Monday, August 24, 2009

Court-held animals are evidence, but they are also sentient beings

This is in response to the person who keeps asking why volunteers are allowed to socialize and handle court-held dogs and who trains them for this work. For the exact answers to your questions from our shelter and the Animal Control departments, you will have to ask them this directly. I am not sure who is allowed to do this work and not as a volunteer and how they are trained.

That said, even shelter staffers and Animal Control staff have made mistakes with court-held animals in the past. We've had cases of the shelter erroneously putting some animals down that were evidence, and there have been cases of animals dying during their holding period for various reasons while under the AC department's care. I think the gist of this is that no matter who is caring for the animals, they need to be trained well. They need to also take extra precautions to not lose a court-held animal or put them in harm's way. Safety for these animals also comes from the areas they are held.

Furthermore, just because they are evidentiary items does not mean it is okay to lock them up in a smal cage or kennel and completely ignore their right as sentient beings. No matter what the court labels them as, they are living creatues.

If we are doing our jobs well, we will BOTH safeguard the evidence as well as provide for the animals' humane care. It is possible to do both, and we should not settle for less.

These animals, especially since they are held for so long, deserve the Five Freedoms: 1. Freedom from hunger and thirst; 2. Freedom from discomfort; 3. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease; 4. Freedom to express normal behavior; and 5. Freedom from fear and distress. Their quality of life while awaiting their eventual disposition is very important, and all animal advocates should push for their humane care when cared for by the shelter, the AC department in their holding facilities, or in temporary foster homes.

More from shelter volunteer Renee Davis

Longtime and former shelter volunteer Renee Davis worked with court-held dogs at our shelter for the past year. She recently did something very brave; she spoke up publically about the conditions for dogs living in the double-wide trailer at the shelter, where they are intensely confined. She had hoped that in her bringing the issues to light, our leaders would address these concerns. To date, that has not really happened, and it is a shame.

She shared the following story with me via e-mail to show that the issues at this trailer are multi-fold and have been going on for some time:

"I believe it was September of 2008 that a dog that was kept in the double-wide trailer got out and killed a rabbit that was also housed in the trailer. I remember the shelter's vet tech at the time was so upset about this that she quit.

This year, around May, another dog housed in the trailer, who I believe was eventually transferred to Denver, got out as he did many times and jumped through the screen window over the sink. He was running around in the trailer's enclosed yard.

He saw me walking another dog in the desert, and he jumped the fence and came running up to me. He was very friendly but was not wearing a collar. I was trying to hold him and the other dog because once out in the desert, he could have escaped and run to the highway.

I was screaming at the top of my lungs; finally, another volunteer came to help me. She went to the double-wide trailer to get the staff person who was cleaning at this time. He was suprised to see the dog out. It turns out he couldn't hear me scream because was listening to music with earphones as he worked. Many of the staff regularly do this, and I feel it is unsafe. Dogs were constantly getting out from the doublewide, and this is not a safe environment for the animals or people."

MORE of us need to speak up to the shelter's management and our local leaders about the misuse of this trailer as permanent housing. Time and again, incidents like this prove that how that trailer is being used is not only against sheltering industry standards, it is inhumane.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Former Best Friends CEO visits Las Cruces

I was very fortunate a couple of Sundays ago to spend some quality time with the former CEO of Best Friends Animal Society, Paul Berry. He passed through Las Cruces as part of his Our Humane Nation motorcycle tour. Las Cruces was lucky for this visit because our community was not in Mr. Berry's original plan. He had a last-minute cancellation in Albuquerque so stopped by here instead. He got my name and number from a fellow No Kill advocate in Austin, TX. Thanks to Ryan Clinton at for the referral!

You can read Paul's blog about his Las Cruces visit on his website ( when he publishes it. I think he said that should be posted within a couple of weeks from now.

During his visit, we stopped by the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley (ASCMV), and then we stopped by Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary. We then had a nice vegan dinner with fellow Las Cruces animal advocate Jean Gilbert.

Paul is an electrical engineer who made a career move to animal welfare and away from corporate America some time ago. He has been an animal-cruelty investigator and also ran a mobile spay/neuter van before taking the Best Friends CEO post for the last seven years. He left Best Friends earlier this year, though his wife is still working there. He decided to take this tour to find out what is going on in the world of animal welfare across the United States.

