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Advocates, officials continue to clash over St. Louis County Animal Control

St. Louis County Animal Care and Control facilities, 10521 Baur Blvd. in Olivette

Whether or not their cries have been heard, plenty of tears have been shed both in public and private for the dogs of the St. Louis County Animal Care and Control Shelter [ACC]. Animal rights advocates, shelter volunteers and pet lovers in general have been growing increasingly frustrated with the current conditions at the ACC Despite assurances from public officials, many people are complaining that not enough is being done.

“I can’t express enough how bad it is there right now. Dogs in the wall kennels routinely are sitting in their own filth and spilled water for hours.  They often don’t have water. Most of them are too big to be in the kennels in the first place. It is complete chaos there and I am not exaggerating. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the back. There are currently 370 animals there.  I walked [dogs] for five hours on Wednesday and four yesterday and barely made a dent,” one volunteer wrote of her recent experience at the shelter.  

The problems at ACC are not new. Local advocates maintain the shelter has a sad history of mismanagement and maltreatment of the animals in its care.

“With [Stenger] we got a promise that we were going to have total access to everything that was going on and to all the statistics,” Allison Burgess said. “Stenger said he was committed to getting our euthanasia rate down to the no-kill level, which is 8% to 9% of the population.

But those promises from Stenger turned out to disingenuous and his brand cronyism only compounded the situation.

Burgess is a longtime county resident and animal rights advocate, who is a member of the County’s Animal Control Advisory Board. The board was established several years ago to work in cooperation with shelter staff and county leadership.

Echoing comments by numerous residents in public meetings for many months, Burgess stressed that she does not speak in any official capacity for the board.

“Putting a dog down because they don’t have enough space, or because they’ve been in a cage so long that [the dog] has gotten aggressive is not acceptable. It’s not euthanasia. It’s killing,” Burgess said. “I think we need to face up to the fact that there has been killing going on [at ACC] and they want to call it euthanasia.”

The process by which animals are euthanized is not the only issue local advocates have had with the shelter, though it likely is the most emotional.

Burgess contends the problem is systemic and goes all the way to the top. She argues that top management at the St. Louis County Department of Public Health do not want to work with local animal advocates.

“I think the problem is there isn’t enough commitment from the top down to make things work,” Burgess said.

By all accounts, the relationships between local advocacy groups, their members and county officials have grown increasingly strained and tumultuous.

“Euthanasia and other pathway decisions are made collaboratively, so none involve the judgement of a single individual, unless it is a medical emergency, in which case the veterinarian’s expertise prevails,” Dr. Carole Baskin, the county’s director of public health, wrote in an email to local advocates earlier this month. Her email was in response to continued questioning about the euthanasia process.

Advocates previously had contended that decisions to euthanize were too often subjectively made by single staff members, who may or may not have been qualified to determine a dog’s aggressiveness. Multiple advocates and shelter volunteers have taken the podium at County Council meetings to complain that dogs who should not be euthanized are being put to death for the wrong reasons.

The solution for some dogs might be as simple as getting out of their cages, they have said.  

“The more you get the dogs out for exercise and to socialize, the better behaved they are going to be,” Burgess said. She added that the lack of both routinely provided to dogs in the county’s shelter “sets them up for failure.”

County Council members Lisa Clancy [District 5] and Mark Harder [District 7] ealier this fall had proposed altering the advisory board’s makeup. However, Leanne Fritsch, a member of St. Louis County S.A.V.E. [Shelter Animals Valued Every Day], was quick to express her concerns.

Like Burgess, Fritsch has worked to raise public awareness of issues at the county shelter.

“The current legislation does nothing to address the needs of the animals in the shelter,” Fritsch wrote to Clancy in a Sept. 20 email. “Animals continue to be killed for ‘behavior’ which is different than ‘aggression,’ yet at the meeting last night Spring [Schmidt, acting director of the health department] was not able to answer the question, ‘What is the difference between them,’ but stated, ‘They definitely did not euthanize animals for being shy.'”

On Oct. 8, Clancy and Harder presented a substitute bill that would amend the Animal Control Code, specifically as it pertains to the ACC board’s membership, duties and obligations. One of its objectives is to set term limits for advisory board members.

“This update to the Animal Care and Control Advisory Board ordinance is one of many steps toward bringing much-needed change to the animal care and control shelter. For the first time in the history of the ACC, board members will have term limits,” Clancy said during the Oct. 8 council meeting.

In an interview on Oct. 10, Harder added, “Lisa and I have been working on this for a long time. I think this is a good piece of legislation to streamline the board. In the past, there was stagnation and poor decision-making mostly because of the size of the board. Hopefully, we can get some better policies in place with a more streamlined board.”

He noted that under the new ordinance, board members will have to volunteer in the shelter so that they have first-hand knowledge of how their policies affect animal care and control.

Also discussed on Oct. 8 was the potential of turning to an outside organization to lead the ACC.

“There was an item on our agenda tonight to begin the RFP [request for proposal] process for a potential nonprofit partnership to come in and assume operations of the shelter, so that’s another avenue we’re exploring and so that will be a big focus,” Clancy told KMOX after the meeting.

“There are organizations across the country that will come in and manage an animal control organization and to some extent take it out of the hands of the county government,” Harder explained. “That would put people in place that have animal care and control expertise. I think that will improve accountability and efficiency. That decision resulted from the ACC audit that the county had conducted by an outside firm earlier this year.”

Burgess said it’s time for an organization other than the county to take charge of the ACC.

“They’ve had years. They’ve had resources. They’ve had countless advice on how to run an animal shelter and they can’t do it,” Burgess said of county leadership. “They’re not doing it, and cats and dogs are paying the price. It’s time to just turn it over to somebody else.”

While Harder said the legislation passed on Oct. 8 sets first steps into motion, he noted that they are not the only changes that need to happen. And, he pointed out that the need is never-ending.

“The shelter is busy 24/7 because the need on the street is that great,” he said.

“We have to take in all animals, sick or not sick,” Harder added. “We have to pick up animals in the county [strays] because this [the ACC] is a health function. We’re picking up sick dogs, violent dogs … the role of the ACC is very different than that other shelters.”

One aspect of the ACC that is consistent with other shelters is the need for volunteers.

“We are grateful to the volunteers that come in to walk dogs, love on the animals and help to get them placed into homes,” Harder said.

The possibility of turning things over to an outside company comes with plenty of anxiety for current ACC employees.

At a council meeting in September, some of those employees took the extraordinary step to voice their concerns openly. They expressed their concerns over the future of the shelter and their jobs, and articulated their frustration with upper management and the lack of consistency in leadership.

As the county waits for its RFP process to play out, shelter employees also must take a wait-and-see approach as much toward their fates as toward the fates of the animals for whom they provide care.

Note: St. Louis County Department of Public Health was contacted for participation in this story. At the department’s request, written questions were submitted electronically but no response was received.

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