Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 5, 2021

Choosing kennel over courtroom

Former attorney finds acclaim in championing cuddly clients

Visibly shaken by the difficult decision he was making, an older man recently surrendered his dog to McKamey Animal Center, telling the workers there, “I don’t think I have much time left. I want to make sure my dog isn’t alone if something happens to me.”

A few days later, with the animal already placed in foster care, the man called back. “That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made,” he said sadly. “I really regret giving it up.”

Inga Fricke, who became executive director in mid-October, immediately met with her staff to see what they could do. Reaching out to the foster family, they asked: “What if we reunite this gentleman with his dog but also introduce you into his life so you can help him if he needs you? That way he can keep his dog but he doesn’t have to worry about its future if he’s gone.”

It only took a moment for the foster parent to agree.

“It’s those kinds of stories,” Fricke says, “that just make it worthwhile getting up in the morning every day.”

A nationally recognized sheltering expert and former attorney, Fricke, 51, has written best-practice guidelines that have been implemented nationwide and led campaigns to end inhumane euthanasia, decrease the number of animals brought to shelters and take the profession to a higher level. Not a fan of the spotlight, she is highly regarded among her peers along the Eastern Seaboard.

“She’s honest, smart as a whip and always tries to do better, even when what she’s doing is pretty darn good,” says Suzanne D’Alonzo, community outreach programs manager at Humane Pennsylvania, the Reading shelter where Fricke oversaw public initiatives before coming to Chattanooga. The two have worked together for years at various facilities and the Humane Society of the United States. “Inga’s a powerhouse when it comes to creating sensible, easy-to-digest, research-based plans for how to make positive change or move an issue forward.

“Inga cares and is always aware that people, not just pets, are part of the equation in sheltering,” adds D’Alonzo, who will join MAC in early February as director of animal care. “Her team, staff and volunteers at Humane Pennsylvania were sad to see her go. She’d created a good sense of the community outreach department as a true team, fostering the best in us, and we all felt that.”

The daughter of a German immigrant who married an American-born woman, Fricke has adored animals for as long as she can remember.

“My mom would tell stories about how adults would talk to other children and say, ‘Oh, I bet you can’t wait to have babies of your own when you grow up.’ Apparently, even as a very small child, I would say, ‘No, I’m having puppies.’ That horrified my mother.”

Still, Fricke says, “I was not smart enough to do math and science, so being a vet or a biologist was just not happening for me.”

At Penn State, the central New Jersey native majored in international politics, half-heartedly taking the law school admission test to see how she’d score. Her mom, after all, had often teased her about her talent for arguing.

At the time, The George Washington University National Law Center offered no animal law classes, so Fricke concentrated on environmental law, particularly solid waste and water issues. “It was a way to combine the things that I was good at, which was largely writing and academics, with the idea of activism and passion. There were environmental issues that I could be very passionate about and do a deep dive into and really fight and champion for good, positive causes.”

After earning her Juris Doctor degree with honors in 1994, Fricke worked as a regulatory analyst for a defense contractor in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. For the next three years, she helped defense installations comply with state and federal environmental regulations, advising them, for example, how to safely dispose of chemicals used when applying powder coating to airplane parts.

Three years later, she began practicing with John Caffry, a high-profile environmental attorney in upstate New York who, Fricke notes, “was always on the right side defending the people who are going to be harmed by businesses and industry that were polluting, damaging the environment and creating all kinds of havoc for people just trying to live their lives every day.”

At one point, she handled a case against the same parent company featured in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich,’’ which was now trying to erect a power plant across the river from a scenic landmark.

But Fricke ran into roadblocks. In most cases, neighbors living near a potentially noisy or polluting construction site were not given a chance to express their concerns until after the mining or chemical company project had already been granted approval.

“By the time we were able to argue on their behalf, we would literally walk into a room and it was the company and the state sitting on one side of the table and the poor people who were going to have to live with the ramifications on the other side. … The deck was completely stacked, which was disheartening for everyone involved. There’s only so much that we could do if the political will to move the project forward was very strong. That was hard for me to stomach on a regular basis.”

Eventually, the frustration was too great to ignore. She’d been volunteering for years at animal shelters and wildlife rehabilitation centers, so in 2001 she made a drastic switch and took an administrative post at the privately funded Wyandot County (Ohio) Humane Society, where she was responsible for everything from shelter operations and the spay-neuter clinic to fundraisers. “And,” she says, “I never looked back.”

In the field of animal sheltering, she points out, “You get to make much more of a difference and an impact, and what you do every single day really does matter in a way that doesn’t happen quite as noticeably when you’re working on legal cases that could drag out year after year and where you have political forces and other things that can directly impact how successful you are in your case.”

A horse owner, Fricke pushed for a full-fledged program for neglected and unwanted horses while at the Ohio shelter. Today, the successful Wyandot County Equine Rescue routinely adopts out the animals to loving owners.

From 2004 to 2010, Fricke gained experience in the government-funded side of shelter operations while managing Loudoun County Animal Care and Control in Waterford, Virginia. She and her team won numerous awards for their contributions to, among other things, cruelty investigations and large-scale seizures of mistreated animals.

Fricke and D’Alonzo met during this time. “A co-worker and I couldn’t remember her name but remembered that she was helpful and responsive,” D’Alonzo points out. “At that time, those were traits that were too rare in sheltering. Many places, especially neighboring organizations, treated things more like a competition. Because of her attitude my co-worker and I opted to refer to her as ‘that nice person at Loudoun’ until we were able to catch her name again.”

Although Fricke loved her local sheltering work, she admired groups like the Humane Society of the United States for giving animals a “voice” on a much broader level and helping enact laws, training and practices that would save more animal lives. Of her various roles at the Gaithersburg, Maryland-headquartered HSUS between 2010 and 2019, the last one, she says, was “the most near and dear to my heart.”

