Handle with Care
With a switch in management, what will happen to the city’s animal shelters?
By Christie Chisholm
If someone asked you to be responsible for 30,000 animals, what would you do? What if you knew that if no one took responsibility for them, they’d all likely get run over, be snatched and thrust into underground fighting rings, become ill or aggressive, or simply multiply their numbers exponentially so their offspring would perpetuate the same patterns? What if you knew that, in taking responsibility for this teeming mob of animals, in choosing to save them from the above alternative, you would also be responsible for killing more than half of them?
This is precisely the dilemma faced every year by the workers of Albuquerque’s two animal shelters, which take in all abused, abandoned and injured animals left at their doors. Faced with a daunting task, they, or their management, haven’t always done a good job.
Nearly a decade ago, a local animal advocate by the name of Marcy Britton filed a lawsuit against the city for animal cruelty. Since that history-making lawsuit, the controversy around the shelters has continued to swell, leading most recently to the firing of the latest head of the shelters, Denise Wilcox, early this fall. In her stead, two managers have been appointed—Director Jeanine Patterson, a nearly 14-year employee of Intel and a registered nurse, and Associate Director Dr. John Romero, chairman of the state board of veterinarians who has worked at the shelters for more than a year and a half. While the shelters seem to be in better condition than they were 10 years ago, they still leave much to be desired, according to a Humane Society of the United States report issued last year. The Alibi recently spoke with the two new heads to talk about the state of the shelters and how they plan to fix them.
Coming into the shelters, what’s your opinion about the state of operations? How do you want to change things?
Patterson: I was shocked when I walked in the door. I was shocked at the overall cleanliness and hygiene, inside and out, for the animals and the people. We didn't even have soap dispensers that had soap in our bathrooms. It's really hard to control disease when you don't have basic hygiene measures in place for employees. So I've had facilities maintenance come through and take care of a lot of things that should have already been fixed.
Also, one of the first things I noticed is we didn't have any medical isolation areas for our animals, and that's critical to controlling disease. Every day an animal is in the shelter, its risk of catching something or developing a behavioral issue or disease increases dramatically. So it's critical that if an animal is ill or becomes ill, we separate that animal so it's not potentially contaminating the rest. We’ve had 15,000 animals that had to be euthanized since the beginning of the year that came in healthy and became unhealthy just because they were in our shelter.
Romero: One of the things that we have an advantage of here is we have an incredibly dedicated staff that work very hard—as a matter of fact, most of them work too hard. They're stressed, they have just too much to do and they do a terrific job of taking care of the animals. We're going to try to give them the tools they need and the personnel they need to be successful in what they're trying to do.
Do you see funds coming down the pipeline that might go into creating more kennel staff?
Patterson: We wish that would happen. But with the funding cut that just occurred with the Council [on Oct. 15] … We know when it’s de-appropriated it's just going to go into this black hole and probably never come back to us. That was a bit disappointing because that was going to help with some of our staffing issues overall. We had veterinarian equipment on there, veterinarians, technicians … we had all kinds of plans for that.
Then you're hoping on getting full-time people if you can get the funding for it?
Romero: Right. Their need is so critical, [Patterson] felt she couldn't wait. People who come to the shelter who expect to learn about a pet or are looking for a pet need to have somebody help them. People are so busy they're not able many times to give people the customer service they need. We're also taking steps to improve customer service at the front because the waits can be very, very long and can be frustrating for people who are just trying to rescue the animals.
What is the average salary for kennel workers?
Patterson: They make about $30,000 a year.
Some people have criticized the mayor for hiring former Albuquerque Journal reporter Jim Ludwick into a $70,000 a year job in the new Animal Welfare Department when kennel staff is needed. Is that something you’d like to comment on?
Patterson: The mayor's objective of this new department was to take everything up to the next level with this new staff. Jim's contributions are doing that. He is an amazingly intelligent man, he knows how to analyze data and he is looking at the data a totally different way to help us figure out what is going on and how we can make our improvements. He is always researching in one area or another to help us improve our animal population. He is not duplicating efforts like some of City Council is saying. He is a wonderful asset to this new team.
Let’s return to what you want to do in the shelters. What’s your action plan?
Romero: We've got a shelter design group; they've designed several facilities throughout the country. They're going to look at our facility and help us prioritize what we could do to make things better.
Also, the University of California Davis has got a shelter medicine group—they're one of the renowned groups for shelter health—and they're coming to help us find ways to work with our existing facility and also plan for the future. They're going to be plugging in with this shelter design group so we end up with the very best facility we know how to build and do the very best thing we can to keep our animals comfortable and healthy and safe.
In the past, adoption counseling at the shelters has been minimal to nonexistent. (“Adoption counseling” refers to interviews with potential adopters that help match the needs and desires of pets and owners. It includes instruction on care for particular breeds and is a precautionary step in making sure adopters are ready for the responsibility of a pet.) Is that something you want to implement?
