Small Town Politics (Dear Commissioners)

Over the last several weeks, I’ve written quite a bit about the changes at MCAS. I am not pleased with many of these changes, particularly since my research shows that there have been any number of ethically questionable decisions made in this process.


*The deal to sell Care Corp was approved by the county commissioners after rewriting the contract to remove several clauses that protected the shelter and its residents. (Most notably, they removed the clause prohibiting the sale of Care Corp.)


*The new management promised that the shelter director’s job was safe. A few weeks later, they fired her for “not fitting in.” When challenged, the new head of Care Corp claimed that he was simply reorganizing the staff and eliminating her position.


*The new management has actually had the audacity to take certain volunteers to task for their comments on social media. Volunteers who have questions are told to “email the shelter,” but their emails go unanswered. The message is clear. Volunteers don’t matter, especially if they express any criticism or disapproval of Care Corp’s actions.


*Then there are the questionable decisions about animal care and placement. Just one example: several dogs were recently sent to a rescue group that had been banned from pulling dogs. That rescue is banned by shelters in its own geographic area, as well as by most shelters in the Houston area. But the “new” MCAS sent 5 small dogs off with a banned large dog rescue.


Here’s where small town politics come into play:


In this county, the animal shelter falls under the purview of the county commissioners. They are the ones who agreed to alter the contract in order to permit the sale of Care Corp without putting the county contract up for public bid. These same commissioners hold regular public meetings, and residents of this county who have concerns about an issue can have three minutes per person to address the commissioners during those meetings.


Several of our volunteers attended this week’s Commissioners’ Court. One volunteer signed up to address the commissioners. She had a prepared statement that neatly outlined her concerns, well within her allotted three minutes. Sadly, during those three little minutes, certain commissioners interrupted her repeatedly, told her they had more important business to conduct, and basically were rude and dismissive.


I wish I were surprised. I’m not. In small town politics, the good old boys don’t like to be questioned. Certainly not by a bunch of “crazy dog people.” And definitely not when those crazy dog people know more about the issue than they do.


Here’s the deal. Montgomery County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. Like most rapidly developing areas, our infrastructure is struggling to keep up with our growth. The county is trying to meet the ever rising demand for roads, law enforcement, emergency services, and a host of other infrastructure components. The animal shelter is a part of that infrastructure. When the shelter was built years ago, no one ever anticipated that MCAS would eventually see annual intake numbers in excess of 23,000 souls. But it does. And those giant intake numbers mean a tremendous demand on limited resources: space, money, personnel, time, building overhead, and animal care.


My personal opinion, after 18 years in this county: I think the commissioners were delighted to hand over the giant headache that is the animal shelter to a management company. It’s so much easier to simply pay the management company and let them deal with the day to day paperwork, personnel issues, contact with the public, and animal care. I think they have pocketed their thirty pieces of silver, and now they’re hoping that the crazy dog people will wear ourselves out and go away.


I think that the commissioners listened to people with personal agendas who reassured them that it was a great deal for the county, and that everyone would be thrilled because the “new guy” is a veterinarian. I do not think that the commissioners did their homework. As the facts come out, and the commissioners begin to see the ramifications of their decision, I hope they will begin to see the enormity of their error. I hope they’ll take steps to make it right.


Dear commissioners, the animals have no voice, but we do. And as long as they need us, we will not be silent.

How Do You Spot A Bad Rescue?

When you spend time in the animal welfare world, eventually you will come across a bad rescue group. Some are easier to identify than others. Some hide it well, until it all comes crumbling down. Some begin with good intentions, but get in over their heads. Some are downright evil, in it to exploit the animals for profit.


For the uninitiated, the basic obligations of a rescue group include:

*Getting the animal spayed or neutered.

*Getting the animal vetted. This includes vaccinations, microchip, and treating any medical conditions.

*Evaluating the animal’s personality, behavior, and physical condition to determine his needs.

*Providing a safe, appropriate environment for the animal while he is in the care of the rescue.

*Screening adopters to find a safe, appropriate home for the animal.

*Follow up care. This includes helping the adopter resolve any issues, if possible, and taking the animal back into rescue if at any time the adopter becomes unable to keep him.


So how do you know if you’re looking at a not so good rescue? Some signs are obvious, especially if you follow their social media presence.


Bad rescue red flags:

*They constantly complain that they can’t afford to feed the animals in their care.

*They make threats to have animals euthanized due to lack of funds or space.

*They ignore reasonable requests for information about the animals in their care.

*They have a lot of unaltered animals.

*They have a really high number of animals per person, which means that the animals cannot be cared for adequately.

*The animals in their care seem to have a lot of “accidents” (dog fights, escapes, injuries.)

*Their application doesn’t ask for references, especially for a vet reference.

*The animals at their adoption events or kennels seem neglected or excessively dirty.

*They claim to need volunteers but make it impossible for people to help.

*They avoid questions from other animal welfare people about their practices, or give different answers to different people.

*They regularly pull animals from far away shelters but not local ones. (This often means they were banned from their local shelters.)

*Their returned animals “mysteriously” end up at the shelter, and they do not reclaim them.


