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.”
Marisol Tammero / August 1, 2019 12:08 pm
Of course, Laurelie Combs doesn’t want to go into specifics. In doing so, she will have to expose what her employees did to us. By allowing staff members to scream at and threatened volunteers with dismissal, anytime they are “having a bad day”, she is nuturing a culture of abuse at the shelter. Laurelie talks about us violating an agreement requiring us to show respect to her employees. Well, what about her employees part of that agreement? When my husband and I signed the volunteer agreement, we don’t recall ever agreeing to being the volunteer coordinator’s whipping boy/girl, when she needs someone to vent her frustrations on. On numerous occassions, Carolina admitted to my husband that she was highly stressed and that she hated her job. On that Saturday, she told my husband that she was going to start throwing volunteers out and she was in a sour mood all day long.
I was visibly upset about the unwarrented killing of Phoenix, that Saturday and when we crossed paths, it must have shown on my face. She told my husband that if i didn’t change my attitude, she was going to throw me out. At that point, Frankie had enough of her threats and told her that she was being unprofessional. I guess she didn’t like to hear the truth. My husband called me over and Carolina and I had our own discussion. It was spirited, I admit it. But I stand by everything that I said, because it is the truth. Carolina was also upset by an incident that happened during a Lunch Buddies outing with a dog named Marcia. The dog apparently bit a woman’s face. Carolina started to cry and I actually comforted her. I felt bad, since I know how attached we become to these animals. We ended the discussion agreeing to meet again at the volunteer meeting and have a group discussion on things that we wanted to improve at the shelter when it came to volunteering. Frank and I got our letters the day before the volunteer’s meeting. We weren’t even given the courtsey of a meeting to discuss our side of the story. However, when it came to situations that affected the shelter, like those two dog bite lawsuits and that huge dog fight in playgroup, that consequently got two dogs killed, Laurelie didn’t have a problem calling my husband.
Laurelie, my conscience is clean and I have no problem meeting with you and Carolina to discuss what actually happened. My advice to you Carolina, is to move on.
Now on to Phoenix.
“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.”
Let’s dissect this.
You admit that Phoenix arrived at the shelter a victim of a dog attack. You admit that he was defensive around other canines. Then why in the world, would you allow them to put a dog that suffered this kind of trauma with another dog??? You don’t have to be Ceasar Milan to know that this was going to end badly. But this isn’t the first mistake you have committed when it comes to the welfare of these animals, is it??? Ex… Summer.
I was gone for all of 40 minutes. Because the shelter is so short staffed, there are times that it takes a LONG time to find staff. So we are to believe, that in 40 minutes, staff was able to pair Phoenix with another dog, have them fight, break up the fight, cart both dogs off to be euthanized, clean the kennel of any blood and bring in another dog to that kennel? Something doesn’t add up there. I was told that Phoenix was suppose to be euthanized on Friday. A day before. Why??? If he got into the fight with the dog on Saturday, then why was he suppose to be euthanized the day before? The fight didn’t happen yet.
“Our county is very conservative,” she said. “They don’t want animals that kill other animals to be placed back in the community.”
Interesting this, because I recall having a conversation with you, Laurelie, about a dog with a muzzle order named Johnnie. I dog that you knew killed two cats. When I asked you what would happen to him, you told me nothing. Dogs kill cats. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. You also told me that we don’t have the man power to enforce muzzle orders. Interesting that you were okay with this, but Phoenix had to be raced to the clinic for the night night juice. Why wasn’t his life spared?? Because you pick and choose who you will save.
After reading this article and I thank Francisco Alvarado for the interview :-), I offer you the same advice. Maybe It may be more beneficial if you go work with another organization. You have done enough in Broward County!!!
Neil Albert / August 1, 2019 12:30 pm
This incompetent “Director” began her position by firing long time shelter employee, Marci Perry, who had the respect and support of the animal rescue community, and had worked at this facility for decades!
She has alienated the animal welfare community and ended the shelters relationships with the extensive animal rescue community here in South Florida, who were active in the foster and adoption areas.
Rather than engage potential partners, she enforces strict secrecy.
