Meet The Cast

After last week’s town hall meeting, it occurred to me that it might be useful to provide a reference guide to the cast of this particular drama. Even some of the participants don’t have a clear grasp of who’s who. Let me introduce you to the major players.

 

The Commissioners:

 

Montgomery County is governed by a small group of elected County Commissioners: Meador, Noack, Riley, and Clark. Clark and Riley are the most recently elected, and their terms began in January of this year. The fifth member of this group is Judge Doyal, who primarily serves as tiebreaker when needed. These men have the responsibility of handling the very large budget for the entire county: roads, bridges, agencies, employees…and the animal shelter. Commissioner Jim Clark is directly responsible for handling all issues related to the animal shelter.

 

For the sake of fairness and clarity, neither Clark nor Riley were in office when the questionable deal that allowed the sale of Care Corp was made. Noack and Meador were. However, Commissioner Clark has wholeheartedly embraced the Care Corp cause.

 

Care Corp:

 

Care Corp was originally formed by Tim and Amy Holifield as an instrument for the privatization of the shelter management. Again, for the sake of clarity and full disclosure, I supported their original bid for privatization. I believed that privatization would provide some much needed flexibility to the shelter management that simply cannot exist under direct county control. I actually still believe that privatization can be a good choice, but experience has proven that effective privatization demands complete transparency, which is not contractually required of Care Corp. I cannot and will not support what Care Corp has become.

 

In December 2014, Tim Holifield met with the Commissioners and convinced them to authorize revisions to the existing contract. These revisions did a couple of very dangerous things. Originally, there was a provision which would invalidate the contract between Care Corp and Montgomery County in the event that Care Corp were to be sold. That provision is gone. As I understand it, there is nothing to prevent the current owners from selling Care Corp to anyone they choose. The term of the contract has also been extended far past its original expiration date. Both of those decisions were made in a rushed fashion without proper due diligence from the commissioners. Various commissioners have admitted to signing the revised contract without reading it. They also neglected their obligation to perform due diligence as regards the purchasers of Care Corp.

 

Care Corp’s New Owner:

 

Dr. Aubrey Ross purchased Care Corp from the Holifields, effective January 1, 2015. Tim Holifield, the seller, told me himself that Dr. Ross has seven years of experience working in shelters. I have been given to understand that the commissioners were told the same thing. However, in a letter dated January 26th, 2015, in which he confirms his purchase of Care Corp, Dr. Ross says only “I have considerable shelter veterinary experience.” In the recent town hall meeting, concerned volunteers asked Dr. Ross what experience his career included. He did not answer. Research by various volunteers seems to indicate that he worked for Banfield (the vet clinic chain found in Petsmarts) for about 18 months, and that he may or may not have done some work at a shelter in Las Vegas prior to coming to Montgomery County. He worked as a contract vet at MCAS for a few months prior to purchasing Care Corp.

 

Dr. Ross is also the partner of Dr. Diarra Blue in a venture known as Animalscopic. Apparently their original plan was to open a private practice, but when their third partner pulled out, their financing fell through. That did not stop them from setting up a nifty online presence with a photo of an abandoned bank building as their hypothetical clinic.

 

Dr. Blue presented himself in the town hall meeting as “Dr. Ross’s partner.” We remain unclear as to whether that partnership includes Care Corp. Dr. Blue did answer audience questions about his prior veterinary experience. He worked for Banfield as well, and claims six years of professional practice.

 

Neither of them appears to have any management experience whatsoever.

 

In the five months since they purchased Care Corp, employee turnover has been tremendous. Volunteers have been insulted, belittled, demeaned, even questioned about their motives and loyalties. Volunteers and adopters have expressed unhappiness with changes in the shelter’s atmosphere and customer service. The doctors severed their relationship with the Society, in spite of the vast amount of vet bills being paid by the Society, with the result that the availability of vet care has been greatly reduced. Their selected replacement nonprofit, while a fine organization in itself, does not have deep enough pockets to cover the $100,000 or more year in vet bills that the Society had been paying.