Some of Paul's remarkable work at Best Friends included the rescue and rehabilitation of the Michael Vick dogs; Best Friends took on the dogs that needed the most work and rehabilitation from this group. Paul is also responsible for making the TV deal for Dogtown, one of my new favorites that shows on National Geograhic.

It was especially nice to bounce off my questions and ideas on Paul. He agreed that our community has a long way to go and a big problem in our yearly animal intakes at our one shelter. He urged us to start doing some data gathering and research to use to build up alternatives to the one municipal shelter.

I was also glad to hear that he had some insight into one of my dreams for our near future -- opening an NSNRT clinic from the Humane Alliance group ( He said that model is terrific because the clinics are able to service a wide area of a community and spay/neuter hundreds of animals each day. Wow! Isn't that something to work toward for our community? We all can agree we need that level of high-volume spay/neuter to start reducing our shelter's intake rate in a significant way.

Shelter observation

As a critic of our shelter and former volunteer, I admit that I have not been there for many months. I decided to quit my shelter volunteer work to instead work in the community to the best of my ability to help animals and people. However, I also agree that there is a place for all of us and that our shelter needs the support of volunteers in the community. I also think that the more staunch critics should not be silenced, but I myself have stepped more away from this role because I think one group of animal-welfare people needs to actively work on alternatives to our shelter. If you let yourself, you can become completely overwhelmed with the shelter's issues, and that leaves little time and effort for anything else.

So, Paul and I stopped by the shelter that Sunday at about 4:30 p.m. The shelter was going to close at 5 p.m., so there weren't too many people around. We were allowed to walk through the adoptables area when Paul explained to a shelter staffer who he was and what he was doing there. Usually, people are not allowed to walk around our shelter and just look. People are required to fill out a complete adoption application.

We walked around for a bit in the dog adoptables area, and then we moved on to visit the cats and bunny rabbits. On our way back out toward the entrance, Paul stopped to look into the dog adoptables area again. There is a door that leads to it from the hallway on the way out the shelter. He stood at that door for a while, looking through the door's window, so I went over to see what he was looking at.

We saw a kennel attendant, dressed in scrubs, standing at the entrance of one of the dog adoptable kennels. The two dogs being housed in that kennel were standing in it, and the kennel attendant was hosing down the feces/waste using a hose. Himself and the two dogs were inside the kennel at this time. I was surprised to see that he was not only doing this (which is against humane care and cleaning standards for shelters) but that he was not hiding it from anyone either. The shelter was not not closed yet, and there were still a few people from the public, including Paul and myself, walking around.

It may be my imagination, but I got the feeling and an attitude from the shelter staff from the moment we walked in that they are pretty much autonomous and can do as they please. I guess this comes from the fact that our leaders blindly and fully support the shelter's director, so there is no fear of repercussions. For more stark evidence of this, see the last blog posting on this site and the pictures at right.

It was at this time that something hit me. Maybe all us advocates have been going about this the wrong way. All this time, we have been pushing the leaders on the ASCMV oversight board to visit the shelter more often. They sometimes do this but announce their visits ahead of time. Yet, even if they didn't, would they be able to see that someone hosing down a kennel with the dogs standing in it raises a BIG red flag?

I think what we should be pushing for instead is that each person that sits on the board of directors for our shelter should have to become educated about sheltering industry standards. They should have to take numerous shelter tours in nearby areas as well as other states, including visits to shelters that have very good reputations. After all, this board will be setting policy which then feeds procedures for our shelter. Unless they know something about animal sheltering (the industry and its standards), they will never see what is wrong with the picture when they visit our facility.

It's no wonder our shelter staff, including the director, do not feel they need to be held accountable to sheltering standards. No one in power is holding them up to any.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Guest blog on inhumane conditions for shelter dogs

Today's blog was written by a guest blogger and shelter volunteer. Her name is Renee Davis, and she has been volunteering at our municipal shelter for about a year (at the Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley). She has worked about 400 hours and is a faithful volunteer who primarily works with dogs housed at the shelter pending court cases. She goes every Tuesday and Friday to give these dogs a break from intense confinement, but she can only help a few of the many.

The animal-welfare and court systems regard these animals as "evidentiary items", and sometimes their cases can drag out months or even years. A recent example is that of the Smith brothers who were charged with dog fighting. Many of their pit bulls have been housed for years now at both the shelter and another facility operated by the county's animal control department.

