Animal Shelter: Divergent perspectives on ‘progress’

September 30, 2010

AFTER: Workers at the Animals Services Center of the Mesilla Valley apply new paint and replace flooring in a doublewide trailer used to house sick animals.

Updated Oct. 4: There are some corrections/clarifications to the original article and the print version. Frank Bryce, there president and founder of the Southern New Mexico Humane Society, case has never operated the animal shelter. For a long time, the Dona Ana County Humane Society did run the shelter; the two humane societies are different entities. Also, Grassroots Press is seeking clarification from ASCMV as to the number of cats who lose their lives at the shelter due to upper respiratory infections and/or lack of socialization. Michel Meunier, who is quoted in the article, said her quote should have stated that 100 cats per month lose their lives for lack of socialization.

After this article was written, the board that runs the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley decided in a special meeting Sept. 17 to fund repairs up to $120,000, overhauling a heating, cooling and ventilation system at the shelter’s North Main Street facility. The move was in response to longstanding complaints that the current system recirculates contaminated air, spreading infection. Animal activists so far have been unanimous in applauding the decision, and some have called it a promising departure from the feuding and contention that have surrounded the shelter and its operation for years. Editor

By Jeff Berg

In a report offered by the Humane Society of the United States in October of 2009, an estimated 6-8 million dogs and cats were cared for in United States animal shelters annually in recent years. Of those, about half, 3-4 million were euthanized.

The same report notes that in the 1970s, the number of animals ‘put down,’ a polite way of saying ‘killed because of human stupidity,’ was 12-20 million, while there were an estimated 67 million pets in U.S. households. That number (household pets) has increased dramatically, to a current estimated figure of 135 million, so the proportion, as well as the total number for euthanized animals, has dropped markedly as well.

In Las Cruces, controversy aplenty has swirled around the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley (ASCMV), which operates out of an antiquated and far too small facility in the northeast corner of town.  A visit to the shelter at any time will offer you a cacophony of animal sounds. Barking, growling, yipping, meowing, hissing; you name it, you’ll hear it. The dog compound is always quite noisy and always overcrowded.

So, just what is wrong with the people in this area who have ‘pets’? Why are there so many animal hoarders? Why do illegal dogfights take place? Why can I (probably) still take you to a place on the county line where 10-plus dogs are staked out on short chains, just itching to get at one another to rip the others’ throats out?

“Ignorance is a voluntary misfortune,” Nicholas Ling once said. And that maxim fits as one of the biggest reasons that Doña Ana County remains a place where animal cruelty and abuse continue to be widespread and common.

To bring you somewhat up to date on the happenings at the animal shelter, here are three different views of what is going on and what needs to happen to help create a better living environment for the animals

“The building is too small and outdated for the animals that are coming in,” says Michel Meunier, the founder of ACTion Programs for Animals, and a strong advocate for a no-kill shelter, when speaking of the building that houses the Animal Service Center of the Mesilla Valley.

“They’ve known that since 2006, and it hasn’t been taken care of.”

Meunier insists that she is not an enemy of the shelter, but rather she is someone who is versed in the care and attention needed for shelters and their residents.  “I come from a progressive point of view,” she said, “and I am sending a message to our (local) leaders that they don’t seem to be responding to.”

She says that according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the ASCMV is not following the best practices for animal shelters.

“They need to have assessments for intake, enrichment programs, more space, more exercise for the animals. They also need to have socializing and enrichment for the cats. The shelter is an unfair place for cats, and over 100 have died from being in that stressful environment.”

“Why can’t we (ASCMV) follow the standards that are available, such as vaccinating animals during intake?”

Meunier is also concerned about the fact that the shelter, since it was taken over by local government entities, now has a bigger budget, 40 employees, and has still stayed on the same course.

“All we are asking for is for them to use the best practices available within the facility.”

In early September, I went out to the shelter on a breezy, slightly less hotter-than-hell day to see how things looked as a layman. I had last been there perhaps a month earlier.