 

The Society

 

The Society is a 501c3 nonprofit. It was formed specifically to serve as the dedicated nonprofit in support of MCAS, because Care Corp’s for profit business model severely hampers its ability to accept donations. The Society is a small group of board members. It has no formal membership outside of those seven board members. For the first three years of their existence, their purpose was to raise funds, hold offsite adoption events, donate equipment and medication, and pay vet bills for the animals in MCAS custody. This has undergone a necessary change since Drs. Ross and Blue chose to end the working relationship between the shelter and the Society. The Society has adjusted its model to function as a more traditional rescue and will no doubt undergo further evolution.

 

The Volunteer Community

 

The volunteer community is by far the largest group in the mix. There are literally hundreds of volunteers in Montgomery County. Some foster for Care Corp, some volunteer for rescues, some help out with Society events, some work independently to raise funds, collect donations, transport animals, or perform other needed services in the animal welfare community. Any individual volunteer may well contribute time and effort to multiple organizations and events. We are a huge, amorphous, disparate, loud, passionate group, with members from every corner of society. We are a powerful voice affiliated to no one particular organization. Our allegiance lies with the animals, and their wellbeing unites us.

 

Just at this moment, the vast majority of the volunteer community is united over an additional issue: the current management of MCAS. We are not happy with Care Corp. We are not happy with the backdoor sale, and we are not happy with the ongoing lack of real response to our concerns by the Commissioners.

 

One more thing about the volunteer community…we don’t give up.

The Town Hall Meeting

Last night I attended a town hall meeting to address the ongoing issues with Care Corp’s management of the Montgomery County Animal Shelter. Commissioner Clark hosted the meeting, with Drs. Ross and Blue as the featured speakers. Ostensibly, the purpose of the meeting was to address the community’s concerns. In reality, it was a sad attempt at propaganda to convince us that they’re doing a good job.

 

They failed miserably.

 

First, we were all very amused that Commissioner Clark found it necessary to bring along several armed law enforcement officers – just in case the crazy animal welfare people got out of hand. It was very apparent that the commissioner and the Care Corp folks were not expecting such a large turnout. It was equally apparent that Drs. Ross and Blue were extremely under-prepared for the meeting. They didn’t even bother to bring the Powerpoint presentation advertised in the meeting announcement. In fact, Dr. Ross opened with this statement: “I didn’t know that Dr. Blue and myself were going to grace you with our presence.”

 

Commissioner Clark was clearly very concerned that the assembled crowd would be unkind to his buddies. He repeatedly warned the audience not to be negative because “we’re all here for the animals, aren’t we?”

 

(Commissioner Clark went on to demonstrate his absolute ignorance of the animal welfare community by describing an event at which he bought a puppy at a fundraiser auction and gave it away to the District Attorney. If the commissioner had the slightest grasp of animal welfare ethics, he would have known that most of us do not approve of auctioning puppies at fundraisers, nor do we approve of gifting animals when you win said auction by accident. Fortunately, this particular puppy ended up in a good home where he is loved.)

 

Those of us who wished to address the commissioner and the Care Corp management team were assigned numbers to be drawn in a lottery, in a futile attempt to contain the number of speakers. Honestly, they should have known better. The audience was packed with angry, emotional animal welfare people who wanted answers.

 

Dr. Ross and Dr. Blue gave a halfhearted presentation of the shelter’s numbers, policies, and plans. Dr. Ross was barely audible and sounded remarkably like a nervous ninth grade boy stumbling through an oral report on a subject he doesn’t really grasp. Although Dr. Blue was definitely a stronger speaker, he clearly conveyed a tone of condescension, as he defined the words “change” and “shelter” (in case we were unfamiliar with these difficult words.)

