Only five years after constructing a new $1.6 million facility, the Mobile County Animal Shelter had its credibility questioned after a series of negative occurrences left a bad taste in some residents’ mouths.
Though it was only active for six months in 2013, a Facebook group called “Reform the Mobile County Animal Shelter Now” drew more than 1,000 members. That same year, high intake numbers and an outbreak of canine distemper lead to an increased rate of euthanasia. Additionally, two separate lawsuits brought a more unfavorable spotlight onto the shelter.
One was set in motion after the Mobile County Commission voted to end a partnership with the local rescue organization SouthBARK, claiming it was “disruptive to shelter operations” and “doing more harm than good.”
At the time, county officials said the organization was publishing false information about the shelter and was fostering negative and even threatening remarks about shelter employees and administrators.
SouthBARK volunteers and organizers denied those allegations and later claimed the county violated their right to freedom of speech when it retaliated against them.
The situation eventually led SouthBARK to file suit against the Mobile County Commission, Public Affairs Director Nancy Johnson and County Administrator John Pafenbach.
In November 2013, Kaitlyn Hughes filed a separate lawsuit against Mobile County and shelter administrators after records showed her cat Porkchop was euthanized only 20 minutes after being brought to the MCAS by a neighbor.
Because both cases are still pending in court, county officials weren’t willing to comment on them, but they were eager to talk about some of the changes MCAS has implemented over the past year and the study that prompted them.
Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program
“The credibility of our shelter staff was called into question, and people were asking if there was a way we could get certified,” Mobile County Director of General Services Donna Jones said. “We started looking around, and there is no such certification program. We were referred to the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program.”
The MSMP is part of the University of Florida’s School of Veterinary Medicine, which has conducted several studies financed through the Maddie’s Fund for both public and private shelters.
Using grant funds it acquired through Maddie’s previously, the Mobile County shelter commissioned a $38,000 study last year. The first of its kind, it was conducted by the MSMP, the National Animal Care and Control Association and the Humane Society of the United States.
“For the three agencies to come together was unprecedented, and we feel like we had a very good evaluation,” Jones said. “It was really a positive report. Are there recommendations for improvement? Sure. There’s always room for improvement, but there was nothing bad going on at the shelter that shouldn’t have been.”
The report from the study compiled more than 100 pages and recommended five initiatives for the shelter to take on.
Those included: implementing comprehensive disease control measures, reducing kennel stress and preserving behavior health, streamlining animal flow to a “live outcome,” reducing the intake of healthy stray and feral cats and hiring a shelter veterinarian.
According to the finished report, “sanitation and husbandry practices created a cycle of disease within the shelter population because vulnerable (animals were) consistently exposed to symptomatic animals or to those potentially incubating disease.”
This was especially an issue in the fenced outside area, where the shelter used to house animals during kennel cleanings and “play time” activities. Jones said this was a problem because asphalt cannot be cleaned as well as concrete, which allowed diseases to spread more easily.
The shelter has since stopped using the area, but Jones did say the animals are still taken out for walks when volunteers are available to do so.
Several policy changes have allowed the shelter to take in fewer animals than it did a year ago. Some of these include no longer picking up feral cats (unless they’re sick or injured) and no longer allowing residents to drop off cats and dogs.
In the first six months of 2013, the shelter took in 2,599 animals. In the same period of time this year, that number has only reached 1,553.
Jones said before the study, the MCAS was holding as many as 120-130 animals at any given time, but had seen numbers as high as 250.
“We’re not holding them as long as we used to,” she said. “We’re trying to move them out of the shelter quicker. The way it’s designed now, we can hold 70 dogs and 20 cats at one time.”
Jones said the shelter was using “guillotine doors” improperly before the study was conducted, which allowed it to house more dogs. Now the facility holds fewer, but each dog has more room to move around in its kennel.
Despite the drop in the number of animals being housed at the facility, so far this year the number of euthanizations has gone down.
In 2013, 40.5 percent of animals brought in to the shelter were euthanized, but in 2014, that number has dropped to 19.3 percent.
It’s worth noting that while the total number of euthanizations has gone down, euthanizations for space from January through June did increase to 11 in 2014, which is up marginally from 2013.
Jones did say animals have always been euthanized for space, but only when they absolutely had to be. Usually animals that are old or sick are the first to go because they have a smaller likelihood of being adopted.
“In order for an animal to be euthanized, an animal resource supervisor or the county humane officer has to sign off on it first,” she said. “Vets assess the animals and help us make those decisions, but they don’t have the final say so.”
She added the only time an animal would be put down without those protocols is if the shelter was closed and an animal was injured to the point that keeping it alive overnight would be inhumane.
The reduction in the number of feral cats being picked up strongly contributed to the reduction of euthanizations this year.
According to the MSMP report, the shelter was euthanizing 388 cats for every one adopted before the policy change.
“We’re required by law to pick up stray dogs, but there’s no law against cats running at large,” Jones said. “There is a law that requires a pet owner to have a cat vaccinated for rabies, and it has to wear a tag.”
Shelter officials are currently researching a trap, neuter and release program to determine if there is enough community interest to pursue it full time.
A few animals escape or die while in the custody of the shelter, but the majority are adopted out to the public, euthanized or transferred to one of the more than 20 “placement partners” that work with the shelter.
“We’ve been working closely with recuse groups and they’ve pulled large numbers of animals,” Jones said. “They are able to transport them outside of the state because they have relationships with shelters up north, where there’s not as many strays.”
