Animal shelter ad hoc committee members, from left, Jennifer Young, Mary Timmers, Wendee Brunish, Melissa Bartlett, Sally Wilkinson and Los Alamos Police Department liaison to the commitee Sgt. Daniel Roberts meet Wednesday evening at the Municipal Building. Absent were Wendy Marcus and Linda Zwick. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Just weeks before an ad hoc committee established by Los Alamos County Council is due to present its recommendations to the Council in May, vice chair Linda Zwick informed the committee of her intent to resign from the committee..
Committee chair Wendee Brunish made the announcement Wednesday evening prior to convening the committee’s monthly meeting, reading the following from her phone:
“Since the report which is the subject of a vote this evening is essentially the product of one member of the committee, it does not incorporate information previously submitted by other members of the committee and does not address all of the requests made by the County Council in its charter, I do not wish to vote on it tonight. It appears to me that my participation on the committee is not useful, therefore I will submit a resignation of my committee member appointment to the Chief of Police.”
Meetings of the committee have taken a strange turn in recent weeks. At the Feb. 20 meeting there was a tense atmosphere due to social media posts by committee member Wendy Marcus telling the community that there was a danger that shelter would become a transfer facility and that the community would not have the adoption and volunteering access it currently enjoys. During that meeting, everyone except for committee members was asked to leave.
At last month’s meeting, although open to the public, a draft of proposed recommendations to be delivered to the Council was made available only to committee members and Councilor James Robinson who is Council’s liaison on the committee but a request from the Los Alamos Reporter for a copy was denied. The committee discussed the proposed recommendations but no vote was taken. At Monday’s meeting, the update draft of proposed recommendations was discussed at length but again not distributed.
A copy of the draft proposed recommendations obtained by the Los Alamos Reporter through an inspection of public records request to the County shows three options being considered by the committee as follows:
Maintain current operational structure, but increase shelter budget (as separate from Animal Control budget) to fund a full-time shelter manager and three full-time animal shelter staff. Shelter requires two members of staff to staff the shelter from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (at least 64 hours/week) to fulfill minimum animal welfare and customer service requirements. The increased budget will also cover increased animal welfare activities, increased community outreach, and increased behavioral evaluations and modification to ensure that our animals are humanely housed and treated and that the public receives outstanding customer service in all their interactions with the shelter and that pets adopted from our shelter are safe and are wonderful, healthy, loving family pets.
Pros: Increased staff and resources. Minimal disruption to current operations.
Cons: Having the shelter under the auspices of the Los Alamos Police Department (LAPD) leads to several intrinsic issues which are difficult to overcome. These include the fact that the operational and financial priorities of the LAPD understandably continue to emphasize law enforcement. Shelter staff are encouraged to spend more time on cruelty cases, public safety (roaming dogs and dog bites), and citations (roaming dogs and barking dogs) than on the welfare of the adoptable dogs and cats at the shelter. These priorities will likely continue without new perspectives that emphasize modern shelter metrics, enhanced enrichment and reduced length of stay programs. Training provided to shelter staff focuses also heavily on cruelty and bite investigations, nuisance complaints, and on disaster preparedness, with little or no training provided in the crucial areas of shelter management, animal welfare best practices, shelter animal behavioral evaluation (for public safety and adoption matching), enrichment and behavioral modification, adoption matching, surrender prevention, public education and outreach, and many other things that are essential elements of a high quality shelter. In addition, continuing to co-mingle the shelter budget with the PD budget enables the current and constant threat that the law enforcement priorities will drive a shift in funding away from the shelter. In addition, eliminate the use of volunteers to augment staff efforts (as an example, for the past 20 years and to this day, cat room cleaning is done almost solely by volunteers) in favor of setting up a modern volunteer program. A fully-realized volunteer program requires a dedicated coordinator, excellent and continuing training, clear and concise communication about the status of every animal every day, and enhanced enrichment opportunities for the animals.
Transfer the shelter operations to a civilian department, likely Community Programs, while leaving Animal Control functions with the LAPD. Increase shelter budget (as separate from Animal Control budget) to fund a full-time shelter manager and 3 full-time animal shelter staff. Shelter requires 2 members of staff to staff the shelter from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. M-F and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sat-Sun (at least 64 hours/week) to fulfill minimum animal welfare and customer service The increased budget will also cover increased animal welfare activities, increased community outreach, and increased behavioral evaluations and modification to ensure that our animals are humanely housed and treated and that the public receives outstanding customer service in all their interactions with the shelter and that pets adopted from our shelter are safe and are wonderful, healthy, loving family pets.
