County pound poster dog’s death suggests problems - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

County pound poster dog’s death suggests problems

October 11th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
County pound poster dog’s death suggests problems

By Cecilia Chan
Staff Writer

Rookie was the face of Maricopa County Animal Care and Control’s part in a national campaign early this year as it tried to ease overcrowding at its Phoenix and Mesa shelters.

Described as “a giant pup who loves to run zoomies in the yard and play outside, but what he really loves is getting attention,” the 3-year-old Rottweiler-mix was photographed smiling as his head was being scratched.

Four days after the Bissell Pet Foundation’s national Empty the Shelters campaign ended on May 15, Rookie was euthanized.

His mental health had declined after an administrative reorganization that disbanded the county shelter system’s behavioral team.

“Basically, it’s stressful at the shelter,” said Kim Schulze, the shelters’ former county behavior and training team manager. “Lots of dogs don’t do well and start to deteriorate.”

Whether Rookie’s death could have been prevented had the county not terminated the team is debatable.

But animal advocates said its dismantling was a bad idea.

That and other alleged conditions have prompted a petition calling for reform at the shelter.

Behavior team dismantled

The county hired Schulze in June 2017 after she had been volunteering there since 2014. She took a substantial pay cut to oversee a team of seven, assessing cats and dogs coming into the two shelters in Phoenix and in Mesa and keeping them mentally and physically healthy during their stay.

“Maricopa County takes in an extremely large number of animals and needs behavioral support to make those decisions as to which dogs can be safely placed, which can be safely cared for (and) which dogs can make certain improvements,” Schulze said.

“When the behavioral team started, we started to do enrichment, giving treats in the kennels, starting to do playgroups and working with animals that needed extra help to be adoptable.”

Schulze and her team were reassigned under a new structure instituted last November by Assistant County Manager Valerie Beckett, then serving as interim animal care director.

“She changed my position to training manager,” Schulze said. “So instead of assessing the behavior of animals, I was training staff. She said she wanted everyone to be a shelter expert.”

Forbidden from performing assessments on some of the more challenging animals, Schulze felt her hands were tied and resigned in May. She now works for the Seattle Humane Society.

County officials defended the restructuring.

“It’s important to us to have staff members who understand behavioral issues in our pets,” said Kim Powell, spokeswoman for Animal Care and Control in an email. “In fact, our goal is to have more of them.

“But the behavioral team as a whole did not have a formal training protocol and lacked data to identify if it was helpful intervention in its present state, so we re-structured.”

Schulze disputed Powell’s assessment of her team.

“The behavior team had protocols for training behavior staff,” she said. “There were three levels within the behavior team …Each level had different duties within their job description that aligned with their level of animal behavior experience, knowledge, and skills.

“On-the-job training consisted of daily interactions with animals with opportunities for feedback and shadowing with more skilled and knowledgeable handlers.”

Schulze said that learning about animal behavior is an ongoing process and that the county shelter needs positions dedicated to animal behavior.

Shelter associates can’t be expected to become experts in behavior because they don’t have time during their work day of watering, feeding and cleaning to dedicate to the learning process and they may not have the skills or desire to learn more about animal behavior, Schulze said.

And, she questioned how the county was recruiting staff with behavior experience when “behavior” isn’t in any of the job postings.

Lorena Bader, vice president of the nonprofit Four Paws and Friends, believes had Schulze and her team been in place, Rookie would have had a fighting chance.

“If the team was in place, (Rookie) would be getting out every day or every other day,” Bader said. “If he was deteriorating, they would have done more to make sure he stayed healthy until he got out of the shelter.”

Petition seeks changes

Bader is circulating a petition drive on demanding the county Board of Supervisors and administration “provide proper medical and behavioral care for the animals in their charge.” As of Sept. 28, it had garnered 22,012 signatures.

Arizona law provides for the creation of county shelters and requires that any impounded animal be given “proper and humane care and maintenance.” Other than that, there doesn’t appear to be any oversight of shelter operations.

Bader, a retired Corona del Sol High School chemistry and physics teacher, detailed a number of what she called “shelter failings,” and backed as many as she could with department records she obtained through public records requests.

She said she’s contacted veterinarians who left the county but they were fearful of possible retribution from their former employer.

Bader’s complaints also included that MCACC harbored a hostile work environment, had low staffing and morale and a high-turnover of staff.

Bader said she volunteered at the shelter from 2016-19 until she was fired for sharing a photo of temperatures topping 100 degrees in the shelter. She still keeps in contact with some volunteers there.

“The kennels are not always cleaned because there’s not enough staff,” Bader said. “It’s not like they never get cleaned but they’re so short-staffed they’ve started not to do deep cleaning. They just started spot cleaning, which is not OK when you have infectious disease in the shelter and have distemper.”

She also said that dogs “don’t get out of their kennels for weeks at a time,” which leads to behavioral problems.

“If they’re lucky they get out once every five days for a walk or yard time. If they get sick, they sit in their kennel for two weeks with kennel cough. Some dogs in the medical wing are in there one month and not getting out.”

Rookie’s sad end

County records show Rookie came into the shelter Jan. 24 as a stray and was considered “friendly but skittish, allows all handling.” He was vaccinated, neutered and microchipped in anticipation of adoption.

Rookie’s behavioral assessments on Jan. 25 and Jan 29 stated that he was a friendly dog who “thinks he’s a lap dog and wants lots of attention” and that he might be house-broken.

