Shelter Help Wanted

It has been suggested that one of the reasons the Commissioners will not take action to revoke the Care Corp contract is that they have no idea what they really need in a good shelter management team. So I thought I would offer a couple of sample job descriptions to point them in the right direction.

 

Shelter Manager:

The successful candidate for the position of shelter manager should have at least two years’ experience running a large open intake shelter (500 animals or more). The candidate must be able to demonstrate familiarity with Texas animal welfare laws, as well as with the best practices of both the mainstream animal shelter industry and the No Kill movement. The candidate should have at least two years’ experience managing a staff of at least 20 people. The successful applicant’s resume will include annual professional development, which should include a wide range of the following: training on shelter management, Human Resources, public relations, marketing, conflict resolution, vaccination protocols and laws, euthanasia certification, No Kill, and other professional seminars. Preference should be given to candidates with a degree in business management or specific coursework in shelter management. Excellent people skills are essential. The candidate must demonstrate a strong commitment to promoting adoption, working with rescue, and interacting with volunteers.

 

Volunteer Coordinator:

The volunteer coordinator candidate should have significant experience recruiting and working with a diverse population of volunteers. The coordinator will be responsible for developing and running a strong program which will include training and education of volunteers. The coordinator will report directly to the shelter manager. This position is responsible for developing a list of approved volunteer activities (subject to frequent change and updating as new ideas and projects present themselves), working with the volunteers to promote active participation in said activities, and developing procedures to ensure volunteer safety without unnecessarily restricting their activities. Heavy emphasis will be placed on recruitment of foster families for animals, as well as on volunteers to run offsite adoption events. The coordinator will make every effort to make the volunteer population feel appreciated and valued, with an eye toward volunteer retention and development of a positive working environment.

 

Head Veterinarian:

The head veterinarian position requires a candidate who has at least five years’ experience working in a high capacity shelter. This candidate must have a Texas veterinary license in good standing and at least two years’ experience supervising a team of other veterinarians and technicians. The ideal candidate will have excellent people skills and managerial skills, as well as a strong track record in emergency medicine and surgery. Strong diagnostic skills are a must. This candidate will also pursue regular continuing education to stay current with new techniques and pharmaceutical developments. Preference will be given to candidates who have demonstrated a strong commitment to diagnosing, treating, and saving every animal that can reasonably be saved. The head veterinarian will be expected to participate actively in treatment and surgery, as well as to supervise other veterinarians on staff. The head veterinarian is expected to model concern for the well-being of every animal in his or her care, as well as to lead a veterinary team (including technicians) that is consistently focused on the care and comfort of the animals while still providing excellent customer service.

 

These job descriptions are just samples of what we should expect from good candidates for these positions in our shelter. In a large high-capacity shelter, combining the position of head vet with the shelter manager job is positively irresponsible, as it leads to one person trying to do two extremely full time jobs, with the obvious result that neither will be done well. Likewise, the shelter manager should not function as the volunteer coordinator; the shelter manager has a very high stress position that requires supervising a large staff, dealing with multiple crises throughout any given day, and dealing with the public, often in less than desirable circumstances. The volunteer community needs a separate point person whom they can rely on to meet their needs and organize their efforts, and the shelter manager needs a reliable coordinator to whom those responsibilities can be delegated.

 

Please note that all three descriptions place major emphasis on people skills. While all three require different levels of interaction with the public, the volunteers, and the staff, what they have in common is daily contact with people in a fast-paced, stressful environment. Animal welfare people are often much better with animals than with people, but a well-run shelter cannot afford for these three positions to be filled by employees who are not socially adept and good at working with both people and animals.

 

We the public (aka the taxpayers) can accept nothing less from our shelters or the people running them.

Litany of Disaster

Things just keep getting worse at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter. The litany of disaster tends to blur into one long train wreck over time, so occasionally a recap is needed, just to keep it all in focus.

 

It all began in December 2014, when the Montgomery County Commissioners made a really stupid backroom deal to permit the sale of Care Corp by Tim Holifield to Dr. Aubrey Ross. The original contract had a stipulation that the sale of Care Corp would void its contract with the county. The Commissioners removed that clause and extended the length of the contract. This short-sighted decision leaves the contract vulnerable to sale to any interested party, regardless of qualifications.