Pros: This would provide clear delineation between priorities, staff, training and budgets. This would ensure that fluctuating LAPD needs would not negatively impact shelter animal care and services to the public. Shelter staff responsibilities would be clear and training would support and enhance their abilities to carry out their tasks. Staff satisfaction would be much greater without conflicting priorities and daily disruptions. An added benefit would be that these positions would attract a larger and better pool or applicants for these more rewarding jobs. The public would receive service from dedicated, trained professionals. Staff would have the training and the time to ensure animal welfare and to implement appropriate goals and metrics and to use data to develop new programs to decrease length of stay and to better serve the public. Finally, this would facilitate a long-term transition to a non-profit operator for the shelter if this is determined to be a desirable final outcome. A fully-realized volunteer program with a dedicated coordinator, excellent and continuing training, clear and concise communication about the status of every animal every day, and enhanced enrichment opportunities for the animals could be implemented, providing a fully satisfying and reward experience for volunteers.
Cons: Increased budget to pay for staff. One-time costs such as new vehicles and new equipment may be incurred. Potential increase in yearly costs to pay for facility improvements to facilitate enrichment and increase adoption rates. Some disruption during transition period and some confusion as citizens get used to new structure.
Option 3. If the citizens of Los Alamos County and their elected representatives do not wish to authorize the funding, operational changes, revised priorities required to establish and maintain an outstanding animal shelter, the County should establish contracts to transfer all potentially adoptable pets to other shelters in New Mexico and nearby states as soon as any mandatory hold period has been observed so that the animals may be held in humane conditions and be quickly matched with appropriate adopters. The Los Alamos County Animal Shelter will be a holding facility, not an adoption facility. Citizens may surrender or reclaim their animals but no pets will be available for adoption.
Pros: Decreased budget and staff needed. Adoptable animals will be transferred to no-kill shelters with highly trained shelter management professionals, training and behavioral experts, on-site veterinary care, robust volunteer programs, state-of-the-art adoption matching and adoption counseling programs, and high-quality daily enrichment protocols. The quality of care the animals receive would be greatly improved as would the likelihood that they will be adopted into well-matched and caring homes.
Cons: LAC citizens will no longer be able to adopt pets in the County and volunteer opportunities at the shelter will be minimal.
Additional comments in the draft were:
Regardless of which option is chosen, establish an oversight board to review the Los Alamos County Animal Shelter policies and procedures to ensure that public input is heard and acted on and that high standards of animal care and customer service are maintained. The oversight board should also review and analyze shelter data to identify positive and negative trends, help set goals, and to recommend changes that will make efficient use of resources while maintaining high standards and meeting goals.
Other issues that the ASAC committee has identified that need to be addressed and that the ASAC is preparing recommendations on how they should be addressed include: a. Facility issues, including air handling and contagious disease issues b. Facility issues, including outdoor play area for dogs c. Facility issues, including security improvements to ensure animal safety d. Ordinance issues, to facilitate ownership tracking and accountability e. Animal care issues, including lack of basic care, lack of proper disease risk mitigation, suffering due to social isolation, etc.
Committee members have asked that the options be labeled A, B and C so as not to give one priority over the others.
While committee member Melissa Bartlett expressed concern that the community might not be too happy with the shelter’s function being reduced to a transfer facility, Brunish did not seem to think that was an issue and mentioned that the shelter building could be used as a location for evacuated animals if needed. The shelter was opened in FY2010 and cost $1.5 million.
Brunish indicated that Council vice chair Pete Sheehey had endorsed the transfer facility option during a Council workshop last June in White Rock. Sheehey confirmed to the Los Alamos Reporter Thursday morning that that is not the case. A review of the video of the meeting on the County’s website confirmed that. The committee is expected to present its report to Council in about a month. Council will likely review the report and place it on a future agenda for a decision.
Committee members are Brunish, Marcus, Zwick, Bartlett, Jennifer Young, Sally Wilkins and Mary Timmers.
The Council approved the charter for the committee July 31, 2018. The initial task for the committee was as follows:
- Describe the current operational structure of the Shelter.
- Consider other potential operational structures for the Shelter.
- Provide high-level estimates of costs to the County for the potential operational \structures, and compare those cost estimates to the costs of the current operational structure of the Shelter.
- Provide a recommendation to Council as to what type of organizational structure best meets high standards for the humane treatment of animals while providing a high-level of service to the citizens of the County.
- Provide a report to Council on the above within six (6) months of the appointment of the Committee members.
- The above report shall also contain suggestions as to other Shelter issues the Committee believes should be addressed after completion of the Committee’s initial task.
Subsequent to the Council addressing the organization structure of the shelter when submitted, the committee is tasked with the following:
- Review current policies and practices of the Shelter including euthanasia policies and practices.
- Recommend policies and practices that best meet high standards for the humane treatment of animals.
- Provide high-level estimates of costs to the County for the above-recommended policies and practices as compared to current policies and practices of the Shelter.
- Evaluate what kind of relationships should be established with other animal shelters, and make recommendations regarding same.
- Review the current services offered by the Shelter.
- Recommend what services should be offered by the Shelter to best provide services to the citizens of the County.
- Provide high-level estimates of costs to the County for the above-recommended services as compared to the current services offered by the Shelter to the citizens of the County.
- Provide a report to the County Council on the above within six (6) months of the County Council addressing the organizational structure of the Shelter.
- Should the Committee have concerns about the Shelter that are not addressed in the Scope of Work, the above report should inform the County Council of those concerns.