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Baltimore County Animal Services 'manipulate statistics' on euthanasia, report alleges

For years, animal advocates protested the number of animals euthanized at Baltimore County’s animal shelter. So when the county’s live release rates began improving, officials issued press releases praising Baltimore County Animal Services’ progress: More than 90 percent of cats and dogs were leaving the shelter alive each quarter, the county boasted.

But a commission tasked with advising county Animal Services says those numbers are not what they seem. In an addendum to its annual report, the Animal Services Advisory Commission alleges that Animal Services “manipulate statistics to make it appear that live release numbers are higher than they really are."

Sometime in the past few years, the department’s leadership told employees to pressure owners surrendering animals at the shelter to sign a form requesting that they be euthanized, said Animal Services Advisory Commission chairwoman Deborah Stone Hess. When an animal is killed at an owner’s request, it does not count against the shelter’s official live release rate.

If the employee was unsuccessful in getting the owner to check that box, Hess said they were instructed to notify a supervisor, who also would try to convince the animal owner. Current and former employees of Animal Services, under condition of anonymity, confirmed the policy Hess described to the Towson Times.

The Towson Times reached out to multiple county spokespeople who declined a request for an interview with Animal Services director Dr. Melissa Jones, a veterinarian.

In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Stacie Burgess said the increase in owner-requested euthanasia is attributable to “the increase in resources available to pet owners. With surrender prevention programs, low-cost veterinary care and private rescue options, more families are able to keep their pets in their homes when the barriers are small. This means that the animals being surrendered to the open-admission shelters are those with serious concerns.

“BCAS takes very seriously its role to educate owners regarding the best decisions for their pets, which may include euthanasia,” Burgess said.

But, Stone Hess said she believes Animal Services has “lost their focus on animal welfare and are focused on the numbers, so they can look better than they are. That is not what sheltering is about.”

The 90 percent benchmark

Live release rates measure the number of animals that leave the shelter alive as a proportion of total outcomes. According to the The Humane Society of the United States, the live release formula does not include animals euthanized at a surrendering owner’s request.

Shelters around the country set the benchmark live-release goal for a shelter at 90 percent, meaning nine out of 10 animals leave the shelter alive, either adopted or sent to rescue services.

Before 2017, Baltimore County’s shelter did not meet that benchmark. According to a 2016 report, the shelter’s live release rate for dogs was about 87 percent in 2014; for cats, it was just 56 percent.

But in 2015, late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed sweeping changes to the department, and the Baltimore County Council created the Animal Services Advisory Commission to oversee its progress. The county launched a pilot Trap-Neuter-Return program for stray cats and opened a new shelter facility in Baldwin.

Live release rates skyrocketed. The advisory commission’s 2017 annual report praised the county’s climbing live release numbers, saying Animal Services “is doing an excellent job.” In July 2018, then-County Executive Don Mohler issued a statement announcing that the live release rate for dogs had been higher than 90 percent for two and a half years, and had crossed the threshold for cats for four of the previous six quarters.

“I give tremendous credit to our Animal Services staff, who has worked tirelessly to transform our entire operation for the better,” Mohler said in the release. “The County has focused our attention on modernizing the shelter and updating our processes and it has made a huge difference.”

Stone Hess said she initially was pleased with the county’s progress. Then last year, she said she noticed a change in a statistic she did not usually pay much attention to: owner-requested euthanasia rates.

“What really seems startling to us was that we noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people requesting euthanasia of their pets,” she said. “That led us to say, ‘What’s going on here?’”

How owner-requested euthanasia works

Stone Hess said pet owners can surrender very sick or aggressive animals to the Baltimore County shelter in order to be put down. In 2015, about 36 percent of dogs euthanized and 7 percent of cats euthanized were at owners’ requests.

Although the program was not advertised, the percentage of animals euthanized at owners’ requests started steadily climbing each year, according to quarterly statistics.

Stone Hess questioned how more pet owners would have found out about the service; the program is not advertised on the county website, and a Google search found no news articles about the program over the past four years.

