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Editorial: City must put public safety first at its animal shelters

Dogs that end up at one of the city of Albuquerque’s animal shelters can pull at your heartstrings. Even the ones that can turn deadly in an instant. But if an animal is dangerous, it should not be put back in a situation where it can maim or kill again.

And that apparently has been happening there.

A story in Monday’s Journal by Investigative Reporter Colleen Heild laid out a disturbing practice that stunned the community, including Mayor Richard Berry. He immediately placed a moratorium on adoptions of dogs that fail a national behavior assessment called the SAFER test. He also called for an outside review of the city’s Animal Welfare Department and for the notification of families that have adopted dogs that failed the test.

Animal Humane New Mexico, which runs a shelter in Albuquerque, euthanizes dogs that flunk the SAFER test.

A complaint filed with the city’s Office of Inspector General alleges 132 dangerous dogs were allowed to be adopted from the city shelter last year despite failing the test, which assesses whether dogs age six months and older are likely to be aggressive in the future.

Additionally, 83 dogs that wound up in the shelter and had failed the test were given back to their owners, even though in some cases the dogs had hurt people, including shelter staff, or killed family pets.

The complaint, which sharply criticized the department’s director, Barbara Bruin, was filed by her second in command, Jim Ludwick, and outgoing behavior therapist Carolyn Hidalgo, who resigned in frustration over the practice. Both say Bruin overruled and sometimes verbally reprimanded them for expressing their concerns about the adoptability of dogs to her.

“Our responsibility,” Ludwick wrote in the complaint, “is not just to the animals staring us in the face as they stand in our cages. We have a responsibility to the animals and children who are out of sight and out of mind … who might pay the price if we unleash the dogs we should euthanize for public safety reasons.”

Berry called the accusations “very serious” and pledged things would change. Yet he said he was confident Bruin would be able to make whatever changes were needed to protect public safety.

But her answers to Journal questions don’t inspire confidence.

Ludwick alleges in the complaint that he was reprimanded “for disclosing negative information about individual dogs in various public records.” On Tuesday, Bruin said people adopting dogs are told about any issues the dog may have – “if they want (to know).” But letting people know a dog failed its behavior test and could be dangerous should not depend on whether they make a point of asking.

The complaint also accuses Bruin of saying that “we should not be concerned if a dog in our shelters has a history of killing, especially if the victim was a small dog. We should become concerned only if the animal has killed large dogs.” However, Bruin told the Journal she “would never belittle the killing of an animal by another animal. It was just a question of the degree of prey drive.”

She also gave a disconcerting answer about what to do with dogs that have killed cats: “we haven’t decided that, what do you think we should do?” The lack of clarity on an important issue does sound odd coming from the director of shelters that also handle cats, bunnies and the occasional exotic pet.

Bruin has been in charge of the department since 2009. Clearly a change in protocols that puts the well being of the public and other animals first is needed. Whether Bruin is the right person to lead that change is debatable.

Euthanasia is a heart-wrenching proposition. Though the city’s Animal Welfare Department has made a concerted effort in the last several years to reduce its rate – in 2009 it euthanized 10,347 animals, compared to 3,272 in 2013 – its policies should recognize that sometimes for safety’s sake it is necessary.

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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