A group of former volunteers says the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter has gone to the dogs
Published: June 29, 2011
Six years ago, the Baltimore city animal shelter was, by all accounts, a nightmare. A tiny staff of city employees with no particular interest in animals manned the place. Funding was extremely tight. Underfed, sick, and wounded animals lay on unsealed concrete floors soaked with urine, mostly waiting to die. The shelter had a 98 percent euthanasia rate. Cindy Wright, then an investigative reporter and producer for WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., did a story on the shelter in 2000. “It was the most inhumane, disgusting thing I’ve probably witnessed in 30 years,” she says. “And I covered the war in Kosovo. I’ve done stories around the world, looking at the worst of humanity.”
Local animal welfare groups lobbied the city to turn the shelter into a quasi-public nonprofit. Freed of city hiring and firing constraints, a nonprofit would be allowed to bring in volunteers—and, most importantly, to fundraise. In 2005, after months of negotiation, Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) came into existence. Six years later, the euthanasia rate has dropped to 38 percent. The staff, at first comprised of just 10 people, has increased to 42. The shelter has its own surgical facilities, two part-time veterinarians, two outdoor dog runs, and partnerships with other rescues and private shelters. It is, indisputably, a better place for animals.
But over the last year or so, a group of critics—volunteers and former members of the BARCS board of directors—has begun to speak up. They say that although the shelter is much improved, it is also deeply flawed, with problems ranging from animal neglect to overcrowding to lack of accountability. They say that because of the dire state of the city shelter in the past, BARCS has become a sacred cow. “They need to move beyond, ‘Five or six years ago it was like this,’” says Kris Northrup, until recently a BARCS volunteer. (Disclosure: Northrup is married to Michael Northrup, a freelance photographer for City Paper.) “They keep pointing at the same tired thing. And it’s like, it’s time for you guys to move a step beyond that.”
Jennifer Mead-Brause, BARCS’ executive director, says these detractors are misguided and misinformed. “This small group of people,” she says, “formed to really try to hurt BARCS.” She says the group, particularly two former board members—Michael Franks and Jennifer LaPorte—has been trying to “hurt us, hurt our board, hurt everybody” since last fall. In December 2010, a group of volunteers sent a letter to the BARCS board voicing numerous concerns, including unsanitary conditions, insufficient exercise and human contact for the animals, inadequate cage size, and improper adoption standards, among other perceived problems. The board met with the volunteers in January and sent a response letter in March. In it, the board disagreed that many of the problems cited by the volunteers existed. The board acknowledged that improvements could be made in certain areas but the shelter was constrained, it noted, due to lack of funds. “We believe any objective observer would quickly understand that BARCS is significantly underfunded,” the letter read. “The lack of necessary economic support should not be an excuse for deficiencies which may occur from time to time at the Shelter, but should be recognized as imposing limitations on what can be immediately accomplished.”
BARCS’ critics say those limitations are largely self-imposed. They allege that the nonprofit is not doing nearly enough to raise money, the very function it was created to perform, and as a result conditions for the animals are wanting. Marjie Amyot, one of BARCS’ first official volunteers and a long-time supporter, was one of many who saw great promise early on. “BARCS was going up, up, up and had potential to really become this amazing model place,” she says. But years passed and some early supporters, including Amyot, have become disappointed in BARCS’ performance. “I felt like what was a can-do attitude became a we-can’t-do-that attitude,” Amyot says. The question now for the animal lovers and taxpayers of Baltimore—who, in large part, fund BARCS—is whether the shelter is a case of arrested development or a well-meaning public-private partnership tackling difficult problems in a city with more than its share of them.
BARCS is inundated with animals—no one disputes that. Because of its contract with the city, the shelter is required to be open-admission. It must accept every animal that comes through its doors, including nearly all the neglect and abuse cases and the thousands of strays picked up annually by city Animal Control. “They don’t have the luxury of turning away the 18-year-old incontinent cat that’s brought into their door,” says Caroline Griffin, who chairs the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission. Griffin praises the management of the shelter, and points to the high volume of animals as an explanation for any problems that may exist. BARCS takes in almost 12,000 animals a year. “Most animal shelters in the Baltimore region will take in anywhere from three to 10 animals a day,” she says. “BARCS takes in, on average, 33 animals.”
Quasi-public shelters like BARCS are common, says Kate Pullen, senior director for community outreach at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), an organization that provides resources to shelters nationwide. And they share a common set of difficulties. “The whole point of entering into a contractual situation is that you do make yourself more available to nonprofit grants and tax credits for donations from the public,” Pullen says. “But you’re still mired under the fact that you’re providing animal control, and you have a shelter with predominantly bully breed, hard-to-place types of animals”—pitbulls and pitbull mixes.
