After 10 years of problems, a new report reveals that Albuquerque’s animal shelters are still in dire need of improvement
By Christie Chisholm
The word “intolerable” keeps echoing in Debbra Colman’s head. She stares at her plate, lost for a moment while she contemplates words—particularly one word she read in an article last Tuesday.
“Intolerable” is the word Mayor Martin Chavez gave the reporter. He called the practices at the city’s animal shelters “intolerable.”
And Colman finds that intolerable, because for the last two years she and volunteers from her organization, the Alliance for Albuquerque Animals, have told the mayor and the head of Animal Services that the shelters hadn’t really changed. That they needed more staff, that sick animals were ignored, that kennels were filthy. And for two years not much happened. It still isn’t fixed.
The article, which ran in the Albuquerque Journal, came in response to an evaluation of the shelters released by the Humane Society of the United States on Monday, Dec. 11. The report was a follow-up to an evaluation the organization conducted in Albuquerque in 2000, which cited some of the worst cases of animal cruelty the society had ever seen.
Six years later, our city’s shelters show meager improvement. Although the report says the quality of staff has improved, it also shows that from a basic organizational level to a more serious one of animal care, the shelters are still failing.
Last week, the Alibi called Denise Wilcox, the head of the city's shelters, and asked what her response was to the report, which gave a long list of recommendations. Wilcox said that after the Humane Society's visit, the shelters took immediate action on the organization's concerns. Yet, when asked for specific examples of what actions were taken, Wilcox was unable to provide a single one.
That’s a word Marcy Britton’s been using for more than a decade.
Britton found a kitten in a sewer pipe in the late summer of 1997. It was the last of a colony of cats she’d rescued from the pipe and brought to the Eastside shelter in the previous two weeks. She’d already waited, one at a time, for the kitten’s five siblings and mother to sniff and explore the carrier she’d laid at the pipe’s entrance, but these things took patience. When the carrier door was closed on one kitten, the others retreated. Excavating them all took hours of sitting and watching. But Britton didn’t complain. She knew the right thing to do was bring them in to the shelter.
When the black, six-week-old female finally came out of hiding, Britton tucked the mewing creature into the carrier and took her to the shelter, where she handed the carrier to a kennel worker in the intake area. On Britton’s other recent trips to the shelter she’d given the cats to the worker and left. But on this warm August afternoon, she stayed.
The worker reached for a large control pole—a long, stainless steel staff affixed with an adjustable plastic-coated noose made for use on vicious dogs—and looped the end around the kitten’s neck, pulling her out of the carrier and into the air, where the slight, dark animal struggled and then dangled as the noose around her throat strangled her to death.
In 1996, Britton witnessed the same kennel worker use a control pole on another cat she had brought in with a colleague. The two animal rights advocates reported the abuse to the city in writing. The manager of animal control at the time assured them the problem would be corrected.
But a year later, Britton stood in the same room where she witnessed the same animal cruelty, and, apparently, nothing had changed. Visions of all the cats jerked and noosed in that room in the last 12 months shot through her mind. She walked back to her car, where she sat and shook, shocked by an event that would come to change everything.
The 2006 Humane Society report is the product of four days the organization spent at the two Albuquerque shelters this past July. The society came looking for improvement from the evaluation in 2000, but from signage to medical treatment found that not much has changed.
Even simple organizational matters were subpar. The Humane Society found the adoption counseling room locked through its entire visit; it appears to be unused. Signs on animals’ cages were often wrong—most displayed the default information from the software program used to create them. The shelters don’t have any lost-and-found system for animals in place.
The report explains that when such basic elements of customer service and care are absent—such as being counseled on the tendencies and needs of a pet before adoption and having access to information such as age, species and special needs of a pet—adoption rates suffer.
But as Humane Society team members patrolled the shelters’ halls, they found conditions that were much more alarming, with the report citing “many grave concerns about the quality of animal care with regard to proper cleaning, feeding, disease control, and housing.”
A Long, Grueling Fight
Following the death of the kitten, Britton once again reported the abuse to the city. She once again was told the problem would be remedied. Yet, some dozen months later, she and a colleague saw the same worker (who was transferred after Britton’s complaint and promoted to kennel supervisor) use a control pole on a cat again at the Westside shelter. In November of 1998, Britton decided to file a lawsuit. She filed four counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty against the worker.
