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—– By: Ann Costantino —–
One day after Johnny Olszewski, Jr. was sworn in as Baltimore County’s 14th county executive, and County Administrative Officer Fred Homan officially retired, members of the Baltimore County Animal Services (BCAS) Advisory Commission said they are looking to Olszewski to alleviate what some staff members have characterized as animal, employee and volunteer suffering, as well as alleged statistics manipulation at the BCAS animal shelter in Baldwin, Maryland.
When Mr. Homan resigned at the request of County Executive Olszewski last month, shelter workers seemed to come out of the woodwork and shared more stories with members of the advisory commission, a group whose members were appointed by the Baltimore County Council and county executive, some of whom act as a liaison between the animal shelter and the public.
BCAS staff members and volunteers have felt safe confiding in the commission, but have stopped short of going public out of fear of retribution from some county employees, appointed under previous administrations.
But during the commission’s monthly meeting this week, which followed Olszewski’s inauguration, BCAS Commission Advisory members, in a word, let it rip.
Meeting minutes documented the sentiment. “As everyone knows, we have a new County Executive. He ran for office promising openness and transparency, and Baltimore County Animal Services desperately needs transparency. We look forward to our new County Executive lifting the shroud of secrecy that envelopes BCAS. Fred Homan has left County government, so he is no longer in charge of Animal Services.”
Upon Homan’s resignation, even more shelter employees felt the need to speak up for the animals – now with less trepidation, according to commission member Julianne Zimmer – and expanded upon the shelter’s many problems. Until earlier this week, Homan had been in charge of overseeing all county business, including animal services.
Human and Animal Neglect
At Tuesday’s meeting, advisory members spoke of a litany of problems shelter workers have brought to their attention. Those problems ranged from non-working bathroom facilities – which, at times, have forced shelter volunteers to leave the premises to find facilities elsewhere – to other matters such as the shelter’s management instructing staff to transport over two dozen guinea pigs to a snake farm for food, after the animals’ owner died, leaving nearly 60 guinea pigs for the animal shelter to intake.
While some of the guinea pigs were transferred to another shelter in Carroll County, BCAS commission members say the remaining 28 were destined for the snakes. Those plans changed when angered shelter staff could not fathom the guinea pigs’ fate. But instead of being taken in or re-homed by the Baldwin animal shelter, all 28 guinea pigs were euthanized.
Other serious matters were also discussed at Tuesday’s meeting, such as BCAS failing to provide enrichment activities and daily walks to rescue-only animals. Some of those animals are at the shelter for the long-term but remain in a hold area without activities, commission members said.
Animal control services, which had been provided through the shelter has also long been an issue for shelter workers and the community. Over time, commission members say, the job has been relegated to Baltimore County Police. This practice, they say, puts both the the animals and police officers in danger, due to lack of proper training on animal rescue.
And then there are the numbers. Commission members allege that statistics for live release animals – or animals re-homed or reunited with their owners – have been artificially inflated. The advisory group has been told by shelter employees that the numbers are simply “not real.”
Manipulating the Numbers
There are two ways advisory members say the animal shelter’s numbers have been inflated.
Live release, in BCAS terms, is the successful adoption from the shelter to a new pet owner or the reunion of lost pets with existing owners. Shelter workers have told commission members that the live release numbers are inaccurate and are designed to create an image that the shelter is adopting out a higher rate of rescued animals than what is actually occurring.
One of the ways commission members say the live release numbers are manipulated is through deliberately counting cats and kittens captured in the wild for the purpose of Trap Neuter Return (TNR) which is when the felines are caught solely for sterilization – to reduce feral populations – and then released back into the wild.
In those cases, commission members say it’s not a legitimate live release since the object of the capture is to release the cats after they are spayed and neutered through the TNR program. Moreover, the return process is not being followed. The cats are supposed to be returned within 300 feet of their extraction point, but shelter workers have complained that some cats are released up to a mile away, rendering the animals vulnerable to the elements and far from familiar territory.
The second way the live release numbers have been allegedly manipulated, according to commission members, is through reducing the population of live animals that need to be adopted in the first place.
The BCAS shelter is required to provide quarterly statistics to the Maryland Department of Agriculture. According to the commission’s December 4th meeting minutes, which include numbers which demonstrate an uptick of “Owner Requested Euthanasia” instances, shelter statistics show a two-to-five-time increase in such requests between 2015 and 2018.
True “Owner Requested Euthanasia” occurs when pet owners surrender their animals to the shelter near the end of their pets’ lives and request the animal be put down by the shelter. While there are legitimate instances of Owner Requested Euthanasia, commission members allege that BCAS management is having staff pressure some pet owners to sign a release when the animals are surrendered to the shelter for adoption, and when the animal may not be as adoptable as other animals in the shelter’s care.
But when an owner requests a pet be euthanized, the shelter counts the instance as owner requested, as opposed to a decision made by the shelter. And asking owners, who are surrendering their pets to the shelter for adoption, to sign the release allows the shelter to euthanize the animal and not record it as shelter-directed. It puts the onus on the owner and not the shelter.
Commission members say the consequence of euthanizing more animals artificially inflates live release or adoption numbers. Why? Because when animals are euthanized, there are fewer of them needed to be put up for adoption. Thus, the rate of adopted pets comes from a smaller pool of live animals.
Baltimore County Animal Services did not respond to a request for interview or comment on the allegations made by staff members and its advisory board. But Ellen Kobler, the county’s deputy communications director, spoke for the Olszewski administration which took the reins on Monday. “We are aware of the Commission’s concerns and are committed to working collaboratively with all stakeholders, including the professional staff and management of Baltimore County Animal Services, to review the facts and take any actions that may be appropriate. We look forward to the results of the ongoing review by the County Council Auditor’s Office,” she said.
According to member, Julianne Zimmer, the BCAS Advisory Commission has asked for independent procedural and financial audits of the shelter to be conducted under the new administration.