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The No-Kill Crisis

How Lied Animal Shelter’s compassionate mission turned disastrous

Joshua Longobardy

Breaking point

They don’t call him by his name because he doesn’t have one, according to his paperwork. He is a black pit bull with a white stripe that runs from his underbelly to his chin, very handsome indeed. Clark County animal control services picked him up in a vacant lot at 3602 Wyoming Avenue on September 28, five days earlier. A stray. Also according to his paperwork, he is roughly a year old, and a little more than 50 pounds.

Instead, they call him “a good boy.” Because he is. He is neither resistant nor even querulous. The red rope leash around his neck is there more out of good practice than necessity, and he had no need for tranquilization prior to being led to this room, where he will die.

It’s a small room, embedded well within the taciturn corridors of the clinic building at Lied Animal Shelter on 655 North Mojave Road, no more than 8 by 12 feet in dimension, with a cement floor and counters running along three of its walls. On top of which, among other things, is his paperwork, a box of black trash bags, a plastic canister of doggy treats. It’s not like a doctor’s office, nor anyone else’s office for that matter. In reality, it’s like nothing at all.

“You’re a good boy,” he’s told, waiting there, sitting. His black nose up in the air, his dark pupils, as it is with most pure-bred pit bulls, the only thing you can see of his eyes. Lambent. “You’re so sweet,” says the euthanasia technician squatting next to him, holding him, petting him. Whispering in his ear. “You’re such a good boy.” He is. He even sticks out his paw toward another technician, sitting in a chair before him with needle in hand. It’s as if he already knows.

“They do know,” says Michelle Barbosa, a euthanasia technician and veterinary assistant who has been with Lied since 2003. She has been putting down animals at the shelter with compassion and dignity for two years now. She works four 10-hour shifts, the whole time putting down animals at Lied with compassion and dignity. It’s endless. “They can detect the difference in the rooms. They can sense the difference in this room. They can smell the death here. I’m absolutely convinced.”

He is surrounded by humans, Barbosa and two other veterinary technicians, who work as a team. They are all women, in scrubs, with veterinary training as well as certification in administering euthanasia, one woman to hold him, one to administer the mortal sodium pentobarbital, and one to see it through. And though they do not happen to be familiar with him, they act as if they love him. And they do. And he responds accordingly.

He sticks his nose toward Barbosa. It’s wet. She kisses it. His paw still in the air. His arm, where there is a palpable vein, warm blood rushing through, circulating, is shaved. The holder pets him, tells him he’s such a good boy. Barbosa whispers to him something inaudible, something between him and her.

“To do this kind of work, you have to have mental toughness,” Barbosa later says. “I like to tell everybody, ‘You only get two emotional breakdowns a year, and that’s it.’ It’s a hard job.

“Especially when they’re brought in [to be euthanized] because of space or behavior. If a dog is brought in for medical reasons—he is suffering—it’s easier. The way I sleep at night is that I tell myself, these dogs are not living in here: They are just existing.” Because no matter how well-run it is, a shelter is an unnatural and therefore undesirable if not inimical place for animals to abide, Barbosa says. They need homes.

Medical. Behavioral. Temperament. Space. The other reason a dog may be brought in to be put down is his breed. Which, according to this pit bull’s paperwork, is his charge. A review team at the shelter had evaluated him every day since he arrived five days earlier, on September 28, and they deemed him unadoptable, on account of his breed. Lied receives enough pit bulls a year to fill seven shelters times seven.

He doesn’t fight. Barbosa finds the vein. She uses an eccentric-tipped syringe, which is one of the many recommendations handed down by the Humane Society of the United States after it visited the shelter in February that, Barbosa says, she and her peers have absorbed like a sponge. “We are much more confident now,” she says.

“Before, we were just doing our best, on two days of certification training. Now, we have the best policies and procedures to guide us.” The technician squatting next to the pit bull holds him as Barbosa pricks the vein, and when she does, the dog’s eyes open so that you can see the whites. But then Barbosa pushes the sodium pentobarbital through the needle and into the vein, where it circulates with the warm blood rushing through, and the silence in the room turns absolute and complete.

