Animal shelter delays decried

Planned repairs are pushed back

advocates displeased

April 12, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

One year after citizens pushed for improvements at Howard County's 21-year-old animal shelter, progress is real but minimal, advocates say.

In contrast with operations last winter, the shelter has been open for four hours on Saturdays, but that's mainly because of the half-dozen volunteers who help staff it. Also, the weekday evening hours eliminated in December 1999 have notbeen restored, members of Animal Advocates of Howard County said.

Still, the Saturday hours apparently have helped. Adoptions have increased, compared with the first quarter of last year, and the number of animals killed has declined, said police Capt. Bill McMahon, the acting center administrator. Staff morale is improving, and a study of long-term shelter needs is under way, he said. If a chronic shortage of animal handlers can be solved, the shelter could resume operating at least one evening a week.

"I think things are getting better," McMahon said.

Through March, 255 animals were adopted and 281 were euthanized. During the same period last year, 235 were adopted and 360 put to death.

"The good news is, we're not euthanizing animals who could be adopted," McMahon said, explaining that feral cats, pit bulls and animals brought in by owners who want them killed aren't adoptable. Some animals that have spent too long in cages become emotionally unstable and also must be put down, McMahon said.

Yesterday, handler Diana Ladney held Woofie, a cute, one-month shelter resident and mixed-breed stray who is the "Pet of the Week" on county government cable television. Ladney hopes Woofie will find a new home through the publicity.

The shelter roof leaks occasionally, and $660,000 worth of improvements to the building scheduled to start this summer - mainly a new heating and cooling system, a new roof and a place to drop off animals at night - has been pushed back to next summer, at the earliest.

"It's one more disappointment in a long list of disappointments," said Ann Selnick, a shelter volunteer.

"We've got all this money in this county. Why can't some of it be given for the care of animals? Why are they taking so long? At what point will they stop putting other things at a higher priority?" asked Animal Advocates member Sylvia Bloch, who nonetheless praised the staff at the shelter.

"There is a good spirit" among the paid workers, she said. Veteran kennel supervisor Deborah Baracco is "wonderful. She really has been fantastic," Bloch added.

As the shelter's "Doggie of the Day" - an unnamed, 8- or 9-month-old mixed-breed with big, appealing eyes and a chew toy in his mouth - wandered among the staff yesterday, McMahon said there are two vacant animal handler jobs out of six in the budget. He hopes to name a new shelter administrator by next month, he said.

In fact, the shelter has never had a full complement of handlers during his 15 months as supervisor of the Davis Road facility in Columbia's Long Reach village, McMahon said. Last summer, during the busy season for animal control, the staff was temporarily down to one handler.

Howard County's low unemployment rate has made retail labor precious for all employers. But even the county salary of $10.95 an hour plus full county benefits hasn't attracted enough animal handlers who will stay.

"These folks spend a lot of their time walking animals and socializing with them - it's not just cleaning pens," McMahon said. Yet, the county won't place just anyone in such a sensitive job, he said, and filling those positions has remained a problem.

In Howard's $756 million operating budget this year, Animal Control was allotted $1 million.

In addition, County Executive James N. Robey put $200,000 in the capital budget to use for planning the physical improvements to the building.

But county public works director, James M. Irvin, said the long lead time needed for the engineering and design of the project, and the long-range assessment of the shelter's needs, forced a delay in construction.

Karen Brewer of Ellicott City, another volunteer, said the hours of operation pose the main problem, especially because the shelter requires everyone in the pet's potential dwelling to visit the shelter before it can be adopted.

"It takes a long time [for people to come in] when there are no evening hours," Brewer said. "And they're closed holidays and Sundays. Those are the times people are home.

"I feel really nervous because spring's coming, and we know what that means - tons and tons of kittens."

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