By 2018, 72 percent of dogs euthanized at the shelter were killed at an owner’s request. The number of dogs euthanized stayed approximately the same, but the number killed at an owner’s request more than doubled.

The number of cats euthanized dropped dramatically in 2016 when the Trap-Neuter-Return program was implemented, widely seen as a way to reduce the stray cat population without killing animals. But as with dogs, the number of owner euthanasia requests for cats went up more than 277 percent, jumping from 92 in 2015 to 255 in 2018.

The percentage of surrendering owners who requested euthanasia also rose between 2015 and 2018 — from 26 percent to 41 percent for dogs, and from 12 percent to 32 percent for cats. In raw numbers, owner requests for euthanasia doubled for dogs and tripled for cats.

Officials in Anne Arundel County, which advertises its owner-requested euthanasia program on its website, as well as Howard County, said their owner-requested euthanasia rates have held steady over the past four years.

But current and former Baltimore County employees said their change came from the top. When owners arrived to surrender their animals — for any reason, including a bite history or because they were moving or could no longer afford to care for the animal — shelter employees said they were told to pressure them to check the box requesting euthanasia.

Employees told the commission they were advised to exert pressure when an animal had a bite history or medical problem that might make it difficult to adopt. But staff said sometimes that happened when the problem was minor and “workable.”

Stone Hess said she reviewed copies of forms requesting euthanasia and while many made sense, some raised red flags; for instance, one surrendered dog had playfully bitten someone as a puppy and left a bruise.

"On a form asking whether the owner was requesting euthanasia, the no box is checked then scratched out, and the yes box is checked,” Stone Hess wrote in a blog post about the meeting.

Howard County Animal Control administrator Deborah Baracco said that when owners bring animals that are not adoptable to the shelter, her staff makes clear that the animal is likely to be put down but does not pressure them to sign the form requesting euthanasia.

“A lot of people have a very difficult time making that decision,” Baracco said. “And they’re already in an emotional state leaving the animal to begin with ... Quite honestly, as much as that’s a part of my job I don’t like, it’s my job to make those tough decisions about euthanasia.”

In Anne Arundel, Animal Care and Control administrator Robin Catlett said owners who surrender animals that are not adoptable due to illness or behavior issues must request euthanasia in order to leave them at the shelter. After that, she said, the animals are typically put down immediately.

Baltimore County’s shelter has the right to euthanize any animal that comes into its care, Stone Hess said. The decision is made for space reasons or because an animal is sick or aggressive. But if the owner-requested euthanasia box is checked and the decision is made to euthanize, it does not count against the county’s quarterly live-release statistics.A Towson Times analysis found that if the owner-requested euthanasia rate were the same in 2018 as it was in 2015, keeping the total euthanasia rate the same, the live release rate for both cats and dogs could have fallen below the 90 percent threshold.

“We take the concerns raised about Baltimore County Animal Services very seriously,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. “We are evaluating the current systems in place and looking into all aspects of BCAS, as we are doing with each agency in the county.”

Asked about the advisory committee’s findings, Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said, “I think we’re all waiting to see if there’s a change in management of that particular area ... I think a change would be needed.”

The current and former Baltimore County Animal Services employees, who asked to remain anonymous to prevent damage to their careers, said many staff members disagree with the policy, but speaking up is discouraged. One said getting the box checked makes it easier and faster to euthanize an animal — and “once they decide to euthanize, they don’t like people second-guessing that.”

“Every employee and former employee with whom we spoke described a toxic working atmosphere created by management at BCAS, where employees constantly fear for their jobs,” the Advisory Commission wrote in its 2018 report.

“We recognize that many members of the BCAS staff are caring, dedicated employees,” the addendum to the report said. “These failures are not their fault. They deserve to work in an environment where management places animal welfare first on the list of priorities.”

Stone Hess said that the issue illustrates what she sees as an overlying problem: transparency. Shelters, she said, will always have to euthanize some animals, and the best way to save more is to tell the truth rather than trying to “fool the public.”

“They should admit we cannot save every life,” Stone Hess said. “It can’t be done. If we are going to save the most we possibly can, we need community’s help.”

asolomon@baltsun.com

twitter.com/libsolomon

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