By Ron Lambert.
Just before New Year’s day, 2018, a dog named Oscar died in his yard in Arbutus. Concerned citizens had contacted BCAS about Oscar many times in the past several years. On December 30, with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees, a citizen called BCAS once again. Instead of responding physically, BCAS called Oscar’s owner and accepted his promise to bring the dog inside. But the owner was, in fact, out of town. Ten hours later, the owner’s father found Oscar in the yard. Oscar died later that night.
According to the Baltimore County Animal Services Advisory Commission, four days after Oscar’s death, Baltimore County “put out a statement saying that Oscar died of natural causes and there was no wrongdoing in his death”. But a necropsy later revealed that Oscar had died of hypothermia and suffered from muscle wasting and arthritis. The Baltimore County State’s Attorney charged Oscar’s owner with animal cruelty.
Oscar’s death “sparked outrage and ignited a discussion about whether Baltimore County’s animal rights protections are adequate”, according to the Baltimore Sun. Two Animal Services Advisory Commission members, Joy Freedman and Julianne Zimmer, helped draft a bill that was cosponsored by County Councilmen Tom Quirk and David Marks. “Oscar’s law”, which defined adverse environmental conditions that were unsafe for animals to be left outside without shelter, passed the Council unanimously.
But questions remained. Why didn’t an Animal Control Officer go to Oscar’s home when they received a call that day? After so many complaints, why wasn’t BCAS aware of Oscar’s deteriorating condition? Per its mandate, the Commission “attempted to learn the facts about the Oscar incident. We requested a liaison committee meeting….The County Administrative Officer refused to meet….He then…[shut] us out and [terminated] our monthly meetings at the shelter.” (Third Annual Report, Baltimore County Animal Services Advisory Commission, page 3).
According to the Commission, “the County Administrative Officer’s extreme response and lack of transparency led us to question whether all information provided to us was accurate, and whether problems were being hidden from our view. We began looking further.”
The Commission listened to Baltimore County residents and professionals in the animal welfare community. It interviewed current and former BCAS employees. It spoke with leaders of Animal Service Divisions in multiple Maryland counties. As a result of this process, some of the Commission’s most pressing concerns were as follows:
- BCAS was dismantling its Animal Control Division. On July 1, 2018, the majority of its duties were transferred to the Police Department. This put Police Officers and animals at risk because Officers were untrained for these responsibilities.
- The TNR program did “not adhere to nationally recognized best practices.” Cats were not always being released where they were trapped; some cats were returned too soon after surgery; and cats’ medical needs were not addressed.
- BCAS required victims to file a notarized affidavit before any investigation could begin, likely delaying investigations.
- BCAS operations were nontransparent.
Members of the Commission testified to these findings at the Baltimore County Council meeting on Oct. 1, 2018. Subsequent to that meeting, additional BCAS employees talked to the Commission to share information. The Commission learned that in October, about 60 guinea pigs had been surrendered to BCAS. According to the Commission, “A decision was made to take some of the animals to a snake farm in Pennsylvania to be used as snake food. While a BCAS worker was on their way to Pennsylvania with the guinea pigs, there was such an uproar among BCAS staff that (the driver) turned around and brought them back to BCAS. 24 of the guinea pigs were sent to Rescue, and 28 were euthanized.”
The Commission issued an addendum to its year 3 annual report. They found that animals being held for “Rescue groups only” and for administrative purposes may not be getting enough enrichment; and, that the public was not allowed in the stray hold area, possibly preventing the reunion of owners and missing pets. Most significantly, the Advisory Commission found that the live release rate statistics had been manipulated to falsely inflate the numbers. As the Towson Times reported:
Sometime in the past few years, the department’s leadership told employees to pressure owners surrendering animals at the shelter to sign a form requesting that they be euthanized, said Animal Services Advisory Commission chairwoman Deborah Stone Hess. When an animal is killed at an owner’s request, it does not count against the shelter’s official live release rate.
