New Advisory Commission, Building: BC Animal Services Finally on Track?

By Ron Lambert.

This post, the fourth in a series tracing developments at the Baltimore County Animal Services, follows Shelter Reform Comes to Baltimore County.

Since the 1970’s, the national movements to promote spay/neuter and reform animal shelters have saved many millions of animal lives.  By 2015, the number of dogs and cats killed in shelters each year was approximately two million, compared to up to 20 million prior to 1970.  By that time, Baltimore County Animal Services (BCAS) was starting to implement programs that had been proven to reduce shelter killing.

In 2015, the County Council passed Bill 2-15, establishing the Animal Services Advisory Commission.  The Commission’s purpose was “to advise the County Council and the County Executive on issues pertaining to animal care and welfare, animal rescue and adoption, control of the animal population, standards for animal shelters, training of personnel and volunteers, and any other issues related to the County’s Animal Services Division”. The Commission convened its first monthly meeting in July, 2015, and elected Deb Stone as its Chairwoman.

Establishing good lines of communication with County officials was a priority for the Commission.  Deb Stone invited Fred Homan to the Commission’s October 2015 public meeting, which I attended as an observer.  As the County Administrative Officer, Mr. Homan reported directly to the County Executive and supervised all of the agencies under the Executive branch (including the Department of Health).   Commission members asked Mr. Homan the following types of questions: What is the shelter doing to reach out to the community, to increase adoptions? What progress is BCAS making towards having better relationships with Rescue groups and developing a foster care program?  Who at BCAS could the Commission call if they had questions?  Under its mandate, the Commission needed information about how BCAS was operating.  Moreover, some Commission members seemed frustrated that progress was not happening faster.

Mr. Homan first stated that he was offended by the questions.  He then talked at length about the county’s investment in TNR and spay/neuter.  He said it would be inappropriate for him to answer specific questions, because the County had to assure that every response was consistent with state law.  He asked that instead of talking to BCAS staff, the Commission submit its questions in writing.  He emphasized that nothing happened instantly; “things take time”.

Despite initial tensions, the Commission and County officials successfully established a cooperative relationship.  The Commission created a liaison committee which met privately once a month with shelter management.  Among others, these meetings included management analyst Gary Clunk, the de facto director of shelter operations.  According to the Commission, these meetings were open, friendly and productive (page 2).

Also in 2015, BCAS moved into its new facility (in late December).  In contrast to the old building’s dingy appearance, the new building was bright and inviting. There were large, fenced areas for dogs to run.  The cat “adoptable” room had cages that were state-of-the-art, and there were two rooms that could house multiple cats (as an alternative to cages).  There were also “meet and greet” rooms for the public to interact with animals they were considering for adoption.  And, there were surgical rooms for spay/neuter, “ICU” rooms for sick animals, and other areas for stray-hold animals.

However, I observed that the move to the new building accentuated the County’s underlying distrust towards volunteers. All of the doors in the building locked automatically, and a key card was required for entry.  Initially, volunteers needed a staff person to let them into the hallway from the lobby, and again to let them into the cat room or dog kennels.  Soon, volunteers were temporarily issued key cards that allowed access to the cat and dog adoptable areas, but they were not allowed into the stray hold, ICU, or surgery rooms.  When animals left the shelter, volunteers were not allowed to know whether they were adopted, went to Rescue, or were euthanized.

Nevertheless, BCAS’ performance continued to improve.  In June 2016, the Advisory Commission submitted its first year annual report to the County. The report stated that the live release rates for the first quarter of 2016 (January through March) were 92 percent for dogs and 83 percent for cats.  For comparison to my 2015 figures, I used the summary data from the Commission’s report.  I calculated live release rates at 86 percent for dogs and 77 percent for cats (compared to 80 percent and 57 percent, respectively, in 2015).  This was significant progress.

(In my calculations, I included all animals who had a disposition (i.e., left the shelter or died) during the period.  The County’s rates did not count animals that were euthanized at owner request, so their live release rates were slightly higher than mine (in this case, by 6 percentage points).  The No Kill Advocacy Center recommends including all animals in the rate calculation.  However, most shelters report rates that exclude owner-requested euthanasia. For more information on the No Kill calculation and the origin of the “90 percent rule”, please see “They’re More Like Guidelines,” by Nathan Winogard.

In 2016, BCAS continued making progress.  In May, it began a volunteer foster program for “bottle babies” and moms with underage kittens.  In June, it participated in is first “mega-adoption” event, finding homes for 19 dogs and 38 cats from BCAS in one day. In November, the County awarded “Rescue Well” a $25,000 grant to help people who intended to surrender their pets.  Rescue Well offered support (food, vet care, other) to help people retain their pets, and helped find alternative placement for pets when retention was not possible. Also, after a successful pilot, BCAS implemented a permanent TNR program in November, hiring a TNR coordinator and staff.

The Advisory Commission’s second annual report covered the period July 2016 through June 2017. The Commission lauded BCAS’ accomplishments.  It reported that the live release rates for this period were 92.5 percent for dogs and 84.7 percent for cats.  It praised the dramatic growth of the volunteer program, and credited the new volunteer coordinator for expanding volunteer duties and being a cheerleader for the volunteers.  The commission also applauded BCAS’ improved relationships with Rescue groups and other shelters, and the success of their low-cost spay/neuter program and the TNR program.  Among the Commission’s recommendations was the need for BCAS to improve its marketing approach.  It suggested using more press releases (including emergency releases when the shelter was over capacity), and developing partnerships with local television stations.

With lifesaving programs in place, BCAS continued to perform well.  In January 2018, Baltimore County announced that BCAS ranked among the highest shelters in the nation when it came to saving animals’ lives. In July 2018, Baltimore County announced that live release rates had exceeded 90 percent for dogs over the past ten quarters, and had exceeded 90 percent for cats for the past three consecutive quarters.

But on March 20, 2019, BCAS’ top employees were suddenly fired.

So what happened?

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