County Responds to Criticism of Animal Shelter, New Director
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners responds to recent criticism of the Animal Shelter after hiring a new director and seeing two resignations.
The Douglas County Animal Shelter/Animal Control Department has undergone many changes over the past year in an effort to increase the number of animal adoptions/decrease the euthanasia rate, provide better citizen service, and plan for the future.
The current Douglas County Animal Shelter was constructed in the mid-1980s to meet the needs of the suburban population of the County which was about 55,000 people. The Shelter had 20 dog kennels that could contain two dogs each, and 30 cat cages. A puppy room had the capacity of 16 small dog cage enclosures. The Animal Shelter was run by the independent not-for-profit Douglas County Humane Society to which Douglas County contributed funds to provide this service.
Outdoor sheltered dog areas were later added to handle larger breeds of dogs, but no significant changes have been made in the shelter since its original construction.
Douglas County took over operations of the Animal Shelter/Animal Control in 2004 and placed the operations under the direction of the Government Services Department. Animal populations continued to grow as residential population grew in the County. The 2010 Census estimate is 132,403.
It became obvious to Douglas County officials that the capacity for care for the animals coming into the Animal Shelter/Animal Control was being exceeded. Adoptions and placements through rescue organizations were being far outnumbered by the drop-offs at the Shelter and pick-ups by Animal Control. Due to the limited space at the Shelter after adoptions and transfers, the County had a fairly high euthanasia rate, particularly with sick animals, those considered to be unadoptable, and those considered unsociable. Government-run Animal Shelters do not have the option to turn away animals. When the Shelter is full, decisions have to be made. Euthanasia is a sad fact.
Douglas County established an Animal Control Advisory Board (ACAB) in 2007 to aid County officials in determining policies and procedures for the Shelter, and to aid in planning for an eventual new facility. The ACAB is composed of seven voting citizen members (5 appointed by the Douglas County Board of Commissioners and two by the City of Douglasville Mayor and Council) and a consultant veterinarian (non-voting). The ACAB is not a governing body, but exists to recommend action items to the Board of Commissioners. Very few such boards exist anywhere else in the State to provide such public involvement.
In 2012, the Board of Commissioners engaged the services of Life Line Animal Project to perform a comprehensive evaluation of Shelter and Animal Control operations. The document was presented to the ACAB and the Board of Commissioners in April and listed many positives and negatives. The evaluator, Susan Feingold, acted as temporary Shelter Manager during the evaluation and for a few months afterwards to begin the implementation of some of the actions.
In his 2012 State of the County address, Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan pledged to begin the process of planning a new Animal Shelter. Chairman Worthan created a lunch event for the State of the County and the proceeds from the lunch went to pay for half of the Life Line evaluation; the remaining half was funded by the Douglas County Humane Society. While the new shelter is being planned, the Board of Commissioners has and is making improvements to the existing Shelter and Animal Control, including improvements to the HVAC system, a new Road Officer truck ($35,000 with heating and cooling for the animals); a used Road Officer truck with conversions ($19,000); septic system improvements ($26,000), a new puppy room with the help of Leadership Douglas ($1,700), computers, ceiling tiles, light fixtures and other items. Microchip scanners will soon be placed on all Road Officer vehicles. A new two-way radio system is being installed for improved efficiency in responding to animal concerns; and staff will soon be in uniforms for public identification and professionalism.
In November 2012, after a Nationwide search, the Board of Commissioners employed Rick Smith as Animal Control Director. At that time, Animal Control became a designated stand-alone County department with its Director reporting directly to the County Administrator. This was done to give more direct and closer attention to the facility and programs by the County Administrator and Board of Commissioners. This may be unique because animal control facilities are usually placed under the direction and control of law enforcement or public health departments.
Director Smith had been previously employed since September 1979 by the City of St. Joseph, Missouri, as its Animal Control and Rescue Manager. He holds certifications in law enforcement from the City of St. Joseph; animal control from the Missouri Animal Control Association; and euthanasia certification training from the Humane Society of the United States. Mr. Smith was a Board Member of the Missouri Animal Control Association multiple times since 1979, and served in numerous offices in that organization. His Shelter was the recipient of the 2007 and 2009 Shelter of the Year Awards from the Missouri Animal Control Association. Mr. Smith wrote the first breeder and animal litter permit ordinances in the State of Missouri; started a pre-release adoption spay/neuter and vaccination program; established a 24-hour operation to meet the needs of the public; renovated the St. Joseph Animal Shelter; and developed standard operating procedures for the Shelter - all needs identified in the Life Line report. References for Mr. Smith included the Friends of the Animal Shelter who stated that he was an “animal welfare advocate always working to better the conditions for all animals” and the Missouri State Public Health Veterinarian who recommended “without any reservation his selection.”