The intravenous drug reaches the brain, where it shuts down his pain sensors. He enters a state of complete relaxation. His eyes close and he goes limp in the holder’s hands, and she lays the dog on the cold cement floor, in peace. All of this in a matter of seconds. He is on his way. The barbiturate suppresses his breathing.

In a couple of minutes the women will check his eye reflexes and heartbeat to be sure the irreversible thing has been done, and then he will be put into a black garbage bag. He will be cremated, along with many, many others.

    

Treating animals as one would a human

A little more than two years before the Humane Society of the United States would visit Lied Animal Shelter and declare a state of emergency, calling for the immediate destruction of 1,000 animals to ensure the safety of the rest of the regional shelter’s inordinate population, some 400 animal activists and animal-shelter professionals from around the nation convened at the Alexis Park Resort Hotel on Harmon Avenue to discuss the dissemination of what is known as the no-kill philosophy.

The concept of no-kill was an emerging trend in animal shelters around the country, a response to a major social problem that proliferated at exponential rates under the consciousness of society at large. The problem was animal overpopulation, and an inability to mitigate it. The number of homeless pets, namely dogs and cats, sheltered in metropolitan cities was immense—more than 30 million throughout the nation in the mid-1980s, when numbers started to be tallied—and it was enough for animal activists to call it a crisis.

American metropolises, in which strays have never been tolerated, did not know what to do to control their roaming and reproducing animals, save for the convenient thing: to impound and then kill them. Some 17 million animals were being killed each year in animal shelters by means of euthanasia.

To those with affinities for pets, this was inconceivable, and far too much to bear. “You have these incredible numbers of animals being killed every year,” says Doug Duke, executive director of the Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and a veteran of animal affairs for more than a dozen years. “Simply because there is no one there to love them.” In the Las Vegas Valley, the number of homeless animals and, consequentially, the number of animals killed, grew at the same intractable rates the human population itself did, and the mere thought of so many animals dying, more than 10,000 a year, was intolerable to individuals like Janie Greenspun Gale, a philanthropist and member of the Greenspun family, which happens to own this publication. It was the breaking point.

“This was 1986,” says Gale. “Animals weren’t my issue then. But when I heard about all the animals that were being put to death, I had to do something about it. I love dogs—I love dogs more than just about anything else on the planet.”

And so in 1989 she joined a nascent nonprofit group called the Animal Foundation, a private organization led by Mary Herro, another woman called to the cause. The Foundation’s aim was to help abate the overpopulation crisis and help bring an end to the killing of healthy animals. And that’s all.

Their chief method to these ends was to open a clinic, on 700 Mojave Road, where they would spay and neuter as many animals as they could. “Only Bob Barker was talking about spay-neuter back then,” says Gale, “but that was our thing. For every human baby born, there are 5,400 dogs and cats born. Overpopulation is the root of the whole problem.”

And so they spayed and they neutered, at a low cost, and then in 1995 the city of Las Vegas came to them with a proposal to contract the Animal Foundation to run the city’s animal-shelter services, which had previously been the contracted responsibility of Dewey Animal Shelter.

“At first we said no,” says Gale, chairwoman of the Animal Foundation’s board at the time. “We were just a little spay-neuter clinic. And then Mary [Herro] reminded us of all the animals dying, and we said: ‘Okay, we’ve got to do it.’ ”

The Animal Foundation entered the running for the city’s contract, and received it, valid for the next 10 years. But when they signed it in 1995, they had no idea of just how onerous it would become.

In that first year of the contract, the city told the members of the Animal Foundation to anticipate taking in 8,000 animals. It turned out to be 17,000. By the year 2000 they had too many animals to hold—20,621—and so, with money out of their own pockets, as well as those of generous private donors like the Lied Foundation Trust, the foundation built a new shelter across the street, a 35,000-square-foot facility, to provide the city’s services. It would be called the Lied Animal Shelter, and its mission remained. That is, to end the killing of healthy animals.

Yet, the crisis of overpopulation in the Valley grew in the new millennium, as the growing human population here continued to breed dogs in their backyards and permit cats to go unsterilized, and the Animal Foundation soon learned it could not adopt out enough animals to keep pace. There weren’t enough homes. This left a colossal imbalance within Lied’s facilities for which Lied shouldered the responsibility and which would, in February of this year, lead to a catastrophe.