As an example of a GOOD rescue group that does it right, let me tell you about Sofia. Smart Rescue pulled her from a local shelter in July 2014. She was horribly malnourished, had a terrible case of entropion, and a golf ball sized growth on her face. She was going to take some work, and since she is a bullmastiff, everything was going to be expensive. While in foster care, she had surgery to remove the large benign growth on her face, and her eyelids were surgically lifted to repair the entropion. She was also spayed and chipped, and she required veterinary care for some other minor ailments. She weighed 80 pounds the day I picked her up at the shelter. The day she went to her adoptive home, she weighed 135.


Happy ending, right? Not so fast. Sofia will be returning to Smart this weekend, because one of the previous dogs in the home is picking on her incessantly. The adopters decided that it was in the best interests of both dogs to return Sofia, and Smart is taking her back. Smart will go back to the drawing board to find Sofia just the right home. And she’ll get her happy ending. Because that’s what a good rescue does.

Full System Breakdown

You may have noticed some turmoil in the local animal welfare community lately. In this case, the uproar is more than justified. The unethical, disruptive, destructive garbage going on at MCAS has taken down a cohesive, unified, highly functional system in which volunteers and employees mostly worked well together. If there were any personal differences, they were treated as personal and rarely had any effect on the work.


Since the unfortunate back room deal in which Care Corporation was sold to Dr. Ross, the “new management” has shattered the unity of the shelter community. In the absence of the director (the one fired by Dr. Ross because she just didn’t fit into his plans), the new management seems to be learning the hard way that networking animals to rescue and foster is a little trickier and more involved than previously thought. The director (the one Dr. Ross fired) knew who to call at every rescue group. She knew what foster would be a good placement for which animal. And she juggled her countless contacts easily, which might be why Dr. Ross underestimated how much the system depended on her.


In the absence of the former director’s leadership, a huge separation between employees and volunteers has appeared. On a personal level, friendships are falling apart. But let’s talk about the impact on our ability to save lives. Our primary and most effective tool for networking animals in the shelter is social media. The person designated by the new management as the “primary contact person” for putting out requests for rescue and foster online has blocked a ridiculous number of active volunteers. Result: One broken network. If volunteers can’t SEE the posts about animals in need, we cannot do anything to help them. Even if other people share the post, a post from a person who has blocked us remains invisible, as does the animal in need of help. Even if we happen to find out about a particular animal whom we might be able to help, we have no way to contact that “primary contact person.”


This choice shows remarkable lack of insight on the part of the new management.


When Dr. Ross fired the director, the volunteer community went ballistic, literally to the extent of holding a protest in front of the shelter. (If you’re wondering, yes, I was there.) Dr. Ross tried to save face by claiming that he had not fired the director to replace her with someone else. He explained that he intended to run the place himself.


Frankly, I don’t think he can. Running the shelter is a full time job. Networking animals is a fulltime job. And being a veterinarian in that shelter is a full time job. One man – with what appears to be very minimal shelter experience, and less managerial experience – cannot do all three jobs with any degree of success, particularly in a shelter of this size. It is especially telling that his standard response to any incident or mistake seems to be that he didn’t know about it.


MCAS should be run by a person whose passion is saving animals, but who also has the knowledge and leadership skills to make it happen. I’d like to think Dr. Ross came in with good intentions. But he clearly does not grasp how the system worked, and he broke it. Possibly beyond repair.


It takes every member of the system to save lives effectively – every employee, networker, fundraiser, transporter, foster, adoption coordinator, and more. It takes tremendous transparency, massive networking, a willingness to think outside the box, and ultimately a strong leader who can unite every faction toward a common goal.


I find it very difficult to believe that the “new management” doesn’t understand these basic principles.


The results speak for themselves. We are seeing more and more days in which the number of animals coming in far exceeds the number of animals going out through adoption, foster, or rescue. Rumor has it that the shelter is just about at capacity, which means that euthanasia for space won’t be far behind. How many lives will be lost to wounded egos and lack of leadership?


Even one is too many.

Animal Rescue: The Ultimate NONprofit.

Recently I saw a comment from an animal shelter volunteer (who should have known better) indicating her belief that animal rescue groups are in it for profit. I was stunned. How anyone can volunteer at a shelter or with any other type of animal welfare group and still believe that a rescue could possibly make a profit is just beyond my comprehension.


If this confusion still lingers among our own volunteers, the general public (aka civilians) must be even more confused. So let me tell you how rescues really work.


First, where do rescues get their animals? Most groups pull animals from local shelters. This in turn frees up space in crowded shelters, which helps the shelters avoid euthanizing animals due to space constraints. It also means that the rescue group pays for any veterinary care the animal might need, which lifts that burden from strained shelter resources. Some animals may also come to rescue groups as strays picked up by good Samaritans, and some are surrendered by owners who can’t or won’t keep them, but don’t want to turn them over to a shelter.


