Work in Progress

Albuquerque’s animal shelters strive to clean up their act

by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, September 7, 2006

Nine years old and blind: a prime candidate for euthanasia. That’s how Debbra Colman found her. The sign read: German Shepherd, female, 9 years, blind, spayed. When Colman rescued Ladybug from the Eastside Animal Care Center and brought her to a veterinarian, the verdict was a little different: German Shepherd, female, 5 years, not blind, un-spayed. She was so “not blind,” in fact, that when Colman tossed a ball 30 feet away, the cloudy-eyed dog would run and fetch it easily, eager for another round.

Before Ladybug was rescued from the shelter, she was on the same track as 16,000 other dogs and cats put down in Albuquerque’s animal care system every year. It’s a hard number to digest, but it’s a stark reality of animal overpopulation: too many cats and dogs, too few people who come to adopt them, and many animals that are so maltreated and abused by former owners that they’re too sick or aggressive to adopt.

Which brings us back to Ladybug. When you’re put in a shelter system that sees 700 new animals every week, where more than 300 a week are euthanized, you need all the help you can get. Chopping four years off your perceived life expectancy and being stuck with the label “blind” doesn’t help your chances much. So why was Ladybug, an adoptable dog, inaccurately represented? If you ask Colman, she’ll tell you it’s a matter of staffing levels at the shelter: too few employees with too much work—the kind of work that breaks your heart fresh every day.

Colman, an animal rights activist, is one who should know. In May 2003, she made a deal with the city: The city would pay her $1, and she would work for a year in the shelters and be given access to records and procedures. At the end of the year, she would make recommendations on how to better the shelters. The year ended, Colman failed to see most of her recommendations implemented, and so she founded the Alliance for Albuquerque Animals, a nonprofit animal welfare group that works to improve the lives of shelter animals.

For years, animal welfare advocates throughout the city have known the situation is grim and desperate. The goal is to bring that daunting number of 16,000 down to something closer to 8,000, a number achieved by cities like Seattle, which has a similar population size to Albuquerque.

Yet, with such a dismal reality, there is still hope. The shelters are better than they were just a few years ago, and they’re still improving. And about 50 miles north in Santa Fe, there’s even more cause for optimism. There, the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society has transformed itself from a well-worn, dilapidated building full of stretch marks, broken plaster and high euthanasia rates to a state-of-the art facility—the kind of place where the true definition of “shelter” comes to life, and euthanasia rates have dropped by 40 percent. In fact, at the Santa Fe shelter, not one healthy animal has been euthanized this year.


Trouble in Mind

Perhaps one of the people to thank is Marcy Britton—for without her, conditions at the Albuquerque Animal Care Center might never have improved. She discovered that something was amiss at the shelters one day in 1999, when she dropped off a stray 6-week-old kitten at the Eastside shelter and witnessed its strangulation, due to improper handling on the part of a staff member.

The instance spurred Britton, the founder of Justice for Animals, to file a criminal complaint against the worker, which eventually led to a lawsuit against the city. Britton spent the whole of her life savings—$95,000—and the city dished out a few grand to call in the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for an evaluation of the shelters in 2000. The decree wasn’t good. HSUS reported inhumane and abusive treatment of animals, and said veterinary care of sick and diseased animals was inadequate. One of the bigger issues that arose from their report was that of euthanasia practices, which were found to be cruel and sometimes ineffective. Britton claims that once a dog actually walked out of a freezer after being declared dead the day before.

Staffing levels also constituted a problem. Too few staff equaled poor customer service, with potential adopters waiting up to two hours for assistance. It also meant animals couldn’t possibly be cared for properly—despite staffers’ best intentions. Kennels needed to be cleaned, animals needed to be fed, other animals needed to be euthanized: There simply weren’t enough people to do it all well.

HSUS gave the shelters a long list of recommendations—one of which was that they needed to be invited back for a reevaluation. Last month, they returned.


