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Animal Instincts

Robin Starr and Jeanne Bridgforth fight passionately for Richmond's dogs and cats. So why do people think they're fighting each other?


A funny thing happens when you ask people to discuss Robin Starr and Jeanne Bridgforth, two sleek, driven, professional women, two of the leading voices on animal-welfare issues in Richmond.

Ask about Starr, executive director of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and people will talk about her work on behalf of Richmond's dogs and cats. Ask about Bridgforth, president of the animal-rescue group Save Our Shelters, and people will talk about her accomplishments too.

But ask about Starr and Bridgforth, and often, a conversation can seem as stilted as a polka dancer learning ballet. Words are chosen carefully, or not at all. Some people laugh. Others accuse you of stirring up trouble.

Take Elizabeth Rawles, a volunteer with the Animal Welfare Foundation. How would she describe their personalities? [Pause] "I don't think I want to go there," she answers.

Or Thomas Chatman, program manager for the Richmond Animal Shelter. Why do people think there's friction? "I certainly try to not even figure it out," he says. "I don't know what the issues are. I don't know what the differences are."

Mari Valentenyi, a 10-year volunteer with the Animal Adoption and Rescue Foundation, thinks she's figured it out. "People like to cast women in these kinds of cat-fight roles," she says. "And I am sick of it."

Just what is "it"? And why do people bristle? Getting a handle on the answer is about as easy as holding a soapy dog in a bathtub.

Perhaps it starts with what Starr and Bridgforth unquestionably share — a deep love and concern for the city's homeless and mistreated animals, and a desire to improve their well-being, their overpopulation, their homes and their futures.

The problem is, something is getting in the way as the two women work toward their goals. They want to focus on their missions, but for some reason the widespread perception that they are at odds hasn't been put to rest. Some leaders in the animal-welfare community feel uneasy discussing the women because they think they will be seen as taking sides; they worry that Bridgforth and Starr are somehow keeping score on who's backing whom.

But Starr and Bridgforth say, at least publicly, that they are moving forward.

Starr has chosen to do that by not discussing Bridgforth at all. She says she's concerned that people will perceive an article illustrating a "juxtaposition" of their personalities as a sign the two women are fighting. Are they? "No," she replies.

Despite what she called "an enormous reservation" about participating in this story, Starr — after initially declining to talk — agreed to interviews with Style on the condition that she could confine her comments to the SPCA's plans.

Bridgforth has no such reservations. But she scratches her head about any perceptions people have that she and Starr are in some kind of war.

"I think it's so strange because people differ all the time," she says. "It has nothing to do with personalities. I don't even know Robin Starr."

This rivalry — perceived or real — comes at an inopportune time. Some of the most dramatic changes in Richmond's animal-welfare issues have been happening during the last several years.

New laws have been written. Grass-roots efforts have saved animals in dire need. Millions of dollars have been raised for innovative projects. Activists have been working to change the system and raise awareness.

True, there are problems left to solve, and new laws that have yet to be enforced. But recent shifts in public policies and private programs, pushed by the work of dozens of humane organizations, will affect animals for years to come.

Starr and Bridgforth are at the forefront of two such humane organizations. In those roles, they have emerged as visible and vocal leaders — in the community, in the media and before elected officials. They believe in what they do, they are good at it and they have earned respect for doing it.

So you might expect them to be natural colleagues: They share a desire to save animals. They travel in the same animal-welfare circles. And they are both savvy, make-it-happen women.

Despite all that, they never work in tandem. In fact, they barely know each other. And it's difficult to imagine more contrasting approaches.

Starr, 46, is deliberate, intensely driven and well-connected. She is careful in her approach with people, in what she says, in how she's perceived. Before being hired as the SPCA's executive director, she mapped out mergers and acquisitions as a partner in a downtown law firm, now known as Williams Mullen Clark & Dobbins. Her group, the SPCA, is established, well-funded and run corporate-style, by a large board of directors.

Bridgforth, 50, is a loud, relentless risk-taker. She usually speaks her mind with few reservations. She has political savvy, and once ran for election to Richmond City Council alongside her twin sister, Jennie Knapp. She co-founded S.O.S. in 1995 as a grassroots coalition to spur the city to clean up problems with the Richmond Animal Shelter. Today her all-volunteer S.O.S. is active but in debt.

Because of their different styles and the differences in the organizations they lead, Starr and Bridgforth have come to symbolize two contrasting approaches to tackling animal-welfare issues — and the complexities those issues entail.

In a neatly pressed, light-golden pantsuit, Robin Starr ascends the steps of a warehouse that is filled with dusty air. On this informal tour of the SPCA's future headquarters, she's had to avoid most of the first floor because she is wearing heels; they would get stuck in the churned-up rubble floor under construction. Jackhammers echo through the cavernous building. It is huge.

"Sixty-thousand square feet, to be precise," says Starr, a poised, slender woman with a measured voice and blonde hair. Of course, she adds, this former tobacco warehouse seems to get smaller all the time as more amenities are added.

