By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Working conditions at Broward’s $16.5-million animal shelter are so severe, County Auditor Bob Melton is recommending immediate reforms in the midst of auditing the embattled Animal Care and Adoption Center.
Melton sent a 16-page memo to County Administrator Bertha Henry on April 23 outlining numerous problems that threaten the behavioral and mental health of the caged animals, as well as the safety of employees, volunteers and people looking to adopt dogs and cats.
“We have noted areas where significant improvements are needed that require immediate corrective action by management,” Melton wrote. “Because of this immediate need, we are issuing this advisory without waiting for the completion of the audit.”
Two days earlier, during a virtual meeting, Henry told county commissioners that the shelter had dramatically reduced animal overcrowding and improved the living environment for the remaining felines and canines. “Three hundred fifty four cats and dogs have found a home,” Henry said. “The remaining animals are getting a lot of TLC.”
Animal Care deficiencies
The county administrator referred questions from Florida Bulldog to Henry Sniezek, director of Broward’s environmental protection and growth management department, which oversees the animal division. Sniezek did not comment on what he and his executive animal staff are doing to fix the deficiencies identified by Melton. Among the findings:
- Animals are left unattended for 16 to 18 hours without any interaction with humans, which may impact their medical and behavioral health.
- The shelter does not have a certified animal behaviorist on staff to rehabilitate animals with behavioral issues and to assist in making animals more adoptable to reduce the risk of euthanasia.
- Employees and volunteers are not adequately trained on animal handling procedures, which resulted in nearly $50,000 worth of liability claims for animal bites.
“County management is preparing a full response to the auditor’s memo,” Sniezek wrote in a May 5 email to Florida Bulldog. “It will be available soon.”
For Broward’s animal advocacy community, Melton’s findings are the latest inquiry confirming the shelter at 2400 SW 42nd St. in Fort Lauderdale is woefully understaffed, leading to filthy living conditions and poor healthcare for the facility’s stray, abused and abandoned animals. Most of the criticisms occurred under the tumultuous tenure of Lauralei Combs, the animal division’s director for two years until her resignation in March.
Among the fiercest critics was Broward Commissioner Mark Bogen, who sent independent inspectors to evaluate the shelter’s conditions last October. “I believe the auditor’s interim report demonstrates what I have been saying is true,” Bogen said. “We have a lot of problems at the animal shelter that need immediate correction.”
New shelter plagued with problems
Melton is auditing the animal division for the second time in three years. In 2018, Melton released his findings into the shelter’s euthanasia records that determined Combs’ predecessor, Thomas Adair, had altered the number of animals being put down to make it appear animal services was achieving its goal of being a no-kill shelter. Adair resigned before the audit was completed.
Combs, who earned $121,540 annually, then commissioned an independent assessment by animal welfare organization Best Friends Animal Society that found the shelter was housing 624 animals when it only had capacity for 375 to 450 dogs and cats. The animals were housed in tight 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.
Over the past year, Broward animal rescuers and shelter volunteers accused Combs of mismanagement and creating a hostile environment at the shelter. Combs, who touted a 90 percent no-kill rate since she was hired, banned some volunteers from the shelter for allegedly violating a workplace culture agreement. But they told the Florida Bulldog they were kicked out of the volunteer program for sharing photos and videos of animals in distress.
Last October, Bogen sent in his team of independent investigators who confirmed the shelter was over-capacity and animals were still living in squalid conditions. In January, Melton began his audit into the shelter’s operations, according to his memo. During one of the early visits, Melton’s auditors observed a dog freeing himself from a kennel cage and being retrieved by a volunteer without incident.
“Upon further inquiry, both volunteers and employees have acknowledged that dogs are able to get loose from time to time,” Melton wrote. “Kennel areas are not adequately monitored by employees during hours the shelter is open to the public to ensure the safety of members of the public, volunteers, and animals, and reduce legal liability.”
Not equipped for no-kill policy
Perhaps the most damning discovery by Melton’s auditors is that the shelter is not designed to adequately address the county’s objective of having a 100 percent no-kill shelter. For instance, the shelter doesn’t provide animals housed for long-term stays with spaces with enough room for hiding, playing, resting and feeding, according to the memo.
Last August and November, two engineering firms made recommendations to fix deficiencies with the shelter’s air-conditioning system, the memo states. Yet, as of March 17, those fixes had not been made, the auditors found.
Furthermore, the animal division’s standard operating procedures do not align with national guidelines for no-kill shelters. Melton’s team found that shelter staff is not providing ongoing assessments of each animal’s behavior throughout their stay and that employees and volunteers are not trained in identifying, recording and reporting an animal’s behavior.
On March 24, the Animal Care and Adoption Center temporarily stopped intake of new animals and began placing dogs and cats into foster homes as part of the division’s new restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In addition, the volunteer program was suspended to adhere to social distancing guidelines and protect the shelter’s 82 full-time and part-time employees from infection.
As of May 6, 37 dogs and 224 cats have been placed in foster homes, Sniezek told Florida Bulldog. “As of May 4, there were 62 cats and 70 dogs at the shelter,” he said. “This represents approximately 40 percent of shelter capacity.”
Roz Harris, founder of Friends of Broward County Animal Care & Adoptions, said while the animal population has been lowered, once the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, the shelter will revert to its old problems unless Sniezek heeds the auditor’s recommendations. “My point is that the neglect was ongoing for a very long time,” Harris said. “At this moment they are low – but once they reopen the neglect will begin as the inventory rises again.”
Commissioner Bogen said he doesn’t trust Broward’s animal division will get its act together soon. “It’s hard to have confidence when you see all these problems,” he said. “We don’t have the protocols, we don’t have the standards of operations and we don’t have the right people to execute them.”