Why would an underfunded, understaffed, volunteer-dependent organization dedicated to taking care of animals institute new policies that prevent volunteers from volunteering and, some say, put the animals at risk?
That’s the question some people are asking about the Alameda city animal shelter, where the director has fired several core volunteers, reduced the number of hours other volunteers can work, and at one point temporarily suspended the volunteer dog-walking program.
After some outcry, the dog walkers are back but there’s still a lingering battle between director Diana Barrett and the volunteers, and the result is a policy that leaves shelter dogs in conditions that experts say border on inhumane.
Under Barrett’s new rules, laid out in a June volunteer handbook, dogs not yet eligible for adoption are now kept in small kennels 24 hours a day, for as long as 11 days if the dog is a stray and up to 21 days for any dog ever registered to an owner. Barrett’s policy dictates that these "on hold" dogs may no longer be visited, petted, walked, bathed, or allowed to play with toys.
Dogs eligible for adoption are locked in kennels 23 hours a day, with dog walks limited to 20 minutes, at most three times a day.
"I think those conditions border on abuse," behaviorist Bob Gutierrez, who for 10 years was coordinator of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Animal Behavior Program, told the Guardian when we described the rules to him.
At the SPCA, Gutierrez recounted, "we would encourage people to interact with the dogs as often as possible because socialization is an ongoing process, even with adult dogs."
There’s also a physical health risk. "Dogs will not foul their own space," Gutierrez explained, "and dogs that are confined that long often develop some medical issues from not emptying their bladders at regular intervals."
And the shelter doesn’t routinely vaccinate the dogs in its care.
Deb Campbell, volunteer coordinator at the San Francisco animal-control shelter, said dogs there are generally taken out five or more times a day and are also given a socialization hour in a dog park where volunteers supervise group play.
Barrett, an animal control officer with the Alameda Police Department, which manages the shelter, has been on the job since 2000.
Since the shelter has only limited paid staff three animal control officers, including Barrett who also have to go out on calls, much of the work of walking and caring for the animals has been done by volunteers.
But some of those volunteers have clashed with Barrett in one case, a Barrett memo talks about "foul language" and "argumentative-confrontational stances toward staff members" and as a result, the entire program has been changed.
Although a half-dozen core volunteers had each previously worked from three to five days a week every week, Barrett’s new rules permit only two volunteers per hour and limit each volunteer to a maximum of 20 hours per month one half day per week. Anyone who works more than four hours a week "will be given a mandatory break of two weeks," according to the August edition of the shelter’s volunteer handbook, and if the infraction is repeated, the volunteer’s service will be terminated.
At least six volunteers have resigned in protest. As Mary Sutter and her 16-year-old daughter, Kaity Sutter, who were volunteers for four years, explained in a July 25 letter, a copy of which was provided to us, "We left … because we felt that policies were being put in place to control people to the detriment of the dogs."
Alameda city manager Debra Kurita has barred Barrett from speaking to the media, and Lt. Bill Scott, Barrett’s supervisor, serves as her designated spokesperson. Scott defended the changes as allowing "increased efficiency and supervision." Asked about the reduction in the volunteer hours formerly 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., now 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Scott said, "We can do more now in three hours than we could before in five," but he could not explain how, nor which tasks are being accomplished more quickly.
Scott insisted that the volunteers who were most recently let go were dismissed for cumulative histories of infractions. A June 27 memo from Barrett outlined the problems, some of which seem to be a bit of a stretch.
One volunteer, Jim Gotelli, was cited for "tampering with city property" because, according to Gotelli, he bought and attached a new hose nozzle to replace a broken one.
Gotelli was also given a written reprimand for contacting a law professor at UCLA who is an animal-law expert and asking if the Alameda shelter was complying with the Hayden Bill, a state law that sets minimum standards for care in California animal shelters. Barrett informed Gotelli that as an agent of the city, he was barred from seeking outside legal advice. Gotelli was dismissed in July after writing a letter to the city attorney seeking policy clarification.
Another charge cited by Barrett "feeding the dogs unauthorized food and causing them gastric distress" apparently refers to Dan Mosso, who for 18 months paid out of his own pocket for premium-quality food for the dogs, with Barrett’s consent, until she suddenly withdrew permission. Mosso was also terminated in July, for questioning shelter policy.
Scott also made dark hints to us about a "subgroup that needed to be broken up," apparently referring to a group of long-term core volunteers Gotelli, Mosso, and Donna McCaskey who suggested to Barrett that the shelter might not be in compliance with the law. Scott suggested that a public organizing campaign by the terminated volunteers which includes an online petition is a vendetta against Barrett. But each volunteer we interviewed praised Barrett for some of her work. "It’s not about us, and it’s not really about Diana Barrett we’re worried about the dogs," Mosso said.
Okorie Okorocha, a lawyer and expert in animal law, wrote an Aug. 17 letter to the city of Alameda charging that the shelter is vioutf8g the Hayden Bill. In the letter, Okorocha stated that several Alameda residents "have first-hand knowledge that animals in your shelter are kept in cages or kennels for periods of 10 to 20 consecutive days without receiving any exercise."
Mohammed Hill, a deputy city attorney, stated in an Aug. 29 response that it’s perfectly legal to keep dogs in their kennels without exercise as long as the cages are big enough for the animals to walk around in. The cages at the shelter are 12 feet long, seven feet wide, and four feet high. But the cages are divided, so that much of the day the dogs are in a six-foot space.
Some animals those who have been claimed by owners but not yet picked up are kept caged all the time "for liability reasons," Hill’s letter states.
However, it adds, "The shelter has a current staff level of approximately 40 dedicated volunteers who on average walk each dog for a period of 20 minutes three times a day, six days a week." But the shelter is only open five days a week, and the volunteer statistics Hill cites are almost certainly inflated. Since the volunteers can only work from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., it’s unlikely that the dogs are getting three walks a day.
In fact, that could only happen under perfectly optimal conditions a factory-line approach to dog walking, with no more than five dogs and two volunteers per hour, the last of which, several observers say, has not been the case. At least one visitor observed that the paperwork showed no walks for any dogs on the day she visited.
Vicky Smith, a 55-year-old schoolteacher, visited the shelter recently to offer her services as a volunteer. She said Barrett told her the shelter needed no more volunteers.
Equally troubling were the conditions that Smith observed in the cat area two weeks ago: empty water bowls, crusted-over remnants of canned food dried in the food bowls, a terrible stench from dirty litter in several cages, all against the background din of a multitude of cats yowling for attention. The one volunteer on duty seemed completely overwhelmed and, Smith said, apologized, saying, "There are hardly any volunteers anymore."
The situation at the Alameda shelter might not have reached this point had there been effective oversight. The city lacks an animal-welfare commission, and Scott told us repeatedly that nobody at the Police Department has specific expertise in animal welfare. Scott is so unfamiliar with the shelter that he was literally unable to answer a single question about its daily operations. He repeated, "That’s animal stuff, that’s beyond me," "I wouldn’t know," "That’s a question of animal law," and variations thereof a total of 11 times.
We asked Scott how, without such knowledge, he could be certain that Barrett was making the wisest possible decisions. "We work closely with the Humane Society of Alameda," he assured us.
While that statement is technically true, it is profoundly misleading. The Police Department does receive grants from the HSA, but the bulk of the funds received do not go to the shelter; instead, for instance, last year the department spent $15,000 in HSA funds to purchase two police dogs and thousands more on bulletproof vests for the dogs.
When asked about Scott’s assertion that the HSA provides the animal knowledge that the police lack, HSA president Carmen Lasar denied it fiercely, repeating several times with increasing agitation, "Our only role is helping them financially."
Discussing the nature of municipal shelters in general, Carl Friedman, director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, told us, "Most of the successful agencies are independent, not part of any other department, and either report directly to their city administrator or have oversight from a commission that includes members of the public. Politically, the independent departments are usually free to fight for the resources and funding they need."
In response to the recent burst of publicity about the issues at the Alameda Animal Shelter, Police Chief Walter Tibbet publicly pledged to conduct "a full investigation" into those issues. After we made numerous Public Records Act requests of the city of Alameda, the investigation was upgraded and is now being conducted by Internal Affairs. The investigating officer, Sgt. Robert Frankland, is on vacation through Oct. 10 and does not expect to finish his report until early November.
"Volunteering at the shelter is the best thing I’ve ever done, one of the most satisfying things, and I love it, and I miss it," Mosso said. "But if this is my legacy, so be it: that they’ll never let me come back, but at least the dogs will get walked and get proper care."