 

Neither Tim Holifield (former owner) nor Dr. Ross (new owner) bothered to announce the change of regime. That information was outed via a casual Facebook post made by an employee. Amazingly, neither Holifield nor Ross anticipated that anyone would be upset.

 

When the volunteer community reacted badly to the sudden backdoor change, Ross finally got around to holding a meeting to address the volunteer community. However, by this time, the damage was done. He had already displayed poor people skills and a condescending attitude toward the volunteers.

 

As the volunteer community continued to resist the negative changes imposed by Ross, retaliation began. Volunteers were called into Ross’s office individually, where they were interrogated about what negative things they had said about him online, as well as about their motives and qualifications for fostering. There were several incidents in which animals “disappeared” – in other words, they were made unavailable to certain volunteers who did not enjoy the favor of the new management.

 

Next came the debacle known as Dumpstergate. Several employees were caught throwing away large amounts of donated items, including cases of canned food that had just arrived that day. This went on for two days, even after Ross was informed. Volunteers rushed to the shelter to salvage what they could, but these employees were so determined that they actually tried to trash the stuff a second time while one volunteer was pulling her car around to load it.

 

Very shortly thereafter, the shelter director was let go; rumor has it that Ross fired her because he believes she is responsible for the volunteer resistance. Ironically, her dismissal simply added fuel to an already blazing fire.

 

As the fight got tougher, Care Corp’s decisions became even more inexplicable. When Ross bought Care Corp, Advantage Multi was provided FOR FREE to every animal in the shelter by the Montgomery County Animal Society (recently renamed the Texas Animal Society), at a cost of over $20,000 a year. It helped kill mange mites, kill fleas, kill a variety of intestinal parasites, and prevent heartworms. Multi is a very safe topical product that comes in premeasured doses and is thus easy for anyone to apply, regardless of their level of expertise. Dr. Ross decided to discontinue the Advantage Multi program. The shelter population went for months with zero parasite prevention. I have been told that he is now using bulk ivermectin, which is a much more volatile product. It requires precision dosing and some breeds of dog cannot have it at all, due to genetic sensitivities.

 

Why would a VET throw away a safe product offered for free, in favor of a lesser product that he has to pay for?

 

The next inexplicable decision was the choice to sever the relationship between Care Corp and the Society. The Society was spending over $100,000 per year paying for outside vetting on those animals who could not be treated in house. Care Corp did choose a new nonprofit, but the new organization specializes in transporting animals to Northern shelters. Volunteers have been struggling even more because the new nonprofit has not taken over the Society’s role as payer of vet bills.

 

In the midst of this confusion, we are now hearing reports of poor veterinary practice. I know of at least three cases in which cats have died following routine surgery – one just yesterday. I have seen pictures of dog after dog who have lost tremendous amounts of weight in the shelter. Illness is rampant, including both distemper and parvo.

 

In addition to these tragedies, fosters have posted multiple comments about dogs with serious post-surgical hematomas following neuters. Others have taken post-surgical animals to their personal vets, who expressed dismay at the low quality of the work. The response of the Care Corp vets to complaints about post-surgical complications? They have added an interesting stipulation to their foster guidelines: “If a pet develops complications due to the animal licking the incision as a result of the failure to use an e-collar, the pet’s adopter/foster parent will be held financially responsible for the treatment of such complications, however all surgical complications will be covered by Montgomery County Animal Shelter surgical department. Cytology can be performed to differentiate between licking/chewing complications and surgical error complications if clinical signs do not support the case.”

 

Seriously? We’re talking about a clinic that does not have the ability to perform a basic fecal exam, but they are claiming that they can perform tests to determine whether post-op complications were caused by licking. This strikes me as a particularly childish intimidation tactic.

 

And now, today, the weekly Wednesday night dog walk has been canceled. Without explanation. I sincerely hope it’s due to weather, and not another control tactic.

 

One more depressing fact…the shelter’s maximum capacity is about 750 animals, but there are currently closer to 950 in residence. That is both unsafe and inhumane. They are crowding too many animals into the existing runs and cages. This encourages the spread of disease, and it also sets animals up to have to fight for their share of the food.

 

Dear Commissioners, whatever you expected of Care Corp, the situation they and you have created is not working. Not for the animals, not for the people. We elected you to represent the best interests of Montgomery County. You cannot seriously believe that this disaster is in anyone’s best interests.

 

Please. Make it stop.

