Dane County Humane Society Centennial Celebration: The Introduction

Photo by Dane County Humane Society

As Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) nears 100 years of providing tools and services for people to help animals in their communities, we look back at the history of the organization—the successes, pitfalls, and dedication it took for them to become a nonprofit shelter providing refuge, healing, and new beginnings to over 9,000 animals every year. This story is the first in a series leading up the DCHS Centennial Celebration in 2021.

Long before DCHS was formally incorporated in 1921, late 1880s Madisonians banded together to protect animals, helpless children, and aged people. They were pioneers in the field, and only one of two societies in the state for preventing cruelty to animals. As charitable organizations were created for the welfare of children and adults, and social work advanced as a profession, humane societies turned their focus exclusively on preventing cruelty to animals.

So when individuals gathered in Dane County in the first decades after the turn of the 20th century, they questioned the practice of vivisection—performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research—at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The topic was discussed into the 1920s, with DCHS going on record to oppose turning over its stray animals for experimentation.

In 1949, the Wisconsin Legislature enacted a statute that directed any humane officer, person, or organization who has custody of an unclaimed or unredeemed live dog to give it to UW–Madison or other identified educational institution upon request. The dog had to be impounded for at least five days to give time to locate an owner.

Photograph provided by Dane County Humane Society

UW–Madison made a request to DCHS in 1950 for unclaimed dogs, and DCHS, by a board vote of 10 to 7, refused to surrender the animals. When UW–Madison sued, DCHS maintained the law was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the Society’s 14th Amendment rights, depriving DCHS of their property without due process of law and without compensation. DCHS freely admitted that it had broken the law and sought help to fight the suit from the Wisconsin Humane Society, located in Milwaukee, and the American Humane Society.

In 1951, the statute was amended to deny any future public aid to an organization that failed to comply with the law, and in July that year, the Dane County Circuit Court ruled that the law was constitutional and applicable to both UW–Madison and DCHS. DCHS appealed the ruling to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court. In January 1952, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court, noting that DCHS did not have property rights to the dogs just because it had custody of them. Two months later, DCHS Board meeting minutes show that its humane officer was delivering dogs to UW–Madison. A member of the DCHS Board visited in spring 1959 and reported that animals used in research were being fed well and lived in ample air-conditioned quarters.

Some at the UW–Madison weren’t satisfied that DCHS was turning over enough dogs. At the DCHS annual meeting in January 1967, as reported by The Capital Times, “Personnel of the UW packed the meeting in an attempt to take over the Society and elected 11 board members of 24. It was felt that this action was precipitated by a desire to control the policy by which stray dogs were turned over to the UW for research purposes. DCHS maintained that stray dogs should be offered for adoption before being sold to the University and that owners of unwanted dogs should be permitted to say if they want them used for research. Some University people believe this policy cut down on the number of animals available to the University and hampered research.”

Photograph provided by Dane County Humane Society

A UW–Madison zoology professor who was a DCHS member and whose wife was on the DCHS Board was present at the 1967 meeting and wrote a letter to an associate in the UW–Madison medical school, which was then published in The Capital Times. In it, the professor stated, “swamping the annual meeting with a special interest bloc … certainly looked like a cold-blooded attempt to take over DCHS by force and turn it into a society for the procurement of experimental animals for the University. … While I recognize that the group which perpetrated the invasion [of DCHS] was neither officially recognized nor directed by medical school authorities, it was mainly composed of medical school faculty members and employees, and was, I believe, mainly directed by a professor in the medical school.”

The zoology professor noted that DCHS complied with the law to turn over stray dogs to UW–Madison when the request was made, and records show that DCHS turned over 889 dogs in 1964, 1,215 in 1965, and 791 in 1966. UW–Madison needed more, which were not provided by DCHS, but rather purchased from private dealers.

In 1979, the 1949 statute was amended once again to read that a humane society “may” release unclaimed dogs to the UW System or to the Medical College of Wisconsin rather than “shall” release them. While relations between UW–Madison and DCHS may have been contentious in the past, that is absolutely not the case now.

DCHS and the Shelter Medicine Program at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, in particular, share a strong partnership. Together they provide clinical training for UW–Madison Shelter Medicine interns and residents. DCHS also hosts UW students for ambulatory rotations. Programs like these help future veterinarians better understand the medical needs of shelter animals as well as inspire some to become humane society veterinarians themselves.

Photograph provided by Dane County Humane Society

Over the years, the Shelter Medicine Program has consulted with DCHS on new programs and during times of medical emergencies. In 2017, the School of Veterinary Medicine and the Shelter Medicine Program aided DCHS in containing a contagious canine respiratory disease at the shelter. DCHS’s quick response time and UW’s expertise prevented many more shelter dogs from falling ill.

While DCHS continues to take in any stray animals found in Dane County, no animals today are released for experimentation or scientific research. All stray animals are cared for at DCHS for four days to give time to search for an owner before being medically and behaviorally evaluated. The shelter’s adoption guarantee means every healthy or treatable animal can stay at DCHS as long as it takes to find a loving home.

The relationship between DCHS and UW–Madison has grown and changed over the past 100 years, as have the communities they serve. Together, they look forward to the next 100 years of making our communities better places for both people and animals.

Be sure to read the May/June issue of Madison Essentials, where we will highlight the early foremother (and some of the forefathers) of DCHS.

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.

Photograph by MOD Media Productions

Dane County Humane Society

5132 Voges Road
Madison, WI 53718
(608) 838-0413