Tooth and Nail
As the head of ACCT Philly, Susan Russell leads a small army of animal lovers who fight to help every savable animal earn a second chance.
by Bill Donahue

Elroy dozes lazily from the comfort of a dog bed in a corner of Susan Russell’s modest office—relatively cushy accommodations compared with the cacophony just down the hall. Sociable, stocky, and blockheaded, with fur the color of charcoal, Elroy snores and occasionally passes gas while Russell goes about her work, best described as equal parts joyful and heartrending, but also hard as hell. 
Elroy has been an on-again, off-again resident in the North Philadelphia headquarters of the Animal Care & Control Team of Philadelphia, otherwise known as ACCT Philly. Strays and surrenders such as Elroy end up inside this squat brick building, where they find a temporary home until they can be adopted out or otherwise find a so-called “forever home.” Some, however, never make it beyond these walls. Those are the ones that keep Russell up at night.
“We need to get to a place as a society where we are making these animals count and matter,” says Russell, ACCT Philly’s executive director. “They shouldn’t be faceless. We shouldn’t be euthanizing for space purposes. That’s no longer acceptable.”
ACCT Philly belongs to the Philadelphia No-Kill Coalition, a collective of local organizations devoted to ending the euthanasia of “savable” pets and increasing rates of rescue, adoption, and fostering. Noble intentions aside, the halls of ACCT Philly are tough to walk through, as the shock of seeing so many animals without homes is enough to sadden even the most stoic of individuals. One can imagine how difficult a place it must be to work, let alone spend days and nights as a resident. 
Russell doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges animals face when they enter a shelter such as hers. She refers to ACCT Philly’s headquarters as a “trench,” which seems fitting considering the fact that the organization is fighting a battle that has no end in sight. 

‘The Harder Place’
Not only does ACCT Philly work to save the lives of as many dogs, cats, and other animals as possible, but it’s also enlisting an army of volunteers and partner organizations in the fight. At the same time, Russell believes she needs to change how others view open-admission shelters such as hers, whose mission dictates they must accept whatever animal comes through the door, as well as upend public opinion of the animals housed within.
“This is definitely the harder place,” she says. “Shelters are never good places for animals. Mind you, some of them come in from far harder places than our shelter and they actually think of this place as not too bad.”
Still, she wants others to know that every animal that enters an open-admission shelter is considered “urgent.”
“It is at risk of getting sick, from stress or from transmission from other animals,” she says. “It is at risk of turning behaviorally when it may have been a docile animal before the stress turned it into an animal that is less adoptable and needing rescue. It could be, too, that the fear that is generated by a place like this can turn animals into something they weren’t.
“Poor dogs like Elroy here, who has been here for eight months, he’s an exception to the rule,” she continues. “Elroy has made a few bad decisions in his life; he’s like the rest of us. In the right situation, Elroy would be a fabulous dog. … He’s got a few quirks, but he’s as gentle and loving as could be.”
While dogs and cats are common, the shelter takes in and cares for much more than animals of the standard domesticated pets, according to Russell: “pigs, snakes, hawks, rats, birds of all kinds, turtles, all form of reptiles.” She adds, “We do get everything.” 