“I was fully immersed in the shelter,” says Gale, whose private donations prevented the shelter from going under each and every month. “More than immersed, really. I was drowning in it! I could hardly breathe, there were so many animals!

“We spayed, neutered, vaccinated, microchipped all of them. We got on our hands and knees in the kennels, and we worked night and day. Night and day. And then I couldn’t sleep after looking into the eyes of these suffering dogs they brought in to us day after day.

“But I’m a person of enormous faith. I thought, if we just worked hard enough, and if I just spent enough money, we could pull it off. None of the animals would have to die.”

Experience, however, forced an alteration in philosophy, as it so often does. Animals had to be put down, because, as Lied saw it, there was no other way. And so without formal declaration, the Animal Foundation’s board, led by Herro and Gale, turned Lied into a low-kill (or slow-kill) shelter, and made a minor adjustment to the definition of the type of animals ineligible for euthanization, from “healthy” to “adoptable.”

It was indeed a minor adjustment, not meant to deceive anyone but merely to assuage the internal dissonance in the hearts of the benevolent people who ran Lied, but it made all the difference in the world, for both the depth and latitude of the change had severe implications.

“The first time we had to put an animal down, for being vicious, it knocked me out,” Gale says. “I never thought we would ever have to do that. It turned out that 30 to 35 percent of the animal population had to be put down.”

On account, that is, of the Animal Foundation’s new definition of inadoptability. Because it was still the group’s goal to euthanize as few animals as possible, which, in essence, is the cornerstone of the no-kill movement.

It is a heartfelt philosophy whereby no animal is put down for reasons of space, breed, behavior or anything outside of an injury or illness so grave and irremediable that to let the animal live is to torture it.

Moreover, it’s an approach in which every animal is treated like an individual and provided familial respect, says Doug Duke, the Valley’s leading advocate for no-kill. And in this way it is the closest thing to treating animals as one would a human, whose health and life are preserved at all costs and whose own fecundity has never been sufficient reason to surrender hope for his longevity.

“The difference between animals and humans is that the animals have few people to fight for them,” says Duke. “The animals are forgotten.”

At the conference at the Alexis Park Resort Hotel in August 2004, Michael Mountain, a flagship champion of the no-kill movement, didn’t need to proselytize as much as encourage the group, for, like the folks from the Animal Foundation, the attendees had already bought in. And so he offered this stat: Since 1987 the number of animals destroyed in shelters in the U.S. had dropped from 17 million a year to, roughly, 4.5 million. And, he said, with widespread, creative and intelligent application, the no-kill movement could lead to the complete eradication of killing healthy animals in America by 2014.

But the idea of no-kill has been a point of national debate among animal lovers since it mobilized throughout the ’90s. Many professionals in the field of animal care believe the idea is much better in theory than practice.

“Is no-kill plausible at a municipal pound?” asks Karen Layne, a former UNLV professor and current president of the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society, who began volunteering at LVVHS in 1994. “That seems to be the question. I’m convinced it’s not possible. I’m convinced it’s always been a dream.”

Moreover, say critics of the philosophy, such as the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, it can be a dangerous idea if implemented in the wrong circumstance. “It sounds very nice, but the reality is that it will lead animals to suffer,” says a spokesman from PETA.

The national animal group was referring to open-admission, consolidated shelters, which was exactly what Lied was about to become at the time of the 2004 no-kill conference. The year before, it had signed a contract with Clark County to provide the county’s animal-shelter services, effective July 1, 2005, and the city of North Las Vegas was about to enter into a similar agreement, making Lied a consolidated open-admission regional shelter, the first of its kind in Southern Nevada.

Heading toward the catastrophe

On June 1, 2005, Lied became the Valley’s first consolidated shelter, now by law taking in all and refusing no animals from three separate jurisdictions, and at once it felt the weight of the new, unprecedented responsibility. More than 200 animals were delivered to the facility every day, and on account of this immoderate influx the shelter was forced to put down nearly 50 percent of the animals in that first month.

“We’ve never done that in the past,” then-shelter director Diane Orgill said at the time. “And we hope to never have to do it again.”