It was the first of a long string of legal actions that would devour the next three years of Britton’s life.
But she wasn’t alone. Other citings of cruelty started to leak from the shelters, and that fall a kennel worker named Floyd Smith spoke up.
Smith started working with the city in 1976 at the age of 18. He’d transferred to Animal Services in 1981 and held the role of assistant manager. He was a good, well-trained employee, and he cared about animals. So when a coworker told Smith he’d witnessed a colleague “throttle” a cat, Smith told his superiors and mentioned he was considering filing a citation against the worker. They told him to do nothing.
On Feb. 23, 1999, Smith was transferred to the “special projects” office in the Eastside shelter, where he awaited an assignment to rewrite the special operating procedures manual for the division.
Meanwhile, earlier that month, Britton’s case was thrown out on a technicality. But Britton was determined. Two weeks later, she filed another lawsuit, this time against the city. It was a lawsuit that would eventually cost $90,000, the whole of her life savings.
Soon after, on March 19, Smith sat in a district courtroom. As he faced Britton, her lawyer, the director of animal services and an assistant city attorney, preparing to give his deposition, he had yet to receive any work in his new post. “I waste taxpayer dollars,” he told them. He thought he’d been retaliated against, but it wouldn’t keep him from telling the court about the “bad operations” kept at the shelters.
He told them about kennels at double, sometimes triple, their dog capacity; about sick and injured animals being placed for adoption while healthy, good animals were euthanized without a chance for adoption. He even told them the “notorious” story about the dog with its leg wrapped in duct tape from toenail to armpit, left in its kennel untreated even though it was on the vet list. A kennel worker tried to move it and accidentally pulled off the entire leg.
Later that year, in August, a former kennel worker named Phillip Mora talked to the same group of people in a similar courtroom for a deposition. He testified that animals at the shelters weren’t always euthanized effectively, and that as a result animals were oftentimes found in the freezer when they still had heartbeats. Once, he said, a DOA worker entered the freezer to find a cat sitting upright and staring at him.
Same Story, Different Day
The Humane Society’s new report states that sick animals are still oftentimes ignored. The report says the organization’s team had to tell kennel workers about sick animals that were overlooked several times, such as a cat soaked in bloody diarrhea that was later diagnosed with panleukopenia and euthanized. The society also discovered that staff neglected to give incoming animals physical exams and that, despite vet staff claiming they did rounds to check for sick animals twice a day, the Humane Society didn’t witness them doing so once.
The report also states that disease control at the shelters is nearly nonexistent, with sick animals kept in the general shelter population. Such practices led to the panleukopenia outbreaks in both the Eastside and Westside shelters this summer, which shut down both catteries. Additionally, the report cites bad cleaning practices in the catteries and kennels, evidenced by feces and flies smeared in cages, which increases animals' risk for disease.
A positive note in the report is that it says euthanasia practices at the shelters have improved. Animal handling is labeled as kind and compassionate where it once was called inhumane. However, the organization disagrees with some of the methods used at the shelters to check whether animals are properly euthanized, and found some supposedly euthanized animals that still had heartbeats. Cleanliness is also listed as an issue at the shelters—tables in the euthanasia rooms were found dirty, and the Humane Society believes some supplies were used for too long, citing syringes as “sticky and crusty.”
The 2000 Report
In September of 1999, Britton got a trial.
The judge ordered the Humane Society to come to Albuquerque and evaluate the shelters, and for three days in May 2000, it did. A month later, the organization issued an emergency report.
Britton got a call from her lawyer the day it was released. She immediately got in her car and drove to his office on Montgomery. He was giddy. “Wait ’til you hear this,” he said, motioning for her to take a seat while he grabbed the report and started reading.
The Humane Society report on the conditions of the shelters was worse than even Britton had expected. Speckled with language such as “grave concerns,” “inappropriate” and “inhumane,” the report cited some of the worst cases of animal cruelty the organization had ever seen.
