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Philly’s new animal shelter leader was fired from her last job | Stu Bykofsky

After Russell was fired several dozen staff members and volunteers gathered in protest outside the shelter.

Former Chicago Animal Care and Control Executive Director Susan Russell with a shelter dog
Former Chicago Animal Care and Control Executive Director Susan Russell with a shelter dogRead moreChicago Animal Care and Control

The board of ACCT Philly has selected a new executive director — the fifth leader since 2007 — to run the city's sometimes troubled animal shelter. She will arrive on the wings of controversy.

Susan Russell takes over the reins on Oct. 22, replacing Vincent Medley, who was let go in April after serving 2½ years, some of which were marred by bickering with volunteers and with him occasionally banning partners from the shelter.  Russell's hire was quietly posted on the ACCT website last week.

Russell will arrive with the controversy of having been fired in July by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel from her $130,000 job as executive director of the Chicago shelter. She was accused of a "warehousing" that made dangerous dogs more dangerous, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Her reluctance to euthanize dogs reportedly led to overcrowding and a 53 percent increase in staff members, including Russell, being bitten by dogs, the newspaper reported.

Russell denied warehousing dogs in a brief interview with the Chicago Tribune, which quoted others in the animal-welfare community supporting her. The Chicago shelter, like Philadelphia, is open admission, meaning no animal can be turned away.

Some dogs are dangerous, but others may be scared into aggressive behavior by being thrown into the terrifying madhouse that is a shelter. Russell seems to be accused of being too slow to euthanize dogs. I've done many columns on administrators who were too quick to pick up the needle of death.

With a population of 2.7 million, Chicago has almost twice as many people as Philadelphia, yet it spends just one-quarter more annually on its shelter — $5.7 million, contrasted with Philly's $4.6 million.

Russell's appointment was met with the sound of one hand clapping by Doug Ross, who founded the Coalition for Philadelphia Animal Welfare and who in February raised serious questions about ACCT bookkeeping. Ross is a certified public accountant, and he had applied for the executive director's job.

"I would not endorse any candidate that did not have proven experience administering a zero-kill shelter or a candidate that was not diligently pursuing zero kill," he said

Marsha Perelman, a longtime Philadelphia animal advocate who is vice chair of the board of the Humane Society of the United States, told me she was on the ACCT search committee and "I could not have possibly been more impressed by Susan Russell."

Even though she was fired in Chicago? "Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired her and two predecessors within six years — three executive directors all fired by him and that implies there's a political component of some kind," she said.

Politics in Chicago? Hard to believe.

After Russell was fired, several dozen staff members and volunteers there gathered in protest outside the shelter. Some carried signs reading, "Lives over politics," "We stand, sit, and stay with Susan," and "Cruella de Emanuel."

I called Emanuel's office with questions, which were not answered before deadline. Russell declined to speak with me, saying she preferred to wait until she was in Philly. ACCT Philly board chair Joanna Otero-Cruz, who is a city deputy managing director, did not reply to my voicemail or email.

Before getting involved in running shelters, Russell was an attorney. I wanted to ask if she had researched Philly and our shelter, which has an improving save rate for animals but also has a slow revolving door for executive directors.

It can wait until she arrives.

Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that ACCT Philly did not announce the hiring of a new executive director.