Out of Control
A recent report raises questions about the conditions at the animal control facility used by Jefferson County and the City of Birmingham.
Since 1997, Jefferson County and the City of Birmingham have outsourced the task of capturing stray dogs and cats to a for-profit company called BJC Animal Control Services. Although the city pays the majority of the cost, the county has traditionally dictated the terms of the contracts. Over the years, various Birmingham city councilors have complained that the company’s services rendered within the city limits have been less than adequate. A recent unannounced visit to BJC Animal Control by representatives of Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Carns’ office has critics once again complaining about the local animal control provider.
The first high-profile criticism of the facility surfaced in 2001, when the BJC Animal Control facility was inspected by the National Animal Control Association (NACA), an organization that provides guidelines and training for member agencies on how to humanely capture and house stray animals. The report cited several violations of NACA protocol, the most notable being impounded animals that lacked medical attention; dead animals left in cages; “very poor” sanitation of feline living quarters; animals being euthanized with intercardiac (directly into the heart) injections without first being sedated; and cages being cleaned without dogs being removed first—even when bleach and chemicals were being used. NACA also discovered that animals had been euthanized in the presence of other animals (and in view of visitors on at least one occasion). BJC Animal Control had also failed to verify that euthanized animals were actually dead, according to the report. Shortly after the report was published, BJC Animal Control director Steve Smith claimed that he had implemented new procedures to address the problems.
The NACA report received attention from city councilors who had already begun to question both the shared funding arrangement with the county as well as a lack of any independent audit of BJC. City Councilor Valerie Abbott became an early and vocal critic of the BJC contract. “We have no way of knowing how much of the money [BJC] gets is profit, and how much actually goes to providing animal control,” Abbott told Black & White in March of 2004. “We’ve never had a central audit. We’ve asked for one, and what we got was a budget.” Critics fear that by its nature, a for-profit operation would be tempted to put financial gain ahead of animal welfare.
In the past, BJC has been awarded multi-year contracts that stipulated annual payments in the neighborhood of 1 million dollars. Since September of 2007, when the last contract with BJC expired, BJC’s services have been retained on a month-to-month basis while the city and county attempt to reach an agreement on new contract specifications. Such requirements would allow the contract to be bid on by other companies in addition to BJC, as occurred when the contract came up for renewal in 2004. Aside from a few officials such as Councilor Abbott and Commissioner Carns, neither the city nor the county has ever shown much interest in seeking competitive bids or enticing other companies to compete for the contract. To interested observers, the issue has never appeared to be a priority.
In May of 2004, Black & White spoke with Jefferson County Commissioner (now County Commission President) Bettye Fine Collins about NACA’s claim that BJC Animal Control had not been properly audited by an independent agency. According to Collins, “If you give a person a contract, I’m not too sure that it’s our role to audit the operation. He’s an independent contractor, and he contracts to us for a service. I don’t really know if it’s a matter to be audited. I would think that the Office of Public Examiners would require us to do that. All I can do is evaluate their performance. How the monies are spent to provide that service would not be mine to judge, I would think.”
Collins noted at the time that she had not voted to approve BJC Animal Control as the service provider, and that she believes a Humane Society would be better suited to do the job. Many humane societies, however, do not accept animals that aren’t surrendered by their owners—preventing such agencies from picking up stray animals.
In response to complaints from constituents, on January 21, 2009, Sharon Evans and Jeanette Brabston, both employed by Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Carns’ office, made an unannounced visit to the BJC Animal Control facility. Their account of what they observed was included in a February 3, 2009, press release intended to highlight what they considered to be unacceptable conditions at the facility.
Regarding the room where dogs are held as evidence in animal cruelty cases, they reported: Some of the dogs had been held there for up to a year. There were no windows—it was completely enclosed. The stench was bad. There was an exhaust unit there, but it was not turned on. Many of the dogs looked malnourished. Cages were very dirty and scattered with dried excrement. One cage had a dog that had been hit by a car. There were a few pools of blood and dried vomit in the cage.
