Friday April 27, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Current and former volunteers at the Eleanor Sonsini Animal Shel ter complained Thursday about changes to the shelter's euthanization and adoption policies during a meeting of the city's Animal Control Commission.

Shelter officials acknowledged that practices have been changed in an effort to improve safety and to streamline the adoption process.

Volunteers started speaking out after a longtime shelter resident, Thor, was put down. Shelter officials said he was a good dog at the shelter, but when sent to the home of an adoptive family, he bit his new owner several times on the first day -- a strong indicator that the dog was not adoptable.

The volunteers asserted that there were several other agencies or parties that had indicated before he died they would have taken Thor, despite his recent history.

The subject landed on the commission's agenda when several of the volunteers wrote an anonymous letter to the board, listing some of their grievances.

In the letter, it was alleged that "numerous" adoptable animals had been put down.

Shelter figures show a decline in euthanasia of shelter animals.

In a so-called "no-kill" shelter, animals are still put down if they are dangerous to humans or too sick to enjoy any quality of life. Many other shelters, not categorized as "no-kill" and operated by municipalities across the country, will also euthanize animals due to overcrowding and budgetary issues.

Sonsini is considered a "no-kill" shelter.

The letter also contended that procedures at the shelter had gone downhill, and some of them were safety violations -- such as underage volunteers handling animals or only one worker manning the shelter for an extended period.

About 20 volunteers were in attendance. Some, between five and 10, had recently quit the shelter in protest. Others stayed on despite their concerns because, as one woman put it, "I am not leaving my animals until I am physically unable to do it anymore."

Nonprofit animal shelters depend heavily on volunteers to help with a multitude of daily chores like walking the dogs, spending time with the cats, cleaning up after them, being sure they have food and water, and that their bedding and toys are kept clean.

Larry Hazzard, chairman of the board of directors for the Sonsini Shelter, noted that volunteers are essential to the operation.

He acknowledged that there seems to have been a breakdown of communication with the volunteers, although they do have quarterly volunteer meetings and issue a weekly newsletter.

"The good news is there are more volunteers signing up," Hazzard said. "The bad news is we're missing some incredible expertise [lost when some long-term volunteers left], and I do not devalue that."

He also said that transitioning to an "open adoption" policy is an attempt to do away with an adoption process that drew frequent complaints because it was so extensive.

But volunteers and commissioners expressed some concern that even cursory backgrounds checks are no longer conducted for most potential adopters, possibly leaving the adopted animals at risk.

The change in the evaluation of an animal's adoptability is an effort to improve the safety of adoptive families and shelter volunteers, Hazzard noted, by determining earlier on whether an animal is a risk for dangerous behavior.

"It is a difficult balancing act no matter how you do it," he said.

Hazzard said that the process of determining whether an animal should be euthanized is always very emotional and very difficult and is taken quite seriously.

There were a number of other issues raised, such as the discarding of donated items such as dog crates and blankets, and medical supplies being left in the open.

Commission Chairman John Reynolds, a Pittsfield veterinarian, noted that the commission's purview is whether the shelter is handling city strays, a service for which the city pays $48,700 annually. But because the city owns the building, it should have assurances that overt safety issues are corrected.

Figures provided by the shelter show that the euthanasia rate went from 3 percent in 2010 to 1 percent in 2011.

Hazzard noted that in 2011, five dogs were put down due to dangerous behavior, and one due to health. Nine cats were euthanized in 2011 for health reasons.

Hazzard agreed that the shelter would do more to reach out to its current and former volunteers, and that its new policies were still a work in progress, and could change depending on their results.

Reynolds asked shelter officials to report back on the safety issues at the commission's meeting on May 24.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6241.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford

Published April 20, 2012