A walk through the city's shelters
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, August 20, 2009
More than 10 years ago the city's animal shelters were declared inhumane and abusive. It started in 1998, when a woman named Marcy Britton discovered practices that led her to file a lawsuit against the city (using her entire life savings in the process—a sum totaling more than $95,000). The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was called in, and the organization released a report in 2000.
The loudest alarm was sounded for the shelters' euthanasia procedures. HSUS reported the shelters’ use of intracardiac euthanasia (poison injected directly into the heart) when animals were still conscious, a practice that has since become illegal in the state. Some animals were found to still have heartbeats after being placed in the freezer.
In 2006, HSUS returned for a follow-up evaluation. In its findings, it stated that much had changed at the shelters, but there was still a lot of work to be done. The report cited “many grave concerns about the quality of animal care with regard to proper cleaning, feeding, disease control and housing.”
The shelters’ director, Denise Wilcox, was fired and replaced within months of the report’s release. After more than a decade since problems were brought to light and nearly three years since the Humane Society’s last visit, after more lawsuits, new leadership, and a myriad of new laws and policies—what’s actually changed at the shelters?
For one thing, money.
What’s the Difference?
In 1998, the budget for the shelters (after several name changes, now called the Animal Welfare Department) was a little more than $3.3 million. That number nearly doubled, landing above $6.2 million by the time the 2006 HSUS report came out. In 2008, it hit more than $10 million. City Councilor Sally Mayer, who’s been in office since 2002, helped shepherd budget increases. The primary intention for the extra funds, she says, was to create more kennel-level positions at the shelters that would improve the animal-to-worker ratio.
But while the City Council determines the shelters' budget, the Mayor's Office puts the funds into action. According to Mayer, instead of hiring more kennel staff, Mayor Martin Chavez hired a batch of upper-level management. Ex-shelter boss Wilcox was replaced by two people: Jeanine Patterson as director and veterinarian John Romero as associate director.
According to salary forecast documents from the City Council Office, as of this April, Patterson made $103,002 a year before benefits, while Dr. Romero made $107,786. Additionally, the position of "animal program analyst" was created and given to Jim Ludwick, a formerAlbuquerque Journal reporter, with a salary of $76,356 a year before benefits. (For comparison, the lowest-paid kennel workers make $19,052 a year, while the highest-paid take home $30,368.)
Mayer says the Council removed about $900,000 from the animal shelters' budget in response to the added salaries. "We felt like if he [the mayor] had all that extra money to do those things,” she says, “we'd take the money back out of the budget."
The cut was to the chagrin of Director Patterson, who says the shelters have lost eight kennel worker positions since the budget was axed. Out of 134 total staff in the department, about 35 are kennel workers, “which is still way below the national average,” according to Patterson. She says she'd like to double that number.
Beyond staffing difficulties, there are some things that have improved at the shelters since Patterson and Romero got their jobs two years ago. At that time, the euthanasia rate was 55 percent, and 45 percent of the animals were adopted. From July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, that ratio has almost reversed: 42 percent euthanasia to 58 percent adoption. Those numbers are significant. Last year, the shelters received 27,119 animals—that translates to 75 to 100 animals every day. (About 70 percent of those are strays. The rest are owner surrenders.)
Patterson also says a number of cosmetic changes are in the works at the Eastside location (one of the city's two shelters). A few years ago, voters approved a $5 million bond to reconstruct the shelter. "The place was a wreck," Patterson says. "We didn't have enough money to totally rebuild, so we're gutting it and redoing it."
That means the whole Eastside shelter will be given a "facelift," primarily by way of the front lobby, which will be redone to include elaborate cat play areas and "real-life" rooms for dogs. "Real-life" rooms are built to mimic a home environment, so potential adopters can imagine what dogs would look and act like outside of the shelters. Not much will be changed in the kennels themselves, but new flooring will be put in, which Patterson says will make the kennels more appealing.
A Tale of Two Shelters
The Alibi visited both city shelters on Wednesday, Aug. 12, to see them firsthand, starting at the Westside location around 4 p.m. and getting to the Eastside around 5:15 p.m. (Both locations close at 6 p.m.)
Animal shelters are like any municipal entity—what you see on the outside doesn’t always reflect its inner workings, although you can usually gather a few things from the surface.
The shelters were desolate midweek. Only one prospective adopter walked around at the Westside, while a couple of staff members lingered in the distance. Eventually, one of them came to unlock a door, saying “Oh, that shouldn’t be locked.” The door was to one of two public kennels that house dogs up for adoption.
The Westside shelter has four dog kennels and two catteries, although two of the dog kennels are off limits due to quarantine and holds (the same is true at the Eastside shelter). Cats are confined to small metal crates, which are stacked on top of and next to each other in a room. There is a cat play area outside one of the catteries, but it was empty throughout the Alibi’s hour-long visit. Dogs kennels are indoor/outdoor and constructed of chain-link fencing and cement.
Most kennels were spotted with urine and feces. This may have been due to the fact that it was near the end of the day. Many, but not all, of the dogs had a rubber toy. All dogs had some variation of a plastic bed. Water buckets were full, except for one, which seemed to have been turned over by a big dog. It was bone dry. The catteries were cleaner than the kennels, with urine or feces primarily contained by litter tins in each cage.
On the south periphery of the Westside shelter, there's a large play area donated by the Alliance for Albuquerque Animals (it took $40,000 in contributions to build). It's an enclosed outdoor space with a shaded area, a couple of chairs and a plastic trough for water. There are six large, covered dog runs adjoining it. The purpose of the area is to create a place for dogs to be walked or get other exercise. During the visit, the play area and all the runs were empty, aside from one run that was being used to house a peacock.
The Eastside shelter fared about the same. A few more prospective adopters walked around. No workers approached to ask if assistance was needed, and few were seen. Animals had water and toys, but the cages were dirty.
One difference at the Eastside shelter was that large magnetic boards were hung next to the kennels where volunteers could mark which dogs were walked that day. Out of 88 dogs, only six had been marked as walked.
Have the shelters improved since HSUS issued its last report? The answer is complicated. Things certainly seem better than the picture painted by HSUS 10 years ago. But the shelters are a far cry from their Santa Fe counterpart, for instance, which brags larger, nicer kennels that are always clean, two or three walks per day for each dog and, as of three years ago, a 100 percent adoption rate, along with a host of other toutable amenities.
Patterson says the construction in the works at the Eastside shelter is actually modeled after Santa Fe but that funds don’t exist to mimic it as fully as she’d like.
Still, the situation leaves the shelters and the Council at an impasse. Patterson says the shelters need more money to hire additional staff and make other improvements. The Council says that when it did give the shelters more money, it didn’t go to staff. As a result of that money, Mayer says, “the lives of the animals should be better, and I don't feel like [they are].”
It begs the question of when, and if, the city shelters will ever reach their goals.