One of the most common questions rescuers face is why their adoption fees are “so high.” They are NOT high, in most cases! Adoption fees for most rescue groups in my area run between $150 and $250, whereas shelter adoption fees tend to run $80 – $100. Here’s the difference:


For a shelter adoption fee, your new pet is spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and probably microchipped. However, in many cases, the shelter knows very little about the animal’s past, behavioral needs, and any underlying health issues. That’s not the shelter’s fault. It’s just what happens when hundreds of animals coexist in cages while waiting for adoption.


For a rescue adoption fee, your new pet is spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and evaluated by someone in the rescue group. The rescue pet has probably been in a foster home, where they’ve had more opportunity to see how how he interacts with dogs, cats, kids, people. They should have been able to address any behavioral needs or issues, and the animal will have been vetted much more extensively. Very often, animals released to rescue are the ones with medical needs that shelters can’t handle.


One example would be Sofia. Sofia was a beautiful young mastiff who came into our local shelter in terrible condition. She weighed 80 pounds, when she should have weighed 130. She had an ugly mass on her face, and her eyes were swollen shut from an infection. The infection turned out to be bilateral entropion, which basically means that the lash line of each eyelid was rolled under. The lashes were literally in constant contact with her eyeballs, and the resulting irritation had become a raging infection. She needed major medical care, a suitable environment in which to recuperate, and time to gain back the other 50 pounds. None of those are available in a shelter that has several hundred animals in house at all times.


Sofia’s vet care cost around $2300. I know, because I did the fundraising to cover most of it. Her adoption fee was $200. Because she was in rescue, we had the luxury of choosing from several applications to find the most suitable home for her. We had the time to let her get truly healthy so that her real personality could come out, and she could recover from abuse and neglect. But the rescue sure didn’t make a profit on her or any other animal.


And now there is Darius. Darius is currently with the same rescue that saved Sofia. He’s a charming young tabby cat taken into rescue at the request of a small rural shelter. When someone found Darius and his siblings in a dumpster, the shelter already had ten other young tabbies in residence. They knew that Darius would not stand much chance of adoption with them. So they reached out to Smart Rescue, one of my favorite groups.


Smart was happy to take Darius, and he had been doing well in his foster home. But they noticed he was having some weird problems with his ear. It took some serious investigative work to figure it out, because what Darius has is very rare in a young cat. Finally a specialist was able to diagnose him with Apocrine Cystomatosis.  This is a disorder of the sweat glands that typically hits older cats, and the only treatment is surgical removal. The really unfortunate part for Darius is that the disorder produces constant cyst growth, and his are inside his ear. The cysts make his ear constantly inflamed and infected, and they are so severe that they have produced vestibular episodes, which are sort of like vertigo for animals. He is in constant pain. The vet has recommended removing the entire ear, inside and out. It will eliminate the source of his pain and allow him to be comfortable and healthy. The estimated cost – even after a rescue discount – is about $3000.


Tell me again how rescue is a for profit enterprise. Seriously. There is only one way for any rescue to pay the huge vet bills that regularly come their way. Donations!


If you feel the urge to help Darius, please click on this link. Every dollar counts.


A Catastrophic Betrayal at MCAS

Today is not my usual day for blogging. But something has happened that is so outrageously wrong that it cannot wait until Wednesday.


Last week, I said that I was hoping that Dr. Aubrey Ross would turn out to be the best thing to ever happen to the Montgomery County Animal Shelter. Today he has shown that he may well be the worst.


Anyone who has been involved with the shelter for the last several years knows who Minda Harris is. She started out as a volunteer, and became the best damn director MCAS had ever seen. She built a huge, thriving, active volunteer program, she developed relationships with dozens of rescue groups, and she fought like hell to save every animal she possibly could. Because of her, MCAS has weekly offsite adoption events. Because of her, the old, sick, and injured get a chance. Because of her, countless people have opened their homes to foster or adopt animals.


She is one of the main reasons that MCAS saw their euthanasia rate go down even as the intake rates continued to rise.


When Dr. Ross very suddenly, quietly, and unexpectedly purchased Care Corp in December, there was the usual concern that new ownership would mean sacrificing current employees to allow the new guy to bring in his own people. But Dr. Ross assured Minda that her job was safe. Tim Holifield, the founder and former owner of Care, personally assured me that Dr. Ross was a great guy who understood how vital Minda’s role is.


Today, February 13, 2015, Minda Harris was fired from Care Corp. because she just doesn’t fit into his plans.


And that was a huge mistake. A betrayal of catastrophic proportion.


Dr. Ross is the owner of a for-profit entity whose business model cannot succeed without volunteers – at least, not if he gives a damn about saving the animal lives for which he is responsible. The volunteer community was already seriously compromised because of policy and personnel changes made by Dr. Ross. This catastrophic decision makes it clear that Dr. Ross doesn’t understand how dependent his success is on the volunteers. It also showcases that either (A) he really has no clue that Minda is the heart and soul of the volunteer community or (B) he knows it and is threatened by the community’s deep loyalty and allegiance to Minda.


Either way, he has now guaranteed himself permanent status as the unwelcome outsider who is single-handedly destroying what hundreds of people spent years building.


Care Corp.’s contract does have an expiration date. I’m pretty sure today’s terrible error in judgement means it will never be renewed.


We will not forget. And we will not forgive.