In exchange for its open-door policy, BARCS gets an annual grant from the city, meant to cover the basics. In fiscal year 2011, it received about $1.15 million, according to Mead-Brause. Last week the City Council approved a city budget for the coming year that includes cuts to BARCS’ grant. The official numbers haven’t been released yet, but the shelter is likely to lose around $141,000. Mead-Brause hopes to make up the difference through fundraising.
“If you look at our progress in just a few years, it’s tremendous,” she says. “Three years ago, the city grant was our full budget. Each year we’ve been able to raise a little bit more money and try to become more of our own separate entity.” Several years ago, BARCS hired a part-time development director, and board members bring in “thousands and thousands of dollars” every year, according to Mead-Brause. IRS forms indicate that in fiscal year 2010 BARCS raised a little over $330,000 through fundraising and donations. About $86,000 of that came from fundraising events, and more than half of that revenue came from one event, a community event for pet owners called BARCStoberfest, according to a BARCS newsletter from that year.
Critics point out that other nonprofit shelters in the region pull in a good deal more money through donations and fundraising than BARCS does. In 2009—the last year for which figures are available—the Maryland SPCA raised more than $4.5 million, about 14 times BARCS’ total that year. The Baltimore Humane Society consistently raises more than $1 million annually. The Washington Humane Society in Washington, D.C.—like BARCS, a large, open-admission shelter—raised nearly $3 million in fiscal 2010.
But the administration at BARCS says comparisons to other shelters like these are unfair. “I would love to compare numbers when we have the same longevity that [shelters like the MDSPCA and the Humane Society] have,” says Cheryl Ross, co-chair of the BARCS board. “It’s very different to compare us to an organization that is a national organization as well as a local organization, which we are not.” (In fact, the local SPCA and Humane Society have no affiliation with the national organizations of the same names.)
Kate Pullen of the ASPCA says that comparisons between shelters can indeed be misleading. “It’s a challenge in an open-admission shelter because you have to be honest about what you do,” she says. “It’s easier to make money when you’re a limited-admission shelter and all your stories are happy.”
But several of BARCS’ critics have a background in fundraising or finance, as well as experience with the shelter. Marjie Amyot has a master’s degree in nonprofit management and is a professional fundraiser at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. She helped lobby the city to make the shelter nonprofit and later founded BARCStoberfest. Amyot says she volunteered 20 hours a week on average, and served on BARCS’ development committee until early 2010, when she left, frustrated by what she calls “poor prioritizing, disorganization, and little accountability.” She says that her suggestions often went unheeded, though the need was dire. “Basic Fundraising 101 wasn’t happening over there,” she says.
Amyot says it is standard practice, for instance, for a fundraiser—in this case the development director—to have tangible goals in order to determine whether the work being done is effective. “This is not the case at BARCS,” she says. “There were no goals set and none reported.”
Jennifer Mead-Brause says this isn’t true. “Of course there had to be goals, or we wouldn’t be where we are now,” she says.
Amyot was equally unimpressed with the BARCS board in her time at the shelter. “For as long as I volunteered there and for having co-chaired the largest event, and serving on the development committee, I didn’t even know who half the board members were,” she says.
Jennifer LaPorte, who does commercial real estate finance at M&T Bank and previously worked in marketing at T. Rowe Price, started volunteering at BARCS in fall 2009. She was nominated to the board in March 2010 and remained there until December 2010, when she resigned. She cites lack of fundraising efforts and lack of oversight over the executive director among her concerns. She says BARCS did no marketing and had no strategic plan. “You have to have that in order to get somewhere,” she says.
Board co-chair Cheryl Ross says it’s a question of syntax. “I don’t think that was ever not being done,” she says. “It just wasn’t called a ‘strategic plan.’” Ross says the board recently hired a consultant to help create a plan and they hope to have it completed by early fall: “Now we’re in the actual formal process.”
Michael Franks, a financial planner, served on the BARCS board for about five months, until he was voted off in January. (Franks says he was removed for being too vocal, and because of what the board called a “conflict of interest”: his dual roles as volunteer at BARCS and board member. Ross would not comment on board business, but says, “A number of people volunteer and are board members.”) Franks and LaPorte both say the board lacks anyone with fundraising experience. Ross acknowledges that no one who fundraises professionally serves on the board. Brian Lawrence, the editor of Style magazine, is the chair of the development committee. He says he’s been involved in fundraising efforts at several other institutions, including the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Maryland Historical Society. “We have expertise on our board,” Lawrence says, “but fundraising in this economic climate is difficult for any nonprofit.” But Franks lays the blame on the board. “I was on the committee for fundraising,” he says, “and from my first meeting to my last meeting, I’m not sure what they actually do.”
