BLOG: County Oversight Welcomed at Humane Society

Contrary to the premise in Joan Neidhardt's blog, Harford County government has an active role in its relationship with The Humane Society of Harford County. Read on to find out more.

The basic question posed by of "" is an easy thing to address. They should provide oversight, and they do.

The fact that some people do not like HOW the County oversees what The Humane Society of Harford County does is clearly the basis for many of the 185+ responses to Ms. Neidhardt's blog. The Humane Society of Harford County has a rather unique relationship with the County.

Each year almost 80 percent of the animals that come through our doors are brought to us by Harford County Animal Control or as strays brought in by the general public. HSHC then provides a service to the County during a four day hold period during which we evaluate the animals for health and temperament, and hope that their owner will come get them for a joyful reunion. After the four days one of five options exist: held for adoption, sent to a rescue, sent to a foster home, or humanely euthanized due to medical or temperament issues.

In addition, some animals that are deemed to be adoptable are unfortunately put down when we run out of space or other options and there are not enough adopters that day or week or month. We are working on a variety of programs that I will discuss later to address the tragedy of adoptable animals being euthanized. During 2010, less than 1/2 of 1 percent of healthy, adoptable dogs were put down due to a lack of adopters and options at particularly busy times; for cats, just over 17 percent of healthy, adoptable cats were put down due to a lack of adopters and options at those particularly busy times. It is our goal to get those numbers as close to zero as possible over the next 5 years. The full accounting of animals for 2010 can be found on our website.

The funding that we receive from the County is not a grant, but rather a fee for services provided. In the most basic sense, HSHC is a vendor, and the County is purchasing our services. This fee-for-service is classified the same as if they were purchasing 500 reams of paper from Staples or contracting with independent snow removal vendors who join with County agencies to clear our roads during busy storms. HSHC is not a County agency and is not held to the same requirements as a governmental agency might under State or Federal Freedom of Information Act regulations or requests.

That having been said, we enjoy our working relationship with the County, and believe we have a very candid discourse and openness about our operations with the various offices and agencies with which we interact, including but not limited to County Executive David Craig, County Council President Billy Boniface, the six Council members, Animal Control and the Health Department.

In addition, the County has a representative on our Board of Directors, and any significant issues that may come up are brought to the County Executive's attention immediately. When we make our annual presentation to the County Executive to seek funding for the coming year, the County is provided with a detailed budget request and our audited financial statements, and we must justify our request for future funding based upon our most recent past performance.

Our budget has been flat lined for the past several years due to the pain that the County has felt due to the economic contraction and the needs of other departments. While it has been painful to hear the word "no" time and again, we are grateful that our funding has not been cut when other departments suffered that fate, and we take that as a healthy sign that the County acknowledges that they are getting value for the services we provide when they send HSHC its quarterly check.

Every day the officers from Harford County Animal Control call on HSHC with dogs, cats and a variety of other critters. It is not unusual to have Animal Control stop by more than a half-dozen times a day, during which time they are in our tech area or walking through the kennels. There have been many times over the years that HCAC and HSHC did not see eye-to-eye over the conditions and policies at the shelter, but I can unequivocally state that we have the full vote of confidence from the County’s Animal Control department.

So bottom line, the County has a strong working relationship with HSHC. Our doors, phone lines and e-mails are always open and available to the County, and we are very pleased that theirs are also open to us. To think that there is no County oversight of HSHC is simply incorrect, no matter how many times one repeats it.

This segues perfectly into a discussion about a new shelter building. For anyone who has been to our facility, the physical plant itself is enough evidence of the need for a new, modern building to help with the process of finding forever homes for .

A bit of background. In 2007, the Board of Directors contracted with Shelter Planners of America to evaluate our facility and provide us with a needs analysis, feasibility and building program study. This firm has been involved in shelter planning for over 30 years and has worked with over 700 shelters on studies, remodeling and totally new facilities. This analysis was to provide us with the basis for the design of our new facility.

Included in their study were analyses of population growth in Harford County, the number of animals handled each year by our organization, the types of programs that we offer, staffing, and budgeting. Also included were their recommendations for a proposed new shelter, whereby Shelter Planners reviewed the site and prepared a design concept that addressed interior features, animal capacity, HVAC systems that would reduce the spread of infectious disease and reduce unpleasant odors, square footage allowed to each section, a preliminary construction budget and a preliminary operating budget once the new shelter is up and running.

