Members of the Los Alamos County Animal Shelter Ad Hoc Committee during their Aug. 19 virtual meeting. Not pictured is Mary Timmers who attended by phone. Screenshot/Los Alamos Reporter
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
An item placed on the agenda for the Aug. 19 virtual meeting of the Los Alamos Animal Shelter Ad Hoc Committee by chair Wendee Brunish concerning compliance of the shelter with the County Code section on animals ended with two questions unanswered. The first was where did 12 kittens come from that Brunish wanted turned in at the shelter. The second was why she felt there was no dialog on the issue despite extensive email exchanges with Shelter Manager Paul Sena and Sgt. Daniel Roberts.
Brunish alleged that the shelter is not acting in compliance with Section 6-17 of the Code concerning Unwanted Animals which states that the “Los Alamos County operated animal shelter will accept any dog or cat, which the keeper no longer wants or cannot keep, and will place such animal for adoption for a period of five days after which time it may be humanely destroyed. The owner or keeper of the animal must be a resident”.
Prior to the meeting, the Los Alamos Reporter asked Brunish for background on the agenda item and received two emails in response. The first email was sent by Brunish to Paul Sena June 11 asking him “how to advise” a person who lives in Los Alamos and has a kitten that was found in Nambe. She asked Sena if once the kitten is ready for adoption, the person should check with the shelter in case they have any demand.
Sena responded that the person can call the shelter and that he would be happy to talk to her.
“The way this would work though is that the kitten would have to be surrendered to the Santa Fe Humane as Nambe is in their district. We can take animals from out of the County as transfers but they have to be fully vetted to be transferred in from out of County,” he wrote. He also provided his cell phone number and told Brunish to feel free to contact him anytime.
Brunish maintained that Sena is violating the County Code by not accepting any unwanted animal and placing it for adoption within five days. However, what she did not reveal was an email thread between Sena and LAPD Sgt. Daniel Roberts concerning 12 kittens she wished to turn in at the shelter.
Starting June 11, Sena told Brunish in an email that the shelter would be happy to take in the kittens as soon as they were old enough.
“I would need to know where they are from in the county and I would need to have the owner fill out the surrender paperwork for us,” he said.
On June 25, Brunish notified Sena that “we” had 12 kittens and asked questions about the shelter’s current policy on fixing a kitten. Sena again responded that he shelter still needed some information in order to continue.
“I will need the surrenders information and address where the cats were found/or came from. I will need a driver’s license for the surrender as well as a phone number and email address. If the cats are from Los Alamos County we can bring them in to the shelter and then get them scheduled to be fully vetted at that point,” Sena wrote. “We cannot offer any of those service to cats that are adopted directly from Friends of the Shelter. If the cats are not from Los Alamos County then they cannot be surrendered to the shelter in Los Alamos – they must be taken to the shelter that is designated for the area they are from.”
Sena said the only exception would be if Los Alamos accepted the kittens as a transfer from another county and that the animals would have to be fully vetted by the county or agency transferring them.
“This is the current policy for out of the county transfers at this time. The cats must be tested for FIV (and) leukemia. They must be vaccinated and sterilized. The Los Alamos Animal Shelter will not cover those expenses unless the animal originally came from Los Alamos County,” he said.
It should be noted that it is often unclear throughout this situation whether Brunish is acting as a private resident, chair of the ad hoc committee, a representative of Friends of Shelter and Companion Animals or another agency.
At this point, at end of June, Sena’s supervisor, Sgt. Daniel Roberts got involved and sent an email to Brunish noting that Brunish had up to 12 kittens that she would like to see if the Los Alamos Animal Shelter would take in.
“The kittens are at foster homes somewhere within Los Alamos County. These kittens are not at one foster, but at various homes. You stated the fosters would be surrendering the kittens. Mr. Sena has asked where the kittens came from prior to being fostered, but we have not received the answer. Why we asked this is because Los Alamos County Animal shelter has had numerous issues in the past with people taking in animals from outside the county, house them for a few days, and then surrender them to our shelter. These animals come in with no medical records, history, behavior history, and often medical issues and costs to the County. This is not the intention or proper use of the shelter. Over the last several years, we have found and identified individuals who are doing such and abusing the system; they have been restricted from surrendering animals to our shelter. This is why we ask where they came from,” Roberts wrote.
