By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Mary sensed her chance to pull off a daring escape from the Broward County Animal Care and Adoption Center on Aug. 16. As a staffer walked the scruffy, black pooch to a van manned by a dog rescuer, Mary slipped out of her leash and bolted over a six-foot, chain-link fence, according to an email sent three days later by the facility’s interim director Alessandra Medri.
“We immediately dispatched our animal care officers and attempted to capture her several times after [being] sighted, but she always managed to evade capture,” Medri wrote. “When she was spotted in a residential neighborhood we went back and looked for her. We were there last night and this morning too when one of the officers attempted to capture her again.”
Mary is still loose in the streets, said Debra Seritello, an animal advocate who was the recipient of Medri’s Aug. 19 email. “Ultimately, a dog is the shelter’s responsibility until it leaves the property,” Seritello told Florida Bulldog. “They always try to place the blame with someone else. There is no accountability, no transparency and there is nothing we can do.”
Mary’s break-out is the latest sign of mismanagement that has turned Broward’s $16.5-million facility for abandoned cats and dogs into what Seritello and two other animal advocates contend has become a house of horrors in its short three-year existence. In April, County Auditor Bob Melton recommended Broward Administrator Bertha Henry implement a series of immediate reforms while conducting a still-ongoing audit of the Animal Care and Adoption Center.
No-kill, not yet
A key goal of the county’s is for the center to be a no-kill facility. But records provided by the animal care division state that 233 dogs and cats were euthanized by order of the animal care division between May 1 and Aug. 25. Another 47 were euthanized at an owner’s direction, and 67 died while in the shelter’s care. Also, five were lost during that time.
In the same four month period, 1,180 dogs and cats were adopted, 195 were returned to their owners, 242 were transferred to rescue groups. and 509 cats were neutered and returned to the neighborhoods where they were picked up.
Animal advocates allege Henry and Medri have not followed through on many of the emergency fixes Melton recommended, such as creating staff schedules so that the hundreds of cats and dogs in the shelter have enough hours of human interaction, as well as hiring a certified animal behaviorist to work with aggressive dogs.
The ongoing search for Broward’s third animal services director in three years and the COVID-19 pandemic have hindered much-needed reforms, said Rita Green, another Broward animal activist. “Until we get a good director, nothing is going to happen,” Green said. “Yet the practices at the county’s shelter are so flawed, the chance of finding someone good is slim and none.”
Melton said his staff has prepared a draft final audit report that is scheduled to be discussed with management on Sept. 3. The animal division is then given time to submit responses to the audit, Melton explained. “We will incorporate their responses into the report and issue it,” he said. “The report is confidential until that time.”
Henry did not respond to email and phone messages requesting comment. Medri declined to be interviewed. “It will be futile to attempt to rectify your incorrect statements since it appears that you have already pre-judged this agency and myself,” she wrote in an Aug. 25 email. “Unfortunately we live in a litigious society where personal attacks and alternative facts seem to have become the norm.”
She did acknowledge that the animal care division has been unable to recapture Mary.
In his April interim report, Melton noted that animals are left unattended for 16 to 18 hours without any interaction with humans, which may impact their medical and behavioral health. Melton also determined the facility at 2400 SW 42nd Street has design flaws that hinder Broward’s goal of having a 100 percent no-kill shelter such as not providing animals housed for long-term stays with enough room for hiding, playing, resting and feeding.
The deficiencies outlined in Melton’s interim report occurred under Lauralei Combs, the county’s most recent animal services director who resigned in March amid a chorus of activist complaints and friction with volunteers whom she banned from working at the shelter. Combs hired Medri, whose previous jobs were project coordinator for Broward’s environmental department and Palm Beach County senior environmental analyst, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Melton’s interim report also lines up with an independent assessment recently concluded by the University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, which conducts evaluations of the health and wellness of shelter animals. According to a July draft report obtained by Florida Bulldog, the UF team suggested Broward hire a mediator to work with volunteers and staff to establish a positive working environment, enlist volunteers to help with the adoption, rescue and foster program and ensure that there are enough staffers and volunteers to man a seven-day-a-week operation.
“Many of the recommendations will require a philosophical culture shift not just for the shelter leadership, staff, volunteers, rescue partners and community advocates but for the county administrator’s office and Board of County Commissioners as well,” the report states.
Since volunteers have not been allowed inside the animal shelter since Broward County implemented COVID-19 restrictions in March, advocates have been relying on whistleblower employees for information. Members of the public are allowed to enter the shelter to pick up animals they have adopted or have lost, but only after filling out forms online to set up a time and date to retrieve the dog or cat.
One staffer, Marina Smith Gaines, was recently fired after six days on the job for raising concerns about the treatment of animals, according to a June 2 email she sent Broward elected officials and activists.
According to Gaines’s email, animals are still left alone for 16 to 18 hours a day; dog kennels are not disinfected properly and are washed with canines still in the cages; dogs are fed only once a day and are surrounded by urine and feces; and dogs do not get daily exercise.
“The work environment is one of apathy and secrets,” Gaines wrote. “Most (not all) don’t have a clue about animal care, kennel care, dog behavior, basic training, or the proper procedures for handling dogs or the cleaning and disinfecting of kennels.”
The same day, the animal care division outlined measures that it has implemented in response to the interim audit, according to minutes of the June 2 county commission meeting. For instance, the shelter installed more lighting and lighting timers so dogs are only kept in the dark for nine hours of the day, and switched to keyed padlocks on kennel gates to prevent canines from getting loose.
Some reforms are still months away from being acted on, such as commencing 10-hour shifts for kennel staff and bringing back volunteers once county operations returns to a normal schedule. But the division hit back at criticism at the June 2 meeting, “Contrary to the Auditor’s report, ACAD staff practices are consistent with the industry ‘minimum standard of care’ of 15 minutes per day for feeding and cleaning for each animal,” the minutes state.
Advocates ‘written off’?
Joanne Oyen, a member of Broward’s animal care advisory committee, claimed county commissioners don’t want to address the problems identified by Melton and the UF team. Oyen said she recently had a conversation with Joshua Freeman, chief of staff for Broward Vice Mayor Steve Geller who appointed her to the advisory committee, about the deteriorating situation within the animal services division. “He pretty much admitted to me that most county commissioners and the administrator have written off the animal advocates,” Oyen said. “He told me that anytime we press for something and they deliver it, we come back wanting more.”
Freeman did not respond to a Florida Bulldog email, but Geller denied county leaders are blowing off the concerns of animal advocates. “I checked with my chief of staff and what he told her is that many in the animal advocacy community don’t generally agree on a lot of issues and they tend to change their minds,” Geller said.
For instance, a majority of animal activists initially praised Broward County when Combs was hired in 2018 only to see the community turn on her during her short-lived tenure, Geller noted. To be sure, many of the deficiencies identified in Melton’s interim audit occurred under Combs’ watch, but some activists crossed a line, the vice mayor added.
“Some of them were incredibly nasty about Lauralei,” Geller said. “Some of the things that were said about her were way out of bounds. No civil servant should put up with that abuse.”
Personalities aside, Melton put the county on notice that the dogs and cats housed in the Animal Care and Adoption Center desperately need proper social and medical attention, Green said. “There is not one single element of that shelter that is working properly or that even reaches acceptable,” she said. “They make dogs so miserable, they become aggressive. Instead of working on their behaviors, they kill them. And no one knows what is going on because we can’t go inside.”