 

I was very interested by the claims that the shelter has implemented antiparasitics, vaccines upon intake, and “more medication than they’ve ever had.” Their claims simply do not match my research. I’ve spoken with fosters and seen kennel cards that clearly show animals who’ve gone days and weeks without vaccinations or antiparasitics. I was also rather taken aback by their attempts to present the introduction of antiparasitics as something new and innovative. The truth is that under the previous administration, all animals were vaccinated upon intake and treated with antiparasitics provided by the Society.

 

One of the more outrageous claims presented by Drs. Ross and Blue was that they did NOT terminate their relationship with the Society. Yes, they did. I have seen the email in which they stated that they and the Society would no longer be able to work together. Their ridiculous response in last night’s meeting was that they just weren’t going to receive and facilitate donations to the Society, because the Society can get donations elsewhere. And yet they seriously think the Society should continue to fundraise and pay vet bills on their behalf?

 

Once Drs. Ross and Blue were through with their presentation, questions from the audience began. Multiple speakers asked the doctors to address concerns including lack of communication, attempted intimidation and dismissal of volunteers, the negative changes in the atmosphere of the shelter, the constant requests for donations to support a for-profit management company, and the extremely limited availability of vet care and sick clinic hours. Most of the pseudo-answers given by the doctors and the commissioner fell into two categories: “We’re new. Give us time.” and “We’re working on it.” One of the few real answers we were given came from Commissioner Clark in response to our questions about why Drs. Ross and Blue were being allowed to interrogate, insult, and dismiss volunteers. Clark told us that volunteering is a privilege, and that the doctors have the right to refuse volunteers that criticize or don’t agree with their policies.

 

Clearly, Commissioner Clark and the doctors have overlooked Supreme Court cases that specifically and completely invalidate this position. (See this link for details: http://www.nathanwinograd.com/?p=728)

 

When the audience tired of the vague generalities and began to demand concrete answers, Commissioner Clark and the doctors became obviously flustered. Much to my disappointment, Commissioner Noack chose that moment to intervene. He spoke about his support for the new management company and then called up another speaker for “their side.” His selected speaker was not on the program and did not have a number. She claimed to be a long time volunteer, but promptly negated her own statement by saying that she hadn’t been to the shelter to volunteer in years because she doesn’t like the smell. She went on to say how wonderful everything is now, because it smells better.

 

Even if that’s true, what does that have to do with the questions raised above?

 

We left the town hall meeting disappointed by the poor preparation, the lack of knowledge, the unwillingness to give genuine answers, and the utter lack of humility. I am appalled by the ignorance that allows these men to prioritize their egos over the well-being of the animals and the desperately needed unification of our fractured community.

 

Hubris is not an attractive quality in a commissioner…or in a shelter manager.

Is No Kill The Answer?

One of the biggest issues in the animal welfare world is the reality that animals die because they are homeless. And in the eyes of the general public, one of the most popular and appealing “answers” is the No Kill movement.

 

The No Kill concept is a very attractive one. Theoretically, in a No Kill shelter, no animal will ever be put down for space or because he is “out of time.” Theoretically, in a No Kill shelter, every animal who can be saved, made healthy, and safely adopted out will be.

 

I wish theoretically worked. Now let’s talk about reality.

 

No Kill is not as clean a concept as the general public would like to believe. There are several ways to achieve an ostensibly No Kill shelter, all of which rely on a little numerical sleight of hand. Here are two of the most common:

 

Option 1: Many No Kill shelters are able to avoid euthanizing for space because they are not open intake. Basically, when these shelters get full, they simply stop accepting animals until some get adopted out. Please note that I’m not saying that’s wrong. In their particular management model, closing intake is the proper and responsible thing to do, because it prevents overcrowding and allows them to save every animal in their custody.

 

The down side, however, is that the animals they do not accept are likely to end up dumped at the nearest open intake shelter. They become someone else’s problem.