We never saw [BJC veterinarian] Dr. Shaw tend to this dog. More than half the floor of the cage was smeared in blood. We were told that she was given painkillers and that the vet would be checking on her later. The dog did not move the whole time we were there. We asked Shelley [a BJC Animal Control employee] if the dog was OK and if they were going to treat it. Sharon [Evans] asked, “What decision will the vet make after he checks on the dog?” Shelley said that if the dog’s wounds are major, then the dog would be put down and if there were only minor treatments needed, they would put the dog up for adoption and hope that whoever would adopt the dog would take the dog to the veterinarian for the needed care.
Evans and Brabston’s report on the “Male Dog Room” reads: The dogs are never allowed out of their kennels. [When] asked how [often] the room was cleaned. Janie [a BJC employee] said that it was cleaned 2-3 times a day. With the thick, pungent smell that infused the room, it appeared the place had not been cleaned in a while. The room was extremely stuffy and hot. The smell was unbearable, and made us both extremely nauseous. There were exhaust fans identical to those in the “female” room. However, these were not on. Sharon pointed to them and asked Shelley what they were. Shelley said they were heaters, trying to explain the heat in the room. Sharon asked again “So they are both heaters?” to which Shelley replied “yes.” Sharon asked if there was any ventilation in the room. Shelley pointed to dark recesses in the ceiling and said that was the “ventilation.” There was no light coming from the recesses.
We walked around and saw a lot of malnourished dogs. Sharon saw a standing fan in the corner of the room, but it was not on.
As we were leaving, we saw two signs posted on the wall. One said “Do Not Use Hot Water” and the other said “Do Not Use Exhaust Fans.” Sharon pointed to the “Do Not Use Hot Water” sign and asked Shelley what that meant—why they did not use hot water. She replied: “We don’t want to burn the dogs,” and laughed. Sharon asked “Don’t you remove the dogs from the pen before cleaning? How would they get burned?” Shelley did not have an answer. She said, “We use bleach and cold water because it’s ‘cost-effective.’” (This is a term that we [heard] multiple times on the tour in answer to questions regarding flea treatments, antibiotics, immunizations, and basic care.) Sharon pointed to the “Do Not Use Exhaust Fans” sign and asked why they do not use the exhaust fans. Shelley said, “If we did, the dogs would get cold.” Sharon said, “I thought these were heaters,” to which Shelley said, “We run the exhaust fans in the summer.”
Regarding the “Cat Room,” Evans and Brabston wrote: When they showed us this room, they opened the door and the lights were off. There was not a window in the room. The cages were small, making it impossible for any exercise or very much movement. We asked about flea treatment for dogs and cats. They said that they provided flea treatment for dogs that were infested but if they had just a few fleas, they would bypass the flea treatment altogether. Again, she said this was “cost-effective.” We also asked about flea dipping. She said they did not do that anymore because they did not want to spread possible diseases such as mange. She explained that if one dog was dipped in the same flea bath as the previous dog, the chances for spreading disease were high.
Their report concluded with the following: When we returned to the office, we sent a picture [of the wounded dog] to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society with questions as to the normal procedure for dealing with injured animals. They were appalled and said this was not up to industry standards. The dog should have never been left alone or with other dogs because of the profuse bleeding and possible contamination. The dog should have either been euthanized immediately or isolated and treated for recovery. The picture serves as solid evidence of abuse/neglect taking place at the facility.