The influx did not abate in the following months. Moreover, the shelter managed to adopt out 30 animals on average per day, leaving a disparity of 170 animals for whose care and living quarters Lied was held responsible. Euthanasia was the only remedy, but the people at Lied did not have the heart to kill them all, and so let many of the unwanted animals remain at the shelter at the cost of space, monthly debt and, unbeknownst to them, virulent diseases.

The fatal imbalance had been foreseen. Back in 2003, when the county began to consider who would receive its contract for animal-shelter services, Lied emerged as the frontrunner. “It happened so fast, it blindsided everyone,” says Karen Layne.

“There was no discussion. I went to talk to the director of administrative services at the county, and he said it was a done deal. It was just an item on the consent agenda.” But as soon as the animal-care community learned of this, they rose up in near-unanimous resistance.

Many of the rescue workers and activists who compose the animal community did not believe that Lied was up to the monumental task. They pointed to the Las Vegas city audit in 2001 that found Lied guilty of lax accounting, improper practices and employee embezzlement. They said that the leaders at Lied had been incommunicative and isolationist, two qualities that spelled doom if consolidation was to be done. They said Lied did not have the type of track record for diligence and effectiveness in animal-care services that warranted such a hefty contract.

“We couldn’t have been more vocal,” says Doug Duke. “We went to the county—nearly every animal group, it was overwhelming—and we said, ‘This is wrong.’ We said, ‘There are just too many animals, it does not make any sense.’ ”

   

While Gale does acquiesce that she and her foundation had not wanted anyone else to tell them which and how many animals to put down (for they had been moved to start the foundation by their intolerance for seeing animals killed), she says that most of the resistance came from a few bitter animal activists and their coterie of “animal crazies” who wanted to stonewall Lied’s attempt to secure the contract, which had prior belonged to the Dewey Animal Shelter for the past 20 years.

But the personal contentions were only half the argument. The other half was a foreboding against the idea of consolidation.

“Consolidation was a bad idea from the beginning,” says Layne. “And we questioned it at the time. We were the ones getting these animals off the street. But the county wouldn’t hear us.”

Nor a study conducted at UNLV during this time, which concluded, among other things, that a successful consolidated shelter, as improbable as it was, would greatly depend on satellite facilities and partnerships with other shelters and rescue missions. Simply because there were too many animals for one entity to bear.

That would prove correct. Housing all the Valley’s homeless animals at Lied was like nesting all the world’s birds in one tree. No matter the number of branches, it wouldn’t suffice. Gale would come to understand it in this way in the summer of 2005, when, seeing the ground broken on the construction of a new wing with 44 bungalows (with the capacity to hold 1,000 dogs) she helped fund to counter the massive influx of canines, she said, “We can build five more of these and still be filled.”

According to stats compiled by the Las Vegas Valley Humane Society, 22,959 dogs were impounded at Lied in 2005, and the shelter euthanized 29 percent of them. Of the 25,341 cats impounded at the regional shelter, 57 percent were euthanized. In total, there were 40 impounds for every 1,000 human residents in the Valley, and only 12 adoptions.

Lied euthanized 17.5 animals for every 1,000 human residents, according to those statistics, but they did it begrudgingly, because the no-kill philosophy was still in their hearts, and in their policy, even if not completely in their practice. Literature dispersed by the Animal Foundation at the time reconfirms this. Two years later, after the catastrophe struck, the Humane Society of the United States would conclude in their disaster assessment that Lied had done wrong by allowing animals

to wilt away their lives in the shelter in place of putting them down.

“With all these animals together—of course you’re going to get diseases,” says Layne.

In 2003 the county had granted Lied the contract, despite the resistance. Then-county manager Thom Reilly, just like the commissioners who voted for approval of the contract in July 2003, praised the virtues of consolidation. In turn, they pressured North Las Vegas to also enter into contract with Lied, says Layne, to further centralize the animal-shelter services in the Valley.

“The cities of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County all using one shelter is just the right thing to do,” Reilly said at the time. Las Vegas city councilman Gary Reese, in whose district during that pivotal time Lied operated, went on record saying, “The regional shelter will be a great asset for the entire community, to have all the animal services [for the three jurisdictions] in one location.” Even today, Clark County Chief of Code Enforcement Joe Boteilho, standing on two decades of experience on the field and in the trenches, says that a consolidated shelter is the best thing for the community at large.

