Last August I published a story about Tree House Humane Society’s sudden overhaul and unexpected firings of their management team, followed by Steve Dale’s departure after serving 12 years on their Board of Directors. After publishing my story, the Chicago Tribune published a similar story, followed by a few other online publications. Now its time for a follow-up on the shelter and its plans for moving into its new building.
The only story published on Tree House and their new shelter since the August stories appeared December 16th on DNAInfo.com. The story promoted their annual fundraiser, Lights of Love, with an open house held at the new, but empty, building.
Despite its best efforts to open in its new location in Summer 2017, there are still areas of concern for the shelter:
- Dysfunctional Board of Directors & Fundraising
- Cat Café
- Transfer, Fosters and TNR Kittens
Dysfunctional Board of Directors & Fundraising
Tree House still needs to raise $2 million to equip their new facility and move, the same amount mentioned for at least a year now.
When push comes to shove the Board of Directors dug its own hole, beginning with a witch hunt of the revered Jenny Schlueter, Director of Development; Ollie Davidson, Operations Manager and Dave DeFuniak, Executive Director. To fire all three in the midst of a capital campaign is clearly unusual. As a result of their dismissal Tree House lost their most influential Board Member, Steve Dale, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, author and radio host, forced out for his support of the dismissed management
The annual Lights of Love fundraising event took place at the new facility on December 9, 2016. According to a source familiar with the event, several changes to the successful fundraiser occurred last year, making it a less than enjoyable evening. Lights of Love is all about pausing to remember the beloved pets in your life that passed away in the last year. A reading of the Rainbow Bridge poem brought people together but not his year. No Dale to do the reading, no cats at the event, no music or entertainment, only bad-tempered board members unwilling to mingle with what they consider as grassroots donors.
Two other fundraisers took place in January, including Tats for Cats, at a tattoo parlor that donates 100% of the proceeds from all tattoos, piercings, and tattoo removal services to Tree House.
The shelter’s biggest fundraiser is the Black Cat Ball taking place in October, which is after the scheduled Summer 2017 opening. (an opening delayed well over a year). Many long-time donors did not attend the 2016 event. Any money raised at this year’s event won’t help lower the $2 million amount needed now.
Certainly, with the departure of Dale and Schlueter, given their status in the community, many donors departed as well. In fact, donors were stating on social media that they would no longer give to Tree House. Not to mention many donors removed Tree House from their will. This community response was all quite predictable yet the Board obviously didn’t care when at a time they needed all dollars the most. Reportedly, the Board “celebrated” their decision, while one Board member replied to confused and angry donors in emails filled with obscenities. It’s hard to comprehend a Board member might do this.
According to several inside sources there is discontent among current employees, many following dismissal of the managers, and the volunteer program is probably in disarray. The Board of Directors is clearly moving the organization in a totally different direction while the shelter continues to lose its supporters. From what I can tell its the remaining dedicated volunteers actually keeping the organization running and the shelter can’t afford to lose them.
It’s no surprise that Tree House still needs to raise approximately $2 million for a year now despite a newly hired development director.
One of the biggest disagreements between the Board and management was the cat café. Against if from the beginning, the Board now sees it as a money-maker for the shelter. But, as a result of the changes they enforced, like entry from the outside, this could be wishful thinking. Ironically, two board members, both huge supporters of the cat café, are now off the board.
The urban cat café concept originated in Japan, Canada followed then Oakland, CA and now several cities in the U.S., all with varying business models depending on local regulations. Though they do share a common goal, adoption.
When designing the new Tree House facility, the cat café was the idea of development director Schlueter, operations director Davidson, with initial support from only one board member, Steve Dale, according to several former employees. As costs rose for the new shelter, much of it because of the cat café, more discourse arose over it. Today, with dwindling donations, and support from the local alderman sponsoring legislation for city shelters to open in-shelter cafés, the Board now sees the cat café as a possible big money-maker for the shelter and a fundraising tool. Whenever there is public relations involving the cat café, public support rises, but it turns out this cat café is nothing like the one Schulter, Davidson and Dale envisioned.
Tree House’s cat café business model is not what we think of as a café when compared to the other top cafés around the country. This cat café doesn’t sound very inviting to those that visit, not to mention how will they know it’s there? Not located in a dense urban area like the now closed Bucktown location, where there aren’t as many pedestrians or neighbors likely to drop in, there is nothing to draw passersby to stop in. A large window, filled with adorable felines, sunning themselves, and a cozy atmosphere luring visitors, and potential donations or adoptions, in, is a cat café. Visibility from the outside is very important for shelters. Who can resist that doggie in the window? The Anti-Cruelty Society, located in the heart of the Loop in downtown Chicago, has an all glass front, where you can’t miss the adoptable cats and dogs. For that reason alone, I always avoided walking by it during my lunchtime walks to prevent brining another cat or dog home.
This cat café sounds very sterile and uninviting. Located off the shelter’s lobby, the request for an entry from the sidewalk apparently met with disapproval, so it’s unseen from the sidewalk or street. It will be a two-room lounge, separated by a glass partition with a coffee machine on one side and chairs with adoptable cats on the other side. Potential adopters self-serve themselves a cup of coffee before walking into the separate space containing cats. Food isn’t allowed, only drinks such as coffee or tea. And drinks are for potential adopters only, no neighbors or students just lounging, enjoying a cup of coffee and getting their cat fix.
Although the departed management presented a business model to the Board on how much money the cat café can earn for the shelter, to my knowledge there is currently none.
Transfers, Fosters and TNR Kittens
Tree House Humane Society, acknowledged as a leader both in Chicago, and nationally, in rescuing stray cats from the streets of Chicago for over 40 years, is downsizing many of its successful programs. For instance, sources claim that they no longer pull many cats from Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC), the city’s municipal facility. It depends on organizations like Tree House to save cats from euthanization by putting them in fosters, then up for adoption. Now the Anti-Cruelty Society, and other smaller shelters and rescues. are left to pick up the slack. But, with a successful 80% or higher rescue rate.
Also, due to Tree House’s increasingly limited staff and shrinking pool of volunteers (due presumably to budget and moral problems) is seriously threatening their successful programs such as Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR). While TNR, and programs such as Working Cats (relocating ferals in areas to deter rats) still exist, but depleted and nowhere near where they were before change in management. Sources indicate that after rescuing litters of feral kittens, instead of putting them up for adoption or into foster programs, they are returning them to the streets after neutering and vaccinations. This practice, while not against the law, is not in the spirit of the Cook County (IL) TNR ordinance, which ironically Tree House once helped to create. This practice means assured death sentences for more than half of the kittens returned. And many suggest it’s clearly inhumane. Also, there is a report that Tree House hired a national program to teach TNR to their staff, which is odd considering Tree House was an innovator of this program in the first place, and another poor use of donor funds.
Tree House has a history of a dysfunctional board and bad financial decisions, the new shelter could be the next one. There is little doubt until there is a complete overhaul of the Board that change is unlikely. I truly want to see the new shelter finally open this summer, see the cats enjoying their catios (a feature of the new facility) and adopters drinking coffee while meeting the cats. Unfortunately, Tree House clearly abandoned its mission and grassroots history of rescuing stray cats from the streets of Chicago. It’s unfortunate for the cats and donors that gave their hard-earned money for the mission.