When contacted for comment, BJC Animal Control president Steve Smith said that he had not seen the February 2009 report from Carns’ office but that he is familiar with it. Regarding the “cruelty room” (where dogs are kept as evidence in animal cruelty cases), Smith explained, “That’s more specifically our ‘animal isolation room.’” As for the bleeding dog they photographed in a cage with vomit and dried blood, Smith said, “Let me tell you the real story. This dog was causing an imminent threat to the public. This particular dog charged the police. They shot him. The dog was brought in and examined by the veterinarian. The animal was given whatever treatment could be given to stabilize it and make it comfortable. The dog was being constantly monitored by the staff and vet. The reason the dog was being held was we were trying to find out if there was an owner involved that wanted to come in and get this animal to save its life. So that’s where we were with this and I think we were doing the prudent thing by trying to give the owner an opportunity before the animal was destroyed. When the owner indicated that they were not willing to do anything to save it, the animal was euthanized.” Smith added that the dog was euthanized later that afternoon after Evans and Brabston visited the facility.
Regarding the “Do Not Use Hot Water” and “Do Not Use Exhaust Fans” signs, Smith explained, “We clean in the mornings, [and] the odors will be unpleasant until we can clean. [Evans and Brabston claim their visit occurred around midday.] When you have this many animals confined in this small a space, you’re going to have unpleasant odors. Any shelter you go into, you’re going to have to deal with those same issues.” As far as complaints about ventilation, Smith said, “If I have done anything as the operator of this facility, I have done what I could to improve the ventilation. As you know, this is not my facility. [The building is owned by the City of Birmingham.] There is an escrow account that has approximately $150,000 to be used by the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County to make whatever improvements and do whatever maintenance to this facility that they deem to be necessary. I have made several requests to the city and to the county to look into things like improving the ventilation and to do things like painting and replacing doors that have rusted, to improve security at the facility.” (Smith stated that the facility has been the target of four armed robberies.) He also noted that the facility was built in the late 1970s and agrees that ventilation problems need to be addressed. “We have gas heat. These roof ventilations have to stay closed because you can’t maintain a comfortable temperature for the animals if you’re blowing all your heat out the roof. So, you’ve got to do a balancing act between finding a comfortable temperature for the animals and decreasing the odors and improving the ventilation. As far as the hot water goes, we have hot water for hygienic purposes and other purposes that necessitate hot water. But the chemicals that we use do not require hot water,” Smith said. “Now, periodically, we’re going to get in there with hot water or extra chemicals and do a more thorough cleaning, but as far as cleaning the kennels, the disinfecting and cleaning agents that we use do not require hot water.”
In response to Evans and Brabston’s observations of cats being confined to small cages and not allowed any exercise, Smith said that the cat cages at the facility are not small. “These are cat cages that are sold by very reputable vendors. They’re very adequate-sized cages, and most of the times the cats are penned individually. They’re fed and watered everyday, their cages cleaned out. Most of these cats are here for just seven days until an owner can come in and claim that animal. To assume that we have a responsibility to take these cats out of the cages and exercise them isn’t reasonable and feasible,” said Smith, citing a danger of employees being injured while handling animals.
“I’ll put this facility and the company’s operation against any other animal control operation in the state, be it ‘for profit,’ ‘not for profit,’ ‘nonprofit.’ Don’t make any difference. To me, what’s important is the job that’s performed. It’s doesn’t matter what type of corporation it is. Everybody has an opportunity to bid on [the animal control contract]. I think it’s important that everybody really understands [the function of animal control]. There are statutory responsibilities that determine what an animal control program should do. It’s up to a community to assess what they want. But it needs to be an informed opinion. These people need to see what other shelters are doing. And I dare anybody to prove that this operation does not meet or exceed its contractual obligations or does not do as good or better a job as any other animal control operation in the state.”
Smith said that most people do not know the difference between a humane society and an animal control organization. “There are problems that are inherent with a humane society trying to perform animal control work, because it goes against their mission,” he explained. “The goal of the humane society is to find these animals a home. When a humane society takes in unwanted animals, they can euthanize these animals immediately. They’re not going to spend their resources on animals they can’t place. We’re required by law to hold these animals for seven days. Sometimes I’m kind of thought of as a heartless individual that doesn’t care about animals and this sort of thing. But I’m a biology major. I have an appreciation for all life.” &