Albuquerque Journal subscribers woke up Christmas Eve morning, stepped outside and scooped up their daily papers. The headline on the bottom left-hand corner of the front page stated, simply, “Animal Shelters Are Empty.” That title was, at best, misleading.
Were the animal shelters vacant? No, and they only would be under the circumstance that they were shutting down. The shelters are never empty due to strays that have to undergo a grace period before they’re adoptable and animals that are under medical observation or are waiting at the shelters in protective custody. But the misguiding headline was based off the first sentence of the article it introduced: “For the first time in their history, the city of Albuquerque’s east- and westside shelters have no animals available for adoption—all found homes at a weekend event.”
The weekend event was a pet adopt-a-thon called Home 4 the Holidays; spread over three days from Friday, Dec. 21, to Sunday, Dec. 23. During that weekend, more than 500 dogs and cats were adopted, 221 of which were brought from the city’s shelters.
After the event, the recently appointed director of the Animal Welfare Department, Jeanine Patterson, gave the quote the article was based on: “We brought every available animal to the adopt-a-thon, and all were adopted. We had more people wanting animals than we had animals to adopt.”
Such a feat had never been accomplished by the city shelters, which struggled for years with high euthanasia rates due to the incredible number of animals they receive: around 75 a day, according to Patterson. As it turns out, it still hasn’t been achieved. At the time of the announcement, more than 130 animals classified as adoptable may have still been sitting in the city’s shelters.
Debbra Colman founded the nonprofit Alliance for Albuquerque Animals and was hired by the city for a year as a management consultant to the shelters. Upon reading the announcement in the paper, Colman was surprised. When she saw a representative from another shelter in town, the Animal Humane Association, on TV the following night saying there were still more than 70 animals available at the association's shelter, Colman became suspicious. The smaller, nonprofit association has always had an easier time adopting out animals than the beseiged city shelters. She asked a former employee of the alliance to go the city shelters the next day they were open, on Dec. 26, to see if there really were no adoptable animals available after the event.
The former employee, who wishes to remain anonymous and will be referred to in this article as Smith, spent four hours at each of the city’s two shelters compiling a detailed list of every animal presented as adoptable, including information on when each went up for adoption. She discovered 132 that, according to the signs on their kennels, were adoptable before Dec. 23, some going back as far as November.
Smith has gone through the training all volunteers go through at the shelters and visited the shelters at least twice a week for the past year. She also has a master’s degree from the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University and is a certified dog trainer.
“Even if that’s correct, it’s a gross mismanagement of the kennels.”
The list Smith compiled was brought to the Journal, which printed a follow-up story with the information nearly a month later, on Monday, Jan. 21, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In it, shelter Director Patterson said the administration “found reasons for every single one” of the animals on the list as to why they weren’t considered adoptable. The two examples given were of a dog being held under rabies quarantine for a bite case and a dog that was so sick from cancer it died a few days later.
“The statement we made was true,” says Patterson from the phone in her office. “One of the things we discovered is you read a sign that’s hanging up for a dog, it doesn’t give all the information. It may not know that they’re being treated.” Patterson cites the two dogs mentioned in the Journal article, the bite case and the dog with cancer, as dogs that might not have had information posted on their signs communicating their situations.
But the alliance’s Colman doesn’t like that reasoning. “They’re saying they had a bite case on rabies hold in the general population with an adoptable card. Even if that’s correct, it’s a gross mismanagement of the kennels,” she says. Such animals are supposed to be separated from adoptable animals, she adds, their signs marked with a red stamp saying “bite case” so they aren’t accidentally taken out to be shown to prospective adopters.
Patterson says bite cases are usually kept in a separate kennel with aggressive dogs and those in protective custody, but didn’t speak to whether the dog in question was in that kennel or the general population.
Concerning the dog with cancer, Colman also takes issue: “Dogs don’t die until the cancer is advanced and they’re in a significant amount of pain. Why are they leaving it there over the holidays on a concrete floor?”
This observation is raised with Patterson and the associate director of the shelters, veterinarian Dr. John Romero. Although they spoke earlier of the dog “dying” from cancer a few days after the list was compiled, they now clarify that the dog was euthanized on Dec. 28.
As to the rest of the animals on the list, the shelter officials say there are valid reasons they weren’t considered adoptable. “There were lots of them that had either medical or behavioral issues,” says Romero. “And, of course, any that were not spayed or neutered cannot leave the shelter.” Those animals are not adoptable yet, adds Patterson. When asked if many would have been adoptable if they were spayed or neutered, Patterson says, “It’s hard to tell.”
But Colman says whether an animal is spayed or neutered has never affected its adoptability, though unfixed animals must have the surgery before future families take them home. The shelter may have chosen to take only fixed animals to the Home 4 the Holidays event.
Former alliance employee Smith doesn’t believe all the animals on the list were accounted for. “They were out in the general population with no note on their cage cards,” she says. “Dogs under medical treatment usually have a note and sometimes medication posted on their kennel in a plastic sleeve. If kennel cards are so uninformative that a person can’t understand them, that’s a separate issue.”
In response to the list Smith compiled, Patterson says, “We really appreciate everything they do, but we need our volunteers to be walking our animals and giving them water. It’s a little disappointing that they’re spending time writing numbers down when they’re not even understanding what they mean.”
Smith says she does know what those numbers mean. Still, she wishes the statement was never made to the Journal in the first place, she says, because it detracts from the positive things happening at the shelters. “Nobody is disputing that adoptions seem to be up and euthanasia seems to be down,” she says. “If there were 130 [adoptable] animals at the shelters during Christmas, that’s wonderful—this Christmas was much better than the last Christmas. But this was a disservice to the animals that were around during that time.
“This is an obvious instance of when the sound bite was given preference over the wellbeing of the animals.”