By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Six months into her tenure as director of Broward County Animal Care and Adoption, Emily Wood is in a vicious dog fight with animal activists and municipal elected officials who accuse her of doing a horrendous job of reforming the embattled agency.
Since taking the helm in January, canine and feline advocates accuse Wood of getting rid of invaluable volunteers whom she disagrees with; artificially reducing the county shelter’s dog and cat population by refusing to accept stray and abandoned animals; and downplaying the need to fix 135 problems identified in a year-long county audit.
“There is a major disconnect between the new director and the community,” Hillsboro Beach Mayor Deb Torrant told Florida Bulldog. “Her Utopian ideal of keeping animals that are not sick or injured out of the shelter is a good sound bite, but it doesn’t change the reality of needing a well-run shelter that accepts all animals and focuses on placing them.”
Torrant, whose town is among several Broward municipalities that have passed resolutions urging the county to fast track solutions to the deficiencies cited in the audit, said Wood told members of the county’s animal advisory board at a recent meeting that the audit’s findings are not as important to her as changing public perceptions and culture in finding homes for unwanted and lost dogs and cats.
The mayor noted that adoptions for cats and dogs were significantly down during Wood’s first four months compared to the same period in 2018, 2019 and 2020. For instance, Broward Animal Care had 318 adoptions in February 2018, 418 adoptions in February 2019 and 354 adoptions in February 2020. This February, the animal division had 151 adoptions.
Wood takes charge of animal care
Wood, who was given a $125,000-a-year salary, told Florida Bulldog that the decrease in adoptions reflects national averages due to more people keeping pets for companionship during COVID-19 lockdowns. The criticisms against her began before she started her new job, she added.
“It’s disappointing, but it has no bearing on who I am and how well we do,” Wood said. “There is a breakdown in trust no matter what the numbers show. I recognize their frustrations have more to do with systematic problems than with me. I am doing a lot of things that the community asked for.”
After accepting the Broward job in December, Wood officially took the reins a month later following the release of County Auditor Bob Melton’s final findings on the $16.5-million No-Kill animal shelter at 2400 SW 24th St. in Fort Lauderdale. The facility has been plagued with overcrowding, minimal staff and volunteers, dog escapes and bites and poor building design since opening four years ago.
Wood previously worked as animal services director for Yolo County in California and is the former placement and customer care director for the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA. She is also an environmental scientist who worked for more than a decade at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Her Broward predecessor, Lauralei Combs, resigned in March of last year after nearly three years on the job amid complaints from activists, volunteers and county commissioners that she was not improving the deplorable conditions of the shelter and its animals that had been documented by outside non-profit animal advocacy organizations. Combs’s failures prompted the audit investigation by Melton and his team.
Animal care audit findings
Things got so urgent that Melton issued an interim report in April 2020 outlining immediate fixes that animal services needed to implement in order to improve the quality of life of the dogs and cats housed in the shelter.
For instance, animals were left unattended for 16 to 18 hours without any human interaction; employees and volunteers were not adequately trained to handle dogs with behavioral problems, which resulted in nearly $50,000 worth of liability claims for animal bites, and that the shelter’s design did not adequately address the county’s objective of having a shelter that doesn’t kill any of its animals for lack of space.
During a recent tour of the animal shelter, which is still primarily closed to the public except for people dropping off animals or making appointments to see animals for possible adoption, Wood showed Florida Bulldog some of the steps she’s taken to address the audit’s findings. Each canine pen is now only housing one dog as opposed to multiple pooches and employees are working 10-hour shifts on four-day schedules to maximize the time dogs interact with humans.
Wood said she has also been able to reduce overcrowding at the shelter by minimizing the number of animals being surrendered by their owners and restricting the number of stray animals being brought into the shelter. One way to do this is to convince pet owners thinking about abandoning their animals not to go through with it.
“One of the best practices is to not operate at over capacity,” Wood explained. “Our goal is to only house animals that really need it. So if I can provide a person with free dog food because they feel they have to give up their pet because they can’t afford it, we are coming up with a better solution.”
Animal activists alarmed
As part of the strategy, Broward Animal Care posted on its Facebook page on May 19 that the agency would accept only sick and injured dogs and cats while “pet surrenders are suspended.” Police departments were also notified that animal control officers would not be picking up stray dogs. These decisions alarmed animal advocates who accuse Wood of shirking her responsibility to accept all dogs and cats that need new homes.
“I am so disgusted with what’s going on,” Joanne Oyen, an animal activist who recently resigned from the county’s advisory board in protest, told Florida Bulldog. “It is just criminal what is going on over there.”
Oyen said Wood also recently fired Meredith Bruder, director of the nonprofit Pets’ Broward, as a volunteer for the shelter. Bruder, whose organization has pledged $120,000 to fix drainage for the shelter’s canine play area, declined comment.
Wood didn’t like Bruder’s constructive criticisms, Oyen alleged. “They claim Meredith didn’t follow shelter protocols,” Oyen said. “Meredith got tons of dogs adopted through a lunch buddies program and was working on the backyard renovation. Yet, [Emily] cut her off.”
Wood said Broward Animal Care is not turning away dogs and cats. She said the Facebook post was incorrect and that it was quickly edited. Indeed, the post no longer contains the sentence that “pet surrenders” are suspended.
“The phrasing wasn’t perfect,” Wood said. “And it was only that month because we had a fair increase in the number of dogs. We are trying to let our police department partners know that we are not mandated to take [strays], but we have picked them up, historically.”
Reform efforts don’t end problems
Wood declined comment about Bruder, but said animal services can part ways with people who violate terms of the volunteer agreement. “We are very cognizant of the need for volunteers,” she said. “But we don’t have to accept just anybody as a volunteer. We have done a complete overhaul of the volunteer program, emphasizing a culture of solutions and collaboration.”
Although Wood’s relationship with local animal advocates is deteriorating over personality clashes, even regular residents had recent bad experiences with Broward Animal Care. On a Saturday in early April, Pompano Beach resident Mattie Smith and a friend went to the shelter to drop off a dog that had just been abandoned by its owner at a dog park in Hollywood.
When she tried to pull into the shelter’s parking lot, she was stopped by an armed guard at the entrance, Smith said in a phone interview. “He told me I had to park outside on the grass and that someone would come to the car,” Smith recalled. “We waited for like 45 minutes and no one came to get us.”
The guard allowed her to go to the front door and she spoke to an employee who informed her that “they were super-backed up and that I had to be patient,” Smith said. The same employee came out a few minutes later and told her that everyone was going on a lunch break. “I would have to wait until they were done,” Smith said. “We waited another three hours when she came back and told me that they won’t be able to take the dog because they were so busy and for me to come back the following day.”
Smith said she took the dog to the Hollywood Police Department, where officers agreed to keep the dog until Animal Services could pick it up on Sunday. Four days later, Smith said she emailed Broward Animal Care to get an update on the dog. “They told me the dog had been very sick and sent me medical records showing that he had been euthanized,” Smith said. “I had the impression that all shelters want to help animals. But in Broward, it doesn’t seem that they care about the animals.”
Wood admitted that Smith had a terrible experience and that Broward Animal Care provided bad customer service. She noted the armed guard is stationed at the entrance after her predecessor received death threats. “What was so frustrating for her is that she picked up a nice dog and we euthanized him,” Wood said. “It was adding insult to injury.”
But the dog was infested with heartworms and one of his lungs was filled with blood, Wood said. “Euthanization was a tragic choice, but the correct choice for him,” she said. “But the frustrating, incompetent customer service doesn’t give her a lot of trust that the euthanization was correct.”