This is why there is such overcrowding now, and the rampant euthanizing of healthy animals.
Harve / August 1, 2019 4:15 pm
No Kill strikes again. Learn a lesson. You can’t get adopt yourself out of this. Kick the No Kill mentality to the curb, get back to reality. And Best Fiends? Please don’t invite them into your community, they are a cult group with offshore accounts. They began in Scientology and progressed to worshipping Satan and Jesus. They have animal sacrifices in their background. They learned they get more donations hawking animals than from the collection plate at their church.
Eddie C. / August 1, 2019 5:06 pm
The never-ending “soap opera” continues at the Broward County shelter! All the drama – all the politics, and in the end, the only ones that suffer are the animals! I’ve spent the last 20 years rescuing, transporting and in many cases – keeping abandoned and abused dogs. I’ve worked with several rescue groups, transported dogs from both the Dade and Broward County shelters, traveled throughout the state of Florida to bring dogs to their new homes AND effected dozens of individual street rescues along the way! I see what’s going on now and THIS IS NOT HOW THINGS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE!!! People backstabbing each other, allegations of misconduct and personal agendas. Good adoptable dogs being destroyed every day because of all the human bullshit going on within the agency. EVERY director gets defamed somewhere along the way! Directors accuse and sometimes fire volunteers for not following procedure, but is “procedure” really working? There’s no way to know WHO to believe anymore or what the truth really is! $121,000.00 annual salary…SWEET!!!
Gloria / August 2, 2019 9:19 pm
Broward County needs to stop killing these dogs its inhumane and its animal cruelty stop them there are shelters that can help rescue these dogs. Please someone help my heart breaks knowning these people have no compassion no feelings no heart
CHERYL MASSEY / August 3, 2019 5:11 am
Reading the “clip” I copied and pasted below from the above article, I’m wondering if Combs fired the person who put another dog in with this one knowing that it is not to be housed with other dogs? If not, she’s dropping the ball. There is always room for improvement. Were I one of the hired voluteers, I’d check out a whistleblower lawsuit to see if there isn’t a remedy for punitive damages due to them keeping an eye on the neglect within the facility as these lawsuits will force the agency to take complaints seriously. The facility should send someone to the facility once a week or in the very least have them reach out via telephone to the volunteers so they can anonymously voice their concerns.
“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.”
Janet / August 5, 2019 6:24 pm
She’s so full of crap 💩. She’s trying to defend her actions somehow but whoever knows Katia Medina knows she would never ever mistreat an animal!!
This POS director needs to exit the shelter! She doesn’t even care that the kennels are not clean! You DO NOT see pooped up kennels at our shelters here in Kern County, Ca!
Get rid of the bitch! Call the news! They need to come unannounced! 🤬
Sloan Cowart / August 6, 2019 9:18 pm
Let me straighten out some inconsistencies presented by Ms. Combs in this article. She talks about respect. She has no idea what the meaning of that word entails. I have experienced and witnessed firsthand that there is lack of respect by some staff and other volunteers towards other volunteers. Volunteers should not be, but have been, subject to physical entrapment, verbally abused and berated by some staff and other volunteers. Respect is definitely a two-way street, but has been a one way street. She has fired long time and experienced volunteers because they speak up for the animals who cannot speak for themselves.
Our shelter is overcapacity and our shelter animals are suffering due to the many current situations created and allowed by the current shelter management. It will continue to be a hoarding situation, as this director has never put any solid programs in place to allow for greater positive outcomes for the shelter cats and dogs. Programs such as training and behavior assessments, training, pet retention programs, veterinarian assistance, etc, all of which were declined by the the current director. Adoptable animals are labeled as “behavioral” and being killed for space. I highly disagree with the comment by Pets Project. The animals are the responsibility of the shelter while the animals are in their care. On the subject of care, the conditions are horrific of animals sitting in feces and urine and bring fed in those contaminated conditions. Again, lack of care and compassion breeds behavior and medics issues created and allowed by the director.