Ross says both Franks and LaPorte were on the board too briefly to grasp how it functions. “A matter of months,” she says. “You haven’t been involved in a lot of the ongoing procedures.” She adds, “In the very near future, some other folks are coming on who have a lot of expertise in [the fundraising] area.”
Depending on who you ask, this group of BARCS skeptics is either a force to be reckoned with or a small, unrepresentative minority. BARCS director Mead-Brause falls in the latter camp. “We have over 700 active volunteers,” she says. “This group that formed started off as about 20.” (Sixteen volunteers attended the January meeting with the board.)
“Most of those [volunteers] are totally inactive,” volunteer Carole Poppleton says in response. Poppleton has volunteered at BARCS for just over a year, and was part of the group that met with the board in January. A June e-mail from Esta Baker, the volunteer coordinator, to BARCS volunteers seems to confirm Poppleton’s claim. “In 2010, 657 volunteers donated 17,007 hours of documented service to BARCS,” it reads. It goes on to detail the accomplishments of the highest-performing volunteers, the 36 who donated more than hundred hours, including one who donated 951. Even conservative calculations based on these numbers indicate that in 2010, more than 600 of BARCS’ volunteers put in an average of less than 15 hours.
A City Paper reporter spoke with several long-time active BARCS volunteers who support the management at BARCS and feel that complaints about it are overblown. Cindy Wright, the former TV producer who did a story about the shelter pre-BARCS, says she has continued to volunteer—over the past 16 months—because she feels the shelter does a lot with the little money it receives. “It’s light-years ahead of where it was,” she says. Terry Kleeman, who has volunteered at the shelter since it became a nonprofit, agrees. “It has improved so much and it’s constantly evolving,” she says. “It really has come a long way.”
But if the group of critics that rose from the ranks of BARCS’ volunteers is to be believed, the tally of volunteer hours ought to look quite different next year. Michael Franks says he and his wife Sabrina collectively put in nearly 1,100 hours of volunteering in their year at the shelter. Neither volunteers there any longer. Mark Levinson may have put in more hours at BARCS over the past three years than any other volunteer. He started there in 2008, after six years at the Humane Society. “Right away it’s overwhelming,” he says. “I went there and saw all the animals, maybe 100 dogs, going weeks without being taken out.” (Mead-Brause acknowledges that the dogs don’t get outside every day. “Before BARCS took over, no dogs got outside,” she says. “No dog got outside of its cage even.”) Levinson eventually cut back on his work—he does psychological assessments for people seeking drug treatment at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center—so he could come to BARCS 20 hours a week to walk dogs. Then, last fall, he’d had enough. He’s now back at the Humane Society. “They need to have fewer animals [at BARCS],” Levinson says. “They’re just overrun with animals, and it’s not a healthy environment and the management isn’t handling it properly.”
Judging by an internal communication from last summer, city director of Animal Control Kevin Usilton apparently agrees. In August 2010, a bloody incident occurred at BARCS. According to Mead-Brause and Jennifer LaPorte, who was on the board at the time, a dog was left in a crate in the hallway overnight. (It had been treated for a broken leg, Mead-Brause says, and its movement had to be restricted.) That night, Animal Control conducted a raid in the city and picked up several other dogs; these were also placed in crates in the hallway. Then another officer came in the middle of the night and brought in a cat that was in labor and left it in a crate in the same hallway.
BARCS is staffed by just one Animal Control officer overnight, so the following events were reconstructed after the fact: One of the dogs broke out of its crate and killed the cat and her kittens. Another dog escaped its crate as well, and attacked the dog that had killed the cats. Mead-Brause says the incident was the fault of the Animal Control officer who placed the cat in the hallway. “The policy has never been to leave cats in crates or in the hallway,” she says. She says that dogs are no longer kept in crates in the hallway either, as a result of the incident. But LaPorte says both Animal Control and BARCS should have taken responsibility for what happened. “It was described as a bloodbath,” she says. “That is not ‘a sanctuary.’” (BARCS’ mission statement reads, in part: “It is the mission of BARCS to provide a sanctuary to all animals and to promote a more humane community.”)
The next day, Usilton wrote an e-mail—which City Paper has obtained—to Mead-Brause, BARCS Program Manager Debra Rahl, and interim city Health Commissioner Olivia Farrow. “This morning there was a tragic event which should have never occurred,” it read in part. “A hallway in a shelter environment should never be considered acceptable for housing of animals.” Usilton—who is the former executive director of the Delaware Humane Association—went on to detail other concerns about BARCS. “The building is currently way overcrowded with animals,” he wrote. “This overcrowding has resulted in various viruses infecting the animals causing prolonged stays or their death. . . . Reducing the amount of animals until sufficient staff is trained and in place is crucial to serve those who are so desperate for our service.” (Repeated attempts to contact Usilton through a city Health Department spokesperson were unsuccessful.)
