Waiting for Reform
City Animal Services Division draws ire of animal rights activist
It all started six years ago, when one day Marcy Britton found a 6-week-old stray kitten in a gutter. Concerned for the animal's safety, the animal rights activist decided to take the kitten to the Albuquerque Animal Services shelter, where she hoped it would eventually be adopted. Yet, when Britton delivered the kitten, she witnessed an event that not only shocked and disturbed her, but would also come to change her life.
As Britton handed the kitten over to a kennel worker, the worker used measures to move the animal that Britton says were not only unnecessary, but downright cruel. According to Britton's description, the worker used a control pole to move the kitten, a device only intended to handle vicious dogs and is never supposed to be used on cats. The end of the pole, which has an adjustable metal noose, was placed around the kitten's neck and tightened. When the worker proceeded to try and move the kitten, the pressure on its neck was too much, and it was strangled to death.
Britton filed a criminal complaint against the worker, which eventually lead to a lawsuit against the city, and a complete evaluation of Albuquerque Animal Services Division by the Humane Society of the United States. The report generated by the evaluation not only proved that Britton had just cause to file a complaint, but went on to show that animal cruelty was widespread at the department.
The humane society report stated that the practices at city shelters were inhumane and abusive, and veterinary care of sick and diseased animals was inadequate. It was even shown that in some cases animals had been left for days to wallow in their own blood before being treated. Perhaps the biggest issue that arose from the report was the practice of euthanasia at the shelter. Intracardiac (IC) euthanasia, which involves injecting poison directly into an animal's heart, is only supposed to be used when animals are comatose or heavily sedated. But the humane society report showed that IC euthanasia had become a regular practice at animal services, and that oftentimes animals were conscious at the time of the procedure. It was discovered that several euthanized animals were put in a freezer, although they still had heartbeats. At one point, Britton claims, a dog actually walked out of the freezer after being declared dead the day before.
The results of the humane society evaluation, which was conducted in 2000, led to a long list of recommended policy changes, including temporarily suspending all euthanasia practices, retraining all kennel workers and once reinstated, all euthanasia procedures needed to be supervised by the department veterinarian. And after Britton spearheaded lobbying efforts, in July, a law was enacted that made IC euthanasia illegal in New Mexico unless an animal is unconscious. Britton, however, is not yet satisfied.
Now, after spending six years of her life, and her entire life savings (a sum totaling over $95,000), on legal proceedings against the city, Britton says that animal services still has not instituted many of the changes that were recommended nearly five years ago.
Meanwhile, the city contracted with local animal protection activist Debbra Colman this past year to review animal services' policies as well. Colman's recommendations for sweeping changes at the division were then drafted into an ordinance that has yet to be brought before the City Council, although it is expected to be sponsored by Councilor Sally Mayer and voted upon early in 2005.
Still, Britton says that animal services are grossly understaffed, giving testimony that she has seen people who are looking to adopt an animal leave the clinic because there was no one available to help them. Colman, in her evaluation, expressed similar concerns.
Britton also claims there is still confusion within the shelter about euthanasia practices. As recently as two weeks ago, she said, a collie with seizures was brought into the shelter and euthanized. Shortly after, its owners called to tell the shelter not to put it down, that they knew it had seizures and that were going to come to pick it up. At the same time that this was happening, Britton says, other animals with injuries such as protruding bones were left untreated for days.
Recent allegations against a kennel supervisor, Kimberly Kelly, seems to indicate that euthanasia policies are still unclear. Kelly was accused this year by another kennel worker, Aloha Campos, of conducting IC euthanasia on an animal in direct violation of department policy.
A letter submitted by Kelly's attorney, Joan M. Waters, to the hearing panel of the city Environmental Health Department argues that Kelly was unaware that IC euthanasia was against department policy. Animal services argues that even though there is no written euthanasia policy, it is a known rule that IC shots are not allowed, and that all employees are trained knowing such. Yet, the department has no paperwork that can prove that such a topic is discussed in training courses. Whether or not the accusation against Kelly is true has yet to be determined, although it's accuracy is questionable, since Campos also stated that Kelly was drunk on the job, and that there was another witness present at the time the IC shot was given—two allegations that have turned out to be unsupported by evidence, according to Waters' letter.
Interestingly, although Campos' claims were unsubstantiated, Waters' letter notes that she was promoted to kennel supervisor in the days following her accusations against Kelly.
Denise Wilcox, newly appointed division manager of Albuquerque Animal Care Center (the new name for animal services' shelters), declined to comment on the personnel matter, but added that her department has been working hard to fulfill the humane society's recommendations. Mayor Martin Chavez granted an additional $900,000 in the last fiscal year to animal services, ostensibly to fund the implementation of new policies. Wilcox says that changes are already being made, including hiring more staff, increased transport services (where animals are taken to Colorado where adoption is more likely), and the addition of a surgical suite which conducts spaying and neutering procedures, which were not previously done on site. Wilcox also says that all animal services policies are currently under review, and that they are working on developing a whole new team, including one person who specializes in training and investigation. Many of the new employees have been hired within the last several months.
"I think having Denise Wilcox there has made a huge difference," said Councilor Mayer. "Everybody knows their boundaries. She's implemented some new positions and people are being held accountable."
Yet Britton still claims that euthanasia practices have not been adequately addressed. "If I'm asking how are they killing animals, and they can't answer me, I'm not going to trade for other things that might be better," says Britton.
So what does Britton want? Her bottom line: that the Humane Society be brought back in for a re-evaluation, a step that was promised, but has yet to occur. When contacted last week, Kim Intino, manager of the Animal Services Consultation Program at Humane Society of the United States, says she received numerous complaints from Albuquerque citizens in the past few years. Her organization, however, cannot come back unless the city, namely, Mayor Chavez, asks them to.
Deborah James, the mayor's spokesperson, said that Chavez wants the followup evaluation, but not until more changes have been instituted. "Animal care is on the right track in reducing euthanasia," said James, a passionate animal rights activist herself, "and while we still have a ways to go, we will continue to bring positive programs and partner with the community to make Albuquerque an even more humane city."
Yet there are some in the city who feel less certain that all measures are being taken to ensure animal welfare, and who believe that it would be better to have the city bring in the humane society sooner rather than later. City Councilor Eric Griego said there is still confusion regarding euthanasia policy and that "clearly there are still issues at the shelter that need to be dealt with." Griego said the administration is more concerned about projecting a public image that "everything's fine."
A proposal for a new city office, the Office of Internal Audit and Investigation, passed the City Council last week (see this week's Council Watch) on a 9-0 vote that will reorganize the way that investigations are done in the city, and which will use independent investigators, instead of investigators that are on the city payroll. When the new office is up and running, which should happen within the next six months, a full evaluation will be done on the shelters. Griego, however, who has been working to create the new office for the last two years in light of Mayor Chavez being reprimanded by the city ethics board for violating city campaign laws, said that the city doesn't have the luxury of waiting any longer.
Instead, Griego said the humane society should be brought in immediately, followed by an investigation by the Office of Internal Audit.