City of Lawton releases status on Animal Welfare Division

City of Lawton releases status on Animal Welfare Division

LAWTON, Okla._The City of Lawton has put out a response to each of the five areas of concern uncovered by the investigation into the Animal Welfare Division.

The following is the release sent out by the City of Lawton in its entirety:

On January 8, 2015, the City Manager's office, submitted a request to the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, requesting an investigation and assistance regarding a series of public complaints.  These complaints included charges of animal neglect, misappropriation of shelter funds, incompetent management and staff, as well as animal abuse.

Shortly after the investigation began, the Animal Welfare Division was placed under the direct control of the Assistant City Manager, Jim Russell.  Russell relocated to the shelter to oversee changes that needed to be made in operations while the investigation was on-going.

On March 10, 2015 the final report was presented to the City Manager with the findings and recommended changes.  Since then, ACM Russell has worked feverishly with the staff to implement changes and address the deficiencies identified or to put plans in place to improve the overall efficiency, health and welfare of the staff and animals in their care.  Following is a status update:

The Investigation report noted five areas of concern.

  1. “Inadequate supervision resulting in the death of one dog and the starvation of another animal.”  Before this was pointed out in the report, this situation was recognized and resulted in procedural changes that ensured designated employees were responsible for the oversight of a scheduled feeding process.  Issues identified in these cases were the result of food aggression when housing two dogs in the same kennel, failure to feed because of assuming another employee was going to feed, and lack of the supervisory involvement.  By creating and adhering to a feeding schedule, assigning sections of the kennel to individual employees, and supervisory staff walking and interacting not only with the staff but also the animals daily, this issue has been resolved with a “checks and balances” system. 
  2. “Overall disrepair in the facility that is believed to endanger or cause suffering to dogs that are housed there.”  Several areas were identified as needing attention to turn the atmosphere and general safety of the facility around.  One of the immediate concerns dealt with the outside metal doors on the south side of adoption row.  Those metal doors were not sealed and allowed cold air, snow, ice, and rain to enter those particular pens.  They were disabled and sealed to minimize the elements entering the pens, but it is only a band-aid to the real issue.  Plans are in place to remove the doors altogether and brick in the openings, creating a permanently sealed living space for the dogs. 

    Another immediate concern was leaking in the building.We were able to identify sources of the leaks and have them resolved at this point.However, a long term fix will be to place a new coating on the roof to reseal the entire structure and eliminate potential problems in the future.

    Proper disinfection of the pens was identified as an area of attention.Kennel Cough, Upper Respiratory Diseases, and even Parvo, along with other diseases enter the facility from the back door when new animals are brought in.In order to keep the animals as healthy as possible, we revised the way kennels were scrubbed and disinfected before placing another animal.This has reduced the number of animals infected, but again, it isn’t a one-fix solution.Many of those diseases are spread through the air.In order to cut those infection opportunities even further, the purchase of an Air Scrubber was approved by council and has been purchased.This system meets the minimum specifications of air exchange of 10-12 times an hour, filtering against bacteria in the air as it circulates and replaces the clean air back into the kennel.

    Surgeries (spay and neuter) performed on the animals was done so in a makeshift surgery room, formerly used as a storage closet.The new addition to the shelter is a new surgical suite, complete with sterilization equipment and separated from the kennel itself.In addition, plans are being made to convert the “Education Room” (which was previously used to house exotic animals for educational purposes) into a “quarantine” or “sick” room that can house the more seriously ill/infectious animals.This will take some time as walls will need to be constructed and stainless steel cages can be purchased.