He said the shelter also wanted to know if the kittens came from another shelter because he said that’s how fostering most often occurs.
“We have spoken to most of the shelters in New Mexico and have an understanding that if an animal is adopted out of one shelter and turned into another, the original shelter will take custody again. We have done this several times in the past, both receiving pets back or giving them back to the original shelter. Every shelter we have talked to or had an issue with has agreed to this standard,” Roberts wrote. He concluded by asking Brunish if she could provide the following information so that the shelter could make a decision about the kittens: Where did the kittens come from prior to being in foster? How many different foster homes were involved and how many cats were at each separate foster home.
Brunish responded by questioning why the shelter was not complying with the Code and accepting any dog or cat. Roberts responded acknowledging that there may be some shortfalls with the ordinance that are currently being addressed.
“We do this to ensure animal welfare is taken care of and we can promote responsible pet ownership to limit animal transfers between environments to a minimum. We have concerns especially with the ordinance you mentioned because people try to find loop holes around it. We have tried to stop this in the past and have done really well. The last thing we want is to be exploited and inundate the shelter with too many animals, which could cause a higher euthanasia rate. This is why we ask the same questions from every person, regardless of position or history with the shelter. I do find it troubling, you are not willing not answer the questions we ask of every surrender and help us uphold the standard which we have set,” Roberts wrote.
He noted that after discussing the issue with Chief Dino Sgambellone, the shelter would accept the 12 kittens as requested.
“We will ask each individual foster to fill out the surrender paperwork, which will include an identification card. We understand that being a foster usually entails the animal belongs to someone else, so we ask you ensure the kittens are not still wanted by the other owner,” Roberts wrote. “Once we receive the kittens, we will comply, as we have, with County ordinance ‘and will place such animal for adoption for a period of five days after which time it may be humanely destroyed’.”
In mid-July, Brunish brought Councilor James Robinson, liaison to the Ad Hoc Committee, and Council Chair Sara Scott into the picture by seeking Council’s input. At Wednesday’s committee meeting, with Councilor Robinson and Sgt. Roberts in attendance, Brunish complained that she had not received a response. From that point on, the meeting broke into a back and forth often heated discussion with Brunish often speaking over participants, clearly upset about the situation.
Robinson noted that the ordinance is being revised and is under legal review. He reminded the committee that the ordinance may say one thing but how it is interpreted is by policies and procedures. Brunish said that if the ordinance says the shelter will accept any dog or cat from a resident of the County, she is not sure how the County can rationalize not abiding by its own ordinance. Robinson responded that there has been some historical perspective where people have gone out of the County, brought back animals and surrendered them to the shelter.
“As you know, we don’t have a very large shelter so each animal we bring in, we need to make sure we have budget for it – have food for it,” Robinson said.
Brunish interrupted saying there’s a reason shelters don’t have a surrender fee for animals.
“If you turn away animals like we’re doing here, there’s lots of unintentional negative consequences that come to you, your citizens , etc. as well as the animals. So you need to look at those consequences. The consequences of turning away an animal and not bringing it into the County through your shelter is that now you have an animal in your County that you haven’t had a chance to microchip, vaccinate, spay/neuter, assess for aggression – but that animal is in your County and you haven’t done any of those things that allow you to keep your public safe,” she said.
Brunish said the shelter should be the appropriate gateway for animals coming into the County and by abdicating that responsibility, there are a host of other potential problems the animals can cause. She accused the shelter of minimizing intake.
“I’m going to stop you right there,” Councilor Robinson. “We are not saying we’re minimizing intake, we need history on these animals. That’s why we ask questions about what animal is coming into our shelter so that we know what we’re dealing with.”
Brunish then alleged that the first question the shelter asks is if an animal is from inside the County and that if the answer is no, the dialog and ability to partner are stopped.
Sgt. Roberts said he believed Brunish was jumping to conclusions a little bit because in every email, the shelter never said no to accepting the 12 kittens from Brunish or the kitten from Nambe.