Furthermore, James Spinello, the county’s assistant director of administrative services, touted the fact that the contract they had worked out with Lied would save the county $1 million over the course of the 10-year agreement, in relation to their previous contract with Dewey. The county agreed to pay Lied $1.2 million a year for the first six years, and $800,000 a year for the next four. Meanwhile North Las Vegas agreed upon $300,000 per year and Las Vegas, $250,000, a reduction in expenses for each municipality.

“I don’t think any of the three jurisdictions ever considered the merits of the plan,” says Duke. “There was no precedent for it. The county just steamrolled it through. A decision was made, and it was not in the best interest of the animals. As ever, it was made out of money and politics. We tried to talk to each of the commissioners, to Reilly. We wish there had been discussion. There wasn’t.”

Two public meetings were in fact held to discuss the merits of the plan, but neither Reilly nor the county commissioners attended. Instead, it was heard by the county’s animal advisory committee.

According to records from those meetings, one woman, a citizen who had began studying animal care in general and Lied in specific after she lost a pet at the shelter, warned the committee against granting Lied the contract with this prophecy:

“Blood’s on your hands if you let this go through. Thousands of animals will die.”

If there was one point of comfort for the animal community that opposed the county’s contract with Lied, it was that there were stipulations in both the county’s and cities’ contracts that allowed for close supervision over the shelter. Las Vegas and Clark County both assured their right to inspect and oversee operations at the shelter, and the county even wrote into the contract that it could terminate the union with a five-day notice if it found any major problems with Lied’s services.

“I don’t know why, but that never happened,” says Duke.

It’s true. Boteilho says that the county discontinued regular inspections after the shelter began housing animals from Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, opting instead to share the responsibilities of supervision with the other two municipalities. Thus their inspection records, which indicate no major problems at Lied, are no longer consistent after 2004. The city of Las Vegas refuses to share with the public its inspection records from 2005 to 2007, on account of an after-the-fact investigation it is, at the time of this story going to press, conducting on Lied, in response to the many problems pointed out by the notorious disaster assessment issued by the Humane Society of the United States in July. Yet those same inspection records, obtained from the Lied Animal Shelter, give no indication of any of the problems that the HSUS pointed out and that the city is now investigating. The city’s animal-control services, a faction of the department of detention and enforcement, declined to comment for this story, but when asked about the city’s supervision of the shelter, city spokesman Jace Radke says:

“Animal control is more focused on bringing animals in than monitoring Lied.”

Lied's new executive director, Christine Robinson.

And so, when the HSUS came to Lied this past February and declared a state of emergency at the shelter, for mistakes in practice and policies that not only had led to the spread of distemper and parvovirus, and the subsequent destruction of 1,000 animals, but also would incite outcry from the public and condemnation from local politicians, chief among them Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, it was shocking news to everyone outside the animal community, which had warned against consolidation in the first place. Even those municipalities that were supposed to oversee the shelter had missed the warning signs, according to inspection reports.

“Nobody’s ever brought that up before,” says Christine Robinson, Lied’s new executive director. “But as far as I can tell, there was no one holding us accountable.”

Based on what she has witnessed firsthand since taking over the job in April, Robinson says that, as it stands now, animal-control officers do not have enough time and manpower to combat the overpopulation on the streets, let alone watch the shelter. The resources from the respective jurisdictions—the county spends $1.7 million a year on animal control, tops in the Valley, and that allotment provides for one officer every 7,600 square miles and 63,000 residents—just aren’t there.

The reason, she says, is clear: Animals are not a high priority in our society. Or, as Layne puts it: “Nobody cares about them.”

In any case, what seems to go unnoticed by society, both on the national and local levels, is that animal overpopulation is a complex social problem in need of social solutions, far too burdensome for any one entity, whether it be philanthropic or shelter or municipal government, to handle on its own. Yet, when disaster struck last February, all fingers pointed toward Lied.

Partly because it had inherited this platform when it accepted contracts from three jurisdictions and became the region’s consolidated shelter in 2005. But Lied had not alone been myopic, nor alone reproachable. The elected officials had granted Lied those contracts against near-unanimous resistance, and seem to have failed to supervise the shelter thereafter. During these times the media did not report on the fundamental issues underlying a story of which Lied Animal Shelter was just one part; instead it focused on covering the personal contentions between Lied’s leadership and other animal groups. Above all, the public, whose irresponsibility, individual by individual, had caused the underlying problem of animal overpopulation, continued to breed dogs in backyards and allow cats to roam unsterilized.