    Finally, additional storage buildings being put into place in order to remove items currently occupying pens (freezers, fans, ladders, etc.).This will allow for more access to place dogs in individual pens and eliminate the need to “double-up” which will, in return, eliminate direct exposure to disease.
  3. “Programs that are outside of the mission of the shelter, including but not limited to, housing of exotics and wildlife and that the housing and care of these animals is inadequate.”  All exotic and wildlife animals housed at the shelter were removed before the report was finalized.  Although it should be noted that the Animal Welfare Division still has the requirement to impound all types of animals, many of which were found during this investigation.  The key change here is that, if impounded, the animal will not be housed long-term at the shelter.  Relationships have been made with experts (in their respective fields) to acquire the animals, treat them as necessary back to health, and release back into the wild or re-home the domesticated animals.  The intent is (through the efforts and hard work of a couple of volunteer organizations) to take a section needed for temporary housing and maintain it while turning the remainder of the space into an outdoor area for prospective adopting families to have a place to interact with dogs before final adoption decisions are made.  This will provide a space to determine compatibility with the family’s other pets and/or children…issues that often cause a new owner to bring the animal back to the shelter.
  4. “The overall morale at the shelter is very concerning…complaints from the employees included the following: Lack of support from City Hall, council members, city attorney; lack of proper training; chemical castrations; Euthanasia rotation; sick or injured animals not receiving medical attention.”  Let’s face it, working in the shelter is not the most desirable job one could have and the morale of one’s staff is directly reflected in how they perform their duties.  Once they feel defeated and rejected, the only thing that holds them to the job is the love of working with the animals and trying to make a difference. 

    Until I was placed in that facility, I’ll admit that I was unaware of any issues dealing with the animals, the staff, or the citizens.Changing the morale took time…and trust.But eventually the staff began to recognize that I wasn’t there to fire them and start over.I was there to work beside them to make a difference…not only a difference with the animals, but a difference in their lives.Showing them that what they are doing is valuable to the City as a whole.Bringing the pride back into what they love doing was the first thing that had to be accomplished before any of the other changes could take place.There’s not one person left on that staff that I wouldn’t stand in front of and protect, and they know that now…and the feeling, I believe is mutual.

    Training is a key piece in properly functioning in any capacity.For the first time (in recent years, anyways), money has been budgeted for training of the employees.Every penny we invest in the employee and their training will be directly reflected in the quality care the animals receive.

    Chemical castrations were halted on January 15, 2015 and have not been approved for continuance.All alterations performed on animals are done surgically.

    The euthanasia rotations are one of the hardest jobs in the kennel.  No one takes pleasure in putting any animal down for any reason.  However, the entire staff that handles the animals are now trained in this duty and the rotation has been expanded so that no one employee has this responsibility for more than a week at a time.  In addition, the number of animals identified for euthanasia has decreased drastically.  During the fiscal year 2012/2013, the number of animals euthanized was 2,279.  In the fiscal year 13/14 there were 2,073.  Finally, in this fiscal year (as of June 1st) the number has dropped to 1,652, noting that the most significant drop has been since December when the first Adoption Drive was conceived.  Those numbers are:  December – 161; January – 79; February – 108, March – 47; April – 33, and May -79.  It is exciting to note that for the months of March, April, and May, the Animal Welfare Division entered new and exciting territory by becoming a “Low Kill” status (Low Kill is achieved by euthanizing less than 20% of your intake animals.  No Kill is achieved by euthanizing less than 10%.)  A low kill shelter simply means that we do all we can to place every "adoptable" animal that comes into our shelter. We do not have a time limit on an animal's stay, and an adoptable animal will not be euthanized to make room for another.

    The final consideration is the treatment of sick animals.  The solution to this issue has been two-fold.  First, through the combined efforts, cooperation, and coordination with the local rescue organizations and area veterinarians, we have been able to provide veterinarian services to the most severely sick and injured animals that come into the shelter.  These rescue organizations have been incredible in their willingness to jump in and pay for the medical costs, as well as local veterinarians volunteering their services when no other option was available but euthanization.  Second, by way of modifying the service agreement with our contracted veterinarian, evaluations are made by our licensed vet immediately for quicker care of the animal.
  5. “Controlled and Dangerous substances handling needs a “complete restructuring” with a check and balance review system”.   This issue was addressed to a satisfactory condition at the time of the investigation.  We immediately complied with the direction of the investigator by separating the CDSII logs from the other CDS, creating two logs as well as implementing and correctly using the three forms required for tracking and loggin. However, since that initial implementation, we have continued to improve the handling of the CDS process by making additional checks and balances, tracking measures, and storage above and beyond the requirements of the state agency.

