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Concerns raised about ABQ Animal Welfare

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

The dog’s name was Onion, and he rose to national prominence in 2012 after mauling a Nevada child to death on the boy’s first birthday.

Onion, a 120-pound mastiff and Rhodesian mixed breed, was slated to be put down, but an animal rights group intervened and secured the dog’s freedom after nearly two years of legal wrangling with the city of Henderson, Nev. Deb Brinkley, who was hired last year as associate director of the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department, told her employees here that she helped save Onion by taking him in at a sanctuary she used to run in Colorado.

Albuquerque Animal Welfare employees told investigators with the city’s Office of Inspector General that it was just another example of the mindset of their department’s leaders and how they prioritize “live exits” for animals over public safety, according to an investigative report released Thursday by the OIG. The report states that Brinkley confirmed that she did provide sanctuary to Onion and he “lived out his days at her sanctuary in Colorado.”

“The situation with Onion was cause for concern for many employees,” according to the report.

The OIG investigation was launched in response to complaints from multiple Animal Welfare employees about what they believed to be a disregard for public safety, how dogs with serious behavioral issues were being handled, a lack of communication from leadership and other concerns.

The report cites several instances in which Animal Welfare Director Paul Caster prioritized saving animals’ lives over public safety, at times in violation of city rules and even a state statute as it relates to dogs that injure or kill livestock.

“The public’s safety must be paramount and take precedence over the desire to save an animal’s life,” the report states. “The failure to do this not only places the city of Albuquerque at increased risk of costly lawsuits, but jeopardizes the health and safety of the citizens.”

Desiree Cawley, the marketing manager and spokeswoman for Animal Welfare, said Caster was out of town on Thursday, and she referred requests for comment on the report to the Mayor’s Office.

Michael Riordan, the city’s chief operating officer, downplayed the findings. He told the Journal in an emailed statement that he had just received a copy of the OIG report.

“From our brief review, the report is based on the same allegations and same dog cases that the TIGER team completed their investigation on nearly four months ago,” he said. “Based on the latest TIGER Team report, the Animal Welfare Department has already addressed needed revisions to their policies and procedures and distributed these to all (Animal Welfare Department) staff.”

He said the city remains dedicated to maintaining a “safe and effective Animal Welfare Department that handles more than 17,000 animals annually and has steadily increased all performance measures for reducing intake, increasing adoptions, and total spay/neuter procedures.”

According to the OIG report, investigators were told that animals were no longer being removed from the euthanasia list, a problem identified in the past. But employees reported that they often felt uncomfortable or afraid to list dogs for euthanasia, noting that the director would often use words like “execute,” “destroy” and “kill,” causing employees to feel guilty about listing dogs to be euthanized.

“Some employees felt management’s leadership style was intimidating and even caused employees to change positions on issues,” the report states.

According to the OIG, staff members also reported instances in which the director minimized or downplayed incidents involving dog bites.

“Employees felt that the director would also frequently shift the blame to the other dog or to the person involved, whether it was an adult or child, and stated the (Animal Welfare Department) dog that bit or attacked the other animal or person must have been provoked,” the report states.

The OIG also found “apparent dysfunction, low morale and ineffective leadership” in the department.

This marks the fifth investigation of Animal Welfare practices and leadership involving potentially dangerous dogs since 2015, the second involving Caster, who took the top job at the agency in mid-2016.

Earlier this year, an internal “Tiger Team” of top city managers and an attorney investigated complaints about Caster, finding he disregarded new reforms and overruled staff to keep “unadoptable” shelter dogs from being euthanized. Riordan responded last March that Caster was working “to improve the situation.”

Three city investigations in 2015 concluded that Animal Welfare had been adopting out dogs that had bitten or injured humans or killed other animals and potentially endangered public safety. Then-Director Barbara Bruin stepped down as director that year and left the agency in July 2016. Caster had been a volunteer coordinator for the organization before he was employed by the city.

The OIG recommended that the Animal Welfare Department stay abreast of changes to city and state law, as well as best practices promulgated by the professional associations “to ensure maximum safety to the public and AWD employees as well as minimal risk of lawsuits.”

The OIG spoke with various individuals throughout AWD.

“All felt that the goal and number one priority should be public safety,” the report states. “They felt it was part of AWD’s duty and responsibility to protect the citizens of Albuquerque. Staff felt optimistic when new leadership came on board in late 2015. However, it soon became clear that the new Director was most interested in further decreasing euthanasia numbers.”

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