I have always been a supporter of local humane societies and breed rescue groups. The work that these people do is emotionally and physically challenging and an animal's life is literally in their hands to live or die. Volunteers make up a good part of the staff because funds are just not there to hire enough staff.
Harford County Humane Society is not a government run shelter. It is a private non-profit organization. The rely on donations, grants, sale of pets, yard sales and fund raisers to operate. While Harford County contracts with the shelter for their services, the funds nowhere near fund the entire operation. To my knowledge there is no oversight on the operations of the shelter.
County Executive Craig recently announced the county has plans for funding the building of a new shelter. Anyone who has been to the current shelter knows it is an old, small, dark, damp and uninviting place that looks like throwback to an earlier time when companion animals had their place in the back yard with a doghouse and not integrated into people's everyday lives.
I am a member and board member of an all breed kennel club and our club attends animal control meetings on a regular basis and reports back to club membership. There have been many Executive Directors that have come and gone over the years, each promising positive changes to the shelter. Many have had great starts only to fall into the same problems that existed when they first arrived.
There has been much criticism as well to the number of animals that are euthanized at the shelter. These complaints come from both volunteers who worked at the shelter, as well as those who wanted to adopt an animal only to find the animal had been euthanized.
It's very hard to separate fact from fiction, or make an objective evaluation, since the shelter is not subject to any oversight, and their records are not open for public scrutiny.
From my own personal experience I have often found the shelter staff lacking in the proper knowledge needed to serve the animals. Dog breeds are often improperly identified, there are no animal behavorists to properly identify aggression versus dominance, there are no professional trainers to work with animals that could be rehabilitated, there are no groomers to ensure the animals look their best for possible adopters, and there is very little medical treatment given to the animals beyond basic needs. Another problem is animals are not always immediately released to breed rescue organizations who could provide immediate medical care and foster homes, relieving the shelter of both the physical and financial burden of care for those animals.
Recently I added a senior collie to my home that was at the shelter and his photo is shown here. He was brought in right before Hurricane Irene and a friend in a local breed rescue told me about him and expressed their concern for his safety. Senior animals are much harder to place and with the hurricane coming if a choice needed to be made of who lives or dies for the amount of space they have, a younger animal would have the best chance to live. He was identified as a collie mix on the website when he was obviously a pure bred collie. I agreed to foster this collie until collie rescue could take him once the hurricane had passed. I failed being a foster mom and within the week I adopted him.
Within weeks another collie was on the website, incorrectly identified as a collie mix, when it was again it was obvious it was a pure bred collie. Collie rescue wanted to take the dog into foster care but the shelter would not release her, saying they had room and it wasn't an issue for them. This was a red flag to me that whoever was making these decisions had no idea what keeping a collie caged for this long could possibly do to the spirit of these sensitive dogs, but also that this dog would continue to be exposed to other animals that may or may not be healthy. Over the course of the next few weeks, inquiries by myself and collie rescue organizations were continually told conflicting information. One day they were contacting collie rescue the next day (and did not), the dog would be released on a certain date (and was not), the next they were not releasing her, the next that she was adopted by a young family with children and lots of room to run. Finally after nearly 4 weeks the collie was adopted and a photo of her with her new owners was posted on their Facebook page. The couple in the photo appeared to be well beyond child raising years and no children were in the photo.
I had talked with some of the shelter staff at the recent Responsible Dog Ownership Day, both to show them the collie I had since adopted and to talk about the collie they currently had in the shelter. The staff did not even recognize the collie I adopted since he had been groomed and was now beautiful and very happy. They promised collie rescue would be able to take the other collie within days. When that didn't happen, I posted on their Facebook page about her status. The responses were the same conflicting messages given to collie rescues who tried to pull her out. Many people voiced concern of why they wouldn't let rescue take this dog. When I posted that keeping a sensitive collie caged for weeks in a shelter was the equivalent of keeping it in jail and it didn't make sense to me why they refused to let collie rescue take her into a foster home and immediate medical care, the comment was deleted, along with others who had expressed concern, and I have been banned from posting on their pages. Who's decision was it that questioning the operation was not allowed? Was it a volunteer managing the Facebook page, a manager, the shelter director? Nobody really knows.
There is at least one group that has been formed of previous volunteers and employees of the shelter who have been fighting for oversight of the organization. I have tried to remain neutral in this issue as it unfolded because I realize how hard it is for a non-profit to survive in these economic times and tough choices have to be made in the current conditions. I also took into consideration that some of the group's complaints could be the result of disgruntled employees.
After my own personal experiences with the shelter, and knowing the history of the shelter's continuing changes of leadership with no real visible long lasting signs of positive changes, I find myself now wondering if our tax dollars should be funding the construction of a new facility, or if our tax dollars are even being well spent for the services now being provided. I'm left wondering because there is no oversight, there is no reporting, there is nothing at all to hold the shelter accountable, just trust, and that is not good enough.
There is a line between being a private organization and what is required for public disclosure. Since so much of the funding for the shelter operations, as well as this new facility construction, is through our tax dollars, don't citizens have the right to know what is being done with the money that the shelter gets and whether or not the organization is more than a warehouse of animals whose fate is determined by a staff of non-professionals? There are varying reports of the number of animals killed by shelter, or why, but no solid numbers since there is no reporting, no oversight. In this age of no-kill shelters, why is Harford county still killing so many animals?
Just about every organization that is contracted by government has to present information about the organization, why they are the best to choose, and to continually report on the work being done. If this is being done by the shelter, shouldn't this be available to the public? If not, why not? Why does the shelter seem so reluctant to give out this information?
There are more questions than answers and before our tax dollars are spent on a new facility at the current location, and we keep throwing money at the shelter for continued operations, it's time to see exactly what the operation is doing now and if it is efficient, well run by professionals, financially sound uses of the money and above all, humane care of the animals. Right now it's hard to know if the rumors are true or if the shelter just has a horrible PR problem and is unresponsive to the public.
There will be public hearings coming up about the funding for the construction of this new shelter. I urge all animal lovers to come out and hear what is being proposed and what oversight, if any, will occur, and express your views, pro or con. The animals that can't speak need us to speak for them and ensure the money being spent will be more than just a fancy new building. Our tax dollars should not be building a new shelter for an organization that will not tell the public how they operate. This needs to be integrated into the terms of providing the funding.
As I look at my senior collie's trusting and loving eyes, I know that he might not be here today if I had not pulled him for rescue that day. His story, and the other collie who spent weeks being held at the shelter, have motivated me to take a stand for public oversight of the shelter operations. I hope you will join me at the public hearings soon to take place.