Apparently, Britton witnessing a kitten being strangled to death was just a clue of what lurked behind the shelters’ walls. The Humane Society team verified what Smith’s and Mora’s testimony had claimed and more—workers putting live animals in the freezer, after they were supposedly euthanized. They found animals with bones jutting out of their legs, lying in blood, allowed to sit without medical treatment. They saw kennel workers giving heart shots to conscious animals (which are only supposed to be given to animals that are heavily sedated or comatose).
The organization reported the atmosphere in the shelters as one of “fear, paranoia and defensiveness,” and noted the city’s habit of transferring poorly performing employees to animal services.
The Humane Society gave the city a long list of recommendations to fix the shelters, including the organization’s return for a re-evaluation.
Britton took the report, ran to a printer and made copies. She promptly delivered it to news outlets all over town.
Word of the report spread fast. The city responded with $30,000. The money went toward some new equipment for the shelters and four-day training courses for 20 division employees on proper handling and euthanasia. In July 2000, the staff veterinarian at the shelters was “released” (not “fired” because she wasn’t under contract and wasn’t a city employee), and several other employees were transferred out of the department.
One of the workers transferred that month was Floyd Smith, who ended up working in the City-County jail.
Nearly two years later, the director of animal services was laid off.
Britton continued to monitor the situation. In her opinion, very few improvements were made. In March 2003, she demanded that Mayor Chavez invite the Humane Society to return for a re-evaluation.
Later that same year, Colman decided to spend the next several months of her life working for $1.
She had finished her work on the Century Theaters complex Downtown through her job as executive project director with the Historic District Improvement Company. For years, she devoted 80-hour weeks to the goal of revitalizing the heart of the city. And in 2003, when the scent of buttery popcorn drifted out the doors of Albuquerque’s new Downtown theater, Colman had saved enough money to take a year off.
Then Colman visited the Eastside shelter for the first time. What she saw would change her life.
On her way to pick up a dog for the Golden Retriever Rescue organization she belonged to, Colman expected to find 15 minutes worth of paperwork. She arrived to discover the dog had been adopted that morning, but she also found a two-and-a-half hour wait in the lobby. She watched as three families seeking help left in frustration. She toured the shelter and found filthy kennels and unhelpful staff.
Colman left knowing she had a choice. She could forget what she saw, or she could try to do something about it.
That August, she had her answer. The mayor had accepted her offer to do consulting work at the shelter. For the price of $1, they could sign a legal contract. And so Colman delved into the shelters.
What Colman found at the shelters astounded her. The facilities were (still) severely understaffed, with an average of four kennel workers cleaning about 250 animals per day at each shelter and checking in 45 to 50 animals per day, including vaccinating, tagging and housing them. The staff euthanized 20 to 40 animals per day at each location. Additionally, the same staff was expected to help potential adopters. In the end, too few staff members meant none of the jobs was done well.
During her year in the shelters, Colman lobbied the City Council to get money for more staff and a salary to attract a high-quality shelter director. The City Council approved an additional $900,000 for the department.
Colman left her post at the shelters in June 2004 and soon after founded the Alliance for Albuquerque Animals, an organization that has spent more than $250,000 of privately raised money in various attempts to better the lives of the city’s shelter animals.
The Bright Side
Not everything in the 2006 report is negative. Kennel staff told the Humane Society team that the greatest improvements at the shelters in the last two years came under the leadership of Denise Wilcox, the associate director of Animal Services hired in 2004, who received glowing compliments. Yet they also stated some concern at her lack of experience with animal sheltering, as she had none before coming to the shelters.
The Humane Society recommends filling an open operations manager position at the shelters with someone with “extensive experience” in the field. The team also calls certain staffing levels “woefully inadequate,” and urges the city to hire and cross-train more staff.
Wilcox said in a phone interview last week that the shelters were evaluating staff possibilities and that further reviews would be done in the city's budget process, starting at the first of the year.
When asked if she felt staffing levels at the shelters were inadequate, Wilcox said the shelters had added "quite a bit of staffing" in the last two years. She said staff was added in field services and veterinary care. She also said more intake specialists and kennel workers were hired--the staff the Humane Society report says is the most crucial to boost. Wilcox was on vacation at the time of the call, and was unable to give estimates of how many staff were hired in the last two years. She never answered whether she felt the shelters had enough employees.
