A Tale Of Two Shelters: LAPD And Shelter Ad Hoc Committee Reports Differ

download (1)Los Alamos Animal Shelter. Courtesy photo


The Los Alamos County Council has been presented with two reports on the Los Alamos Animal Shelter from two very distinct sources. The first was written by the Ad Hoc Animal Shelter Committee appointed by Council which held its first meeting in September 2018 and submitted its report to Council in June. The second report was compiled by Los Alamos Police Sgt. Daniel Roberts who is Chief Dino Sgambellone’s liaison with the Ad Hoc Committee. The shelter is currently run by LAPD.

Committee Chair Wendee Brunish has long publicly held that LAPD’s animal control officers should only be involved in the animal control aspects of the shelter. In June 2017, Brunish was chair of the Friends of the Shelter group when it suspended its involvement with the shelter and because of alleged issues with treatment of volunteers.  The group continues to operate under the name Friends of Shelter and Companion Animals but does not work with the local shelter.

While delivering the committee’s report to Council, Brunish said she would like to present a picture of what a great shelter looks like, mentioning dedication to both animal welfare and public service, a clear vision of state of the art animal care, ongoing planning for the future and clear goals evaluated by objective meausres.

“A great shelter is a force for good and a partner with the community to make the lives of both pet owners and non-pet owners in the community better, understanding responsible pet ownership, and access to spay/neuter to reduce pet-overpopulation as well as pet ownership education for business owners and landlords in the community,” she said.

Brunish said staff at a shelter should consist of committed professionals with experience, knowledge and ongoing training in animal shelter best practices. She said public service and public safety are best addressed at a great shelter when shelter and control are separated out.

“Some of the issues we identified with an animal control focused shelter include conflicting priorities. Animal welfare is not necessarily the top priority given animal control, patrol and coverage requirements,” she said. She complained that animal control officers are trained through the National Animal Control Association which she said does not mention animal welfare in its mission or its statement.

Brunish said the committee was concerned about dogs or cats that are under some kind of legal hold related perhaps to ownership issues, bite quarantines or other behavioral issues, are seen by animal control officers as evidence in a case and not as “animals that require humane care while still protecting public safety”.

Brunish complained that the current euthanasia for the shelter is “not anything that would be considered appropriate by any shelter”, that it doesn’t have a decision-making process or detailed responsibilities.

“A euthanasia policy needs to protect the animals. It needs to protect the community and it also needs to protect the people making the decisions because that is a very difficult thing to do,” she said.

Brunish maintained that it may be difficult for the shelter to hire animal welfare and adoption professionals because with the shelter being operated by LAPD, “having its focus on law enforcement rather than animal care, shelter professionals in the community are not interested in applying for positions there.” She said it makes it difficult to advance and improve and move into more of a shelter environment if you cannot attract professionals who have that knowledge and ability.

“Our concern is that as local shelters continue to adopt and approve best practices, our shelter will not be keeping pace with them because we don’t have the priorities and the training and the knowledge on our staff to be able to do that,” Brunish said.

The committee identified three options going forward but recommended a stand-alone shelter separate from LAPD, to be run by the County’s Community Services Department. The committee felt that a stand-alone shelter would be the option that would best serve both the community and the animals while “providing high-quality animal care and customer service to have a cutting edge shelter that matches the standard of life we have here”, Brunish told Council.

Councilor James Robinson who is the Council’s liaison with the committee, said Brunish has mentioned cases of neglect and abuse at the shelter but that the report does not indicate evidence of that.  Brunish said the day the committee toured the shelter there was a dog without water.

“That is totally unacceptable at any time for any length of time. We did also observe spread of disease in the cat room mostly because of lack of ventilation which is a facility issue. We have the legal issues where animals are kept in social isolation where they basically have no human contact,” Brunish said.

The complete ad hoc committee report may be viewed here: http://losalamos.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3993149&GUID=55A8D749-A174-4032-BA8C-EB64BE039C9C&Options=&Search=

Asked how often the committee visited the shelter during the 10-month period, Brunish replied that committee had only visited there once. Asked how moving the control of the shelter to the Community Services Department would change things, Brunish said the committee sees more access to hiring of trained professionals and better opportunities for partnering with other shelters in the area who she said are eager and anxious to see the change move forward.