A Change of Scenery

The results from HSUS’ evaluation won’t be released until the end of October or early November, according to Kim Intino, director of Animal Sheltering Issues with HSUS. But it’s expected that when it is, the findings will be dramatically different than those of six years ago.

A walk around the shelters today is brighter than years past, although there’s still obvious room for improvement. Euthanasia practices have changed for the better. Several years ago, all animals that were to be euthanized on a given day were held in the euthanasia room at the same time, where they witnessed each other’s execution, says Denise Wilcox, division manager of the Albuquerque Animal Care Center, who’s been at the shelters for two years. Hard rock music played in the background. Today, animals are brought in one at a time and heavy music is absent—euthanasia practices are also more stringent.

Animal care and handling has also improved. An onsite vet clinic has been added, which helps the increased vet staff to treat the sick and wounded.

Many of the positive changes in the shelters have also come as a result of Colman’s Alliance for Albuquerque Animals, including a cat bonding area, which took $17,000 in donations to build, which was added to the Eastside shelter last fall and a dog exercise area that was just completed at the Westside shelter, which took $40,000 in donations to create. The Alliance has also made an impact on the number of adoptions of shelter animals. Every weekend, they take animals from the shelter for adopt-a-thons around town. They also bought a mobile spay and neuter van. Additionally, the Alliance buys leashes and collars for the shelters, as well as Frontline, an anti-tick medication, says Colman, and they also bought stainless steel bowls for animals, which are easier to clean and less likely to hold bacteria. Likewise, the Alliance spent $4,500 for beds for all the kennels, and have spent $7,000 so far this year on adoption certificates—which allow people who adopt one shelter animal to adopt a second animal for free.

But perhaps the biggest difference the Alliance has made is in terms of volunteers. According to Wilcox, two years ago there were only 25 volunteers who came to the shelters. Today, there are 166, with eight volunteers present at each shelter on a given day, most of whom come from the Alliance. Volunteers help make sure dogs are walked and that animals have water, are fed, have clean kennels and that those with medical assistance are treated.

And still more changes are on the horizon. In late October, an adoption center for the shelters will open at Coronado Mall, tucked behind Western Warehouse. The facility will be able to hold 35 animals—13 dogs and 22 cats, and will constantly move animals in to fill up available spaces from the shelters, says Wilcox. The 3,015-square-foot space will feature adoption counseling desks, small retail and grooming areas, a private room where potential adopters can sit and play with a cat, and Plexiglas doors and windows on all the kennels, which are large and designed to appear shop-like. Discussions are also underway to open a similar adoption center at Cottonwood Mall.

Additionally, the new HEART ordinance, which will go into effect Oct. 10, will have an impact on the shelters. A couple weeks ago, I met with City Councilor Sally Mayer, sponsor of the ordinance, at the Eastside shelter to talk about HEART before she was scheduled to give a training to animal services employees on the same subject. Among other things, the ordinance will require mandatory spaying and neutering for all pets in city limits unless the owner pays for an “intact animal” permit. Mayer says the goal with this is to decrease the number of unwanted pets in the city, thereby decreasing the rate of euthanasia at the shelters. It also means that all animals who end up at the shelter will be spayed or neutered before they leave, with the exception of a pet who has identification and an existing “intact animal” permit—but only the first time. If a pet ends up at the shelters a second time, it will be spayed or neutered regardless of the permit.

Another change with the ordinance is that permanent identification for pets will be mandatory, which translates to either microchipping or tattoos. Mayer hopes this will increase the number of animals who are returned to their owners. In the same line of thought, a new “lost and found” program will be instituted, wherein shelter staff will scan local “lost pet” listings and try to match them with animals picked up by animal services. Other changes include mandating that all animals at the shelters have toys, constant access to water, medical treatment, grooming, and that every adoptable animal be guaranteed two weekends and a minimum of 10 days in the shelters before they can be euthanized. This last item means the shelters will also need to create more kennel space.