Which is not to absolve Lied of its critical wrongdoing in the time leading up to the February catastrophe. Which, in chief, was to run a large facility that was, at once, open-admission in practice and no-kill in philosophy. That is an extremely difficult thing to do, according to Duke, who runs a paradigm for the no-kill philosophy at his SPCA, a small, non-open-admission shelter. According to Robinson, open-admission and no-kill are mutually exclusive terms, incompatible practices.

In tears, Gale would confess to this mistake at a press conference following the events of February: “Our policies were written to save every animal we possibly could,” she said, sobbing. “And in that misguided policy, we caused animals pain.”

No-kill—no, kill

Catastrophe hit on Friday, February 9. A team from the Humane Society of the United States declared a state of emergency at Lied Animal Shelter, for there had been an outbreak of distemper and parvovirus. Dogs and cats were suffering respiratory complications, their living conditions were unsafe, and because so many had been exposed to the communicable diseases, 1,000 animals underwent emergency euthanization, most of them in the very cages they had (to use Michelle Barbosa’s term) “existed” in, so as not to spread the diseases any further.

According to a report on the shelter the HSUS would later issue, living spaces had been overrun, dogs had suffered and starved as a result, untrained employees had practiced medicine while the professional vets were consumed with spaying and neutering operations. Overcrowding had been both the instigator and accelerant for the pernicious diseases.

Lied Executive Director Diane Orgill, who resigned in the wake of the disaster, says it was the Animal Foundation itself that summoned the team from HSUS to inspect the facility and services. “We just wanted expert advice,” she says. “We’d become so big, and we were just looking for any suggestions to improve services or save money.”

(It’s true, says Gale, who adds that the visit was commissioned by the Foundation at a cost of $37,500.)

In the preceding year Lied had taken in 51,889 animals. They had managed to adopt out 12,646, leaving a disparity of some 39,000 animals.

The ill effects of this overcrowding had already manifested themselves before the HSUS team arrived. More than 3,600 animals died in cages, runs and other areas of the shelter in 2006, a death rate nine times higher than the national average, and a mordant irony at the no-kill (or slow-kill) shelter. The conditions inside Lied had turned so precarious that animal activists took pictures and observations and presented them to the city of Las Vegas, in disgust. Nothing ever came of it.

When the HSUS declared a state of emergency, Lied halted all adoptions, shut down its shelter and followed every other advice bestowed by the HSUS. In the course of the following week, Lied veterinarians would take on the arduous task of examining all of the shelter’s animals, one by one, and the employees would get on their hands and knees and scrub, and disinfect, and doubly sterilize the shelter’s facilities from corner to corner. There loomed on the premises an air of solemnity, insiders reported.

Outside, the leaders of the Animal Foundation and Lied Animal Shelter were confronted with acidic criticisms from every which way. Death, of course, has a way of disturbing apathy. Politicians, the media, the public—all of whom had appeared disinterested in animals while they were alive—were now up in arms, damning Lied for the deaths of those 1,000 animals euthanized.

Lied accepted the blame. “We were giving long-shot animals a chance,” said Mark Fierro, spokesperson for Lied. “We realize now that we can’t do that.”

Then he asked for everyone’s support in moving forward. The shelter reopened on February 16.

Shelter employee Sharlene Garcia pets a female pit bull.

On our way

The Humane Society of the United States issued Lied its assessment of the shelter in a report 200 pages long this past June, and the truth it exposed was brutal.

The Animal Foundation accepted it whole, and at once began to respond to the hundreds of enclosed recommendations. “Employ sufficient veterinary staff and provide scheduled time for them to walk through shelter, examine animals.”

“Maintain written medical records documenting results of exams, diagnoses, treatments.” “Immediately discontinue use of intake runs to hold animals awaiting euthanasia.” “Cat cage cleaning: Provide two cages for each cat.” And on and on.

Changes, however, had already begun to occur. Diane Orgill resigned her post as Lied’s executive director, and Gale her position at the head of the Animal Foundation’s board (though she remains a voting member). Moreover, the Foundation hired a new director of operations in Darrin Landrum, whom the HSUS had recruited from Texas on account of his vast experience in repairing shelters, and because in that experience he’s seen far greater catastrophes than what had occurred at Lied. And in drawing Christine Robinson from her assistant’s position in the Clark County manager’s office, the Foundation obtained a veteran administrator with a proven skill set for no-nonsense efficiency.

After the disaster struck, and the animals died, Robinson jumped at the thought of switching career paths, she says. For in her mind it was a perfect opportunity to marry her professional skills with her lifelong passion for animals. In her first six months on the job she has managed to purge the shelter of its wayward employees, clean it of its superficial flaws and bring it in concert with what the HSUS believes to be the best known practices in the field of animal-shelter services.

“I’ve just tried to make sure we’re following every one of their recommendations,” Robinson says, pointing to the consultation report, about four inches thick.

Duke says the change is already apparent. Whereas the old regime never invited ideas and feedback from the Valley’s other shelters, rescue missions and animal groups, he says, the new regime has already held several meetings to solicit dialogue.

“There is new management, new leadership, new hope,” he says.

It’s been a lot of minor adjustments, says Landrum, who started with Lied in July. The biggest changes, as advised by the HSUS, have come in the areas of organization and structure, he says.

But the most pivotal change, of course, has been the turn in philosophy. Lied has quit its aspirations to be a no-kill shelter.

And that means animals now, after 72 hours of holding, as mandated by state and local law, can be put to death for reasons of space, temperament and breed.

“This job can be very difficult at times,” says Robinson. “But you have to look at the global effect, the greater good.”

Gale says the change in philosophy did not cause her any great internal anguish. Because, thanks to the HSUS, she has now seen the light. And it comes down to this:

“Before, we were running the shelter with our hearts. Now, we are running it with our hearts and minds.”

    

Now critics of the shelter accuse Lied of killing too many animals. Channel 8 News ran an investigative piece on the topic last month, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal gave air to the critics of Lied’s policymakers, in general, and Gale, in specific, just before that.

“Animals have always attracted the brightest of the community, but also the nuttiest,” says Gale. “Critics started screaming that we weren’t killing enough animals, and then, all of a sudden, they were screaming that we were killing too many.”

This speaks right to the point Lied is now trying to make, its leaders say. Which is this:

The reality of the situation is that the euthanasia of even one healthy animal is not their problem alone, but society’s as well, and therefore requires a social solution.

“The shelter cannot solve this problem by itself,” says Robinson, her tone desperate. “At some point—right now—the community is going to have to take the individual responsibility to spay and neuter their pets, to end backyard breeding, so that we don’t have to have all these animals put down anymore. It’s going to have to come from individual responsibility, within the community.”

The Animal Foundation, according to the 2007-2010 strategic plan approved by its board in August, has resolved to make educating the community its top priority outside of animal-care services. For if there is a solution to the crisis of overpopulation in the Las Vegas Valley, everyone seems to concur, it is education.

To this end the Foundation has commenced a program that speaks to children, at school, in an effort to not only teach people at an early age the immeasurable value of spaying and neutering their pets, but also to put pressure on parents who might be more inclined to listen to their children than a public-service announcement.

Moreover, says Robinson, who in her position at the head of a 501(c) organization cannot lobby lawmakers, it is her goal to educate our region’s elected officials, because recent history has demonstrated that they are not completely abreast of animal issues, nor of just how pressing and desperate those issues are.

“I think [the municipalities] now realize they made a mistake,” says Duke, referring to the move to consolidate services in 2003. Although consolidation is still in place at Lied, community partnerships can alleviate pressure, Landrum says. It can provide a sense of deconsolidation. And that would be a good thing, says Layne, because Lied simply cannot endure in isolation.

There are few, if any, examples around the country on which Lied can base its model for shelter services. And that’s not just because the Las Vegas Valley is a unique region, nor that all metropolises around the nation are struggling with this newly recognized social problem of animal overpopulation, but because a very limited number of cities have opted for a consolidated regional shelter.

Robinson says she needs the municipalities to take greater responsibility if Lied is going to work.

The shelter’s contract with the city of Las Vegas concluded two years ago. Since then, they have been operating in conjunction without a contract, but with month-to-month agreements.

As of now, the incentive offered to Lied by the county to promote more adoptions, $5 per animal, reflects a misunderstanding of the basis of the problem in chief.  For, on Lied’s vital scale of animals-in versus animals-out, it is not the latter that’s causing the crisis, but the former, the overpopulation. And so, Robinson says, the city of Las Vegas, as well as the other jurisdictions for which Lied provides animal-shelter services, needs to step up their attack on combating the number of animals coming into Lied.

One way, she says, is to force the municipalities to catch up with the national average on per-animal funding. Presently, the city of Las Vegas pays $25 for each one of its animals. The city of North Las Vegas, $24. And Clark County, $35. The national average is $115.

Due to this colossal disparity, to which the Animal Foundation had been ignorant when it signed the respective contracts (for it was the HSUS that apprised the Foundation of the national average this past February), Lied had been operating at a debt of $20,000-$40,000 per month. Money, Robinson says, looking back at the financial records, needed for the essential things, such as food, water and medicine.

If they managed to survive, she adds, it’s only because of the generosity of private donors, especially Gale. Who, as effusive as ever, says:

“I hate to see suffering, and I saw suffering there every day. I saw it in the eyes of the animals that were burned and beaten. People can do the cruelest things to these pets, and it broke my heart. So I just paid for it. I never kept records. It was never about the money. It was about the good I could do. I’ve always believed that’s the reason I have money.”

Dogs greet potential owners.

Gale says she will no longer give donations as she used to. She wants to expound to the community—in specific, to the three municipalities—that the animal crisis in the Valley is not her cross to bear alone.

She says: “Taxpayers do not pay for the shelter. We do not generate enough revenue. Something has to give. The three jurisdictions are going to have to pay us. Even the HSUS says so.”

According to the Foundation’s strategic plan, the organization has given itself a December 2007 deadline to develop a break-even budget for 2008. One, of course, that will not longer rely on the unflinching charity of Gale.

Robinson, who is in contract negotiations with the city of Las Vegas and will commence negotiations with the other two jurisdictions by the end of the year, says:

“We can’t operate in the red. The municipalities are mandated by law to provide animal-shelter services, and we’re providing them with money out of our own pockets. We are going to have some serious discussions with the municipalities to receive adequate compensation for the services we provide them.”

Robinson, with a very sober expression, says that the catastrophe earlier this year might have been the best thing that could have happened to Lied. For it not only forced the shelter to adopt the field’s best practices, but, more importantly, it has also forced the shelter to defer responsibility for solving the animal crisis to whom it belongs: the community.

Joe Boteilho says it is absolutely a community problem, and what is needed now is not more finger-pointing but utter solidarity. That is the reason, he says, the county never seriously considered invoking the clause in its contract with Lied that permits it to terminate the contract with a five-day notice if any major problems occur at the shelter.

“At a time like this,” he says, “we all need to stick together and attack the underlying problem.”

And this appears to be a critical juncture in time, for, as nature seems to dictate, the politicians and people to whom the animal advocates refer when they say “community” are most prone to act when death occurs. (Such as with the catastrophe in New Orleans in 2005.) Prior to the disaster in February, the animals euthanized at Lied were dying in the taciturn corridors of the clinic building, away from the public light, and so the breaking point was never forced upon the community. But now that’s changed. Euthanasia is at the forefront of the issue of animal services in our Valley.

Death has a way of reminding people of the nexus among all living things. Euthanasia technician Michelle Barbosa says she feels it every time she puts a dog down. You can see it in the way she whispers something into its ear in its final moment. And because of this instinctive, irrevocable connection, she says, it’s been hard to keep her anger toward the community in check. For she is the one who has to bear the grave burden of their irresponsibility. Not taking care of their animal. Not spaying, neutering their animal. Not bothering.

“I have to believe the people are ignorant, that they just don’t know,” she says. “But, you know, this is Las Vegas, where people seem to only care about how much money they make and how good they look.”

And thus, for Barbosa, the tragedy has already occurred before the animal ever arrives at the 8-by-12-foot room where dignity and compassion will be carried out, and where she will send the animal on its way.

Joshua Longobardy is a Weekly staff writer.

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