During that first visit, I found the shelter to be as it always was: crowded, noisy, and with only a few guests checking out the available animals. Staffers were humorless but efficient, and I found it odd that I was accompanied by one (from a distance) during the visit.  The area where the adoptable animals are kept was tidy, and staffers were prompt in cleaning the pens. A water mister was running to help cool the larger canines that were held in the bigger outside cages, which were once designed as exercise areas but now converted to holding cages because of the never-ending population problem.

The second visit was nearly the same as the first – but the big difference was that the place was full to the rafters but very quiet. It was a pleasant day and the dogs, who usually bark, growl, cry, and whine up a storm, were very docile, for the most part. Few were jumping up in the air as they tend to do, possibly since the pens are so small, and two dogs were in each, and the attendant again accompanied us, albeit from afar, hosing down cages that had fresh dog droppings.

But that is what the public sees.

Behind the scenes, especially recently, a spate of issues has emerged concerning the poor sanitation and ventilation systems within the shelter.  A doublewide trailer that was being used to house dogs with infectious diseases such as Parvovirus, a viral disease that attacks a dog’s digestive system, (some accuse the shelter of being the only place in the county where a dog could get Parvovirus) was shown to be dirty and unsafe.  A visit from the ASPCA to the shelter in July of this year resulted in the organization suggesting that the facility be closed entirely for 60 days because of the sanitation issues, which include the poor ventilation system that can carry germs to other areas of the shelter.

“Even contractors noted the ventilation deficiencies,” says Frank Bryce, president of the Humane Society of Southern New Mexico, which used to operate the shelter. Bryce, a retired government employee, now runs the Doggie Dude Ranch, a tidy and small pet operation that houses animals for a variety of reasons – from doggie daycare to so-called ‘problem’ animals. Bryce tells me of some of his experiences while a volunteer at the shelter, including viewing duct work inside the air vents that has been installed improperly, which in an odd way was one of the reasons that he was asked to stop volunteering by shelter management after pointing out this problem and other issues.

Bryce brings up the recent ASPCA inspection, along with a letter from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that was sent to Mayor Ken Miyagishima in June of this year, noting grimy conditions, overcrowding, and deriding the ASCMV Strategic Plan Phase 1, which says in part that the “Population Management: Reduce Intake” and “Additional Funding” sections would discourage the public from relinquishing animals to ASCMV by charging fees and would also require pet guardians seeking humane euthanasia for their animal companions to pay for the service, among other things.

Bryce supports the ASPCA’s proposal that the shelter be closed for 60 days, something which city, county, and shelter officials nixed immediately.

But Bryce, unlike most people around here, has cobbled together a solution that could temporarily house the animals in other facilities, noting that the ASPCA itself would take 500 animals, which would help to allow for retraining the director and staff, and supervise the needed resealing of the shelter walls.

“They could use substations,” he offers. “They have 40 employees that could run the substations. Jess Williams (board member of ASCMV) claims that they have 300 volunteers. They could be put to work as well.” (Bryce is not afraid to scoff at the volunteer figure and suggests that it carries an extra zero). “Someone else has even been able to find a large tent that could be utilized,” he adds, and then he drops the biggest and best part of the temporary closure of all –noting that the county fairgrounds have facilities that could be utilized easily and that that idea has already been tentatively agreed to by fairgrounds staff.

“This shelter qualifies as an animal hoarder,” he says firmly but without malice. “There is no licensed vet, and the last one said that her time there was the worst eight months of her life.” Bryce also notes that the shelter lacked a facility license for many years.

“The biggest problem is that the city and county are not putting basic standards of animal care into place. They are not qualified to run a shelter.  The ‘cancer’ for the animal shelter is the lack of maintenance (one maintenance person for the entire site), leadership and modern thinking on how to run a shelter. They don’t need to destroy the building; they could bring it up to speed.”

He even offers a new design for the 15 acres that are allotted for the shelter, which currently occupies 3.5 of those acres. He expresses puzzlement why they don’t do something with the rest of that land, observing, “They need to start thinking outside the box.”

Bryce himself seems to be a possible solution to one of the perceived problems…lack of quality management.

Would he take the job?

Without hesitation, he answers, “No.”

As the hot summer weather threatens to drag on into the early days of winter, I visit the shelter again for an appointment with Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock, the director of the shelter.

“There are too many animals in Doña Ana County,” Vesco-Mock says; as we sit in her office that houses four young dogs and pups who certainly prove her point.  The animals are all being treated for sickness, mostly respiratory ailments. Vesco-Mock (or “Dr. Beth” as she has come to be known) says that two probably won’t make it, but the other two, who bound out of their cages when she opens the doors, are doing well and will hopefully be adopted when they are better.

She relates how just the night before, a Sunday, two cocker spaniels were surrendered because the owners were moving and couldn’t take the animals with them. She questions such logic…why move someplace that won’t take your pets. She hints that this is a cop-out for animal surrender, another huge problem in the area.  She says she had also been called to the shelter at 10 p.m. to help with an ill-cared-for Great Pyrenees who had to be put down…again another “surrender.”

She offers up some figures…in the first seven months of 2010, shelter staff had to put down 5,175 animals. In 2009, the shelter took in a staggering 15,061 animals, all from a county of an estimated 200,000 people.  A recent story about the El Paso animal shelter noted that in 2009, 25,472 animals were picked up, and of those only about 6,500 made it out alive.  2008 Census figures show 742,000 residents in El Paso County.( More than three times the human population in El Paso County, but “only” 10,000 more animals picked up.)

“I came here in May of 2008 from Georgia, and our intake in DeKalb County [where she was shelter director] was 700 a month for a population of 700, 000,” Vesco-Mock says.

She points out that in June of this year 1,463 four-leggeds were brought into the shelter, and 1,425 in July. May was a very bad month, but that was because a huge number of “pet” rats were found at a home, 240 or so. Few met happy endings, but none were killed by shelter staff, she said.

Dr. Beth addresses the issues that have faced the shelter and continue to be hot buttons.  She points out that progress, although slow, is being made in deep cleaning, remodeling, and painting. The notorious doublewide trailer that was used for sick animals and that was in poor sanitary condition is empty now, she says, and it will be getting all new floors and paint, among other improvements.

The kill rate is down about 10 percent from the previous year, according to Vesco-Mock, in spite of the fact that the intake is not going down. She adds that she is working to develop some grassroots programs she hopes will help reduce the kill rate further.

When asked about the ASPCA letter that advised closing the shelter temporarily for a complete overhaul, she admits that she was disappointed in the outcome of that dialogue, as she was hoping the group would help with suggesting community outreach programs that could be developed.

But the conversation always circles back to the one thing that Vesco-Mock feels is the most apparent and ongoing problem: the number of irresponsible pet owners in the county.

“I’m hoping that adult peer pressure will become something useful,” she offers.

Say you’re at dinner with friends, one of whom mentions a pregnant pet or one that has just had a litter. Ideally, Vesco-Mock says she hopes people who realize that animals procreate out of an instinctive drive to sustain their species, will start talking to their friends and families about the problems unwanted litters of puppies and kittens create.  Sort of like an ad hoc volunteer program. It’s dreamy, for certain, but she feels that it could be effective.

Dr. Beth says she does classroom visits each week, and is working to get a program started in the colonias south of Las Cruces.

The shelter director stresses that she takes the issues of budget and staffing seriously as well. She offers that the shelter indeed has a $2 million budget, (averaging $112 spent per animal) but that part of that is from the money that the shelter takes in. A full-time vet is a possibility soon; currently, others on contracts come in several days a week.  There was no vet or vet tech on staff when Vesco-Mock arrived.

A staff of 40 may not be enough, she feels, since the shelter operates 24/7/365. She says most staff work four 10-hour days.

She offers a walkthrough of the entire facility, which, as noted by all, is in need of upgrades, repairs and modernization.  Some repairs are taking place now, such as acoustic boards to help keep the noise level down and the addition of new cleaning equipment and a revamped storage room.

The shelter is completely full, and each dog cage has two residents per cage, except for smaller dogs, where sometimes as many as five share quarters. It is early morning and several employees are working to clean the kennels among the earsplitting barking of the canines within.

The cat area is much calmer and tidier, but the naturally fastidious cats certainly play a part in that as well, and Vesco-Mock notes that many of them will find homes. It is the number of dogs that remains the biggest problem.

“Too many brown Chihuahuas,” she notes as we walk through the holding facility, which is indeed home to an awful lot of the little yappers, all of whom are barking at once.  During the walkthrough for the kennels that hold larger dogs, she notes that most pit bulls are put down, although there are several mixed pits in the kennels and a couple that look like they are purebred.

In our visit, Vesco-Mock was not afraid to address the issues that challenge the shelter and appears not only aware of them but ready to offer ideas that could provide solutions.

Is she going to keep working here?

“Many days I want to leave,” she says after a pause. “But you just can’t get up and leave. I have to make a lot of decisions that no one knows about.”

“I have news of what I think may be a really good turn of events,” Frank Bryce said to me in a recent e-mail.

ASCMV board members (County Commissioner Scott)  Krahling, (City Councilor Miguel) Silva and Jess Williams “all appear to be ready for the ASPCA to come in here and do their thing – no longer is the ASPCA plan unreasonable or undoable but admittedly necessary,” he wrote.   “They have formed a rather unlikely ‘fast action team’ of Bob Hearn, Krahling, Silva, Shelter Director Vesco-Mock and myself to get the ASPCA assistance moving.  This amounts to tacit acknowledgement that the shelter really does have the problems that have been identified and we need help to solve them.”

His note continues, “It is also tacit acknowledgement that the director is failing to do the job they have been led to believe was being done.” (Bryce does not say whether others on the board or the team share his views about the director.)  “Also the HVAC report is available now and it is really quite good as far as I can see.  The glaring statements in my opinion are they observed that the facility was not being cleaned adequately.  This is not something they should have even had to say in this type of report if it was being done right.  The sad part is much of the information in this report was pretty much known from several previous reports and still cost $22,000 to be done.  The cost of repair and bringing up to working condition was originally estimated at over $400,000 and now is at $106,000.  The second damning observation is that poor maintenance by the city is probably the major fault for the condition the system is in currently.”

Several summers ago, I had the distinct privilege of riding for a day with Animal Control Officer Paul Richardson, who is now the kennel supervisor at the shelter. His assignment for that day was in the southern part of the county, La Mesa, and points south, ending in Anthony. In less than four hours, we had an overloaded truck of animals, mostly dogs, that had been loose, given up, taken for not having tags or licensing and whatever else the animals need. We missed many more.

We went back to the shelter, where most of the animals were killed by staff members, as humanely as possible. I watched the process. I’ve seen animals die before, although I don’t eat them or use them to hold up my pants or hold my money when I have some. I don’t stuff my feet into dead animal parts, and if it weren’t for my cheese fancy, I would have no use for animal by-products as well.

But those images have always stuck in my head. They remain there to this day, especially a litter of puppies given up by an ignorant irresponsible person who had dogs chained in the yard, and the puppies with their chained mother, living under a camper shell in their own droppings.

I took some pictures. I keep those pictures on my desk. I’m looking at them now. My eyes still moisten, as I remember being the only creature with any sort of emotion- other than the shelter attendant who did the job quickly and as gently as possible– witnessing when those puppies were killed.  No other person on the planet will know those puppies. No one else ever held them in their arms and scratched their tiny heads just moments before they were killed. No one else thinks about it that even the dust of their remains is long gone from the city landfill where their once warm, wiggly tiny bodies were later taken.

With that in mind, I conclude this article thusly.

Change finally seems to be on the horizon, and will certainly work better if personality conflicts are set aside and everyone does what is necessary to ensure that the animals have food, water, and clean shelter in which to live before most of them have to be put down.  It offers a modicum of hope to see what is happening, among those who have the most time and emotion invested in this problem.

But the real problem won’t cease. It won’t cease now, it won’t cease tomorrow. It has existed for years in communities all over the world.  As in everything, education is the key, but you have to have a willing audience, and I don’t think that exists in Doña Ana County.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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