Yet even with all the good things that have happened at the shelters in the last two years, much more needs to be done, says Wilcox, citing a lack in adoption counseling. “We’re a work in progress.”


The Other Side

The Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society has weathered roots. The day the nonprofit moved from its old building into its pristine new home in July of last year, things were literally falling apart. The sewer system backed up into the cattery. Pieces of tile and roofing let go after hanging on for more than 60 years and collapsed in the wreckage. It was, if anything, a sign that it was time.

Today, walking into the Santa Fe shelter doesn’t feel like walking into a shelter. In an open lobby lighted with large windows and earthy hues, a kiosk is staffed by friendly faces, offering assistance.

To the left is the door that leads to the dog area, filled not with kennels but with “real life” rooms: 6-foot by 7.5-foot and 5.5-foot by 6.5-foot spaces with beds, ledges, windows, drains, radiant heat and toys. Dogs are adorned with multicolored bandannas. Off to the side is a “get to know you” room, where potential adopters can sit with a dog in a room equipped with an armchair, bookshelf and end table to see how the dog reacts in a home environment. Dogs that come to the shelter after primarily living outside go to a special room, where large kennels face glass garage doors that are sometimes open and gentle music is playing. Bill Hutchison, communications and marketing manager with the shelter, says the room is designed to help outside dogs become accustomed to being indoors.

To the right is the cat area, filled not with cages but with “cat condos,” Plexiglas spaces with ledges, beds and toys, and 7-foot by 7-foot “cat colony” rooms, where cats play on towers and other structures. Outside is the “kitty campground,” an open-air bisected space with various climbing towers, toys and instruments, where outdoor cats feel more at home. A couple “get to know you” rooms complete the space before wandering over to the small mammal room, which houses bunnies, guinea pigs, ferrets and hamsters, among other things.

Dogs are walked two or three times a day by volunteers. In fact, there are so many volunteers who want to walk dogs that a chart is kept to make sure dogs are walked equally. Every animal has a name, not a number. When I visited the shelter a couple weeks ago with Alibi staff photographer Wes Naman and a friend, we were given the opportunity to name a well-tempered Dalmatian that was about to be moved into the adoption area. We decided on Colonel Thomas von Spotswilder.

More than 200 toys are sanitized and rotated daily. Bedding, along with all other surfaces in the shelter, are sanitized every morning. All except for cat areas, that is. Hutchison explains that cats’ immune systems can be compromised when they’re stressed, which oftentimes happens when their kennels are cleaned every day. Instead, basic wipes are performed and kennels are cleaned more thoroughly when necessary.

Isolation rooms help reduce the spread of disease. There was a time at the old shelter, Hutchison says, where when one cat was sick, they all got sick. Those days appear to be over.

Euthanasia procedures at the shelter are also exemplary. Hutchison explains that one animal is taken into the room at a time, where gentle music is playing and two people pet the animal and give it sedatives if needed. Donated deli meats from Whole Foods serve as last meals.

Adoption counseling is mandatory and in-depth. Counselors sit down with potential families for as long as is needed to make sure they understand what care is necessary with the animal they have chosen and that the family and animal are a good match. Occasionally, adopters are turned down if counselors feel they won’t provide a good home environment.

Yet, according to Hutchison, what’s the most common remark Santa Fe shelter staff hear from new guests? It doesn’t smell.

So how did the Santa Fe shelter make the transition from a withered, cramped facility to an animal sanctuary? Donations. The Santa Fe shelter, as a nonprofit that contracts with the city and county to house their animals, raised $10.3 million over the course of 10 years—a process that was initiated and led by former Executive Director Kate Rindy. The land—a cushy 100 acres on the outskirts of Santa Fe—was given to the shelter by the city. The buildings, of which there are currently two and will eventually be four, came from the community.