The Life Line report and Director Smith’s initial observations noted that there was no strong direction being given at the Shelter and that employees and volunteers had no structure, management, or procedures. He began to implement management that did not sit well with two of the employees, and they resigned on their own accord and under no pressure to do so. A third employee resigned due to personal reasons that had nothing to do with Shelter operations. No employees were terminated. The employment vacancies have placed a strain on the Shelter’s functions until the positions are advertised and filled, and all current employees are working overtime. At present, there are 5 vacancies. All have been advertised and applicants are being interviewed at the present time.
Some of the duties of the personnel who resigned have had to be temporarily suspended, including the production of the “in danger” list of Shelter animals. Before the end of February, the “in danger” list will again be available to the public through a weekly posting on the Animal Shelter page of the Douglas County web site, www.CelebrateDouglasCounty.com; the list will be posted no later than Wednesday of each week, but usually on Tuesdays. These are not animals that automatically will be euthanized if not adopted, but have reasons to be on the list, such as length of time at the Shelter, condition, etc.
The euthanization rate for the Douglas County Animal Shelter in 2012 was approximately 16 percent. The County Administrator has instructed Director Smith to keep this rate as low as possible. Current euthanizations have been limited to un-rescued feral cats which have been in isolation, rabies specimen dogs, and sick animals.
Last year (2012), a total of 3,187 animals were in the Douglas County Animal Shelter. Of that number, 38 percent were adopted; 33 percent went to rescue agencies; 11 percent were returned to their owner; and 16 percent were euthanized. The euthanization rate in Cherokee County last year was 57 percent, and about 30 percent in Henry County. Nationally, approximately 60 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats are euthanized.
Some Shelter functions, such as kennel cleaning and pet exercise, are currently being done with Community Service workers. An organization for volunteers is in the formative stages, and the new organization will have structure and specific duties for volunteers, as opposed to volunteers showing up at unspecified, unscheduled times for uncoordinated contributions of time and effort. There are necessary tasks that need to be daily performed and volunteers can help with these tasks but there needs to be a calendar, an assignment of responsibility, and a definitive completion. Volunteers are also being recruited to host off-site pet adoption events for the Shelter. Best management practices require an orderly and much-needed volunteer effort that addresses training of volunteers, education, community outreach and coordination of efforts to benefit the animals - not personal egos. Director Smith’s wife, Cynthia, has volunteered many unpaid hours to help put together the organization. Mrs. Smith has extensive experience with the formation of this type of support group and her expertise will be invaluable in getting the new volunteer organization running in a short time period.
The hours for public visitation to the Shelter for animal adoptions were modified to be more citizen-friendly and to give the staff more time to clean and care for the animals. A review of the hours in effect was made to choose which were popular and which had low or no attendance. Sunday hours were extended. The weekday hours were set so that the actual kennel personnel - the staff who know and work daily with each animal - will be available to work with the public for adoptions and rescues personally and answer all questions. The Shelter is open on Tuesday and Thursday nights until 6:30 p.m. to facilitate visitation and adoptions for those persons who work until 5 p.m.
The County has brought in two classroom trailers so that the cramped quarters of the Shelter can be temporarily alleviated. The trailers were modified to be ADA-compliant and Code-compliant as required by law. One of the trailers will house the offices for the director and the road officers, and the other will be used for storage. This will allow more room for the animals in the shelter, and allow for more separation between animals for sanitation and disease control.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners continues its location planning and facility research for a new animal shelter. The Commissioners have visited other shelters in Georgia and are weighing the merits of each to design the best shelter for the County’s needs. The Commissioners anticipate placing a referendum on the November 2013 ballot for the residents to decide if bonds should be issued for the construction of a new animal shelter. The estimated cost is $4 million.
The County is striving to take the Shelter to a professional level and adhere to the “Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters”, and that requires change. Due in part to the unstructured management and operation of the Animal Shelter prior to Director Smith’s arrival, there are individuals who no longer have “their way” at the Shelter. Two were the employees who resigned; others are volunteers; one was a member of the ACAB, Mr. Carl Pyrdum, Jr.
As a member of the ACAB, Mr. Pyrdum was instrumental in bringing needs of the Animal Shelter to the attention of the Board of Commissioners and his service was appreciated. However, Mr. Pyrdum openly challenged Director Smith after his employment and the County because Mr. Pyrdum no longer could have “his way” at the Shelter. Mr. Pyrdum does not like the new Shelter hours, and Mr. Pyrdum does not like the new structure for volunteers. He is openly hostile and has been threatening to Director Smith, other employees, other members of the ACAB, and to the public who support the changes. In addition, Mr. Pyrdum has solicited local businesses and animal welfare agencies to stop supporting the County and its Animal Shelter and to instead support his personal efforts. Mr. Pyrdum’s efforts, were they to be successful, would hurt the animals by increasing the euthanasia rate. The Board of Commissioners relieved Mr. Pyrdum of his ACAB appointment since the County is going in a different direction than Mr. Pyrdum desires. Mr. Pyrdum is a former law enforcement officer with the City of Atlanta Police Department who regularly relates to others that he carries a pistol and is not afraid to use it. He has posted videos on his blog opposing City of Atlanta policies.