“We asked for information and you personally did not want to provide information. We have been in this committee several times where you have said we need to get a better understanding, we need to get a better history and we need to know where these animals come from so we can find them forever homes,” he said.
Roberts noted that in the Los Alamos policy as well as everywhere else is that a foster is a temporary home.
“Somebody else owns that cat. I asked who the person is who actually owns that cat. A foster does not own that cat. The foster is a temporary help to assist usually another shelter. If it was rescued, it came from somewhere else. And you wouldn’t provide those names and that’s all we asked – is where did these originally come from. When it comes to the Nambe cat, the first thing is this cat was found out in Nambe. If you lost your animal here in Los Alamos and somebody is visiting the Jemez Mountains from Santa Fe, would you check the Santa Fe Animal Shelter for that cat or dog? No, we ask and we require if you find an animal outside Los Alamos County you return it back to the place you found it so the owner has a possibility to locate that at the nearest shelter, not some 30-50 miles away from where the animal was found.,” he said.
Brunish again insisted that there was no opportunity or discussion with the shelter staff however, Roberts disagreed, noting that Sena had left communication open and offered to speak with Brunish.
Other committee members did not take Brunish’s stance on the shelter’s policy of knowing where animals come from before they are accepted. Mary Timmers noted that ownership determination can be very tricky. Melissa Bartlett discussed what happens if people collect animals outside the County and bring them to the shelter to turn in.
“Then you need to get into do our taxpayers need to pay for sick animals coming up to our County,” Bartlett said.
Councilor Robinson addressed the shelter’s implementation of the ordinance.
“We do have an ordinance where we say that members of the public who live in Los Alamos County can surrender an animal to our shelter. Because of unintended consequences with that, we set up internal policies and procedures so that we don’t get stolen property adopted out of our shelter. We’re not telling them no, just asking for a little more information,” he said. “We’re not turning them away. We’re not slamming the door. We just need a little more information so that we can put that animal in the most appropriate place. We’re not telling them no. We’re just setting up internal procedures.”
Brunish said the reason she the reason she contacted Sena before she even had the kittens was that she didn’t want the kittens “to go to a shelter and sit in a shelter”.
“I wanted to talk to Mr. Sena to make sure they were getting adopters, to make sure that spay/neuter appointments could be scheduled, to make sure that people would see these kittens and so I didn’t want to just dump 12 kittens at the shelter, I wanted to make sure the kittens were adoptable and got out of the shelter as quickly as possible,” she said. “My goal was not to just dump 12 kittens on you but to work with you to make sure the kittens got what they needed and that adopters in Los Alamos would have access to these lovely kittens. I didn’t want to have them in the shelter and have them wait five weeks to be fixed, I wanted to be sure the shelter was able to take care of these kittens. The only question I got asked was where the kittens came from.”
She said Santa Fe’s shelter did not ask where the kittens came from.
“They didn’t care because they cared about the animals and serving their community by providing nice animals for adoption. I thought our shelter had the same goals but instead I was turned away with one question and one question only,” Brunish said.
Sgt. Roberts said the loophole in the ordinance allows people to try to abuse the system to bring in animals from outside the County. He noted that the changes to the ordinance will be brought before Los Alamos County Council and will go through the mandatory public comment process
The Animal Shelter Ad Hoc Committee was established by Council in July 2018 and submitted its first report to Council in June 2019. The report may be viewed 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. Council did not take any action on the report approved the charter’s second phase.
Brunish has long publicly held that LAPD should only be involved in animal control issues and not in the operation of the shelter. She was chair of the Friends of the Shelter group in 2017 when FOS opted to suspend its involvement with the shelter. The group continues to operate under the name Friends of Shelter and Companion Animals but does not work with the local shelter.
Council has approved extensions for the second phase of the committee’s work until Dec. 1, 2020.
Members of the committee are Brunish, Melissa Bartlett, Mary Timmers, Sally Wilkins and Jennifer Young. Two members have resigned – Wendy Marcus and Linda Zwick – however their names were listed on Wednesday’s agenda.
See previous Los Alamos Reporter story at https://losalamosreporter.com/2019/07/22/a-tale-of-two-shelters-lapd-and-shelter-ad-hoc-committee-reports-differ/