A Feb. 3 assessment, however, began noting he was nervous and agitated and did not want to re-enter his kennel.

A Feb. 26 evaluation reported Rookie fought with a dog in a neighboring kennel and on March 9, he was “barking, growling, snapping teeth, lunging at other dogs.”

On March 12 the records showed that Rookie was “very stressed, pupils dilated and red eyes, panting… Dog is deteriorating in kennel and stressed out,” a memo stated. “Needs outlet.”

In the shelter’s paperwork, it was reported that a plea was sent out on Feb. 26 and again on March 3 asking fosters to help Rookie.

By May 11, Rookie’s behavior was updated to “urgent.”

“Dog is stressed out and over-aroused in kennel, barking, jumping, panting, kennel fighting,” the memo said. “Dog is unable to fully settle with handlers in yard. Needs outlet. May be at risk of euthanasia on May 18 or sooner if warranted.”

Rookie’s records showed he wasn’t walked daily. In February, he had four walks but then because he was being treated for kennel cough, he was caged for 14 days until the antibiotics were finished, Bader explained.

But the pattern repeated itself with four walks in March, four in April and three in May.

Stimulation keeps dogs healthy

Experts say that shelter dogs need daily physical and emotional stimulation to deal with the stresses of kennel life and that exercise in general helps dogs avoid boredom, which leads to destructive behavior.

And, according to Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters released by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, “Dogs must be provided with daily opportunities for activity outside of their runs for aerobic exercise (and) for long-term shelter stays, appropriate levels of additional enrichment must be provided on a daily basis.”

Powell said, “Unfortunately, we sometimes have over 800 dogs in our care at the two MCACC shelters and not every dog can get out for a walk every day, which is why we desperately need volunteers to help our staff with cleaning kennels, daily enrichment, and of course, walks.

“Staff cannot get to every dog in addition to their other duties,” she said.

Powell added, “Our current director has been one of MCACC’s longest serving volunteers and he has seen volunteer engagement wax and wane over the years. We really need more volunteers to sign up for walks to help us get the hundreds of dogs out for walks every day.”

She also denied Bader’s claim that in-kennel enrichment is sporadic.

Bader said while the Arizona Humane Society gives five different types of enrichment daily to animals for their senses – eat, smell, feel, hear and see – that’s not the case at the county shelter.

“At the most at MCACC, they get one of those and it’s often someone walks through the kennels and sprays lavender or goes through and blows bubbles or gives milk bones,” she said.

Powell said Bader’s claim isn’t true.

“Animals receive enrichment every day, including Kongs, food-feeder puzzles, scent enrichment, rawhides, sometimes even music,” Powell said. “There is an enrichment board outside of the first door to the left of the volunteer hallway for specifics.”

Kongs are enrichment toys filled with treats that help relieve a dog’s stress and boredom.

Bader shared a Sept. 12 email from Director Michael Mendel, who stated he was pausing all public group walks and public enrichment stuffing events, effective Sept. 16.

“The two organizations, Four Paws and Friends and Hope Whispers, have been told that we may not fill Kongs, pass out enrichment or to conduct public dog walks,” Bader said.

“Four Paws does the walks at the West shelter weekly and Hope Whispers does them at the East shelter. We typically get 60-100 dogs out for a 20-30-minute walk. It is often the only time they get out for a week.”

Four Paws also have been buying and stuffing Kongs for the shelter for about a year.

Mendel said while the shelter appreciated the help from volunteers, there were “several incidents that prevent these activities from continuing at this time.”

Examples he gave of “safety-related” incidents included participants wearing inappropriate and unsafe clothing such as shorts for dog walking and displaying unsafe behaviors such as putting their faces close to the faces of unfamiliar dogs for pictures during the walks.

Mendel added that there also have been some recent social media postings of “potential vandalism threats towards staff and/or property,” which he acknowledged wasn’t coming from Four Paws and Friends volunteers.

The shelter director also cited an incident when a group of volunteers overstuffed Kongs, which he said “can cause many dogs to lose interest in enrichment activity.”

He added that the shelter had to throw out over 300 Kongs donated by Four Paws because they were “too full, uneaten, and unable to be fully cleaned for reuse.”

“We have recently looked into purchasing additional Kongs and the pricing went up, so we were waiting,” Mendel said, adding that the group can help in other ways such as joining the volunteer program, becoming fosters or buying prepackaged items such as dog biscuits, hot dogs and bully sticks.

Rookie’s death caused such an uproar that Mendel, who was hired in March to oversee Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, responded.

Mendel in his post noted MCACC at the time had approximately 695 animals, stressing the county’s capacity for care. He said the shelters were seeing more and more people surrendering their pets because of homelessness.

“We are seeing more animals with increasing dangerous behaviors, especially in the East Shelter,” Mendel wrote May 23. “While MCACC’s intention is to save every animal that comes into our care, I must weigh the safety risk to staff, volunteers, and the public.

“Dogs that receive deadlines are those struggling in the shelter environment and deteriorating.”

He said Rookie received a seven-day deadline and was up for adoption on the shelter’s portal.

“His deadline passed,” Mendel said. “No one came to rescue.”

The last evaluation on May 15 for Rookie said he was walking well on a leash, took his treats gently, jumped up to solicit attention from his handler and had no issues on returning to his kennel.

He was euthanized four days later at 2:29 p.m.