 

Option 2: Some shelters try to achieve No Kill status on paper by skewing their numbers. Remember that the theory driving No Kill is that no ADOPTABLE animal must ever be put down. Think about that for a second…how does one skew statistics to fit that model? One simply declares surplus animals unadoptable, which then allows the shelter to euthanize them without losing their No Kill designator. How do they justify declaring them unadoptable? They mark them aggressive or otherwise behaviorally unfit, or they deem them too ill to be saved.

 

Another ugly trick that some shelters use to control their numbers is the controversial late term spay/abortion procedure. Simply put, if the shelter spays a pregnant animal carrying 6 puppies, those 6 puppies never officially exist. Because they were never born, they never appear on an intake list, and they never appear on a euthanasia list.

 

Most animal welfare folks agree that true No Kill is the holy grail for those of us who work to save animals. We would all love it if every animal who ended up in a shelter were to find a wonderful permanent home. In some parts of the country, the pet population is low enough that the community can absorb every stray or surrendered animal that goes up for adoption. Unfortunately, this is not true everywhere.

 

There are only two shelters in the county where I live. One is a very small city shelter, and the other is a large open intake county shelter. Montgomery County has one of the fastest growing populations in the country. As the human population grows, so does the animal population – or in this case, overpopulation. The county shelter takes in between 23,000 and 26,000 animals every year. That’s between 63 and 71 homeless animals every single day of every single year.

 

Some of the animals arriving at the shelter are lost animals who will be returned to their owners, but it’s a tiny percentage of the total. Some will arrive too sick or injured to save. Some will genuinely be too aggressive for anyone to handle safely.

 

But not the majority. The vast majority arrive needing some vet care, some training, maybe some socialization. They all deserve a chance, but not all of them will get one.

 

The county shelter holds around 750 animals at maximum capacity, and it’s pretty much always full. There are also hundreds of county-owned animals in foster care. Now factor into that equation the constant arrival of new animals, at an average rate of 63 or more per day. To save them all would require moving 60 to 70 animals to rescue or adoption, seven days a week.

 

Now I’m hearing that Care Corp is espousing the No Kill philosophy promoted by the nonprofit organization recently designated as their new partner. It makes a great sound bite, but frankly I don’t believe they can do it. Here’s the quote from their website (www.mcaspets.org):

 

“C.A.R.E. is striving to move toward a no-kill community and hopes that the addition of OPA will serve to further that mission. Dr. Ross knows that building a no-kill shelter will be an uphill battle, but feels it is one worth fighting. ‘What we want to do is save lives. Period. The only way to do that is through innovative programs – programs such as transports and TNR – things that OPA is already doing.’  Through their partnership, OPA and MCAS hope to put in place the programs that have demonstrated success in achieving the goal of a no-kill community. Generally, a shelter is considered to be a no-kill shelter when they are saving over 90% of homeless pets.  Euthanasia is reserved for those animals with a grave prognosis for recovery or those considered dangerous to public safety.”

 

It sounds great, until you go back and read about ways to skew the numbers. Then read that last line of the quote REALLY carefully.

 

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Relationships and Resources (What Makes A Good Shelter, Part 5)

Any experienced shelter person, whether volunteer or employee, knows that relationship building is a critical component of a successful program. Shelters never have enough resources available to cover the needs of every sick, injured, malnourished, neglected, unsocialized animal that comes through the doors. So inevitably shelter workers have to depend on volunteers, rescues, community donations, and nonprofit groups to bridge those gaps.

 

Volunteers foster animals, walk dogs, socialize cats, bathe filthy animals who may never have had a bath in their lives, work adoption events, answer phones and emails, do laundry, take pictures, network, and a host of additional tasks. Without them, more employees would be necessary, and most shelters cannot afford more employees.

 

Rescues take animals off the shelter’s hands and assume financial responsibility for them. When an animal leaves the shelter to enter a rescue program, it opens a spot in the shelter that another homeless animal can occupy, which in effect helps save two lives. Rescues are also able to spend more time on an individual animal, which is why shelters rely on them to take sick or injured animals who will need time to recover before going up for adoption.