The SPCA has been raising $8 million for this site at 1615 Rhoadmiller St. since 1999. It is the bricks-and-mortar component of the society's ambitious and hopeful "Campaign for a Compassionate Solution," a plan to end the euthanization of local homeless animals by 2008.

It's a new direction for the SPCA. Instead of opening its doors to all homeless animals, the nonprofit will hand that duty to the city-run Richmond Animal Shelter. In turn, according to its new partnership agreement, the SPCA will work to find families for all healthy, adoptable animals.

Several local humane organizations are skeptical of the plan — even upset. Independent rescue organizations, especially, contend the city pound can't handle the increased workload and will become an overcrowded death row for homeless animals. The leftover work will fall on the shoulders of groups like theirs, they say, while the SPCA will attract most of the local donations.

Jeanne Bridgforth trumpets many of the strongest criticisms. Worried and exasperated, she says the SPCA's plan is unrealistic, will hurt many homeless animals, and will undo much of the work to which she's devoted her life.

"We spent years of blood, sweat and tears to clean up that pound," Bridgforth says. Now, she argues, the SPCA's plan will turn the city pound back into a mismanaged mess, and keep other Richmond-area public pounds operating as dispassionate "cinderblock slaughterhouses."

"I think that's the sorrow that we all feel," says Bridgforth.

She is hardly an all-talk, sideline critic. It was six years ago when Bridgforth started focusing — perhaps, obsessing — about the Richmond Animal Shelter. In the mid-'90s, a shelter employee blew the whistle on poor conditions and inhumane euthanizations. Bridgforth started volunteering there.

She soon had enough. In 1996, she incorporated S.O.S., an activist volunteer group that waged a fierce campaign against the city to investigate the shelter and fix its problems. Bridgforth was relentless and organized as she pounded away at the city through local media. The city took notice. Things started changing, and by March 1999, under City Manager Calvin Jamison, internal auditors investigated the shelter. Later that year, the city hired the Humane Society of the United States to conduct its own investigation.

Today the pound is a different place. Repairs have been made. The staff has been more attentively trained. And operation hours have been expanded.

S.O.S. is different, too. The group has grown to 7,000 volunteers, Bridgforth says — with 10 chapters springing up across the state. Recently, it successfully lobbied for state laws on animal issues, launched a campaign to uncover and prosecute dogfighting rings in Richmond and started training state and local police on the dogfighting issue.

But one thing hasn't changed, Bridgforth says: "We're the watchdog."

Bridgforth, a petite woman with reddish-brown hair and sculpted features, sits at a wraparound desk in the S.O.S. offices, a one-room setup in a small group of second-floor suites sandwiched between two Carytown shops.

She has seen the ugly side of animal welfare issues, she says. At the pound, she has helped load the trucks that take away dead animals. She has seen the heartbreaking effects of dogfighting. She has been in the trenches, she says. That's what motivates her.

A drizzle has started outside the office's two windows, through which is a view of another window, peeling paint on its sill, in a brick building a foot away next door. The S.O.S. offices have never been splashy. And the group is fortunate to be there at all; it is $35,000 in debt, Bridgforth says.

Those money troubles have forced S.O.S. — which holds sidewalk adoptions every Saturday in Carytown — to temporarily stop accepting animals. That makes the SPCA's bulging savings and $12 million fund-raising campaign seem so off-balance, Bridgforth says. S.O.S. could do so much with just a tiny fraction of those funds.

More frustrating, Bridgforth says, the money is being funneled away from organizations like hers and into a plan she calls questionable. "Their board has decided that's their strategy, and we respect that," she says. But she makes it clear she's not convinced it will work.

Starr couldn't be more convinced that the plan will indeed work. "There's no question about the fact that it can be done, and it has been done," she says. She's seen it in action; she's taken a course called "Building a No-Kill Community." And she has seen the plan evolve since becoming the SPCA's executive director in July 1997.

Emerson Hughes, chairman of the SPCA, recalls Starr's job interview in 1997. "I think everybody's question was an honest one," he says: "Why would a well-respected, successful attorney take this job? And the answer was so basic and so simple that it was just stunning — I believe I can save the lives of homeless pets."

Starr, who had no experience running a shelter, quickly learned what Hughes calls the "evil" side of animal welfare — if the pens are full, someone's got to kill an animal. That, Hughes says, is "immoral."

Stepping into her position, Starr began to help oversee a 10-month series of long-range planning meetings for the SPCA. The organization hired a professional facilitator. A committee met in several corporate offices downtown. They visited shelters across the country. Slowly, carefully, they crafted their "Compassionate Solution" idea. The board of directors approved it in 1999.

To implement the plan, the SPCA needed money. They hired a consultant to test the feasibility of a fund-raising campaign. Starr secured board member E. Claiborne Robins Jr. — with whom she had once worked at A.H. Robins — to lead the effort. The SPCA raised money to run a publicity campaign. It tapped local celebrities to star in the ads, including Richmond Mayor Timothy Kaine, to whose political campaigns Starr and several SPCA board members have donated. The society raised $10 million in 18 months, and has raised its goal to $12 million. The fund-raising has been a sophisticated, successful venture.

