 78 percent out-alive rate. Within a year, we were at 90 percent, and that’s been sustained ever since.”

Brown also noted some positives he’s seen in his first month on the job.

“You really do have a really strong, sensible board and some fantastic employees that really work like crazy,” he said. “But they don’t have all the tools, I think, that they need. So what we’re doing is re-evaluating all the programs, all the things that are going on and how we can get better. Because there’s huge amounts of opportunity here.”

Brown said he’s looking to build on some programs started or bolstered by Lauren Nickerson, community programs director for HIHS and a social media influencer who has an Instagram account with 47,000-plus followers dedicated to her life with Pearl, a blind and deaf dog she adopted from the humane society in 2010. Nickerson has raised tens of thousands of dollars for HIHS and other organizations through her platform.

Brown touted the humane society’s Mobile Spay-and-Neuter Waggin’, adoption events at local Petco stores and the off-the-leash “bark parks” at the Kona and Keaau shelters, as well as an almost finished expansion of the Kona shelter.

“There will be definitively more shelter space,” he said.

Brown’s last stop before the Big Island was as chief of Detroit Animal Control, from August 2018-May 2019. The third chief executive in three years for the troubled city’s animal control and shelter operation, his salary was a reported $90,000 a year. An Oct. 8, 2018, Detroit News article said reported kill rates at the shelter went from 74% in 2015 to about 35% in 2017. The article pointed out other issues faced by the operation, though, including “overcrowding and outdated facilities.”

Brown said the kill rate was down to 30% when he left Detroit because of the “tremendous amounts of bureaucracy” in the government-run operation.

“Once I felt I’d accomplished all I could in Detroit, I started looking for a new job,” he said. “Detroit is a really tough place with a lot of problems … not just financial but also culturally. Our census there was about 500 dogs on any given day. We had one staff veterinarian. We did work extensively with rescue groups that would pull especially high-risk cases. (It was) certainly not uncommon for gun-shot dogs to come in or dogs that had been stabbed, beaten. You name the level of cruelty and certainly Detroit would match your expectation.”

Much of the cruelty, Brown said, could be traced to dogfighting.

Here on the Big Island, Brown said animal overpopulation is “a huge problem.” He added “methodical, sensible change” can improve the situation.

“One thing this organization has never done — you come in with your dog or cat and say, ‘Hey, I need to get rid of it.’ They don’t ask, ‘Why? What’s going on with you?’ Most people surrendering animals, whether it’s in Hawaii or New York City, don’t want to surrender that animal. There has been a life event that has caused them to come to that point. There’s always a jerk that doesn’t care, but 90 percent of the people really do care about their animals. … So we’re setting up resources so when that person is in a bad spot, we can help them get through that, rather than just pulling their animal in and saying, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’”

Brown also said there needs to be more emphasis on trap, neuter and return, or “TNR,” to reduce the stray cat population.

“You don’t kill yourself out of overpopulation. You manage yourself out of overpopulation. This is going to become a bigger discussion, but there does come a point where, as a humane society — and especially trying to work with other rescue and other advocacy groups — there has to be a definitive policy about your community cats, your feral cats,” he said. “There’s a science to it. If you have, say 20 feral, community cats, whatever you want to call them, and they’re left to their own devices, they will spread disease, they will multiply by crazy. If those cats are trapped, vaccinated, spayed, neutered, wormed … and returned to that location, you will not have the fighting, you will not have the spraying.

“Cats fight, like humans, over resources. If they’re being fed, that’s a resource they don’t have to fight for. If they’re sterilized, they’re not fighting for mates. Like humans, they’re resource-driven creatures. So if you can remove the issues over resources, you don’t have a lot of those problems. You don’t have the disease, you don’t have the tom cats fighting or spraying. And the reality is, that population will die out.”

Another change Brown plans to implement is to no longer euthanize feral chickens and mongooses.

“That is not a mission of the humane society. That is not going to rid the island of those invasive species,” he said. “They’re here. That’s a job for another department. That’s not a part of the animal-control contract.

“What we need to do is say, ‘What is our focus? What do we want to be good at? What do we want to make a change in?’ As a humane society, I think the thing is getting a handle on our companion animals, our dogs and cats and getting really, really good at saving their lives. My proposal for the board is that. I sincerely don’t feel that we can be a clearinghouse for just extermination.”

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Other steps include adoption and fostering of adoptable animals, something the humane society has done all along. According to Brown, there are mainland shelters willing to take adoptable animals for which HIHS has not been able to find either forever or foster homes.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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