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Editorial: Help wanted: professional animal welfare director

As long as new Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller is doing a nationwide search for a chief of police, he might want to look for a professional animal welfare director as well.

Leadership at the city’s Animal Welfare Department has been controversial for nearly a decade, in large part because directors are political appointees rather than animal welfare professionals with proven track records. And it isn’t helpful that directors are allowed to override professional staff recommendations regarding an animal’s adoptability.

The city’s most recent directors, both appointed to the post under the administration of Mayor Richard Berry, had zero experience running a metropolitan animal welfare operation prior to being appointed.

Barbara Bruin, an attorney whose only experience in animal welfare was membership on the Animal Humane New Mexico board and the New Mexico Attorney General’s Animal Cruelty Task Force, was appointed to the post in 2009. Her stormy tenure ended when a “management realignment” had Bruin stepping down to work in a newly created “advisor” position. She resigned from the agency in 2016.

Her replacement was Paul Caster who, before being named deputy director in 2015, had no experience running a shelter, other than organizing the department’s volunteers and having been involved in private animal rescue organizations.

He ascended to the $102,643-a-year director’s job after city officials failed to make good on a promise to conduct a nationwide search for an experienced and qualified director.

The Achilles’ heel for both Bruin and Caster proved to be their propensity to override recommendations by professional staffers regarding the adoption of potentially dangerous dogs.

At least four investigations since 2014 found that Animal Welfare had been adopting out dogs that had either bitten or injured humans or killed other animals and potentially endangered public safety. In response, city officials in 2015 designated a three-person team – made up of highly experienced staff members, such as veterinarians and animal behaviorists – to make decisions on adoptability and euthanasia.

Inexplicably, the department’s directors have been allowed to override those decisions, and have done so, much to the chagrin of professional staffers, unwitting adopters and, presumably, the city’s risk management department. (It’s noteworthy that Caster last year helped hire animal rights colleague Deb Brinkley as associate director, even though she has acknowledged that her Colorado animal sanctuary rescued a 120-pound mastiff named Onion that had mauled a 1-year-old Nevada child to death in 2012. As of Dec. 6, Brinkley was still on the job.)

Clearly, at least two things need to occur at this juncture: Protocols that allow a director to override adoptability and euthanasia recommendations by the three-member team need to be eliminated; and the city should hire a professional director with experience running a metropolitan animal welfare department.

As we have seen, the alternative leads to a dysfunctional department wracked by internal strife, whistleblower complaints and unacceptable liabilities. The shelter’s animals, and taxpayers, deserve far better.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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