But the differences between the old and new shelter are more than superficial. “We were so full at the old shelter, we were euthanizing animals on Christmas Eve. Then, two weeks later, we had no dogs,” says Anthony Guillen, operations director with the shelter. “At this shelter, we haven’t had to euthanize a healthy animal since January of this year.”

The proof is in the numbers. Comparing year-to-date figures between last year, when the shelter was still in its old location, and this year, in the new location, the adoption rate has risen more than 76 percent. The number of animals that have been euthanized for behavioral or health reasons has dropped more than 25 percent. And not one healthy animal has been euthanized at the shelter this year.

Hutchison credits the improved rates to a variety of factors: a more appealing facility, animals that are well-groomed, improved adoption counseling and the fact that adoption counselors check in with adopters a week after they’ve brought home their new pets to make sure everything’s going all right. Customer service and care for animals surely plays a role. The Santa Fe shelter can hold a total of 300 animals in both its buildings. With 40 to 50 staff members, 35-40 of which are animal care staff, and 20-25 of which are on hand every day, the staff to animal ratio is a maximum of 1:15, and is usually more like 1:5, according to Hutchison. The shelter also has between 130 and 150 volunteers at any given time.

“It’s personally transformative to experience what it’s like here,” says Hutchison. “I believe our relationship with animals is a mirror of our relationship with ourselves, our fellow human beings. There’s a nobility and a dignity they have which deserves to be recognized.”

“Several thousand animals are going to new homes, and kids are playing with them and old people are sitting with them in their laps, and families have them on a bed by the table after dinner. And all the things that animals are in our lives, this shelter is a way station for. Getting the opportunity to do that is a shockingly beautiful experience.”


Coming Home

Visiting the Santa Fe shelter makes one realize that although Albuquerque has come a long way, it still has much farther to go. Not all dogs are walked; in fact, most of them aren’t even walked once a day. Adoption counseling is practically nonexistent. With 758 combined spaces available for dogs and cats at both Albuquerque shelters, and an average of eight kennel workers on duty every day at each location, according to Wilcox, the kennel worker to animal ratio is about 1:47. Currently, the Eastside cattery and one of the Westside catteries are closed due to outbreaks of the Feline Panleukopenia virus. Euthanasia rates remain high at 51 percent, with more than 1,300 animals euthanized every month.

So how do the Albuquerque shelters improve their numbers? Colman says the answer still lies in staff. “There have been efforts made, at least cosmetically, to improve the shelters—they should be applauded for those,” she says. “But they haven’t addressed the issue of being drastically understaffed at the kennel level, at the staff level. It’s why the euthanasia rates haven’t changed.”

“The only improvement that matters is euthanizing fewer animals. Until they do that, they’re just manipulating the public perception.”

Marcy Britton shares the same sentiments. “There’s still a crucial need for more kennel staff—experienced animal handling staff,” she says, “and more adoption counselors. The saddest thing to me is watching good adopters walk out without having someone help them. If there were just enough kennel workers.”

Colman says waiting lines at the shelters can still get as long as an hour and 45 minutes. With the way she describes the daily job of most kennel workers, it’s easy to understand why. “What you do [when you clean in the morning] is pull out all the dogs’ water and feeding dishes, and get the dogs on the other side of the guillotine doors they have in all the kennels, and you hose everything down,” she says. “Then you fill up all 65 water and feed buckets. You do all runs, one by one, then hose down the outside of the kennels and wash the feces and urine into drains. Then you’re taking 20 to 30 animals to be euthanized, or indeed euthanizing them yourself. Meanwhile, a ton of dogs and cats are dropped off by the animal control officers or the public, and they need food and water. That’s 80 cats and dogs a day that all have to be vaccinated, photographed and put in cages.

“It’s a Herculean task. At the staff level, they all ought to get a lot more positive recognition than they do for an incredibly difficult task. The staff-level people are trying as hard as they can—there just simply aren’t enough. We don’t need to legislate dogs having water. We need people to do it.”