If the employee was unsuccessful in getting the owner to check that box, Hess said they were instructed to notify a supervisor, who also would try to convince the animal owner. Current and former employees of Animal Services, under condition of anonymity, confirmed the policy Hess described to the Towson Times.
Furthermore, the Times reported that “…many staff members disagree with the policy, but speaking up is discouraged…One said, ‘once they decide to euthanize, they don’t like people second-guessing that’.”
After newly-elected County Executive Johnny Olszewski took office in December 2018, County administrative officer Fred Homan left County government. In early 2019, the County Executive commissioned an operational review of BCAS. According to the Baltimore Sun, an Operational Excellence team “investigated complaints that were fielded by the Advisory Commission, and found that BCAS needed improvement in key areas related to communication with police, constituents and volunteers.” The operational report found that “the change to the [owner-requested euthanasia] totals are significant enough that it is likely that only a structural change (such as revising the interview process) could result in that level of difference.” Also, the report found that there was an “unclear delineation of responsibility between Animal Services and the police, causing miscommunication and delays in Animal Services receiving abuse reports.”
The report was released on March 20, just after it was announced that four top BCAS employees were dismissed: BCAS Chief Dr. Melissa Jones, management analyst Gary Clunk, shelter director Lauren Pavlik, and behavior and enrichment coordinator William Webster. Dr. Lucia Donatelli, a Bureau Director at the Baltimore County Department of Health, was announced as the BCAS Administrator in an interim situation while the County searched for a permanent Chief of BCAS.
Regarding Oscar: his owner ultimately reached a plea deal on one count of animal cruelty. It included 6 months of unsupervised probation, a $500 fine, and $2,260 for forensic vet services. The owner was barred from possessing animals for three years.
Baltimore County has made tremendous progress during this decade. Many people contributed to this progress, including County officials, past and present shelter management and staff, rescues and other shelters, and an activist community that refused to settle. Together, they produced an animal shelter that was successful at saving lives.
The Fancycats Rescue representative who filed a lawsuit in 2014 quietly settled the case out of the court. Details of the settlement were not available. The lawsuit brought by Anne George, et al, in 2014 is ongoing. The plaintiffs claimed that the harm they experienced was the waste of taxpayer funds due to the County’s mismanagement of the shelter. The Baltimore County Circuit Court ruled against George in 2016, preventing the case from moving forward. But the Maryland Court of Appeals recently overturned that ruling, saying that taxpayers are “reasonably entitled to a sound and careful used of funds”, according to the Towson Times. The plaintiffs will now be able to present their case in a lower court. The plaintiffs are asking for a writ of mandamus that BCAS follow the Baltimore County code to provide adequate care for shelter animals. Although BCAS is operating much better than it did in 2014, the Advisory Commission’s findings suggest that there is room for improvement.
The Advisory Commission has proven to be an indispensable voice for the animals. However, the strain of the past year has taken its toll. Two of the Commission members (who were also on the three-person liaison committee) have announced that they will be stepping down from the Commission soon: Joy Friedman and Julianne Zimmer. Their contributions are much appreciated and they will be missed.
Finally, the County has found its new Chief of BCAS: Kevin Usilton. Mr. Usilton will start on September 9, 2019. He has almost 30 years of experience in animal welfare. Several years ago he was the Bureau Director of Animal Control in Baltimore City, so he is familiar with the lifesaving programs that BARCS had implemented.
Over the past five months, Dr. Donatelli’s service as interim Administrator of BCAS has been productive. She helped fortify the relationship between the county and the volunteers. BCAS has introduced new programs, such as the “orange dot” program that allows certain volunteers to work with behavior-challenged dogs. These opportunities have allowed the volunteers to have more responsibility and to integrate more seamlessly with the staff. Due to budget constraints, BCAS has been short of staff this summer, but the staff have worked hard and handled the situation well.
My wish is that under new leadership, BCAS will continue to improve its relationships with all stakeholders. We will need to continue to work together to assure that each and every animal is given a fair chance.