By Ryan Zickgraf
Thus far, the city of Mobile’s Animal Shelter Citizens’ Advisory Committee has been all bark and no bite.
In late July, the City Council commissioned a seven-member group of “concerned citizens” to inspect the city’s beleaguered animal shelter and file a report with recommendations for improvements by the end of September.
But with only a month left until the committee dissolves on October 1, not only has no inspection been scheduled, but two members remain unappointed and the existing five volunteers have yet to meet with a quorum. Meanwhile, District 4 Councilman John Williams’ pick, Robbie Fitzgerald, has drawn some outrage.
Critics cite a high-profile incident from 2014 in which the Mobile County District Court ruled that Fitzgerald, the owner of The Shack — a Semmes-based animal shelter facility — should forfeit dozens of dogs and cats because they lacked adequate care and suffered from various medical conditions.
“The rescue community in Mobile has been like ‘Holy crap!’” said fellow committee member Stacey Yawn, the vice president and board of directors at the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in Theodore. “Robbie had 60 animals seized from her shelter. Clearly, she’s not the best person to tell the mayor how to run the city shelter.”
It’s a rough start to the committee brainstormed by Councilman Fred Richardson shortly after Mobile’s animal control department came under fire during a July 6 city council meeting. Resident Deborah Cooper testified that animal control officers didn’t take proper measures to save the life of Peebles, a pit bull strangled to death by its leash recently.
Likewise, resident Terri Mitchell complained “dogs are starving on the ends of chains all over Mobile” and animal control officers were unresponsive. “People are just fed up,” Mitchell told the City Council.
Richardson said he’s heard other complaints of animal abuse and neglect at the 55-year-old shelter at 855 Owens Street.
“We have reports of abuse, a lot of animals lying down in feces, and not enough help to keep them sanitary and safe,” Richardson said. “I’m not sure if it’s true or not. So I thought we ought to create an independent committee to inspect (the shelter) and bring us a report and we’ll take it from there.”
The committee was approved on July 27 and Richardson appointed Mitchell to it because “she’s a citizen who has been working with dogs in several states.”
But the first signs of trouble came when Fitzgerald’s name appeared on the City Council agenda as John Williams’ nomination on August 9.
“I was shocked when I saw her on the list,” says Alison Rellinger, president of ARF. Rellinger emailed the City Council with “serious concerns” about the appointment, recounting how she and other ARF members were called to investigate The Shack after a report of a dog attack in August of 2013.
“She ran the most deplorable animal operation I’ve witnessed in my 13 years with ARF,” Relligner said.
Rellinger says she witnessed the Shack’s animals — many of them extremely sick — stuffed into small sheds and kennels and tied up with chains in the summer heat with only box fans to keep them cool. Sixty animals — 50 dogs and 10 cats — were seized, many of which were housed at ARF while county officials investigated.
A legal battle over the animals ensued but six months later, Fitzgerald ended her bid to win back the animals, and the Shack eventually dissolved.
“It makes zero sense to me why the council would approve Robbie,” Yawn said. “There are so many people with better qualifications. And she lives in Florida — it’s like, why?”
Williams defended his choice of Fitzgerald and disputes Yawn’s and past media accounts of The Shack’s troubles.
“They gotta get the facts straight. Yes, one hot day, an AC went out because a breaker went out and two dogs accidentally died, but those 60 dogs were on death row and were going to die, and Robbie said ‘Not on my watch.’ She took these abandoned dogs and got them adopted to people like me,” Williams told Lagniappe.
“I’m an army guy, and I think Robbie understands a whole different perspective of adoption and rescue [than ARF]. It’s a tough business and some are fighting the fight in the trenches, some on the hill. I’ve known (Robbie) a long time, she does everything with all her heart and capability.”
Yawn is mulling over the possibility of resigning from the committee due to the committee’s “haphazard” and disorganized nature, which she says is evidenced by the appointment of Fitzgerald.
“My concern is that the City Council didn’t put forth one iota in vetting people it appointed,” Yawn said. “Thus, we have a team of no vets and — frankly — unqualified people, and Robbie is the most unqualified if you look at her history.”
ARF says that even if the commission gets its act together and can inspect the animal control shelter before the October 1 deadline, a one-time inspection by random volunteers can’t really do the facility justice.
“It’s just bananas because a walkthrough is just one snapshot and it doesn’t tell you much,” Yawn said. “I need your budget, I need shelter stats, I need to know your processes when you bring in an animal, where does that animal go? When does the animal see a vet?”
Williams admits he’s not sure the committee will fix anything, especially under its current time constraints.
“I’m not sure why it’s expiring on October 1st and not November 1st. I brought it up but I decided it’s not worth fighting,” Williams said.
In response to the death of Peebles and other complaints about animal control personnel and the shelter, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said Mobile will “work to solve the problem.”
Lawrence Battiste, the city’s director of public safety, admits there are challenges at the shelter — such as delays for calls for services and cleanliness, but cites staffing issues as the crux of the problem. Several positions remain unfilled because of a nationwide staffing shortage, he said.
“It’s a thankless job where people spend their mornings cleaning feces from cages,” Battiste said.
Even with no report from the advisory committee, the city may already be ready to throw the animal shelter a bone in terms of improvements later this year. The council is expected to vote soon on a request to approve $130,000 for a new building to house kennels for additional animals, says city spokesperson Jason Johnson, money which would come from the Alabama municipal trust fund.
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