 

Community donations are a particularly special part of the shelter world. Some come from elderly people who like to make blankets or beds for shelter pets. Some come from children who ask for donations in lieu of birthday presents. Businesses, students, and service groups might hold food drives or collect blankets and towels. All represent unselfish giving for the sake of giving, and all deserve the greatest respect and appreciation, no matter how humble the donation.

 

Nonprofit groups with the ability to award large grants or pay vet bills are another critical resource. When a shelter needs equipment it can’t afford, a donation from nonprofit is often their only hope to get what they need. When an animal needs expensive veterinary care requiring equipment or expertise not available in house, shelters rely on nonprofit groups to get those animals the help they need.

 

Over the last several years, my own local shelter has benefited tremendously from nonprofit and community support. One local nonprofit was directly responsible for fencing and equipping the dog park area behind the shelter. Another, the Montgomery County Animal Society, has spent the last several years paying huge amounts of vet bills for shelter animals. Last year alone, they spent over $100,000 on veterinary care for animals in the custody of MCAS, managed by Care Corp.

 

$100,000 is a tremendous amount of money, especially coming from a single local nonprofit. That money paid for everything from exrays to bloodwork to surgeries and medications, for dozens and dozens of dogs and cats who needed help that MCAS either could not or would not provide. Lives were literally saved by those funds. Not one or two lives. Dozens.

 

Any sensible shelter management team would be overjoyed to have such deep open pockets at their disposal. Any sensible shelter management team would treasure the heartfelt donations from elderly ladies who handmake blankets and pillows. They would genuinely appreciate the toys and bags of food from children who gave up birthday presents to help animals. They would recognize the incredible value of organized community donations, which both save them money and afford them a tremendous opportunity for good publicity and networking.

 

Care Corp apparently doesn’t get it.

 

Since the “new” management purchased Care Corp a few months ago, we’ve seen Dumpstergate. That was the day that shelter staff threw away piles of donations over a two day period, even after being reported to “new” management, who apparently couldn’t be bothered to go see for himself what was being thrown away. Volunteers have been insulted and ignored and generally alienated. Good rescue groups are complaining about the poor treatment and bad manners they’re experiencing since the takeover. Relationships that took years to build have been irreparably damaged. Employee turnover continues to soar.

 

And now, just when I thought Care Corp had to be nearing their quota for bad decisions, Dr. Ross has announced that he is choosing to sever the shelter’s relationship with the Society. Here’s what that means:

 

No more paid vet bills.That’s over $100,000 for direct animal care that he is rejecting.

No more Society funded publicity to promote adoptions.

No more Society sponsored food drives, fundraisers, and special events.

No more Society funds to repair fences, kennels, and beds.

No more donations of equipment and supplies.

 

In a world where most shelters are begging for funds and supplies, I just do not understand what kind of veterinarian, shelter director, and human being can casually reject six figures worth of annual financial resources.

 

Or why.

Vet Care: More Than Vaccinations (What Makes a Good Shelter, Part 4 of Many)

The average layperson tends to think that any animal shelter being run by a veterinarian must be in the best possible hands. I used to think that too…but I’ve learned.

 

One of the biggest complaints from the general public about shelters is that “they just let sick and injured animals sit and suffer.” I wish it weren’t true, but it often is. Often it’s not because the shelters don’t care. It’s because they literally do not have the equipment, medications, resources, and funds to do anything about it. Most small open intake shelters do not have a veterinarian on staff at all, and no money to pay for treatment at a regular clinic. If an animal too sick or injured for them to treat in house comes in, often their only choice is either to try to keep the animal comfortable (but untreated) while they try to find the owner or a rescue placement, or to euthanize.