In 2009, HSHC engaged the services of a fundraising consultant to determine the feasibility of a capital campaign that would allow us to raise sufficient funds to build what was described in the Shelter Planners report. We were told quite plainly that in the opinion of our fundraising consultant HSHC would not be able to raise more than 10–15 percent of what might be needed.

It was very obvious at that point to both HSHC and the County that the only way an open admission shelter could be built that handles the volume that we handle was with a commitment from the County to fund the costs. Remember that 80 percent of the animals that come to HSHC are strays.

If HSHC was forced to shut down due to the deficiencies of the physical plant, the County would have been put in a very difficult spot. The County Executive and County Council President spent quite a bit of time reviewing the operations of the shelter, looking at everything from how the organization was being run to the number and types of complaints/reports from county residents, area veterinarians and Harford County Animal Control, and decided that now was the time to step up and provide funding for the building. 

Harford County government is taking a major role in the design/development process of the proposed new facility. Under the guidance of the Harford County Department of Procurement, 18 architectural firms submitted "Expressions of Interest" in providing design services to the County, and a committee of 6 people - 3 from the County and 3 from HSHC - reviewed and rated each one of these proposals. Five firms were selected from that group to provide additional information, including the cost of services for the design, and local firm Edmeades and Stromdahl received the highest overall score from the 6 committee members. Edmeades and Stromdahl has been working closely with Shelter Planners, HSHC and the County on the design.

They have visited a recently built facility in York, PA and spent countless hours reviewing ideas from shelters around the country as they move forward with the design of the new facility. In the spring I went to a day long seminar on "how to design and build a new shelter" put on by the Humane Society of the United States and shared many of the more exciting ideas with the design team. Shelter Planners and the Edmeades group have also met with HSHC staff to hear firsthand how their departments work and what the staff needs in order to meet the challenges of working in a shelter environment.

For those of you unaware of the plans, the new shelter building will be built (assuming the County is able to provide the funding, as we anticipate) on the existing 26 acre Connolly Road site in the field near the horse barn. There were three major site considerations with which we were faced. First and foremost, we had to be able to continue operations of the existing facility during the year long construction period, so locating a new building where the current building is was impossible. Second, although it is a large site, we are subject to a 170' setback from the property lines, which means that the new building has to be built inside of a bubble that is at least 170 feet from all lot lines.

Third, there is a sizable portion of that bubble that is in a natural resource zone, which further inhibited the ability to locate the building. Fourth, we are limited in the number of dogs that can be housed at the facility due to the fact that we are on a septic system that is sized for no more than 85 dogs. This is not really a major issue as that is within the guidelines established by the Shelter Planners report. Fifth, we needed to significantly increase parking, and there will be 75 spaces in the new parking lot. Finally, we needed to relocate Rebel's Dog Park, and we are attempting to have it adjacent to the new parking lot.

Some of the major highlights of the new shelter (subject to change, but at this time we are moving forward with these design features included):

  • a surgical suite to perform spay/neuter procedures before and animal leaves the facility (puppies and kittens that are not of age for the procedure will be exempt, but will be required to have the procedure when of age);
  • two cat free-roam or community rooms, each holding 10-12 cats;
  • additional cat cages for 24 cats;
  • separate intake areas in our tech department for dogs and cats;
  • a small critter room;
  • a separate kitten room and a separate nursery;
  • 4 get acquainted rooms for prospective adopters to spend some quiet time with cats;
  • two adoption paperwork rooms;
  • a conference room that can hold upwards of 75 people for meetings and presentations
  • 26 large dog kennels;
  • 18 small dog kennels;
  • additional stray hold areas for dogs and cats;
  • isolation areas with separate air handling systems;
  • pressure wash stations throughout the kennel areas;
  • a grooming area for dogs
  • heated pipes under the first two feet of each dog kennel to keep them warm during the winter
  • an attached dog walk area;
  • 4 smaller dog exercise areas in a courtyard

and more.

The design team is creating an exciting new facility that most everyone will be proud of. With all due respect to the tax paying members of the community who want a say in the design, I believe we have that covered.

