Susan Russell has a ready laugh, calm confidence, and a light accent of her native Canada. (Her father was a Mountie.)
She's been a U.S. citizen for about a decade, and just moved to Philly from Chicago to become executive director of the Animal Care and Control Team, the city's animal shelter, known as ACCT Philly. After her first week on the job, we spoke at the shelter at 111 W. Hunting Park Ave.
Her laudable goal is to drive the Philadelphia shelter to "no kill" status, "which I know is important to the city," she said. "No kill" means that every healthy, adoptable animal gets a home.
She arrived in Philly — where she said she's planning to run up the "Rocky steps" — amid some controversy: Her predecessor, the authoritarian Vincent Medley, was quietly ushered out in April after running the sometimes-troubled shelter for 2½ years.
Russell, a lawyer with marketing skills, was executive director of the Chicago animal shelter for a little more than two years until Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired her from the $130,000 post in July. She was accused of "warehousing" dogs in a way that made dangerous dogs more dangerous, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Russell denied it in a brief interview with the Chicago Tribune, which quoted some of her supporters in the animal welfare community.
One supporter is longtime Chicago pet columnist and radio host Steve Dale, who reported on her discharge, saying politics was involved. "I've never seen such an outpouring of support," as she received, Dale told me.
Philly knew of the Chicago controversy, said Deputy Managing Director Joanna Otero-Cruz, who chairs the ACCT Philly board. Russell was selected from about 40 candidates for the $125,000 job because she "understands the complexities of operating such a large organization," said Otero-Cruz.
"Transparency is a core value," said Russell, but she is secretive about her personal life. She declined to give her age, discuss her marriage, or provide a detailed resumé.
"You have to remember, she was beat up by some of the media" in Chicago, Dale told me.
Chicago's live-release rate was around 70 percent when Russell was hired and had zoomed to 90 percent by the time she was fired. The live-release rate is the percentage of animals that exit the shelter alive.
I started writing about our animal shelter in 2004, when it was called PACCA — the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Association. The live-release rate then was around 20 percent and conditions were terrible.
After I wrote a Daily News expose of PACCA on Oct. 28, 2004, headlined "The Cruel Cages," City Council held hearings, and PACCA was dismantled. The PSPCA took over the animal-care contract for a few years, then bowed out in 2012 when the independent ACCT Philly was created.
ACCT Philly's live-release rate for dogs in September, the latest month available, was 83 percent.
Russell's goal is to achieve and sustain a 90 percent live-release rate, which is considered "no kill," a long-held dream of local animal advocates. (A 100 percent rate is not possible. Some animals can't be saved due to bad temperament or illness.)
One of my sources at ACCT told me Russell is a hit with the staff. "She walks dogs every day and helps volunteers with handing out treats and Kongs at the end of the day," he said. Other executive directors had not done that.
One of Philly's challenges is a surplus of dogs that we call pit-bull mixes, which Russell calls "dogs of a certain look, beautiful medium- and large-size dogs with floppy heads and great smiles." They are wrongly stereotyped as dangerous and difficult to adopt out. Russell doesn't use the term pit bull, preferring to call them, with a wink, "purebred Philly" dogs.
While the "no kill" goal is tantalizingly close, sometimes the last mile of a race can be the hardest. Is Russell worried?
"I don't worry," she said. "I get up every day and I give the day all I have to give it, and at the end of the day I grab a leash and I go and talk to my therapy dog."