Renee spoke up recently about conditions for dogs kept in a double-wide trailer on the shelter's property. She took pictures and approached the shelter's oversight board to ask them to look into the legality of this practice and also to ask themselves this simple question, "Is it humane to house dogs in small cages for long periods of time (weeks/months) for 24 hours a day?"

In a Las Cruces Sun-News article last week, the shelter's director is quoted as saying they will continue to use this trailer to house dogs and that it is not inhumane or cruel. Advocates are asking others to speak up about this to their local leaders. The only way this would not be considered inhumane is if the dogs were given lengthly breaks from the confinement every eight or so hours and allowed natural movement for long periods of time. As it stands now, according to Renee, who heard it directly from the shelter's kennel supervisor, the cages are cleaned once a day, and that's the only break the dogs get from them. This break lasts about 10 minutes, and the rest of the time, the dogs live in their urine-, feces-, and water-soaked cages. Some of these dogs are large and can barely stand or turn around. Even energetic, powerful dogs have been housed this way (such as the pit bulls).

See the stories below from Renee about two terriers she worked closely with that had bad experiences as court-hold dogs. As you read this, keep in mind that Renee is not one of us animal activists/advocates. She did not got to our shelter with any kind of agenda or preconceived notions. She went to help the dogs, whom she genuinely loves and cares for. I know this because I have seen her break down in tears over the powerlessness of volunteers to do more to help. I have been in her shoes before, so my heart goes out to her and the dogs.

I thank Renee for her courage to speak up. It is not an easy thing to do.

The Tale of Two Court-Hold Dogs
by Renee Davis

Many months ago, a group of court-hold animals came into the shelter. Among them were two terriers that I had direct experience with.

Court-Hold Terrier #1

One of these dogs, Hermy, was put in a kennel with a very large dog in the Quarantine (Q) area, which is where the court-hold dogs are housed. Hermy’s leg was broken, either by being trampled on by the big dog he shared the kennel with or by escaping the kennel through the water dish area (a very common occurrence at the shelter). The bowls are not properly secured on most of the kennels throughout the shelter, so small dogs can escape from this opening.

The shelter’s staff vet put a cast on him right away and put him in a cage in the director’s office for observation. When his leg didn't heal correctly, the vet put another cast on his leg and kept him in her office. That's when myself and another volunteer started taking him outside to get fresh air. When his leg healed, shelter staff put him in the double-wide trailer below the shelter where there were three other small dogs housed at that time. They each were in individual cages.

The volunteer and I began socializing these dogs since the kennel supervisor said they hadn't been out in a while. A couple of months ago, the people who owned these dogs and other animals related to this court case relinquished custody of all their animals to the shelter as part of a deal to have the charges against them dropped. About a month ago, Hermy was put in the adoptable puppy area at the shelter and made available for adoption.

A couple of weeks ago, he broke his leg getting out of the puppy area, chasing after a little chihuahua. When the other volunteer and I were leaving one day shortly after Hermy had been moved to the adoptables area, we saw the shelter director in the back parking lot with two animal control officers.

She said, “How’s everything looking, ladies?”

I said, “So, the little dog broke his leg again.”

She said, “Yeah, he kept getting out after that little chihuahua. You can't blame him.” She was referring to both dogs being unaltered, which was giving the terrier incentive to jump out of his holding area after the female dog that was in heat.

I asked, “Are you going to fix the broken leg?”

She said, “We don't know what were going to do with him.”

The other volunteer and I looked at each other and figured she was going to put him down from her choice of words. I called Frank Bryce because I know he tries to rescue animals at the shelter at risk of being put down on behalf of the Humane Society of Southern New Mexico (a non-profit animal-welfare organization). I told him about the situation with Hermy and my concerns over his well-being.

He called over to the shelter the first thing the next morning. Since it was a Saturday, the shelter director wasn't there and her population supervisor was taking animals to an offsite for adoption. Frank told the shelter staff person on the phone that he wanted to rescue the little dog with the broken leg and take him to the vet right away. Frank called me and said the shelter didn't open until 12 p.m. I told him I would go over and check on Hermy.

Hermy was back in a cage in the med wing. I told the staff person on duty that a rescue person wanted to take Hermy. He said the dog was in good hands at this time, but that he’d let the staff know about the rescue person wanting to take him. I also told the girls up at the front desk; they already knew a rescuer was interested in Hermy.