Council Chair Sara Scott said one of the issues that was noted in the committee report was the frustration of people coming and the shelter was closed. She asked for a sense of how often that occurred – once a week, once a month. Brunish said she didn’t know but that when she was volunteering at the shelter (prior to June 2017) it was often on a weekly basis.

“I would expect that has improved but we are still getting comments from the public about their frustration with that issue,” she said.

Scott also mentioned that Council had heard that years ago was “friction or challenges with the volunteers” and asked how the proposed change in model would affect that. Brunish said that very successful shelters have very well-defined and very well-run volunteer programs that the volunteers say provides a “very great sense of satisfaction and rewardiness” and that some work still has to be done.

Scott asked why the committee discarded an option that would have allowed the LAPD model to be augmented with improvements to the facility and an increase in staffing

“Given that maybe there’s some policy issues that need to be ironed out in terms of what is the stated policy approach priority with respect to animals and things like that, why is that not a workable option?” she asked.

“I think part of is the ability to attract the kind of staff that are really going to bring the shelter forward. The priorities are going to continue to be an issue as animal control coverage requires that the shelter sometimes be closed in the middle of the day. And then also just the law enforcement approach that provides lots and lots of training to staff about how to investigate cruelty cases and how to deal with bites but it has absolutely nothing, there’s no training involved in how to reduce the stress and make the shelter a good place for the animals and a great place for potential adopters to come in and look at animals,” Brunish responded.

Scott said she understood, but asked, “If you change the priorities through policy and you augment the staff through properly trained folks – I’m trying to understand how that is just completely unworkable”.

“Again I think the police department as a whole, I think it’s kind of unfair, they have a law enforcement focus and I think it’s kind of unfair to say to them, everything else you do has this law enforcement focus but over here we need to have this very different focus. I think first of all that’s not a fair thing to ask of somebody and second of all I just don’t see it working because everything else is so focused in the other direction,” Brunish responded.

The LAPD’s “tale” on the shelter was distributed to Council last week but was not shared at a Council meeting. The Los Alamos Reporter received the report in response to a request to LAPD.

The LAPD report indicates that the shelter four authorized full-time staff positions which provide for the animals seven days a week with the shelter open to the public six days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on Thursdays for deep cleaning of all areas. An animal shelter manager position was added two years ago and is currently the current manager was selected in March from 22 applicants. Manager Paul Sena had extensive experience in supervision, veterinary care, and experience as assistant manager in surrounding shelters, the report states. He supervises three Public Safety Aides (PSAs) who enforce the County’s animal control laws and also hold other duties within the shelter such as cleaning, transporting animals to medical appointments, ensuring animals are fed, enrichment with the animals, and handling surrendered, reclaimed, or adopted animals.

The report says the PSAs respond to calls for service throughout the County for barking dogs, dog bites, roaming animals, or investigation of animal cruelty cases. They work to solve problems through educational material, public outreach, mediation between parties, loaning of equipment such as bark collar and enforcement of animal-related ordinances. Currently, two of the three positions are filled.

Contrary to the committees comments about training, the report says shelter staff have completed numerous trainings over the years to include:

Training Program for Animal Control Professional Training
Program for Animal Control Professionals
NM Humane Animal Conference
Animal Cruelty & Fighting Investigations
Large Animal Rescue
National Animal Control & Humane Officer Academy Module, A, B, C
EMI – Animals in Disasters
Rescuing Animals from Cruelty & Disasters
Field Sheltering & Temporary Shelters
Fundamentals of Emergency Sheltering
Veterinary Forensics
Animal Crime Scenes & Evidence Collection
The ASPCA Disaster Response Program
Investigating Animal Abuse for Law Enforcement
1st Line Supervision & Management
Communicating with Tact, Diplomacy & Professionalism
National Animal Care & Control Association Training Academy
NM Governors Conference on animal abuse
National Animal Control Association (NACA) Level I & II
Bite Stick training
Assessing Animal Behavior

The report also indicates plans for additional training in behavior assessments and treatment.

“Over the last 18 months, there have been several changes to personnel which have made it difficult to keep shelter open at times. We lost the shelter manager and animal control supervisor near the same time, which left only two employees left to care for the animals seven days a week; usually with one employee working at a time. Animal control duties sometimes required the shelter be closed for a short time to respond to dog bites or similar cases. During this time, the shelter closed for approximately 30 minutes while they responded to a call, and only in cases where there was only one employee working,” the report states. “There have been two new employees hired in 2019, which eliminated the closure of the shelter in most cases. The Shelter was fully staffed for about three months, until another employee resigned.”