 

On the flip side, some larger shelters are able to hire their own veterinarians. Shelter medicine is a completely different world. In any given day, a shelter vet may see contagious disease, starvation, skin conditions, broken bones, lacerations, trap injuries, gunshot wounds, and any number of other atrocities. And unlike private practice, there is rarely a concerned owner to foot the bill.

 

Sadly, in most shelters, IF there is a vet in house, that vet will probably have very minimal resources with which to treat serious health problems. That very lack of resources tends to drive really good vets out of shelter medicine and into private practice, where they can have access to the equipment and supplies they need to take proper care of their patients, as well as to a salary worthy of their education and student loan debt. Don’t get me wrong – many shelter veterinarians are incredibly dedicated. But the burnout rate is very high, largely due to the high stress environment and lack of resources.

 

Some veterinarians try to go into shelter management, with the idea that they can allocate resources better and make sure that more money goes to veterinary equipment, staff, and supplies. The brutal truth about this model: it’s usually a train wreck. Managing a shelter is not like managing a regular veterinary practice. It requires a completely separate skill set, which includes the ability to stretch a tight budget, network animals out to adoption, foster, and rescue as fast as possible, provide excellent customer service, maintain a healthy shelter population, keep the public officials in charge of your shelter happy, and still find funds to vet your animals.

 

There is no way that a shelter clinic can address every possible situation. But a properly equipped clinic can certainly handle the most common types of problems that come through the door. Of course the initial investment to purchase equipment and set up the clinic would be substantial, but the payoff would be priceless. Animals could be diagnosed and treated faster, which would in turn reduce suffering and decrease recovery time.

 

So let’s talk about what a good full service vet clinic in a shelter SHOULD have.

 

  1. A microscope and centrifuge, along with the proper supplies to collect and process fecal and blood samples. Parasites, bacterial infections, anemia, and any number of other conditions can be properly diagnosed with these simple tools. A machine capable of CBC and blood chemistry analysis would be nice too, but is almost certainly cost prohibitive.

 

  1. A basic exray machine. So many animals come into shelters with signs of HBC – shelter shorthand for hit by a car. And then there are the abuse cases, the old injuries that may or may not be broken bones, the unexplained lameness…With the advent of digital exray machines, this technology should be much more accessible than it once was.

 

  1. A clean surgical room with the proper equipment to do spays, neuters, amputations, wound repairs, dental cleanings and extractions, removal of cysts or growths, and simple orthopedic surgeries. And let’s not forget the need for trained veterinary technicians to assist the staff veterinarians.

 

  1. A well stocked pharmacy, with a reliable supply of antibiotics, antiparasitics, antifungals, vaccines, fluids, antidiarrheals, and any other medications needed to treat conditions that commonly present in your geographic area.

 

  1. Isolation space for contagious or immunocompromised animals, which should ideally have a separate air supply from the rest of the shelter.

 

  1. Daily rounds, during which the vet techs and veterinarians treat and follow up on any sick or injured animals in the shelter.

 

  1. Daily sick clinic hours, during which a veterinarian is available to treat foster animals and recently adopted animals.

 

The management contract for my own local shelter was purchased by a veterinarian a few months ago. So many people were hopeful that having a veterinarian in charge would mean good things for MCAS. But as I look at that list of things a good shelter clinic should have…we don’t.

 

The shelter clinic is currently not doing basic fecal or blood work, ostensibly because they lack the equipment. There is no exray capability that I’m aware of. Their surgery capabilities are extremely limited. Their pharmaceutical inventory is much reduced, and continues to shrink. Vaccination protocols have become lax and spotty. Sick clinics for fosters are sporadic at best, and multiple credible sources report untreated injuries and rampant illness in house. My own observations confirm reports that staff turnover is at an all time high, too. And all this is happening in spite of the fact that the shelter’s budget is the largest it has ever been, thanks to an increase that accompanied the sale of the contract.

 

Apparently the veterinarian who bought the management company is learning that managing a shelter (especially for profit) doesn’t leave much time to be a good vet.