Although much of the report lists subpar practices at the shelters, it praises the city for certain accomplishments. The report notes that the Albuquerque shelters are in a difficult position, as they receive animals from surrounding areas. The report also states that the city seems truly dedicated to improving the shelters, and applauded them for their spay and neuter efforts and for working well with vets and organizations outside the shelters.
Deborah James, Mayor Chavez' spokesperson, says after the Humane Society came, Chavez sent letters to mayors in Albuquerque's surrounding areas and asked them to get involved. She adds that he also formed an action team, which involves weekly meetings with Wilcox and the director of Environmental Health, who oversees the shelters.
These days, Britton sits in her living room, encircled by court documents, news clippings and letters from the past 10 years, peppered on her floor like bookmarks in a diary. She is weary, restless. But she has a plan. After a decade, she can’t give up. She won’t. Last Tuesday, Dec. 12, the day after the Humane Society released its new report, she made the city an offer. She asked the city to hire her to do oversight at the shelters for $7.50 an hour. She hasn’t gotten a response, although James says the mayor is considering Britton's offer.
On the other side of town, Colman finds the words she’s been searching for. She takes her time, because it took her two years to ready herself to say them.
When Colman’s time working at the shelters ended, she says, she restrained herself from talking about certain promises Mayor Chavez made to her. She felt a responsibility to him from her contract and, while she continued to work to help shelter animals for the last two years, she kept many things she saw during that year to herself.
But now the Humane Society re-evaluation is out, and the mayor says its findings are “intolerable.” And so Coleman talks about some of the conditions of her 2003 contract with the city. She says Mayor Chavez promised to hire one of the top shelter directors in the country at the end of Colman’s employment, for an attractive salary of $85,000. But instead of following the agreement, before Colman left the shelters the mayor hired Denise Wilcox, a 23-year city employee who came from risk management and was two years away from retirement. She had no prior experience in animal care and control.
James says the mayor chose to hire Wilcox because of her experience with human resources and contract negotiations. At the time she was hired, she says, some staff still worked at the shelters that shouldn't have been there--leftovers from the time when poorly performing employees from other departments were transferred to the shelters. The mayor hired Wilcox with the goal of getting rid of those people and recruiting "new blood."
But Colman says Wilcox fired or transferred the handful of employees that were most enthusiastic about more humane practices, and promoted several individuals who had proven they were willing to cover up instances of cruelty and neglect, and who had been openly scornful of the mayor’s stated desire to improve conditions at the shelters.
Colman says the mayor also agreed to bring HSUS back within six to nine months, which ended up taking three years, and that he agreed to hire a full-time veterinarian at the Westside shelter, which still has not occurred.
She is perhaps most outraged by the fact that in the last two years, an inadequate level of animal care or lobby clerk staff has been hired—the kind of staff she says is most needed at the shelters and the staff that was supposed to be hired with part of the $900,000 she lobbied from the Council.
Colman pauses. She wants her reasons for speaking out to be clear. It isn’t about making the mayor look bad, she insists. It’s about wanting to see real change at the shelters, which she thinks can only be done by hiring more staff and an experienced shelter director. By speaking out, she hopes it will make a difference, because until now all her calls to the mayor’s office about poor care at the shelters haven’t accomplished nearly enough. And because six years after the first Humane Society report was released, and 10 years after cruelty at the shelters was first reported, not a whole lot has changed.
And that’s intolerable.
Nov. 1998: Britton files four counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty against the kennel worker she'd witnessed using a control pole on cats.
Feb. 1999: Britton’s case is thrown out. Two weeks later, Marcy files a lawsuit against the city.
Sept. 1999: Britton’s case goes to trial.
March 6, 2000: The judge orders the Humane Society of the United States to do an evaluation of the shelters.
June 6, 2000: The Humane Society issues an emergency report listing "grave concerns" with the shelters.
March 2003: Concerned that improvements have not been made, Britton demands that Mayor Martin Chavez ask the Humane Society to return for a re-evaluation.
July 2006: The Humane Society returns for a re-evaluation.
Dec. 11, 2006: The Humane Society releases its report, finding some improvement in the shelters but a number of remaining problems.
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