Shelter Reform Comes to Baltimore County

by Ron Lambert.

This post, the third of a series, follows “Inside the Baltimore County Shelter.”

I became a cat volunteer at Baltimore County Animal Services in May, 2013. Volunteers helped clean cat cages and dog kennels, petted cats, walked dogs, and transported animals to Rescue groups. In the summer of 2013, BCAS started a pilot off-site adoption program, run by volunteers. We pitched in where needed. The Director of Animal Control told me how much she appreciated our work.

BCAS also began holding adoption specials (half price or waived fee) on some holidays. As the year closed, BCAS began sterilizing animals for adoption (per the County Code), and would soon extend this program to animals going to Rescues. But despite the positive steps in 2013, many volunteers expressed dissatisfaction. Now that they could see inside the shelter, they realized that things could be better.

For example, I repeatedly saw underage kittens enter the shelter healthy, then show symptoms of illness, then disappear before they were of adoption age. I wondered why sick cats couldn’t somehow be housed separately from healthy cats. I felt bad about healthy, adoptable cats being euthanized “for space” after an arbitrary length of time, when they may have been saved through use of volunteer foster care 1 and better marketing. I didn’t understand why BCAS was still banning some Rescue groups, when the animals needed all the help they could get.

Volunteers began demanding change. By the winter of 2014, the most vocal volunteers had been dismissed by BCAS, and some others had quit. They became the core of a new group called the “advocates”. They demonstrated on street corners, spoke at County Council meetings, and used social media to air their criticisms of BCAS.

Some of the local shelters tried to help. For instance, the Maryland SPCA had offered to help BCAS. But according to their Director, that help had not been accepted. To its credit, the County did take steps to address accusations of substandard care. It created the position of medical director and hired two full time veterinarians. In early spring 2014, Dr. Gregory Branch (the Director of Baltimore County Department of Health, under which BCAS operated) stated, “We have some things we need to do, and we’re doing those things.” He said, “I think we have it under control.”

On April 21, 2014, the advocates held a protest with over a hundred participants outside the County Council offices. They called for increased community outreach and transparency to reduce the shelter’s kill rate. Dr. Branch stated that there was “no merit” to the complaints. But according to the Jewish Times, local activists told “horror stories about neglected animals, dirty animal cages and a staff that fired volunteers for questioning the shelter’s conditions.” Some activists began filing lawsuits. In 2013, BCAS had banned Fancycats Rescue in Fairfax, Virginia, because their representative questioned conditions at the shelter after cats that were transported to them arrived deathly ill. In June 2014, that representative sued the Director of BCAS for violating her freedom of speech rights. And in late 2014, three activists (Anne George, Jody Kesner and Jody Rosoff) sued the county Executive and other county officials for failing to meet minimum care standards and for euthanizing animals unnecessarily.

But even as the criticism mounted, BCAS’ new direction was making an impact. I calculated the 2013 live release rate for cats at 30 percent, and the 2014 live release rate for cats at 37 percent. Progress was slow, but it was there. By 2015, it was becoming evident that the County had committed to reform. BCAS began to offer low-cost spay/neuter services to the general public at its Baldwin location. And in August of that year, it opened a low-cost spay/neuter clinic in Dundalk (with plans to open a west side clinic in the future). Through an agreement with Community Cats of Maryland (a nonprofit group), it implemented a TNR program on a pilot basis. It began isolating sick cats in a trailer. It revised the Rescue Agreement to make it more acceptable to Rescues. Weekday shelter hours were extended to 6:00 PM. The offsite program was reestablished.

BCAS launched a facebook page to promote adoptable animals. And in May, 2015, Dr. Melissa Jones (who had been a staff veterinarian) was named the new Chief of BCAS, signaling a new direction for the shelter. In addition, BCAS began accepting help from other area shelters, and consulted with BARCS regarding how to implement lifesaving programs. For the first time, BCAS participated in the “Baltimore 500,” an annual promotion to find homes for 500 cats in the four major Baltimore city and county shelters (BARCS, BCAS, Maryland SPCA, and the Baltimore Humane Society) in the month of June. I calculated the 2015 live release rate for cats at 57 percent (and for dogs at 80 percent).

While I saw BCAS make many improvements in 2015, I wasn’t sure they had really turned the corner. Since the spring of 2014, BCAS staff had told me about two volunteer foster program proposals that had been sent to the County for approval. By the fall of 2015, they had not been approved. Also, after the majority of volunteers left in early 2014, the volunteer program stagnated. In 2015, BCAS’ hardworking shelter manager hired an energetic volunteer coordinator, and the program was revitalized.

Then in October 2015, the County fired the shelter manager. The volunteer coordinator left for another job a short time later. Also in October, I heard rumors that adoptable animals were again being euthanized for lack of space. I was hopeful, but not convinced that progress would continue.

Two other things happened in 2015 that were significant. First, the County Council established a commission to advise the county government on issues related to BCAS. The “Advisory Commission” held its first monthly meeting in July, 2015, and elected Deborah Stone Hess as its chairperson. Second, in late December, 2015, a beautiful new animal shelter opened. I was cautiously optimistic.

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