City's shelter adopts kinder, gentler policy

New chief, volunteers, nonprofit status improve conditions, outlook for animals

October 12, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

The gray-and-white kittens asleep in a furry tangle in the lobby of the city's animal shelter don't know how lucky they are.

A few years ago, chances are they would have been euthanized rather than cleaned up and given cute, seasonal names such as Ichabod and Pumpkin. Three of the felines have been adopted and the fourth, a shy female named Spooky, will probably go soon.

They are the beneficiaries of a monumental shift in the way Baltimore cares for lost, unwanted or feral cats and dogs.

The shelter is now quasi-public, with status as a not-for-profit organization and a board of directors headed by the city's health commissioner. It is managed by an energetic executive director with years of experience working with animals at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The shelter has about 90 regular volunteers and fundraising abilities that, while still relatively untested, have promise.

There's little doubt that the changes have saved lives.

In recent years, the shelter's adoptions have increased tenfold, from 90 adoptions in 2004 to 934 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the city health department. In the past, 98 percent of animals that wound up at the shelter were euthanized; this year, about half were adopted or rescued by purebreed or no-kill groups.

"The way it was before, pretty much any animal that was picked up by [animal control] was euthanized," said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who is scheduled to trumpet the shelter's improved statistics, reorganized structure and relatively new not-for-profit status at a news briefing today. "Everything about the shelter has been transformed."

Return visitors to the shelter, now called the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, or BARCS, will be struck by the makeover. Besides the addition of the kittens, the lobby, once a barren place with hard wooden benches, is stocked with brochures on pet adoptions and training.

Back in the kennels, dogs no longer sleep on concrete floors but on flannel blankets and towels. In a separate area, sleepy-eyed cats lounge on carpet samples in clean metal cages. Outside, there's a flowerbed dotted with white and red blooms and an enclosed dog run where volunteers can play with canines off-leash.

"We're moving in the right direction, but I think it's going to get even better," said City Council President Sheila Dixon, who worked to increase the budget for the shelter side of animal operations by about $200,000 in the current fiscal year. This year, the shelter is budgeted to receive about $850,000 in public funds and - officials hope - about $160,000 in donations.

Said Dixon: "We want to put the shelter back on the map."

Few can dispute that the shelter - located on Stockholm Street south of the sports stadiums - had become a dismal place.

Understaffed and underfunded, the shelter had a hard time managing adoptions and dealing with rescue groups that offered help. Those familiar with operations at the time say that people who wanted to adopt a pet were often told they could not take the animal home immediately because the dog or cat had yet to be vaccinated. The delay often meant that prospective pet owners adopted elsewhere.

"Everyone knew how bad it was," said Debbie Cameron, a board member who adopted her dog Scout from the shelter and encouraged city officials to make changes there. "We suggested that the shelter be turned into a nonprofit because it would be easier to raise money and make sure it went back to the shelter."

Jennifer Mead, who has been executive director of BARCS for a year and a half, described the changes at the shelter as a "total mind shift." Mead, who worked at the National Aquarium for eight years, most recently as the director of animal welfare, said she has enjoyed watching the transformation and helping staff members realize that they don't have to go it alone anymore - that there are volunteers who can help with cleaning and feeding, as well as walking dogs and playing with cats.

"We are trying to make as many people as possible aware of the changes that have been made," said Mead, who will play host to 700 guests at an image-building cocktail party Nov. 15. She's also looking forward to the second annual BARCStoberfest, a fundraiser and pet event that will be held Oct. 21 at Patterson Park.

Mead has lots of plans for the shelter, including replacing the doors of all metal cages, some of which are broken and rusted, and ventilation improvements. She has overseen repair of the building's plumbing system and has reached out to nonprofit shelters such as the Maryland SPCA and Baltimore County Humane Society to coordinate rescue and adoption services.

"We all have more animals than we can handle," Mead said, noting that her shelter now holds adoption education classes every day to try to move as many animals as possible.

Volunteers who work with Mead praise her accomplishments.

"We used to get excited if we did three or four adoptions on a Saturday," said volunteer Cheryl Ross of Federal Hill. "Now we are disappointed if the number is under 20."

Many say they are excited about the shelter's future.

"We are not even halfway there," said Cameron. "We have made big strides, but we have a long way to go still. This is going to be a long process."

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