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60% of animals in city shelters held over 90 days

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

More than 60 percent of the animals in the city’s Animal Welfare shelters have been there for more than 90 days, with few records to show what staff and volunteers have done to help them become more adoptable.

That’s just one of the problems former Solid Waste Director John Soladay said he stepped into when he became interim director of Animal Welfare six weeks ago.

A major concern is that too much time was being spent on hard-to-adopt animals – without records of their treatment or behavioral progress – to the detriment of easier-to-adopt animals, he said.

“These animals are stagnating in a kennel,” Soladay said during a meeting Wednesday with Journal editors and reporters.

Soladay said he’s observed dogs deemed unadoptable that have been kenneled for months on end with no records of rehabilitative work being done. Eventually, such animals go “kennel crazy,” exhibiting repetitive behaviors or other signs of mental illness to cope with the stresses of being caged.

Mayor Tim Keller is scheduled to discuss issues facing the Animal Welfare Department, which has been rocked by controversy in recent years, at a news conference this morning.

“While the Animal Welfare Department has faced some leadership challenges, we have moved quickly to make some necessary changes that are putting us on the right track and helping us fulfill our responsibility to care for these pets and to help find them suitable homes,” Keller said in a statement late Wednesday.

He commended Soladay for doing “a tremendous job while we conduct a national search for the department’s next director. Under his guidance, we are taking steps to better understand our euthanasia rates, to improve our spay and neuter programs so we don’t have to euthanize as often, and working to end breed discrimination.”

Other concerns Soladay cited Wednesday were a breakdown of management, lack of communications, unfilled positions and policies that were not being followed.

Soladay, who had led and revamped the city’s Solid Waste Department, said Animal Welfare is working to refine the intake process and better track an animal’s progress if it needs behavioral training in an effort to make the decision more quickly on whether to euthanize an animal. But he said the city is committed to remaining a “no-kill” shelter, although the definition is murky.

Of the 2,430 animals taken in between the beginning of December and early February, 233 have been euthanized, he said. That is 9.7 percent, which he said was a slight decline. About 1,500 animals are taken into the shelters each month.

Soladay said the shelter’s care groups are dedicated and passionate, but the lack of communication means they work “in silos.” Volunteers bond with animals that have been kenneled for months, making euthanasia decisions even more painful.

The department has been hit in recent years by reports that management was allowing potentially dangerous dogs to be adopted out. Paul Caster, who replaced beleaguered director Barbara Bruin in 2016, resigned as director in December after two internal city inquiries. In those, he was accused of overruling agency reforms and ignoring policies and professional opinions to avoid euthanizing potentially dangerous dogs.

In addition, a lawsuit was filed by two employees who claim they were retaliated against for speaking out against malfeasance in the department.

Caster helped hire Deb Brinkley as associate director of the department early last year.

Brinkley is now on administrative leave, Soladay said, pending an investigation into the department.

KOB reported earlier this week that dogs at city facilities had been transferred to a Colorado dog rescue owned by Brinkley that is now under investigation by Colorado for allegedly operating without a license.

“I stepped into Solid Waste eight years ago and kind of found the same thing I found here: an organization that had broken down from a ‘Management 101’ standpoint in a lot of different ways,” Soladay said.

Soladay said he is working on a review of policies and procedures, with some small changes expected.

However, he said many of the policies and procedures are adequate but were simply ignored or unwritten policies were followed “that were the exact opposite of what the structure should have been.”

He said that the department’s 140-person staff will also get additional workplace training and that he has mandated department meetings to improve communication.

Justine Freeman, a spokeswoman for Keller, said a nationwide search for a permanent director is ongoing.

“It’s one of the only departments we’re doing a national search for a director for, because of how severe these problems are,” she said.

Keller said, “We will continue to work diligently to address these challenges and to create a culture that allows us to care for our pets, ensure they are treated well, and to do everything we can to help them find a forever home.”