Some in the community have taken exception to the fact that I have repeatedly stated that when Mary Leavens took over as Executive Director and I was into my 4th month as Board President, a decision was made to run the shelter as a "business." I am not sure exactly what horrifying images popped into the heads of those who have expressed displeasure at this notion, but let me share with the community what "running the shelter like a business" means.

It means first and foremost that our animals are kept healthy, fed and clean. It means that our staff's hourly wage is raised above the poverty level, and that employees' hours are set for when we need them to work and not when it is convenient for them to work. It means that we carefully balance expenses based on revenue projections, and deal with shortfalls when they occur. At our first staff meeting we asked each department head to come up with a wish list. On those lists were a phone system that worked, a computer system that worked, a van that didn't catch on fire again, a living wage, a new shelter plus countless small items - stainless steel cat dishes and stethoscopes, for example - that never should have been on a wish list in the first place as they should have been some of the tools provided to the staff. We have been able to provide all of these items with the exception of a new shelter, and we are closer to that goal than ever.

Running it like a business also means keeping records. There had never been a comprehensive system to keep track of donors. There is now. There had never been a computerized way to keep track of volunteer hours and tasks. There is now. There had never been an accurate system to keep track of all of the animals brought to us; in fact, the Shelter Planners report in 2007 referenced that 588 animals were "unaccounted for", this occurring when there was an Executive Director that some are now pining for. Running it like a business means reviewing contracts with vendors and making changes that result in better pricing and servicing, and it means developing a better working relationship with Harford County veterinarians and Harford County Animal Control. Running it like a business also meant creating a Code of Conduct for volunteers, which was part of the reason some left -- they simply did not like being told that things had to be done "our way" and according to established policies and guidelines.

So yes, under my watch we are going to run HSHC like a business and not a mom-and-pop operation. I make no apologies for that - not when I said it, not now, not ever.

We are in the process of redesigning our foster program and expect to have it revamped and running after the first of the year. We are networking with other open admission shelters to determine what is working for them, what is not, and why. We will also be working with former employees and associates and a local rescue group to structure a program that makes sense for the animals, for HSHC and for Harford County.

That brings us to rescue organizations and Kara the collie. Just for the record, we will not call a dog "purebred" without AKC papers that document that claim, regardless of how closely they might resemble Lassie, Rin Tin Tin or Spuds Mackenzie. While I admire Ms. Neidhardt's passion and commitment to collies, I have 100 percent confidence in how this dog's brief tenure with us was handled.

Generally speaking, our policy with all adoptable dogs is that we will keep them at the shelter for a minimum of two weeks after they come off of their stray hold. This gives the public time to see the dogs on our website, at the shelter, or on our Facebook page, and it also gives the public the opportunity to see that we do not just offer pit bulls and pit bull mixed dogs, a breed with an unfortunately vilified reputation. Our webpage averages 30,000 unique hits a month. We have more foot traffic than any rescue group could ever hope to have.

There has been some grousing that a rescue group offered to pay the adoption fee to take Kara out of our facility and that HSHC turned them down. Problem with that is that it never happened. But repeat a story often enough and it becomes just another urban legend. In mid-September Ms. Neidhardt posted on her Facebook page that "I always find it humorous that people who do not have firsthand knowledge of something claim to know what really happened. Too funny." Maybe I, too, would find it funny if the stakes for HSHC and our animals weren't so high. 

Now some make the claim that Kara would have been much better off being placed in a foster home immediately, including one who very publicly fretted that Kara's "spirit could be crushed" after only a few days at the shelter. Yet how would Kara's spirit have been after being in a foster home for 2 or 3 or 4 months, then getting ripped out to go to her new forever home? In the brief time that Kara was with us, she happily shared her kennel with 2 other dogs. She was clean, she was fed, she was checked out by a vet, she had daily walkers and she had canine companionship. In other words, she was fine. She was at the shelter a total of 18 days including her stray hold - NOT the 4 weeks that some have posted - when she was adopted. We could not be happier for her and her new adoptive family.

Since June of this year our staff has reached out more than 300 times to rescue groups, with very little success to show for these daily efforts. This disclosure is not meant to cast stones at rescue groups, but rather to illuminate those who view our rescue efforts in a dim light. Most dog rescue groups are breed specific, mixes need not apply. Too old? No thanks. Medical issues? No thanks.