The job took her to Puerto Rico, where she spent much of her time collaborating with the University of Florida to develop a new medicine initiative for shelters and orchestrate a high-quality spay-neuter program. “One of [the shelters] that we worked with didn’t even have power or running water at that point,” Fricke recalls. “They had kind of unfortunately been left behind. As the rest of the continental U.S. was moving toward increased lifesaving and modern best practices and progressive sheltering, the island had essentially been forgotten.

“Most of them had euthanasia rates over 90% and were struggling every single day. But they were still so committed to the animals and really embraced the opportunity to get resources and support and to do better.”

A recent Zoom meeting revealed the long-term results Fricke had hoped for. “To see them now, just a few short years later, some of them have made such dramatic changes and improvements in terms of the care that they’re able to give the animals. They just started out pretty much with love and nothing else.”

While at HSUS, Fricke also rewrote the organization’s manual on humane euthanasia and assembled a team of national trainers to show shelters how it should be done. Since the early days at the Ohio shelter, she says, she had witnessed the critical need to make sure “that the animal never suffers for a second while that is happening and that it is always done in the most exemplary fashion because there’s no going back and doing it twice. You don’t get a do-over.”

Thanks to the nationwide campaign Fricke led against the use of gas chambers, 75% of them closed.

Still, she is quick to point out that even “no-kill” shelters, like MAC, must occasionally make the tough choice to put a suffering or dangerous animal to sleep with a quick-acting injection. And the often-used term “no-kill” isn’t what it appears to be, she says. The Ohio shelter where she began her animal care career, for instance, stays open 24/7, prompting other shelters hours away to “dump” their animals there and avoid blame for the life-ending procedures.

At MAC, Fricke says, “That certainly is always our last resort and we strive every year to improve our lifesaving percentage and maximize the number of animals that we’ve been able to place in new homes because that’s what we are all about. We are all about saving lives.”

Throughout her time at HSUS, the closest Fricke had come to focusing on community outreach was in Puerto Rico. “But the value that brought and the stories of the people that were touched by that program really made a huge impression on me.” So when a job overseeing the food pantry, vaccine-microchip clinics and other outreach efforts opened up at Humane Pennsylvania, she took it.

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, Fricke geared up the facility’s pet food distribution program to serve eastern Pennsylvania and beyond. “And that was very gratifying,” she says.

“Inga’s great at reinvention when it’s needed,” D’Alonzo explains. “I’ve seen her go back to the drawing board at HSUS when priorities changed with internal realignments, coming up with the strongest plans to help the broadest audience, certainly also with the community programs at Humane Pennsylvania, outreach programs that could have been shelved as COVID came home to roost. She pivots as needed, finding a way over the hurdle.”

The “stars were aligned” for her new position at MAC, says Fricke, who had never stepped foot in Chattanooga before the interview. She wasn’t looking for a new job, she says, but the person spearheading the search for an executive director, who happened to be a former HSUS colleague, contacted her just as she was beginning to feel she had accomplished what she was supposed to do in Pennsylvania.

“It would have been an adjustment regardless, but certainly the pandemic complicates everything,” Fricke admits, noting the extreme precautions taken at MAC to keep staff members and adoptive families safe. “But sometimes we’ve just got to take the opportunities that arise when they show up and keep our fingers crossed and take a leap of faith.”

For now, she is not as hands-on as she’d like to be due to COVID-19. She gets her “animal fix” by welcoming shy and fearful dogs that need to be socialized into her office for some quality time.

Even with coronavirus cutbacks, MAC rehomed 3,778 animals in 2020 – one more than the year before. As soon as she came on board, Fricke started assessing how well the shelter was caring for its four-legged clients.

“The reality was that we were well over our humane capacity for care. We were overcrowded and because of that overcrowding, we had issues moving animals through our system very quickly. So animals were waiting for spay-neuter surgery to go on the adoption floor. There were other kinds of hiccups.”

In her few short months at MAC, she has made it her mission to unclog that system and keep cats and dogs from sitting in cages longer than absolutely necessary, which can lead to illness and stress. To do that, she says, MAC employees look for options to sheltering, such as the hybrid solution they found for the older man who gave up his dog; ways to improve conditions for the animals, like giving cats two cages instead of one to keep their stress levels down and their immune systems strong; and alternatives beyond adoption, such as fostering.

“There’s something very special about our foster parents who are able to give the animals all the love, all the attention, all the care that they need and then let them go to somebody else. Not everybody is equipped for that, for sure,” she says. “We are really grateful for all of the fosters here in Chattanooga that have stepped up in a big way for the animals.”

MAC is seeking other types of volunteers too – to walk dogs off-site, for example, help with data entry and create enrichment toys – even though they can’t physically be in the building right now.

Fricke’s early career as an attorney gives her an advantage, she says. “Legal training is mostly about teaching you to think strategically. So I think that has served me well, particularly as I moved from working directly in animal shelters to then working on a national level and developing programs.”

She laughs at the memory of a Myers-Briggs test she took in a leadership training session years ago. When like-minded individuals were separated into groups, she says, joking about her analytical, linear personality, “I ended up in a room where it was myself and all of the police officers in the experiment. I was so jealous of the librarians at the completely opposite end of the spectrum. They’re very passionate, touchy-feely, loving people and that’s just not me.”

Nevertheless, Fricke, who enjoys kayaking and hiking in the woods in her down time, notes that her favorite part of the job is seeing happy animals and the people who adopt them. “It’s the success stories, whether it be people who are thrilled with adopting their animals and they just found their new best friend, or whether it be being able to reunite someone with a pet that they’ve lost that they didn’t necessarily think they would ever get back.”