Jones said she couldn’t name all of the rescue groups working with the shelter, but some include the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Rescue Foundation, American Bully Buddies Rescue, Labs4rescue, Save a Stray, Ally Cat Allies and Project Purr.
Recuse volunteers and the general public are now allowed to view all of the animals at the shelter for the first time, as opposed to before, when they could only see the “adoptable” animals held in Kennel A.
“Before the consultation, we wouldn’t allow people who wanted to adopt to go into the stray-hold room (Kennel B),” Jones said. “We’re now also vaccinating and deworming all animals on intake, where as before we would only do that to the ones we thought were adoptable.”
Jones said the shelter’s budget, like many county departments, has been cut two times since 2008 and is currently funded at around $1.2 million annually. Those financial constraints make the recommendation of a full-time veterinarian at the shelter a little difficult to achieve immediately.
Another stumbling block is the Alabama Board of Veterinary Medicine itself, which has strict regulations for vets who work directly with animal shelters.
“We’re currently looking at contracting a part-time veterinarian and licensed vet technician that would come in and work with our shelter employees on the care of the animals,” Jones said. “Though we do have three vets that volunteer their time currently.”
Though vets are still needed, the occurrence of shelter-born illness — a considerable problem before the consultation — has also become less frequent.
According to the MSMP report, “most of the puppies brought into the shelter would develop shelter-born illnesses during their seven-day stray holding period.” It also stated “half of the puppies admitted are euthanized” for illnesses they contracted at the shelter.
A limited budget can also affect the daily operations of the shelter, which can be quite expensive. Jones provided Lagniappe with some rough estimates of the expenses the shelter accrues housing its animals.
According to Jones, without considering labor, utilities or cleaning supplies – it costs nearly $18.82 to house a single stray dog for the eight days required by state law. To house a cat for the same time period, it costs around $9.58.
Those initial days include the costs of deworming the animal and vaccinations, but a single day of food after the “stray hold” period can cost $3 for a single dog and $2 for a cat.
The euthanizations themselves are also not cheap, averaging more than $12 per animal for the drugs alone, which doesn’t account for daily labor costs.
Plans to create a position for a “live release specialist” are also in the works and are currently being reviewed by the Mobile County Personnel Board.
“It would be someone who could work with our placement partners to find ways to increase our adoptions and returns to owners,” Jones said. “They would also help find new placement partners.”
The shelter is also working on connecting with the public more directly and aggressively advertising its adoptable pets through social media, which was one of the main complaints of groups like “Reform the Mobile County Animal Shelter Now” and SouthBARK.
The MSMP report said, “negative sentiments about MCAS prevail in the community,” but the renewed efforts for public and media outreach have helped MCAS’ public image.
Despite the improvements, Jones said recommendations from the MSMP are still a “work in progress,” but even some of the shelter’s critics have noticed the changes.
Dusty Feller, one of the plaintiffs suing the County Commission for banning SouthBARK, said the shelter is “a lot more recue-friendly these days.”
“I work with other rescue groups and still work closely with shelter staff, and things have gotten a whole lot better,” Feller said “They’re doing a ‘last call’ before they euthanize and they’ve changed their criteria. Before, they were just euthanizing at their own will with no rhyme or reason.”
Feller also touted the expanded communication with the general public, and said that’s what she and the other volunteers and organizers at SouthBARK wanted in the beginning.
Despite the improvements, there are still two lawsuits centered on the Animal Shelter, one of which has moved into the deposition phase.
According to Fellers, Pafenbach and Commission President Connie Hudson have already been deposed, and depositions for Johnson and Commissioner Merceria Ludgood are also expected in the near future.
SouthBARK’s original complaint, filed in federal court in June 2013, dismisses claims the county made about “threatening” and “disruptive” language when it decided to ban the group from working with the shelter in 2012.
Feller said most of the comments she’s seen in previous media reports were made in a private group on Facebook by members who aren’t officially part of SouthBARK.
“I think somebody made a comment like, ‘somebody ought to tie him to a tree and leave him without food and water,’” Feller said.
“Obviously, that’s in poor taste, but the guy who said it wasn’t a SouthBARK volunteer. It was also a private group with no intention of being made public, but somebody had infiltrated and leaked it back to the county.”
Despite claims of those statements and others emailed to Hudson and Ludgood, Feller said the county has provided no proof of any threatening remarks during the discovery portion of the lawsuit.
She also put to bed rumors of a possible settlement agreement saying, “we haven’t had any discussion about settling, and as far as I know, there is a jury selection set for Jan. 6.” However, Fellers did say she was confident in SouthBARK’s case.
As for Porkchop, the cat euthanized after being in the care of MCAS for less than an hour, his case is in the hands of the Mobile County Circuit Court.
That lawsuit names Mobile County and three employees, Andrew Stubbs, Carmelo Miranda and Jones as defendants, claiming the employees violated a shelter policy placing a five-day hold on animals between the time they are received and when they are euthanized.
Hughes’ lawyer, Eaton Barnard, said a judge is currently deciding whether the defendants should have to pay damages beyond the actual property value of the cat itself.
“The law in Alabama basically says, ‘a pet only has the property damage value of what you could buy it or sell it for in a store,” Barnard said. “I argue that defies the legislative thinking on the value of pets as outlined in Gucci’s Law, a case that made animal cruelty a felony in Alabama.”
Barnard said if a judge wouldn’t allow his client’s claims to move forward, the two are willing to appeal the decision to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals or to Alabama’s Supreme Court.
As stated previously, the county officials involved in these cases elected not to comment due to the sensitive nature of the litigation.