We recently had one prominent Harford based rescue group tell us that they were only interested in dogs that were under 20 pounds and "drop dead gorgeous." We are blessed to be working with Stuart Feline Rescue in Churchville and are seeking other organizations that can take cats from us and place them in loving homes, but the sad reality is that the Stuart Feline Rescues have been, for us, few and far between. But the young ladies in our adoptions department will keep smiling and dialing, hoping against hope to find other area rescues that can help us in our fight to reduce the euthanasia of adoptable dogs and cats.

Earlier I talked about the staff's wish lists at my first meeting with the different departments. Other than the new facility, Mary and I have two major items, or rather positions, on our wish list. First, we would like to have a full- or near full-time veterinarian on staff and will have this as a priority when the new shelter is built. Second is an animal behaviorist who will help us work with some of the more difficult cases, and who will also be responsible for running the foster and rescue programs. If these items are as important to you as they are to us, then help us raise money and let the County know that these two items on our wish list mean as much to you as they do to us.

Over the past two and a half years, Executive Director Mary Leavens, the staff, the Board and I have worked diligently to right a ship that was taking on water from many different sides. We have made significant progress in stabilizing the vessel, and trust that our goal of increasing our save rate, increasing adoptions and significantly reducing the euthanasia rate will be achieved, in time. Finally, please take a moment to "like" us on our Facebook page. This simple act will help keep you informed of what is happening at and with the Shelter, which animals have been selected as "Pets of the Week," and upcoming special events such as the Walk-and-Wagathon on November 5th. Here is the link.

We look forward to continued support from the community, both financially through donations and through volunteering as dog walkers, cat cuddlers, groundskeepers, fundraisers, event planners and all of the other activities that enable us to do the good work we do.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Nick October 22, 2011 at 01:09 AM
Actually you never answered my question, but I'll answer yours. I would never manage a colony of feral cats because I think it irresponsible to do so, And yes I have seen colonies of feral cats in Baltimore City on may occasions since I have spent much of my working life in the city. Also if you would have taken the time to actually look at the article, you would have seen it was written by a researcher and not a veterinarian. I guess I don't really expect you to since everyone else on this blog already has their minds made up and refuses to see anything that might contradict TNR in any way.
Christine October 22, 2011 at 02:37 AM
Nobody is stopping you from reporting feral cats and having them picked up and killed. What are you worried about, Nick?
Laurie October 22, 2011 at 02:42 AM
Nick, I read the article and I know you believe what it says but if you look at the dates....some of the data is over 20 years old and how on earth would a researcher know how many blue jays there are in one area. And I don't think we are are talking about managing colonies with 500 cats them in parks in Harford County
HarfordLassie October 27, 2011 at 03:59 PM
Follow up- http://belair.patch.com/blog_posts/animal-house-follow-up-on-harford-humane-society Sorry about the formatting of the outline. It didn't seem to convert correctly.
gus divine October 28, 2011 at 11:57 AM
Long time ANIMAL PERSON. I read about what you all have exchanged, here,described as help and wanting what is best for animals. Joan, Pete, Michele and some others..you have more than just hurt the animals . You are destroying them. When and how to affect change is important, Joan had you moved in a more quiet manor and gave your view maybe the County would listen. This self serving manor may effectively stop the new funding and thereby stop what good the Shelter has done. You will admit some good has come? would you not? You would be better taking Peter to Wall street, and protest there where by in-large many have no-clue what they are protesting. I have seen Peter,s work, he has not challenge comparable to this shelter in Harford County and fails in comparison to others who are no kill. The numbers at Harford, are way more than are manageable, by some Utopian idea. Joan save your one little piece of heaven and Peter do what you do, but offer your self-serving help without fan fare it is more authentic that way. No I do not work at the shelter, I did use a fake name and I do love all animals, NOT JUST collies AND not just Cats .. Joan we are only judged by one, and yes we enjoy freedoms of speech.. there are times when speaking is more for the benefit of hearing one self and not for the purpose of the subject you say you so dearly represent. You post pictures you recite your accomplishment/s as does Peter all are about you, not the cause..


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