Calculating the appropriate number of staff is difficult, says HSUS’ Intino. She says occasionally the desired number of workers just isn’t possible for some shelters, adding that she’d rather not give a desired staff number for the Albuquerque shelters at this time.

Mayor Martin Chavez agrees that the shelters need more staff, but says the problem should soon be remedied. “I started getting aggressive [on staffing issues] about two years ago,” he says. “About one-third of all employees had grievances pending at that time. Some were forced placements—meaning the court said they were wrongfully demoted or fired and they needed to be placed somewhere. In some instances, these employees weren’t happy with their station, they were there by court order. It was very dysfunctional.”

Chavez says he spent the first eight months of the process “cleaning house” and making sure the staff at the shelters were there for the right reasons. “Once that was done, it’s just been about growing staff,” he says.

The mayor says an additional $2.9 million was set aside this budget cycle, which started in July, for the shelters, and that the intention for the money is for it to go to staffing.

On the other hand, Colman says during her year working at the shelters the City Council voted an additional $900,000 to the department, yet none of it went toward increasing animal care or lobby clerk staff, the two areas she says would have made the greatest difference. "It's a matter of smart, compassionate money, not just more money," she says. "[When I used to meet] with the mayor, he was fond of saying, 'Managers who make excuses for their department's deficiencies by saying they need more money are poor managers,’ and he's right.”


The Road Ahead

“It’s nowhere where we want it to be,” says Councilor Mayer. “But I’m proud of what they’ve done.”

Mayer says she’d love to see the Albuquerque shelters transform into facilities similar to that of the Santa Fe shelters, but that money is a necessary ingredient. “We’d like $10 million, we would. But we’re not funded as well as we should be.”

For people in the community who would like to see the same kind of metamorphosis, Mayer says the answer is reaching out to councilors and to the mayor to tell them it’s a priority. “The public has to make the Council understand. It’s not just about dogs and cats—it’s about what kind of city we are. If you take care of the most helpless around you, it translates to treating each other better.”

Still, Mayer recognizes there is a level of priority the city sees in the shelters now. “It’s not a forgotten department anymore,” she says.

The mayor also thinks having a shelter like Santa Fe’s may be a goal for the future. He says he’s visited both the Santa Fe shelter and Denver Dumb Friends in Colorado, another state-of-the-art shelter akin to Santa Fe’s, and is inspired by some of their methods.

“Ours will be better than Santa Fe’s, because we’ll benefit from their experience,” he says. “Any time you build a new one in the country, it’s just going to get better. We’ve come a really long way already—it’s going to take some time. There are some things that Denver and Santa Fe taught us that they do very well.

“In Santa Fe, there’s some affluence and a lot of animal activists and benefactors. Albuquerque is not without its benefactors, but we haven’t reached out to them—that’s changing. I can see private money playing a role in the next shelter.”

Chavez says if new shelters are built in Albuquerque, the funding will likely come from a combination of places, such as general obligation bonds and donations.

Yet at this time, there’s still no promise of a shelter. “We’ll have to take things one step at a time,” says Chavez. “We need at least a year of experience with the mandatory spay and neuter law [which will be enacted in October]. We’ll have to see how that impacts shelter numbers, as well as the microchip program. We’ll have to see how the new adoption centers impact the adoption process. If we become a live exit shelter with that, maybe we don’t need a new shelter. I want to see what the new laws do.”

And that’s what we’ll all do—wait and see. Until then, the mayor sums it up nicely: “I think we’ve made great strides, but we have a long way to go.”


Want to Help?

If you'd like to donate your time or money to help shelter animals, call or visit one of these organizations:

Alliance for Albuquerque Animals

Works to improve the lives of shelter animals and increase their chance for adoption


No More Homeless Pets of New Mexico

Among other things, helps solve the animal overpopulation problem by providing spay and neuter services to low-income families


People’s Anti-Cruelty Association

The oldest no-kill animal rescue group in New Mexico, which works to adopt some of the hardest-to-adopt Albuquerque shelter animals