Romero: We're acutely aware of the need, because that's precisely what role our kennel folks have been trying to fill along with general care of the animals. That's part of just trying to have some better customer service.
Patterson: But that's part of the funding cut. We were going to hire a bunch of adoption counselors, but with the proposed Council cuts that can't happen now.
How much money was cut?
Patterson: $1.3 million. It's a lot of money. It's really sad. It’s like they're setting us up for failure.
Talk to me about some of the other improvements you’ve made.
Patterson: We've re-established a relationship with dozens of animal rescue groups that have had little or no contact with the city for the past several years. These groups are going to be vital in assisting us in finding homes for these animals. And every time we meet with a new group or association, they're telling us over and over that they have never had phone calls returned to them to work with them, and they are so excited that we are now willing to work with them and move forward on getting these animals adopted.
Romero: We’ve also discovered the shelter is set up with a system that provides “negative pressure” into the cat cages. Basically, what happens is there's an exhaust system that brings air through the back of the cage and shoots it out on top of the roof to try to reduce the number of viruses that are present in the room, because the cats are apt to shed viruses. We found that those systems were not functional and they may have been broken for up to two years.
Patterson: That's a very basic thing that always needs to be happening to decrease disease, and to find that there were three on three major buildings that had not been functioning for that long was pretty frightening, so we got that fixed too. And not only did we fix it, but we increased the amount of negative pressure going out and increased the horse power so that it would take out more of those viruses and bacteria to decrease disease. And we applied a special sensor so that if they ever went down again we would be notified. So not only did we fix it, we found the problem, fixed it and made sure it will never happen again.
Some people have shared concerns that trying to make the shelters “no kill,” as there’s been some talk about doing, could lead to animal hoarding or just to animals being sent somewhere else to be euthanized. What’s your response to that?
Romero: First of all, we can never be a no-kill shelter because we have to take every single animal that comes in the door. We deal with public safety here as well, and there are animals that come into the shelter that are extremely dangerous. There are animals that are very old and diseased before they get here and then there are animals that are unadoptable for other reasons. There are no-kill shelters in the area, but as a municipal shelter we can't be no-kill. But what we can do is get as many adoptable animals homes as possible or not euthanize any adoptable animals.
Patterson: Do you have any idea how many animals come into our clinics on a weekly basis? Five hundred to 600 a week, 30,000 a year. That's just unbelievable.
Romero: We just have a population that does not spay and neuter its animals, and that's going be the primary thing to change what happens in this shelter.
Patterson: And education of our public on how to appropriately take care of animals, and treat them like a member of the family, and take them to obedience training, and learn how to potty train them, and not give up on them just because they jump too much or ... You know, owner surrenders are a good 25 percent of those numbers who just can't handle their animals but they haven't taken the time to try to train them.
Patterson: Isn't that amazing? It breaks my heart when someone brings their animal, saying, “I can't keep this dog anymore. I can't keep this cat. I don't know how to potty train it.” I mean, it's awful. We need to educate the public on proper care of an animal in their home and on how to treat it like a family member, not someone you're just going to give away because you don't know how to deal with it anymore or you're moving to a new city or whatever. I just can't imagine doing that with any of my animals.
What’s your opinion of the HEART ordinance? Do you think mandatory spay and neuter is a good idea? Is it working?
Romero: I think there are several things making a difference right now. One of them is the micro-chipping. Our ability to return animals—and many times injured animals—to an owner has dramatically increased. We frequently have severely injured animals with no identification. We would have to euthanize them because the extent of what we can do here is beyond that. By the way, they cut our X-ray machine, which is just a very basic piece of equipment. The City Council.
So the micro-chipping is a tremendous thing, and the spay and neuter part is the cornerstone to making a difference. Those two things are already in the process, and the HEART ordinance is going to do that.
Has there been a surge in the number of spay and neuter surgeries that have been done at the shelter since the HEART ordinance has gone into effect?
Romero: Well, I know our spay and neuter van is very, very busy and they are just doing a bang-up business. That's not surprising because people had to get into compliance. That's to be expected and that's exactly what we want to happen.
Are there enough vet staff to deal with all the spays and neuters that need to be done? Have you hired more?
Romero: That's another thing that was in the appropriation. But we have got some more veterinarians that we have been able to bring in on contract.
Patterson: We're lacking that staff now.
A number of readers have contacted us about the HEART ordinance, saying they’re scared to take their pets to the vet because they don’t want them micro-chipped or spayed or neutered. Do you think that’s a drawback to the ordinance?
Romero: Well, we obviously have a problem in our population here if we've got so many stray animals. We're literally depositing tons of poor little animals into the landfill, and I guess my thinking is there's a time for responsible pet ownership, and that's right now. There's no excuse in this day and age for having a pet that's not spayed or neutered. As far as not having a pet micro-chipped, the technology is here now that we can identify precisely who belongs to who and get animals reunited with their owners in a relatively short amount of time.
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