Mr. Pyrdum has posted on numerous Internet blogs and other social media petitions and information in an effort to have Director Smith fired. These on-line postings and petitions have resulted in massive misinformation being distributed, and also threats to Director Smith, including the threat of personal harm. hese threats have been forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
Many threats came after the Board of Commissioners recently adopted the State of Georgia’s “Responsible Dog Ownership Law”, a requirement of local governments if local animal control officials are to enforce it. Some of the language in the law seems ambiguous, and the County’s legal staff asked Director Smith to review it and provide feedback to the ACAB. He authored suggestions to the local ordinance to particularly clarify how a dog could be declared “dangerous.” The amendments were not breed-specific, and proposed clarification that would limit some dogs, due to their actions, from being declared “dangerous.” The declaration of a dog as “dangerous” does not mean euthanization. Director Smith’s suggestions have to go through the ACAB, which would hear/modify/reject the proposal, and make a recommendation on it to the Board of Commissioners. There is also a judicial review provision in the existing State law that precludes Director Smith from making unilateral decisions on “dangerous” dogs. The ordinance review process is only in the beginning stages with the ACAB and may result in no changes to the local Ordinance at all.
Emails and telephone messages received by the Board of Commissioners complain about everything from the German Shepherd breed being declared “dangerous” by Director Smith (no dog has yet been declared “dangerous” and no breed can be declared “dangerous”) to feral cats not being allowed to be viewed by the public (feral cats are wild and can attack).
The ACAB and the Board of Commissioners are committed to moving forward in a positive direction with the Douglas County Animal Shelter and Animal Control Department. Constructive criticism is appreciated; viral misinformation and personal attacks due to the loss of influence and control are not and will not be tolerated. Director Smith has the strong support of the Board of Commissioners and many local animal welfare advocates.
Responses to Specific Allegations Received by Douglas County
Allegation: Douglas County spent $5,000 for a private rest room and shower for Director Smith in the renovated classroom trailer set up for offices at the Animal Shelter.
Response: The classroom trailers are required to be in compliance with the American for Disabilities Act and local and State Building Codes. A rest room with shower was installed in the office trailer and is accessible to the public who visit the trailer. The rest room will be used by all staff, including Road Officers and Kennel staff who may need to shower after working with the animals and being sprayed on. The $5,000 figure is roughly the total cost of siting the trailers, building the ADA-required ramps, plumbing, electrical and general modifications to convert the space into offices.
Allegation: Director Smith reduced the number of cages in the Shelter and therefore the number of animals able to be housed in the Shelter.
Response: Some temporary wire cages were removed due to their unacceptability in controlling aerosol diseases (i.e., upper respiratory infections) and due to their non-compliance with the “Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters” because of health risks to animals.
Allegation: Director Smith no longer provides a weekly “in danger” list to animal welfare advocates and rescue organizations.
Response: Due to the resignations of staff members whose responsibility it was to develop the “in danger” list, it was not produced for a couple of weeks. The “in danger” list is now being posted weekly on the Animal Control Department page of the Douglas County web site, www.CelebrateDouglasCounty.com, and on the Animal Control Department’s facebook page with allowances and encouragement for ”sharing.”
Allegation: The hours for public visitation/adoption at the Animal Shelter have been reduced.
Response: Shelter hours were changed so that (1) the kennel staff would have sufficient time to clean kennels, feed animals, exercise the animals, and interact with them in the mornings before the public arrived; and (2) the kennel staff who know the animals best would be available during public hours to help the public with adoptions and provide to the new owners specific knowledge on the animals due to the time they spent with them in the mornings. Shelter hours were analyzed for low and no visitation times, and those days with higher attendance had times extended.
Allegation: Mr. Smith is unqualified and was given his job because he is related to another County employee.
Response: Director Smith is eminently qualified for the position and is not related to any County employee.
Allegation: Mr. Smith canceled a sponsorship program for vetting animals.
Response: Sponsorships are welcome to pay for the expenses of spay/neutering animals. However, the sponsors cannot put conditions on their sponsorship such as infinite stay at the Shelter, to whom the animal can be adopted, etc.
A related Douglasville Patch article:
Douglasville Patch blogs written by Carl Pyrdum: