By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Lauralei Combs, the $121,540-a-year director of Broward County’s animal shelter, has terminated three longtime volunteers who she claims violated a workplace culture agreement requiring them to show mutual respect to her employees.
“I don’t want to get into specifics, but we do have policies and procedures everybody has to follow,” Combs told Florida Bulldog. “It may be more beneficial if they go work with other volunteer organizations.”
The July 19 dismissal of Katia Medina and husband and wife Frank and Marisol Tammero ousted a trio of outspoken volunteers who posted photos and videos of canines allegedly being mistreated at the shelter, a $16.5-million facility at 2400 SW 42nd St. in Fort Lauderdale that opened in 2017.
It’s the latest controversy to engulf Combs, who is under fire for overcrowding at the shelter after a drastic reduction in euthanizations since she was hired 18 months ago.
“She is systematically letting go of volunteers who disclose what is taking place at the shelter,” said Hallandale City Commissioner Michele Lazarow. “It leads me to believe we are back on the road to no transparency. They are getting rid of the people who talk.”
Combs vehemently denied she got rid of Medina and the Tammeros for posting photos and videos, and sharing their shelter experiences on social media. There are more than 350 current volunteers.
Broward animal shelter boss
Combs replaced Thomas Adair, who resigned as director in September 2017 just as the county launched an audit into the shelter’s euthanasia records after Lazarow, one of Broward’s leading animal activists, began requesting records and asking questions about the number of cats and dogs being put down.
The audit, released in March 2018, shortly after Combs was brought on board, found that Adair altered the euthanasia records to make it appear animal services was making substantial progress in fulfilling a 2012 Broward County Commission mandate to have a no-kill shelter.
Before joining Broward, Combs was the volunteer program administrator for the animal shelter in Austin, TX, which maintains a euthanasia rate of 5 percent.
Combs began her tenure with the full support of Lazarow and others in Broward’s close-knit rescue community, but it eroded by the time the Best Friends Animal Society, an animal welfare organization, completed an independent assessment of the shelter’s deteriorating conditions on Dec. 20. According to the report, which was commissioned by Combs, the shelter is equipped to house roughly 375 to 450 dogs and cats, but during a three-day site visit in November, a Best Friends investigative team counted 624 animals on site.
Today, the shelter remains over capacity housing approximately 200 dogs and 400 cats, Combs said.
As a result, animals were housed in tighter living conditions, elevating their stress and arousal levels, suppressing their immune systems and increasing the likelihood of disease and cross-contamination, Best Friends noted in its report. Furthermore, according to the report, the shelter didn’t have enough animal care personnel to clean up after the 624 dogs and cats. Best Friends recommended 20 staffers to handle the workload, but Broward County employed only 11. The report also concluded that Combs and former Austin colleagues she hired fostered an “us versus them” environment with the rest of the shelter employees.
Some of Combs’ detractors did their own sleuthing. Roz Harris, founder of Friends of Broward County Animal Care & Adoptions, shared with Florida Bulldog videos shot in December of dozens of dogs being kept in portable kennels inside a section of the shelter with no air conditioning. Several industrial fans can be seen blowing in the direction of the canines, some of which were sitting in their own urine and feces.
Harris and Lazarow said Combs has made minimal progress in improving the quality of life for the animals in the shelter. According to a June 7 WSVN report, the shelter was forced to close two hours early on a Friday because there was no more room. Harris also said animal services inspectors responding to animal-cruelty complaints are not taking abused dogs and cats to the shelter because of the over-capacity problem.
“From our perspective, this director misled Broward about her skills, experience and no-kill beliefs to get the Broward position,” Harris said. “And she would happily use her position here as leverage to go back where she came from, leaving us in a shambles.”
Meanwhile, volunteers like Medina and the Tammeros are being singled out for continuing to expose the deficiencies at the shelter, Harris said. In Medina’s case, she has been a fixture in the shelter for more than 15 years, snapping photos of hundreds of dogs and cats during that time frame and sharing the images on social media to generate interest in adopting unwanted animals. “She would come in every day on her lunch hour to snap pictures and then upload the photos when she got home from work,” Lazarow said.
In 2017, Medina told Florida Bulldog, Adair kicked her off the volunteer program because of her outspokenness, but was welcomed back when Combs took over. Medina said she grew disillusioned with the new director due to the overcrowding at the shelter and a lack of a cohesive strategy to get animals adopted quicker.
On March 21, Medina snapped photos of a white dog with black spots named Goliath that had ripped out a nail and was bleeding in his kennel. Later that afternoon, she emailed Combs to tell her that she took the pictures around lunchtime and when she came back at 5 p.m., Goliath was still bleeding and no one had tended to his wound.
“As a volunteer this was very disturbing for me to see,” Medina wrote. “I do understand that staff are doing their best, but as a volunteer I am starting to see the lack of interest toward these dogs and cats that are sick or injured.”
A day later, Medina received a reply from volunteer coordinator Carolina Segarra admonishing her for breaking the chain of command. By July 11, Medina apparently had worn out her welcome. Medina said she got into an argument with an employee named Anthony Castaneda, who was working in the intake area of the shelter. Medina alleged that Castaneda jumped out of his chair and screamed at her to leave after she attempted to ask him questions a family had about a dog that was being dropped off. She sent an email to Combs about the incident. The director replied the following morning, “Thank you for the information, we will meet with Anthony. We apologize for any discomfort you felt while trying to assist a family.” Combs noted volunteers are not supposed to be in the part of the lobby where animals are first processed. “It can be a stressful area with high emotions,” Combs wrote.
Eight days later, Combs sent separation letters to Medina and the Tammeros that stated the animal services division “has chosen to terminate your continued participation in the program.”
Marisol Tammero told Florida Bulldog that she and her husband also had an argument with a shelter employee, volunteer coordinator Segarra, on July 6. (Combs declined to say whether she took any disciplinary action against Castaneda and Segarra.)
The same day, Tammero posted a video of herself walking a dog named Phoenix that had been at the shelter since early June. Phoenix was among a group of dogs the volunteers were attempting to find a home for by conducting a photo blitz of the hounds. Tammero said when she and the other volunteers returned from a lunch break, she couldn’t find Phoenix in his kennel. When she asked an employee to look him up in the system, the dog had been euthanized. “In about one hour that we were gone, they killed him,” Tammero said. “I was fit to be tied. I was livid.”
Tammero said she posted the video on Facebook to show that Phoenix wasn’t vicious, sick or gravely injured. “I think that pissed off the shelter folks,” she said. “I had the audacity to expose a killing that wasn’t warranted.”
In her defense, Combs explains, Broward County has cut animal euthanization rates by half and the shelter went from 76 percent no-kill to 90 percent no-kill. She noted the Best Friends report highlighted great client services provided by staff, her implementation of best no-kill shelter industry practices, an excellent rate of animal vaccinations and other policies that have helped convince people to reconsider abandoning their pets.
“We only want to get better and save more lives,” Combs said. “People are quick to judge, but you are listening to a handful of them.”
She provided Florida Bulldog with names of half-a-dozen animal rescue activists and their contact information. One of them, Sue Martino, executive director of Pet Projects for Pets, said she can’t comment on the conditions at the shelter because she concentrates on getting families to keep their pets. “In Lauralei’s first year we were able to save 83 pets that were referred to us by Broward Animal Care,” Martino said. “Our goal is to get people not to surrender their pets.”
She said Combs is charged with the daunting task of trying to save every abandoned or stray animal dropped off at the shelter. “It’s overwhelming for anybody,” Martino said. “This issue is not one person’s fault.”
With regard to Phoenix, Combs said the dog was not supposed to be in the public kennel with other canines. When he arrived at the shelter, she explained, Phoenix had been the victim of a dog attack, which had made him very defensive around other canines. While the volunteers were out to lunch, Phoenix attacked and gravely injured a dog that was placed inside the kennel with him, Combs said. Both canines were euthanized.
“Our county is very conservative,” she said. “They don’t want animals that kill other animals to be placed back in the community.”
As far as the complaints about her job performance, Combs said her critics are entitled to voice their opinions. “They have freedom of speech,” she said. “If they want to continually criticize us, that is their choice. We just want to work together to save pets.”