Call Them ‘Philly-breds’
In 2018, ACCT Philly took in approximately 18,000 animals, split between 11,000 cats and 6,000 dogs. While space and resources are limited, monthly shelter statistics point to live release rates as high as 90 percent in 2019. Russell is heartened by the progress, but she also realizes that all victories are temporary.
“I can’t sing Sarah McLachlan behind every dog,” she says, referring to an ASPCA TV commercial featuring images of sad-eyed cats and dogs while McLachlan’s song “Angel” plays in the background. “It’s difficult for people to understand that, yes, we did just move out five or six dogs and cats, but guess what: 10 more just came in behind them, so we need to keep this marathon going. There’s no end to this journey.”  
Russell joined ACCT Philly in September 2018, following her tenure as executive director of Chicago Animal Care and Control. A former litigator, she’s focused and articulate—a force of nature in her own right—but knows she can’t do it alone. ACCT Philly relies on a devoted group of employees, volunteers, and partner organizations from city and suburbs alike to keep the flow of animals moving through its doors. In fact, Russell considers “building partnerships” with rescue-based organizations—or, in some cases, rebuilding partnerships that may have lapsed under the organization’s prior leadership—a core priority for 2019 and into 2020.
“Everything we do comes back to our partners,” Russell says. “Open-admission sheltering depends heavily on our rescue community, as well as the community, period, to get these animals out of here and into adoptive homes, foster homes, etc., so they can then stage into a permanent home.”
Jennifer Joseph, owner-operator of Dog Town, which has daycare and dog-boarding boutiques in Colmar and New Britain, is an active member of this community. In 2013, Joseph started a nonprofit, Dog Town Rescue, to help reduce the number of animals that enter shelters such as ACCT Philly.  
“Dogs are dying every day due to overpopulation,” says Joseph, who rescued Hawkins, which she calls her “middle child,” from ACCT Philly. “With our retail location here, I thought that if we can pay the rent by selling more stuff, we would be able to save more dogs. ... Right now, we’re averaging 300 [rescue dogs] a year, and we also donate space to The CatShack,” referring to a Trexlertown-based nonprofit devoted to saving adoptable cats.
ACCT Philly used to be the primary place from which Dog Town Rescue pulled rescue dogs, but the numbers waned under policies enacted by Russell’s predecessor, according to Caitlin Mellor, a Dog Town Rescue board member. Since Russell took the reins, however, Dog Town Rescue is once again partnering more closely with the shelter. For example, in light of a recent spate of upper respiratory infections at ACCT Philly, Dog Town Rescue pulled a number of smaller dogs from the shelter to alleviate some of the pressure.  
Mellor suggests ACCT Philly “wouldn’t be able to function” without its network of partners. Part of the challenge faced by all organizations devoted to saving animals stems from an institutional bias in which many people “limit the field” when looking to adopt.
“A lot of people are hung up on breed,” she says. “That’s where you run into the problem of getting a dog that’s not a good fit for a family, and then that dog ends up in a shelter. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s infinitely more important to wait for the right dog for a family than it is to get a certain kind of dog.”
Russell agrees, which may explain why she has such intense dislike for the term pit bull, a catchall for dogs of a certain look and body type: broad head, powerful jaws, muscular build—a good description for many of the dogs that end up at ACCT Philly. Adopt based on characteristics such as temperament and energy, she suggests, not on how an animal looks. That’s why she’s nicknamed all of the dogs in ACCT Philly kennels “Philly-breds.”

‘There’s a Way to Save Them’
Going forward, Russell has a number of goals and expectations for ACCT Philly. Foremost is adding to the network of partners that will enable the shelter to move more animals more quickly. She also hopes to build upon ACCT Philly’s limited operating budget from the City of Philadelphia.
“The city budget pays for only so many positions,” Russell says. “I know we need more vets, more medical staff; we are looking for a high-volume surgical vet, which are difficult to come by. We also need more money for our general operations. … We want to be viewed as a valuable community resource and help the community understand what they can do to protect wildlife and their own pets.”
Events such as the inaugural Gala for Second Chances, held in early May 2019, should help. The first gala generated donations of more than $46,000 after expenses, according to an ACCT Philly spokesperson. 
“I feel this is where I am best placed,” says Russell. “I’ve seen many animals where we have worked a little harder, and they have lived and gone on to marvelous lives because we decided they mattered enough. What wears on me is when I can’t get them second chances.”
Despite the challenges, despite the constraints, and despite the almost overwhelming flow of animals in need of saving, she has a sunny outlook. All that’s needed to succeed, she believes, is sustained focus, hard work, and the willpower of people who believe animals have a special place in the world.  
“We would love to have more people visit us,” she says. “We’re not a known name, and unfortunately in years past, open-admission shelters have had a bad rap because … there has been a lot of euthanasia. When you have to take everything, you have to make harder decisions, and we can do only so much.
“I have this cynical optimism that things will get better,” she continues. “There’s a way to save them, and if we work hard enough, we can do it. It’s not unicorns, rainbows, and roses—that’s not what we do here—but we do find a lot of happy endings.”

Photography by Jody Robinson

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life magazine, July 2019.  


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