When Animal Welfare Goes Wrong

The general public seems to have one of two ideas about animal shelters. Either all shelters are evil death camps that kill every animal they can, or all shelters are wonderful places where every animal will safely find a perfect home.

 

In reality, most shelters are doing the best they can with limited resources against impossible odds. The animals that come through their doors run the gamut from perfect, healthy, immediately adoptable purebreds to the starved, abused, broken, feral, sick, elderly, and dying. In a good shelter, the employees and volunteers do everything they can to save every possible animal, and they do it in the full knowledge that some won’t make it. It’s a hard life. Burnout is high, stress is higher, and sometimes people skills are…limited. But saving an animal that would otherwise have died is incredibly rewarding.

 

Nevertheless, sometimes the wrong people end up in charge of shelters or rescues. Sometimes they start off with good intentions, but get into trouble out of ignorance or bad management. Sometimes rescuers get so caught up in “saving” every animal that comes their way that they cross the line between rescue and the mental illness called hoarding.

 

And sometimes they’re just bad people. Evil is a strong word, but when you work in animal welfare, you know it exists.

 

So what do you do when the people in charge are the bad guys?

 

Tricky question. The obvious answer is you fight. You go after the bad guys with every resource at your command, and you don’t stop until they’re gone. But how do you fight, when the enemy is in charge?

 

The first step is to get informed. Who controls the shelters in your area? Where I live, it’s the county commissioners. Some places, it might be the city government, the mayor, the sheriff, the police department, or some other elected official.

 

Your next step is to contact the governing agency. Sadly, that step is rarely productive, but it is necessary. Begin by writing a clear, concise letter detailing your specific complaints and concerns. Do NOT indulge in name-calling or verbal attacks in that letter; you want the officials to take you seriously, not dismiss you as a crackpot. Here in Montgomery County, the county commissioner directly responsible for the animal shelter is Jim Clark. If you contact him, I would suggest copying that communication to the other commissioners: Mike Meador, James Noack, and Charlie Riley. Don’t be surprised if they don’t respond, but when you go up the food chain, you need to be able to say that you started with the people most immediately in charge.

jim.clark@mctx.org

mike.meador@mctx.org

commissionernoack@mctx.org.

charlie.riley@mctx.org

 

From there, you will take your concerns to a larger audience. Here in Texas, the official agencies to which you have recourse include:

 

Local law enforcement – This may be a police department or a sheriff’s department. If you have definitive documentation of illegal acts, they should be able to help. However, in reality, most law enforcement agencies are not well trained in the details of animal cruelty law, so it may be a challenge to get them to take action.

 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) – This agency is responsible for overseeing animal shelters and animal control in the state of Texas. The person who oversees animal shelter issues is:

Pam.Wilson@dshs.state.tx.us

 

The District Attorney’s Office – Your local D.A.’s Office should have someone who handles public integrity cases and animal cruelty cases.

 

The Attorney General’s Office – If your D.A.’s office is not responsive, or if there is a potential conflict of interest (as in a recent investigation in my county involving none other than Commissioner Clark), you can go upriver to the Attorney General’s office. Again, documentation is critical, because both offices can only act if there is clear evidence of criminal activity.

 

The Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners – If the problems you’re addressing involve a veterinarian, this is another good option. These are the folks who can suspend or even revoke the license of any practicing veterinarian who violates their professional standards. Every state has its own SBVME, and veterinarians must be in good standing with them to practice in that state. Complaint forms are available online.

http://www.veterinary.texas.gov/Complaints.php

 

When you have exhausted every official avenue, don’t forget about the media. Most major media outlets have someone who does animal stories, and news outlets love a good scandal. Go to the websites for your media outlets, and search for animal stories. When you find the reporter who does the greatest number of them, contact him or her directly with specifics. Sometimes that media pressure will motivate local officials to take action.

 

If you find yourself in a fight to protect animals from the very shelter that is supposed to keep them safe, my best advice is this:

 

Never let up. Keep the pressure on through every available agency. Document. Report. Write. Call. Over and over until you get results. It will take time, it will be stressful and frustrating, but don’t stop.

 

The animals have no voice but ours.

The Future of MCAS

I and many others have been pondering the question of what we want MCAS to become. It wasn’t perfect before the sale of Care Corp. It’s never been perfect. No shelter with intake numbers that routinely exceed 25,000 animals per year can be perfect. But the changes since the arrival of the new regime have been catastrophic.

