Ivan Socher took time during his recovery from cancer to volunteer at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter in Rockville. An accountant by training, Socher said he happily walked dogs and worked at the facility for about two years.
"It was good for me and it was therapy," he said.
But when Socher, 63, of Rockville, criticized and argued with an administrator about how the place was run, an outburst for which he said he apologized, he was not welcome back.
Now, spurred by what he calls an unnecessarily high number of euthanizations and improper management, Socher, a member of the Montgomery County Humane Society, asked for the organization's membership rolls so that he could solicit support for a petition to put candidates on the ballot and elect new leadership in October.
Socher, president of the newly formed group Life4Animals, has accused the organization of spending money on projects that do not benefit the animals and of covering up financial problems.
Margaret Zanville, president of the Montgomery County Humane Society, which runs the animal shelter under a $1.4 million contract with the county, denounced the allegations.
"I believe they're ridiculous," she said, later adding, "He even had the nerve to say that we padded our books on this. That is absolutely ridiculous." The shelter is addressing Socher's complaints, including suggestions to separate sick animals and healthy animals and a call to reduce the number of euthanizations, Zanville said.
About two years ago, county officials began planning for a new, state-of-the-art shelter, Zanville said. A new facility would provide rooms to isolate sick animals, and Humane Society officials are pushing to get funding for an on-site sterilization clinic. "Everything that he's suggesting are things that we've been doing for years," she explained. "The only thing that they're saying that we agree with is spay-neuter clinics," citing the society's desire to set up a sterilization clinic on site.
Across the country, the frequency of animal euthanasia has become a volatile issue among animal lovers and animal control and adoption facilities, many of which are pushing aggressive campaigns for spaying and neutering animals.
According to Montgomery County Humane Society statistics, the shelter euthanized 1,817 stray animals from July 2004 to June 2005. About 1,000 others were euthanized upon owner request.
Stray animals older than 6 months for which the shelter can't retrieve any information or history are euthanized instead of being given up for adoption, Zanville said. This reduces the risk for those adopting animals, she said.
According to shelter records, more than 71 percent of the 4,941 animals at the county's shelter that were eligible for adoption in the past year were adopted.
But Socher said the shelter's euthanasia rates have not fallen fast enough in recent years.
"You can't solve the problem unless you reduce the breeding," Socher said, adding that he wants every animal to be sterilized before it is allowed to be adopted.
Because the shelter is not equipped to sterilize animals on site, new owners sign a contract and pay to get their adopted pets sterilized by a veterinary affiliated with the shelter.
Some of these owners, however, don't comply with the contract and, until recently, the shelter had no way to follow up or enforce the contractually obligated sterilization, Zanville said. Now, if owners don't comply, the shelter refers them to the county's Division of Animal Control and Humane Treatment, which calls these owners and asks them to honor their contract.
After his argument with a shelter administrator got him fired from his unpaid volunteer job in November 2003, Socher began to examine the shelter's financial records. After he attended the 2004 annual meeting last October, Socher said he and other disenchanted members began discussing alternative leadership and strategy.
In March, Life4Animals was incorporated, and Socher asked the Humane Society for its membership rolls so his group could start a mail campaign and create support for a petition to put candidates on the October ballot. Socher said his organization has about 300 supporters.
The Humane Society refused, citing privacy concerns. After several weeks of legal wrangling, including several unsuccessful appeals to stave off a court order to turn over the membership rolls to Socher, the Humane Society complied last week, handing over the names and addresses of the society's 2,800 members.
To put names on the ballot for October's election, Socher's organization needs the support of 25 percent of the members.
But Zanville said organization leaders have proposed changes in the bylaws and are asking members to ratify the recent change, which would remove the right to put candidates on the ballot through petitions. She said the proposal would protect members' privacy.
"What I'd like to see is a fair election," Socher said. Zanville played down the dispute, citing the success of the Humane Society's adoption efforts.
"We're just looking for ways to save more animals, because that's the bottom line," she said.