Regarding Phoenix, another lie! He was never kenneled with another dog. Nor did he show any aggression or reactivity. Also, knowing that Phoenix came in with bites, why in the world would he be kenneled with another dog since he obviously suffered such trauma. Lack of transparency and incompetence again.
The director states that there are rules and protocol. She picks and chooses on that topic to suit her agenda . Some volunteers do not follow protocol on proper dog handling, one of which having caused unnecessary injuries and deaths of some of our shelter animals, but that volunteer still remains a volunteer able to walk dogs. It is clear that volunteers who support the management but yet bully other volunteers publicly on social media remain volunteers. It is clear that staff who berate and bully volunteers are still employed there. Basically the current director wants people to show up and shut up and not be the voice for the animals. It is really terrible how this current director has not served the welfare of the animals in the shelter. She has fooled the community and continues to fool Broward County commissioners. Our community is starting to wake up and realize that we will be fooled no more by the empty promises offered by this director when she came onboard in March 2018.
Kathie Bothma / August 8, 2019 12:58 pm
It is always the ANIMALS that suffer. And what the hell is a salary of $121,000.00+ paid for this position? A caring and honest person could be hired for thousands less and the difference could be used to help the animals. Ms. Combs needs to be terminated immediatly.And no severance pay! Let the caring hard working volunteers keep the shelter going until a person that truly puts the animals first is hired. There is NO EXCUSE for the situation there. Volunteers that give their time, effort and money to the animals should not be punished for advocating for the helpless animals. Good people willing to volunteer are hard to find and retain. Public officials do your job.Do the right thing for the helpless caged animals.
IvyWerner / August 11, 2019 4:14 am
It’s horrible. Maybe you need to start checking all employees for 5 years with a psychoanalyst before hiring? The same goes for volunteers. It’s like letting a pedophile work at school.
A Concerned Citizen / August 27, 2019 2:02 am
I’m not sure why this place could possibly be short-staffed with a 7 million dollar per year budget.
I called to the facility two days in a row to make a donation of dog beds and toys and got no answer so I went there in person. I asked the volunteer at the front counter why nobody answers the phone and she says they’re short-staffed. I said but you’re here why don’t you answer the phone as I dialed it and it rang right in front of her. She said volunteers are not allowed to answer the phones.
To pay somebody $10 an hour to answer the phone 40 hours a week is only $20,800 per year how does that not fit into the budget? Also with all the volunteers available for free, there is never an excuse for the phone’s not to be answered.
If the phones were answered more cats and dogs would be adopted and that would mean less overcrowding.
If somebody goes on the internet and they decide to call about available pets or for directions and nobody answers the phone they’re just going to go elsewhere.
Much to my surprise I found out that the dog beds and toys that I donated were not going to be given to the dogs in the facility but instead given to people who are adopting pets.
I was very disappointed to find out that the beds and toys ftom my dog that I adopted from animal control 9 years ago were going to be given to strangers who are adopting new dogs instead of the poornanimals stuck in the shelter.
(Mine recently had to be put to sleep due to cancer) 🙁
I asked why would these be given to people that are adopting dogs instead of being given to the dogs in the shelter? I was told they like to set people up for success that are adopting a pet.
They had donations of brand new unused dog beds piled to the ceiling in a classroom and I said that’s great that large corporations donate those beds and wouldn’t you use those if you’re going to give them to a new pet owner rather than my used dog beds and toys that I obviously wanted to go to the dogs that are stuck here.
If you are taking on the responsibility of adopting a pet shouldn’t you already be in the position to purchase a new dog bed and a new toy for your new dog?
Very disappointed in the way this shelter is being run and it certainly doesn’t make sense that they’re understaffed with that type of budget.
Rachel / February 28, 2020 2:50 pm
This is what happens when shelters go “no kill.”
Close Neighbor / December 2, 2020 6:37 am
3828 NW 77 Ave, Davie (Hollywood), FL 33024
Big Skinny White Dog kept chained outside 24/7 regardless of weather. When temperatures were in 90 dog was out. Dog was out howling during TS Eta. Last night temperatures were in the 40 and I can see dog through the fence shivering.
I do not know gender.