In addition to the areas of concern, the OSBVME report also noted several recommendations that have been or are in the process of being implemented.  These recommendations include:

  • Creating a euthanasia rotation that includes all certified personnel to combat compassion fatigue.  By creating and adhering to the rotation, each employee gets a minimum of 4 to 5 weeks break between assignments.
  • Shelter veterinarian contract has been modified to include the treatment of sick or injured animals.
  • The use of Calcium Chloride for chemical castration has been stopped, returning to surgical means only.
  • Cell phone use has been limited to adoption row only in the kennel.
  • Training has begun with kennel staff as well as locating and implementing training for supervisory staff and the Superintendent.
  • Animal Control Officers are beginning to train with the police department in selected Police Academy classes.
  • An air scrubber system is currently being installed with an expected completion date of September 18th.  This system will exchange the air in the kennel 10-12 per hour, filtering or “scrubbing” the air as it is returned back into the kennel.
  • An isolation ward has been created by repurposing the education classroom.  This ward is limited to staff only.
  • A security camera system is being installed with an anticipated use date by the end of September.
  • A new roof has been quoted, funding identified, and awaiting the installation.
  • Gaps in the outside kennel run doors have been sealed with plans to remove completely.
  • Painting and concrete staining is on-going in order to not only “freshen” the appearance, but to create a seal from bacteria soaking into the concrete, creating an easily cleanable surface in each kennel.
  • Shelter Management software is in place and used to process animals in and out of the kennel.  Additional capabilities have been prioritized and will be implemented incrementally.
  • Foot baths have been placed at each egress to prevent the spreading of disease in and out of the kennel.
  • Written operating procedures are in the process of being rewritten.
  • A Volunteer program has been established and is under the direction of a volunteer coordinator.  A training program and handbook are in the final stages and expected to be implemented by the end of September.
  • Tighter (and keyed) control of all veterinary records has been established to prevent records from being misplaced.
  • All animals that have been selected for euthanasia are being cared for to relieve pain and suffering as well as basic comfort (food and water) until the animal is tranquilized.

In addition to the physical and procedural changes made in the Animal Welfare Division, the philosophy of operation has changed.

"While it is true that the responsibility of the a municipal run facility is to handle the animals running at large, released by their owner, or found injured in the community, we do not have to be of the mindset that these animals are disposable.  Each animal has value in its life.  The major shift we've made is to recognize that and to allow our love of animals to rule our desire to save every life we can.  No one ever wanted to work in this kennel with the desire to just kill animals.  Every member of this staff is here because of their love and compassion for these animals.  It was just an accepted task of the job that became part of the normal.  When council allowed us to start hosting the Two Hearts event at a reduced adoption rate of $15.00, we kind of took that and ran with it.  Since that time, our efforts have been to SAVE every life we could instead of automatically sending it to "death row" as the public became to tag us, as a matter of fact our Euthanasia rates have almost did a flip-flop towards the positive. In the last eight months we have been in the "low kill" status, with the exception of one month. Low Kill means that we have over 60% - 90% success rate on all of the animals within our care. The ultimate goal would be to continue to strive to hit "No Kill" which is 90% and higher success rate. Once everyone was able to see that we were making that specific change in our philosophy, our image began turning.  Rescues came on board with us.  Where there were previous chasms and hard feelings, we now have not only bridges, but straight highways in communication and united efforts.  The rescues have been amazing in helping us get the animals re-homed into loving families.  Part of that effort was a change in our realization that a few dollars spent up front with immediate vaccinations could save hundreds of dollars not only for the City but the new adopted parents of the animals too.  I'm so proud of the efforts taken by this dedicated and compassionate staff.  It's been a long road, and one that several have felt would never come, but we are on a great road leading to greater things."  Jim Russell