Right now Starr is looking at the fruits of that work, the warehouse under construction. She has driven here from the SPCA's current home, a shack by comparison with 8,000 square feet at 1600 Chamberlayne Ave.

During this recent informal tour, she comes to the top of the steps on the second floor and turns left into a room that is large enough to hold a roller-skating rink. When construction work is finished next summer, this will be an indoor dog-jogging track and training facility, she says.

Here, volunteers will be able to exercise animals, teach them obedience skills and reduce behavior problems to create "more lasting pet adoptions," Starr explains.

But that's only the beginning. The building will also house educational exhibits, a spay-neuter clinic and an adoption center. "Dog living rooms" and a "Cat-tillion" will allow potential pet owners to interact with the animals in a relaxing way. There will be a library, an auditorium and meeting space. To foster a healthy environment, a ventilation system will completely replace the air in sections of the building 10 times each hour.

"We are not puffing when we say it is a state-of-the-art animal shelter," Starr says.

Bridgforth says it's more like a palace. She argues that while the SPCA is increasing the square footage of its headquarters by 650 percent, it is not increasing its capacity for animals proportionately.

That's true. The capacity for dogs and cats, as well as the space for holding and rehabilitation, won't increase 200 percent, much less 650. But that's not the purpose of the extra space, the SPCA points out.

Instead, an SPCA spokeswoman explains, the society is more interested in turnover. By increasing the space per animal — and for human visitors — the new site creates a more comfortable place where animals are healthier and people feel better about visiting to pick out a pet.

And that's where the real meaning of the building hits home for Starr: finding homes for every animal, so no more are killed. This is a chance, she says, to improve society. "I think that taking the lives of animals that are healthy and adoptable is brutalizing to a society," she says, seeming to get a lump in her throat. "And to humanity."

As for detractors to the plan, Starr says, she's staying focused on the SPCA's goal. Reasonable people may disagree, she explains.

But earlier this summer, when it came time to ask Richmond City Council to approve the SPCA's partnership with the city pound, it wasn't so easy to focus.

The debate during the weeks leading up to the City Council vote on July 9 was as hot as the weather. The SPCA, supported by some humane organizations and opposed by others, wrangled with Council members behind the scenes.

Seven humane groups — including Bridgforth's — took their message against the plan to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other local news media. Much to the dismay of the groups, WRIC-TV 8 General Manager Tom Best, in a first-ever editorial, took the unusual step of urging Council members to instead support the plan, and promised to air the vote live and comment afterward.

Despite the controversy, the issue seemed settled before the vote that night. Council members didn't even discuss the plan during their informal afternoon meeting.

At the Council meeting, Bridgforth pleaded her case to Council. She hammered away at her belief that the plan would be too much of a burden on other humane groups — and the shelter itself, which she worked so hard to improve. The six other humane groups joined the opposition, as did several individuals. This was their last chance to stop the SPCA's plan, or at least delay it for further study.

But in the end, City Council approved the partnership by a vote of 8 to 1, a margin that Starr says illustrates the positive reaction the community had toward the plan.

William B. Clark, a veterinarian and board member for the SPCA, saw how Starr handled the criticisms. "She just couldn't understand why they were fighting this so hard, when all of us were trying to reach the same goals, supposedly," Clark says.

"She took the criticism personally — but she didn't take the fight personally," he adds. "I think a lot of their actions were probably, as far as they were concerned, … well intentioned."

But, he continues, Starr and Bridgforth are both "alpha" personalities. "And both of them try to get things done, and run into each other."

Mari Valentenyi, a volunteer with the Animal Adoption and Rescue Foundation, and who is against the SPCA's plan, has seen Bridgforth and Starr at work, too. They are "powerful, can-do women," she says. But that doesn't mean they are fighting a personal fight, she adds.

"It's a philosophical difference," Valentenyi says. "These women are doing their best to argue their sides in a philosophical debate. That's what it is. They have totally different philosophies, and they are both very outspoken."

"I'm not saying that there may not be some natural bad feelings just for the argument itself," she says. "But I do think that they both respect each other."

Elizabeth Rawles, a former SPCA board member, is a volunteer with the Animal Welfare Foundation. The group, spun off from the city's investigation of the animal shelter, has been established to help all the local humane organizations work together.

She hopes that's what Starr and Bridgforth — and their organizations — will eventually do, too. "I wish they both would maybe work with each other and other people," Rawles says, "and compromise and try to do it as teamwork."

Thomas Chatman, the man who runs the animal shelter and who has worked with both women, thinks that could be easier than people think.

Bridgforth and Starr, he says, "are very much the same in terms of their commitment and their passion … for animal welfare. Some people see them as very, very different, but in some ways they're very much

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