It's our anniversary. No, I'm not talking about the Tricentennial. I'm talking about a much quieter and unnoticed passage of time. It's been five years since the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) came to our city to evaluate the Albuquerque Animal Care Center (formerly known as the Albuquerque Animal Services Division) and found widespread instances of animal cruelty at both of the city's animal shelters. After that visit, evaluators laid forth a hefty set of recommendations and since then the city has continually promised to bring them back for a reevaluation. Five years later, they still haven't returned, and local animal rights activists say that conditions at the shelters haven't improved much, despite political promises to the contrary.
A visit to the Eastside shelter last week revealed a hostile and detached atmosphere. I walked around for over 45 minutes and not one person approached me. Kennel workers only acknowledged me with weird looks. I had the unsettling sense that I was in the wrong place or doing something forbidden. The animals appeared to be just as ignored as I was. The first dog I saw had a sign on its cage reading that it was a two-month-old Labrador. It was about 4 p.m. and 92 degrees outside. Its water dish was completely empty, and it was so thirsty it was trying to drink its own urine off the floor.
Despite my experience, there are others who say that the shelters are shaping up. Viki Elkey of Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM) said that when she was at the Eastside shelter just a couple weeks ago, she was excited to see how much better things had become. Elkey said the main problem with the shelters is there usually aren't enough staff and volunteers working—which means the staff simply don't have time to address all the requirements of their jobs. Yet when Elkey was most recently at the shelter she saw plenty of staff on site, an encouraging sign. "Sometimes you go in and things are how you want them to be; other times they're not," she said.
The disparity between our experiences leaves open the question: Have conditions improved at the city shelters, and when is the Humane Society going to come back and issue an updated report?
Two bills soon to be discussed in the City Council aim to answer these questions. The first, sponsored by City Councilor Sally Mayer, is an update to the city's animal ordinance that has been long in the making, which requires that all animals in the city be treated humanely. The second, sponsored by City Councilor Eric Griego, asks to bring the Humane Society back in for a reevaluation as soon as possible.
Councilor Mayer's bill was introduced last week and is scheduled to be heard on Monday, Aug. 1, by the full Council. The bill has been in the works for two years and was supposed to be introduced last summer (when the Alibi first reported on it), according to Debbra Colman, an animal rights activist who worked with Mayer on the bill after working in the shelters for a year. Colman, a prominent Downtown developer, became so upset over conditions at the shelters two years ago, she signed a $1 contract with the city to become a shelter employee for one year beginning in the summer of 2003. Colman's experiences at the shelter led to a long list of recommendations for shelter improvements which were supposed to be integrated into Mayer's bill. But since last fall, she said, Mayer stopped returning her phone calls. Now that the bill is complete, Colman said all of the most important language for the ordinance is missing—language that would have required a minimum standard of care at the animal shelters.
"I invested hundreds of hours with Councilor Mayer working to completely rewrite the ordinance based on a clear promise from her that a significant portion would include minimum care standards. ... The ordinance was finished and she promised it would be introduced last August. I have no idea why it's only being introduced now."
Mayer declined to comment, but APNM's Elkey, who worked on the bill with Mayer over the last year, said that all changes made to the ordinance were a result of meetings with a wide array of animal groups, ranging from animal rescue groups to breeders, as well as talks with other cities and organizations. Elkey said that if the bill is passed the changes to the ordinance will include implementing housing requirements for animals in pet stores, increasing the number of animals that households can have without a special permit, and determining which types of exotic animals will be allowed in Albuquerque. Elkey said the new ordinance includes a brand new section on the shelters, which calls for higher training requirements, among other policy changes. "This will be a powerful ordinance," Elkey said.
Councilor Griego's bill also comes with a rich history. For over two years Mayor Martin Chavez has promised to bring the Humane Society back to Albuquerque for a reevaluation. This last January, he promised again and said that correspondence had begun with the organization.
Martha Armstrong, vice president for domestic animal programs at HSUS, said that the last she heard was that the request to bring them back was still sitting on the mayor's desk. As of June 24, a contract hasn't been signed. Deborah James, spokesperson for the mayor, said that the paperwork and negotiations now rest with Denise Wilcox, associate director of Albuquerque Animal Care Center.
Kim Intino, manager of the HSUS animal services consultation program, said that lengthy waits for contracts are not uncommon and there isn't anything unusual about the city's proceedings with her organization.
The mayor also informed the public in January that HSUS wouldn't be able to return for at least a year, due to a heavy volume of contracts. Although that statement was true, Armstrong said that HSUS might be able to fit Albuquerque in earlier if there was an unlikely cancellation, but only if a contract was signed.
James said that the mayor invited HSUS to come in over six months ago and that they were asked to come as soon as possible, while she also acknowledged that the city hasn't signed a contract.
Councilor Griego, now a mayoral candidate, said that he was originally going to introduce his bill to bring HSUS back at the start of 2005, but postponed it after Mayor Chavez announced he was inviting them to return. Griego planned to introduce his bill on June 30 (after the Alibi went to press), adding: "All is not well [at the shelters]."
Despite some efforts to improve conditions, both city shelters have not made the progress that the public and the mayor think have been made, according to Colman. "There's a really huge disconnect between what the public and the mayor think [is happening at the shelters] and what happens on a day-by-day basis."
There have been several reports in the last few months of lost animals being euthanized shortly before their owners were scheduled to pick them up. Animal rights activist Marcy Britton said the city purchased two surveillance systems (one for each location, totaling at $5,000) intended to videotape euthanasia procedures, but when she filed a request for public information to see the videotapes, she was told none existed. Councilor Mayer, who visits the shelters often and is also an animal rights activist, is recorded on Britton's answering machine saying "months and months" worth of tapes were available. Animal Care's Wilcox was unable to be reached after numerous attempts by the Alibi.
Judy Paulsen of Greyhound Companions of New Mexico, who visits the shelters often, said she's also seen problems at Animal Care—such as a dirty vet clinic and veterinarians failing to enter animals' health information into the computer system as well as failing to treat a sick dog whose ears were caked with ticks and had bleeding tumors on its belly. She did say, however, that things have recently appeared to be improving, particularly after veterinarian Kay Duffin was recently hired. One of Paulsen's main complaints with the shelters is that animal rescue groups are not permitted to be more involved in the education and screening process of adopters.
At this point, everyone agrees on one thing: It's time for the Humane Society to return. The question is: When will they?