Some 17 applicants applied for that vacancy and the top candidate has a wealth of animal experience and their background is currently being checked, the LAPD report states, and in while revaluating the situation with regard to customer service, LAPD has determined there is a need for a full-time administrative staff member to ensure there is a person there to meet the public throughout the week.

The LAPD report addressed the committee’s recommendation to remove the three animal control officers  from the shelter and place them solely under LAPD saying there would still be a need and a requirement for three animal control officers in order to have coverage for the community seven days a week. The report states that staffing issues would not be fixed if four staff members were replaced with four new staff members. It says the annual cost estimates of $230,317 given to the committee did not include the cost of vehicles, training, equipment and gear.

LAPD seems to favor the second model considered but rejected by the committee which would increase the current shelter staff by two while keeping the shelter under LAPD. Adding an administrative employee and an another PSA would allow better coverage and extra care for the animals. There would also be a staff member at the front desk to greet the public, answer phones and complete paperwork.

“Additionally, this would allow the shelter manager to perform more of his roles as shelter manager (in) caring for the animals, ordering supplies and making behavior assessments. This cost estimate would be around $105,000 more a year and would increase the current authorized FTE by two,” the report says.

The report addresses allegations by Brunish that animals from custody battles or held in evidence are not treated humanely. Roberts stated that in his 18 months of being in charge of the shelter he has personally not heard of a single animal that has been taken in evidence unless it was already deceased.  He said the only difference in their treatment is that they would not have encounters with the public or other animals ready for adoption because the liability involved is very high.

The report notes that there are some 130 volunteers at the shelter with 25 to 30 that come on a consistent basis. The training and requirements for volunteers are listed in the report and it notes that there has been a large increase in volunteers in the last year

A snapshot of the shelter over the last 3.5 years shows that some 2,116 animals were taken in during that time.  Of these, 2116 animals, 54.63% or 1156 animals stayed in the shelter for less than seven days while  28.02% or 593 animals stayed between 8 and 31 days.  Only 149 animals of 7.42 % stayed 61 days or longer. Most of the 149 were placed into foster care homes due to an illness or being too young to adopt.

The report noted that doption is a very important component of any animal shelter and th at the Los Alamos shelter adopts out 85.56% of dogs and 78.4% of cats compared with the national rate of 25% of dogs and 24% of cats.

The euthanasia statistics at the shelter mean that it can be considered a “no-kill” shelter. The Los Alamos rate is 1.05% for dogs and 5.61% for cats or an overall 2.5% or half the 5% that can be euthanized while maintaining “no-kill” status.

“Los Alamos Animal Shelter euthanized 4 dogs out of 382 in 2018, they euthanized 10 out of 178 cats, or a total of 14 animals out of 560 in 2018. All numbers come from the American Humane organization. Contrary to what the Ad hoc Committee presented to Council, we do have a policy on euthanasia. Our policy is always to try and find the best home for an animal,” the report states. “Most euthanized animals are due to medical conditions. We have a policy on euthanasia and all animals for this consideration must get Chief of Police approval prior to the act. The Chief is briefed on the quality of life, background history of the animal and veterinary recommendations prior to any decision. The only exception is if the animal is suffering and time is of the essence,” the report states.

The report notes that the shelter conducted an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 49-page evaluations in 2018. LAPD met 90-95% of the “must have” requirements, 85-90% of the “should have” requirements and 85% of the “ideal” requirements with zero “unacceptable” conditions.

The report’s conclusion states there is always room for improvement and that the goal of the shelter is to provide the best care for the animals and the best service to the community. It says the shelter has adopted some of the recommendations from others and has greatly improved its service.

“Los Alamos Police Department strives to improve with each and every experience, and looks forward to serving the citizens of Los Alamos to the best of their ability,” it concludes.

There has been no indication of what if any action the Council intends to take on the committee’s recommendation. The committee met last week to begin working on the second part of its charter from Council. Other committee members are Wendy Marcus, Linda Zweck, Melissa Bartlett, Mary Timmers, Sally Wilkins and Jennifer Jung. Some committee members have been appealing on social media for letters and emails to Council in support of the committee’s recommendation.