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Profile: Operation Ava

By Grace Bertolino, Danielle Fox, Ryan Frascella, Josh Kauffman, Noah Rayon

Operation Ava, a non-profit dog shelter and organization founded by nine-year-old, Ava Gutierrez, aroused negative sentiments amongst many Philadelphia animal activists when it opened this past February.

Activists have made allegations regarding the operation of the shelter, including concerns about the shelter's work with other shelters in the South, the shelter's president, Howard Nelson, and association with puppy mills.

Because Philadelphia is a high-kill city, some activists are against bringing dogs from other regions and districts into the city. According to the ASPCA, Philadelphia is designated as an orange area, meaning the city is a critical area of poor animal upkeep. Some activists believe that by taking in animals in from outside the city, without having a shelter in the South adopt a dog from the city in return, Operation Ava will only cause another animal from the city to be euthanized.

Garrett Elwood, president and founder of citizens for No-Kill Philadelphia said, "It defies common sense to bring more animals in. It doesn't matter that [Operation Ava] says they are no-kill, what matters is that the city is working to be no-kill, and is trying to get all of the animals in the city homes."

Claudia Gutierrez, CEO of Operation Ava animal rescue shelter, said, "If we have the ability to help [the dogs in the south] out, then we absolutely will, regardless of what their zip code is."

For instance, Operation Ava states that due to flooding in Missouri, it was necessary to reach out to the dogs and cats in need. "It doesn't matter where they are rescued from, they need a home. As far as being locally rescued, I don't really think that's a priority," said Jennifer James, an employee of Operation Ava.

Sources suggest that Operation Ava purchases rescue dogs that are hounds from out-of-state, as many consumers find pit bulls, which are frequently given up for adoption in the city, less desirable.

This has drawn the ire of local activists in part because of the leadership of the organization's president Nelson. During his work with the Humane Society in Washington D.C., Nelson enacted the Good Home Guarantee program, which was supposed to ensure that all adoptable animals would not be euthanized; however, it was discovered that there was a very fine line of what dogs were "adoptable" and that 70 percent of the dogs were euthanized. In 2007, Nelson took the position of CEO of the PSPCA. According to a sources, Nelson tried to destroy PACCA, the city-operated shelter by lying about the space available in the shelter. He stated that the shelter was full, deliberately attempting to lower the shelter's save rate. Once the PSPCA took over PACCA, the save rate, at 80 percent, rapidly began to surpass the organization's average statistic, 68 percent. PSPCA soon discovered that the live-exits from the city-funded animal rescue facility on West Hunting Park Avenue were inaccurate, as Nelson was really having the animals transferred to a place on Erie avenue where the majority were euthanized.

Regarding the public embarrassment Nelson brought upon the animal rescue community in Philadelphia, many activists are concerned with Nelson's current position as president of Operation Ava. According to information printed in the Philadelphia Weekly, Claudia Gutierrez said, "I can absolutely tell you that I've been thoroughly impressed with not only [Nelson's] intelligence and knowledge about animal rescue but also his absolute compassion. So whatever controversy people feel about him, I can tell you that I have absolutely nothing but the most wonderful things to say about him. I feel very lucky that he's part of our organization."

The PSPCA and Howard Nelson declined to comment on the issue.

Some animal rights activists are concerned with rumors that the shelter has purchased puppies rejected by puppy mills; however, this is still only a topic of speculation. There is no indication at the shelter that the dogs have been mistreated. "Walking around here, it's pretty obvious there [are] no puppy mill dogs," said Claudia Gutierrez.

Amidst speculation concerning the operation of the shelter, the Gutierrez family still works to ensure that all dogs and cats find safe homes.

Watch more 2011 videos by WHYY's Young Journalists »