Many of BARCS’ critics agree with this sentiment. They say overcrowding has led to quality-of-life problems for the animals, ranging from infrequently cleaned cages to frequent disease outbreaks to inadequate exercise and human interaction. They say there is not enough staff to care for the number of animals in BARCS at any given time. To back their many allegations, they refer to the Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, a 2010 publication by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. They point, for example, to a section that reads: “At a minimum, animals must be provided regular social contact, mental stimulation and physical activity.” The BARCS board and executive director refute the critics’ claims about the animals’ quality of life. In the cases where they acknowledge that problems exist—such as inadequate exercise for the dogs—they assert that such circumstances are unavoidable for an open-admission shelter like BARCS.
Brent Whitaker, a veterinarian who heads biological programs for the National Aquarium and sits on the BARCS board, says the critics are cherry-picking from the guidelines. He points to another line in the publication that reads: “Each section should be read in its entirety so that recommendations are not taken out of context and misunderstood.” Whitaker says the guidelines are just that, not hard and fast rules. “We have to weigh in the fact that we get 11,000-plus animals a year,” he says.
Whitaker says a BARCS committee is currently at work on a “Standards of Care” manual, a common document to which volunteers, staff, and others will eventually be able to refer. Mead-Brause says the manual won’t be completed for at least a year, but she says other improvements have been made since many of the disgruntled volunteers left earlier this year. A new volunteer coordinator was hired in April, and dogs now participate in playgroups, where those that are deemed fit to do so get the chance to interact with one another. As for conditions in the shelter, she points to a state Department of Agriculture veterinary hospital inspection report from May that indicates compliance in every category the inspector measured, ranging from proper food and bedding to odor control to animal comfort.
Inga Fricke, director of sheltering initiatives at the Humane Society of the United States, says most shelters succeed in providing the basics for the animals under their care—food, water, shelter, and veterinary care—but often fall short on quality-of-life considerations. “It takes about 15 minutes per animal per day of care time just to meet the basic feeding and cleaning needs,” she says. “If you have too many animals and not enough staff to provide care for them, you have exceeded your capacity for humane care.”
BARCS’ critics say that point has been reached at the shelter. Until BARCS can raise more money for staff or drum up more volunteers, they say, it should lower the number of animals it has in the shelter at any one time. Given its open-door policy, that leaves just one avenue: more euthanization.
“They’re overstretched, so they’re best served doing less but doing it right,” former volunteer Sabrina Franks says. “Animal hoarding leads to neglect.”
What would it take to get the shelter’s population to a level at which kennel staff might have time, for example, to help walk the dogs or clean the cages twice a day? Shelter critics say this could be accomplished with a “one-time bump.” In other words, for a short period of time, a certain number of animals over and above the daily euthanasia rate would have to be euthanized. Once the population level stabilized at the new, lower number—say, 50 dogs instead of 100, with half the cages left unfilled—the overall euthanasia rate would remain the same, at about 38 percent. Counterintuitive though it is, their math is correct.
The administration disagrees on the premise, and on the math. “We are a big shelter and we get a high volume of animals,” Mead-Brause says, “but it’s not overcrowded.” As for the “one-time bump” theory, she disagrees that the current euthanasia rate would remain steady if fewer cages were used. “If we had a room that holds 22 dogs and we’re no longer using it, when these dogs come in that’s 22 less spaces, and 22 more dogs we’d have to kill,” she says. “I’m not going to kill an animal because it didn’t get to get walked.”
BARCS is heading into fiscal year 2012 with a reduced budget and lacking a few of its most loyal volunteers. A theoretically simple solution to its many problems exists: If Baltimore residents would spay and neuter their pets, the flow of animals would slow. “You can be reactive and try to place as many animals as you can,” Kate Pullen of the ASPCA says, “but you also have to make sure the community is doing what it can to prevent those births in the first place.” Despite plentiful spay and neuter clinics, that side of the equation hasn’t changed significantly during Mead-Brause’s six-year tenure, and it’s not likely to anytime soon. Perhaps the strategic plan now in development at BARCS will improve conditions at the shelter to the degree that more volunteers will stick around. In the meantime, Mead-Brause says, she’s simply out to save lives.
“I need these animals to be adopted,” she says. “That’s why we’re here. . . . If I quit and my board leaves and we change it all out and we start over . . . in the end this whole thing is just going to hurt the animals.”
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