Tick. Tock. In case you're wondering, that's the sound ringing in the ears of more than 27,000 animals a year at the Albuquerque Animal Care Center, where progress seems to move about as quickly as the proverbial snail. Despite findings by the Humane Society of the United States five years ago that animal care practices at the two Albuquerque shelters were abysmal, and followed by promises by the city to improve said abysmal conditions, it seems that any real improvements in animal welfare have yet to begin. At least, that's what animal rights activists around the city are saying, who are irate over what they call "empty promises."
If you remember an article from last month on the recent history of the Animal Care Center, "Waiting for Reform" ["Newscity," Dec. 30-Jan. 5], then you remember that the humane society came to Albuquerque in 2000 to do an evaluation of the shelters, following a lawsuit against the city by animal rights activist Marcy Britton, and that they found appalling instances of animal cruelty. You'll also remember that they had yet to be called back in by the city for a re-evaluation, regardless of a promise made by Mayor Martin Chavez over a year-and-a-half ago that he would invite them to return.
Well, it looks like the mayor has finally lived up to his word, due to a statement at a recent press conference which reiterated that he was asking the humane society to return. Unlike last time, the mayor's office has now contacted the organization to begin the process of a re-evaluation, although according to the national humane society office, preliminary paperwork has yet to be filed. The only problem is, the humane society can't come to Albuquerque for another year (possibly longer if paperwork is delayed), and some folks say that's just too long.
Debbra Colman, an animal rights activist featured in the Alibi's "Heroes of 2004" issue says that it was important for the humane society to return, and that it would still be essential for them to return now.
"The time for evaluation is over," says Colman, "The problem isn't that there's a lack of understanding of what's wrong, or what isn't working, or even how to make it right. We know how to make it right. But there's a huge disconnect between management at least saying that they understand the problems, implementing policies that are enforced, and hiring staff where the culture is wanting to take care of the animals."
Yet, others argue that the necessary changes are being made at the shelters, and that things are moving as quickly as possible. "Every day we are trying to make life better for animals, not only here, but everywhere—and our record shows that," says Deborah James, spokesperson for the mayor, as well as an animal rights activist herself.
City Councilor Sally Mayer agrees, and says that within the last year many positive steps have already been taken at the shelters, such as raising the budget, increasing employee training, and focusing on management issues. Mayer says that she is glad that the humane society can't come in right away, when the shelters are still working on their original recommendations. Rather, she says, she'd like to see them come in six months, when she expects that many more changes will have taken place.
"I think that they are a wonderful resource and I look forward to us being able to use them," says Mayer, "but it seems silly to me for them to come in now when we know we still have problems."
Still, Britton says "suffering animals don't care about management assessments." And, apparently, there is still a great deal of suffering over at Animal Care, which leads many to believe that bringing the humane society back immediately is exactly what is needed.
Reports from several shelter volunteers say that animals continue to be treated inhumanely by staff. One ongoing issue is that animals at the East Side shelter are exposed to frigid temperatures at night, where cement floors and minimal heating are a recipe for abuse, especially in winter weather. After discovering these conditions, several volunteers went out and collected over 200 blankets, which they then donated to the shelter with the hope that they would help to warm the animals at night. Yet, volunteers recently reported that the blankets were still not being used, despite assurances from management that they would be. To makes matters worse, volunteers also say that it is common practice for workers to hose down cages early in the morning, when temperatures are at their lowest.
"It's like animals don't have feelings," said Colman, "and I suppose that if you have to euthanize 40 of them a day, that's what you have to imagine in your head."
City Councilor Eric Griego, who has announced his intentions to run for mayor this year, has also stepped into the fray. Griego wants to ensure that the humane society is brought in as quickly as possible, as well as make sure that the results of the re-evaluation are made public and closely monitored. In hopes of achieving this, he introduced a bill last Thursday that is intended to enforce the decision to bring the human society back in, as well as require the mayor to work with city councilors on the re-evaluation process.
"[The mayor] needs to be much more forthcoming in terms of solving the problem and not just getting the photo op with the fluffy pet," says Griego.
Britton is also skeptical, and says that she believes the whole thing is just an election year publicity stunt which will never really happen; or that if it does happen it will no longer matter, seeing how the results of the re-evaluation wouldn't even come out until after the election.
Yet James, for one, is tired of the complaints against the city. "Animal people are always working against each other. This is something where everyone needs to get on the same page and work together. That's the most important thing. We need to work together, and I think when we do that, we'll see more successes."
One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that practices at the shelters need to continue to change.
"We, as a community, owe it to (the people working at the shelters), and to the animals, to help them do the right thing, to provide them with the resources they need," says Colman, "But there's a huge gap between ideas, good intentions and reality. That is painfully apparent at the shelter. They'll have meeting after meeting about good intentions, and the next morning you go there and animals don't have blankets, puppies aren't being fed and nothing's changed."
It seems like the city is bursting with good intentions. The question is, how much change are we really going to see—and when?