When I heard from Frank later that day, he said the shelter director wouldn't let him take the dog. Frank called the city manager, concerned about the dog and why he wasn't allowed to take him to the vet. The city manager apparently called the director and was told that Hermy was going to a foster home.

I called the city manager because I was very concerned about the dog’s newly broken leg, which I understood had not been treated. I told him that I couldn’t understand why a rescue person wasn't allowed to take the dog. It had been four days since the leg was broken. The city manager told me he was going to let the shelter director handle the situation.

Soon after that, I called another volunteer to explain what happened to Hermy, and she called the shelter and talked to the staff person in charge on weekends. The staff person in charge went to check on Hermy and said that he seemed to be playing with something and the director had found someone to foster him. She did not know who the foster parent was going to be. She also said they weren't even sure the leg was broken; it could be nerve damage or something else. So, my fellow volunteer said I should not worry.

On that following Monday, I was at Sam’s Club and saw the shelter vet in line at one of the registers. I went up and asked her how the little dog with the broken leg was doing. She said the dog was fine; it was the other leg this time that broke and that he must have a bone problem. I told her he broke his leg the first time when he was sharing a kennel in the court-hold area with a much larger dog and was also escaping out of the kennel via the area where the water bowl was supposed to be secured. I also said the second time he broke it he was in the puppy area, and he more than likely broke it by jumping the wall to get out of his holding space. I asked her if she was going to fix the dog’s leg, and she told me that the shelter was not going to do it because Hermy was going to a rescue and rescue was going to fix it. I asked her which rescue was taking the dog, and she told me to ask the shelter director.

I was getting very concerned at this point. It had now been six days since he broke the second leg, and I wondered why we have a shelter vet on staff that gets paid handsomely to help dogs that are sick and injured. My genuine concern was about the dog’s well-being as I had grown attached to him with the many months I had worked to help rehabilitate and socialize him on a weekly basis. I felt it would have been the respectful thing to do to let me know which rescue was taking him on and when the dog’s leg would be looked at and fixed.

Court-Hold Terrier #2

There was another small, older terrier that came in with the same group Hermy did; he was also a court-hold dog from the same case. I was told by the population supervisor, in an unsavory vocabulary, that the little old dog was very mean. Because of this, I was afraid to take him out of the kennel. The old terrier was being housed with a medium-sized female in the beginning, but the animal control officers in charge of this particular case asked the shelter management to move the terrier because it was not a good idea to house two unaltered dogs together of the opposite sex.

The population supervisor decided to put the old terrier, who weighed 8 pounds, into a kennel with a very large pit bull named Blue Eyes, who was very friendly but energetic and weighed about 90 pounds. The pit bull was very strong and hard to handle when I’d take him out to walk. Being confined most of the time, he had plenty of energy to burn. Most pit bulls in the Q kennels develop very repeated patterns of leaping on the walls and literally going kennel crazy.

When the pit bull would get excited, he’d jump around in the kennel and pounce on the little old terrier, who stayed huddled in the back of the kennel. The terrier would scream and howl and I was told that his legs would sometimes be bloodied by this. I think at one point the old terrier was sent to the med wing, and the shelter director said he let her pick him up. I remember thinking that it was a blessing for the poor old dog to be out of that kennel and away from the large dog.

However, shortly thereafter, the old terrier was put back in with the big dog. At this point, I saw the little dog had on a horribly large choke chain collar, and I went and asked someone on the staff about this because it looked like it was hurtful or dangerous to the small dog. He was huddled in the back corner again. When I went back to the kennel to check on the small dog, the chain collar had been removed. I am not sure who had put that on him in the first place.

Finally, another volunteer and myself were so upset by what was happening to that poor dog in the situation with the bigger dog, that I went to the director. I was crying and asked if she could please take that little dog out of there because he was basically a chew toy for the bigger, energetic dog. The director said she was aware of the situation and would have him moved.

However, it was not until a week later that the little old terrier was moved into a cage of his own in the double-wide trailer. He was housed there with three other dogs from that group of court-holds. It was such a relief, but I wondered why he was not moved right away when the situation was brought to the shelter director’s attention by myself personally. She saw how upset and worried I was and that my feelings of fear for the dog were genuine.

Once the old terrier was moved to the trailer, another volunteer and I started walking him and loving him. We found out that he wasn’t mean at all. He just needed someone to care about him for the first time in his life and to be out of the traumatic situation he first faced at the shelter. It was torture to put him into a shared kennel with such a large dog in the first place.