 

The level of discontent and anger at what has happened to our shelter is extremely high. Just ask Commissioner Clark, who has claimed on multiple occasions that he receives up to 300 emails per day complaining about Care Corp’s bad management of the shelter. When the volunteer community first blew up in protest against the new management, the Commissioners seemed to think that we would get bored or frustrated and just give up.

 

I think they’re beginning to realize that we won’t.

 

Here’s the problem. The whole point of privatizing the shelter, from the Commissioners’ perspective, was to remove that large, time-consuming obligation from their desks. Before Care Corp, the minutes of Commissioners’ Court meetings show that a considerable amount of their time was spent addressing countless administrative decisions related to the shelter. Hiring, firing, resignations, repairs, equipment orders – it all went through the Commissioners’ Court, which meant that it all had to go on the agenda, be presented, and get voted on. Privatization was supposed to take all those daily management decisions and drop them them onto the desk of someone qualified to understand and address the needs of the shelter.

 

Upon the cancellation of the current privatization contract, the shelter will revert back to the direct control of the Commissioners, who will once again be responsible for voting on all those everyday management issues. If they want to keep the shelter under privatized management, they will have to open it up for public bid. It begins with a Request For Proposals and moves forward through a lengthy review and decision process; during that process, the Commissioners would have to actually take responsibility for managing the shelter, which is something they really don’t know how to do, and clearly don’t want to do.

 

In addition to their deep reluctance to admit that they made a poor choice when they approved the sale of Care Corp, I believe that their unwillingness to take on the direct management of the shelter is why the Commissioners are so determined to stay this course. They are trying to take the path of least resistance, which logically would be the path that does not require purposeful change. If we want that change, it is our job to make change more attractive and less challenging than maintaining the status quo.

 

We also need to be very clear about what changes we want. So here’s my list:

 

  • Care Corp must go. They’ve had five months to prove their competence, and they have failed miserably. The Commissioners can cancel that contract, and that’s what I want them to do.
  • The new management, whether privatized or not, must include a qualified shelter manager and a rescue coordinator with exemplary people skills and networking experience.
  • The Commissioners must require shelter management to provide access to vet care seven days a week for animals in their custody, including animals in foster care as well as those actually in the shelter.
  • All animals must be scanned for a microchip upon arrival and immediately posted online to facilitate returns to owners.
  • All animals who cannot be immediately identified through a microchip or tags must be vaccinated upon intake, unless there is a medical reason not to.
  • All animals who arrive injured or ill should be immediately evaluated and treated. No animal should sit and suffer through a three day stray hold without treatment.
  • All animals in danger of euthanasia due to space constraints or treatable conditions should be posted online with a plea for at least 72 hours prior to euthanasia, in order to give volunteers time to make a special effort to place that animal with an adopter or foster.
  • Someone other than the room attendants should be assigned to walk every room daily to identify animals in need of veterinary care. Animals identified as needing attention should be evaluated by a vet within 24 hours, preferably less.
  • Communication between the shelter, the employees, the volunteers, and the public must be a priority. Quick, effective communication saves lives.
  • Volunteers must be free to choose which animals they want to foster, without habitual interference or micromanagement from the shelter director.
  • The new management must offer complete transparency, so that the voters know that their tax dollars are being used properly.

 

This list is by no means comprehensive. But it would be a very good beginning.

 

Just at this moment, the “shelter manager” is also the veterinarian who is supposed to be treating the animals. Both should be full time jobs, which means neither job is getting done right. The lack of sick clinic hours is a serious problem, especially in conjunction with the drastically reduced access to outside vetting that accompanied Care Corp’s decision to break off its relationship with the Society. Volunteers have also repeatedly documented untreated animals in stray hold, sick animals in the adoption rooms, microchipped animals languishing unclaimed for days because no one checked for a chip, emails and messages going unanswered, and a host of other problems stemming directly from poor management and worse people skills.

 

Dear Commissioners, let me remind you once again that YOU ARE ELECTED OFFICIALS. In other words, you work for us. The people who pay taxes. The people who vote. You failed us when you approved the sale of Care Corp. You have failed us repeatedly by refusing to rectify your mistake and by assuming that we would lose interest and go away. More to the point, you have failed the animals in your care. They have no voice, and if you don’t fix your mistake, many of them will have no future.

 

They deserve better. And so do we.

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.