Like Hermy, this old terrier was relinquished by the owners to the shelter. He was eligible for adoption consideration or to go into a foster home, etc. The other volunteer and I were very afraid for him, knowing what treatment he got in the shelter environment in the first place. We continued to walk and take care of him, hoping for the best.

One day a couple of weeks after he could have been put up for adoption, I was holding him in my arms when the shelter director and the population supervisor came up to me.

The director said, “So, how is he doing?”

I happily said, “He is doing really good! He likes to lick my neck and learned to jump into my arms. He loves to be petted but just doesn't like his hiney touched. ”

At that point, the director reached out and grabbed his nose very hard! He snapped at her and screamed. I was in shock.

She said, “We can't have kids putting their hands in there with him.”

I remember saying something like he sounded scared like he did when he was in with the pit bull in the kennel.

The shelter decided to kill the old terrier that night. I can’t even write this without crying.

I feel it was a betrayal to the dog and myself as a volunteer after all the time I took to work with this dog. The shelter director set him up to fail, and it shows how little herself and the population supervisor understand about dog behavior. The little dog was scared and was perhaps protecting the only person (myself) who had shown him any kindness at the shelter. That is not the correct or fair way to temperament test a dog by any standard, and even if he was not a good match for children, he may have made a wonderful companion to an older man or woman or couple.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Conference Workshop: Overcoming Internal Obstacles to Success, Part II

I'm finally getting back to the No Kill Conference 2009 and finishing up my summary of the best workshop I attended, which was called Overcoming Internal Obstacles to Success. From what I have seen, most of the obstacles to shelter success are internal, and the way forward to pushing through these obstacles is right in the hands of that shelter's leadership ... mainly the shelter's director.

Still, the ultimate responsibility goes higher than that. This director is a hired person. In a privately run shelter, the non-profit's board of directors hires the executive director, and they are ultimately responsible for this person's performance. In a municipal shelter such as our own, it is our City and County leaders who hire the executive director and are responsible for the way the shelter runs. In our particular case, a shelter oversight board was formed that consists of three representatives from City government, three representatives from County government, and two non-voting members -- the City manager and the County manager. This board appointed a chairman of the board, but it does not assign officer roles similar to those of a non-profit board.

The board's agent-in-charge at the shelter facility is their executive director. That role is of utmost importance. The tone and leadership set by this person permeates down through the rest of the employees and then to the public this facility serves.

At the No Kill Conference 2009, we had the luck to hear presentations by this nation's top executive directors, and one of these is Bonney Brown from the Nevada Humane Society (NHS). She came to NHS from Best Friends, and she brought all that positive energy with her. She is also an avid reader of management books and gives leadership much of her time and effort. Her slide presentation on overcoming internal obstacles included lots of great quotes such as this:

"I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a 'transformer' in any situation, any organization. Such an individual is yeast that can leaven an entire loaf. It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith to be a transforming leader." -- Stephen R. Covey

Leaders like Brown overcome adversity and obstacles by working hard at doing so and trying their best to always remain calm, professional, and courteous and keep their personal feelings out of the equation. That is not an easy feat, but she offers some tricks of the trade to help others accomplish this.

She said it starts with acknowledging some basic things. You have no control over others, yet the way you respond to others is important, and self-control is a must. Being defensive in the face of criticism gets you nowhere, no matter who is offering that criticism. It is best to ask lots of questions, ask the person for advice and what they'd do, and then reflect that back. Focus on the content, not emotion or feelings. That said, it is important to empathize with the person. Thank them if you can, and assume sincerity on their part (even if you suspect they may be lying or being malicious). Look for the common ground.

If you did mess up, offer a sincere apology and explain how you'll address the situation differently in the future or how you'll address the situation with your staff. Take ownership and responsibility. You can then ask the person to let you give or offer your view of the content. Look for what will make it better.

In the face of very angry or negative energy, try your best to stop it and redirect that energy into a more calm and positive place. Never give angry or negative energy in return. Being calm yourself will help calm the whole situation down. Demonstrate goodwill by really listening and talking less (especially at first). This is a very preventative measure as well. You never want to let a conversation escalate into an argument; this does not make you look like a positive leader to anyone -- that person, your staff, or anyone else that is around.

Whatever the resolution is of the original content, share your plan. Share success and congratulate the person or persons who are part of the success.

Most important is this bottom line for any shelter leader wanting to turn things around: