Scathing report calls for independent investigation into Baltimore County Animal Services

Baltimore County’s Animal Services Advisory Commission has released a scathing report criticizing the county’s Animal Services department and calling for an independent investigation into its practices.

The Sept. 28 annual report accused the department’s leadership of “gutting” its animal control division and shifting most of its duties to the police department; failing to follow best practices for its trap-neuter-return program for feral cats; and requiring notarized affidavits from complainants to launch investigations.

“It appears Baltimore County Animal Services management has become so numbers-focused, both on live release numbers and [trap-neuter-return] numbers, that it is going down a path leading away from real animal welfare,” said Deborah Stone Hess, chairwoman of the advisory commission, in testimony at a Monday night Baltimore County Council meeting.

Dr. Melissa Jones, a veterinarian and director of Animal Services, said that five years ago she would have agreed with harsh criticism of her department.

The 11-member commission was created by the County Council in 2015 to address public outcry over a high kill rate at the county’s shelter. Its members are appointed by members of the council and the county executive.

But after years of new programs, new facilities and improved live-release rates, she said she believes the harsh criticism is unwarranted.

“When the commission was formed in 2015, the public pressure was to fix the shelter,” Jones said. “In so many ways it has, and it’s fixed. It’s hard to see that people are still trying to attack that.”

The report said the department does not follow best practices for its trap-neuter-release program, which seeks to reduce populations of feral cat colonies by neutering stray cats and then releasing them near where they were trapped. The report alleges that the county is releasing cats too far from where they were trapped, returning them too soon after surgery and not providing care for other medical needs of trapped cats.

Jones said the procedures the county follows are best practices, and that the purpose of the program is not to provide medical care to every cat, something she said would be an enormous undertaking.

The report also criticized the county’s affidavit policy, which requires complainants to sign and notarize an affidavit for an animal case to move forward. That policy, the report said, creates barriers that reduce the likelihood that investigations will move forward.

Jones said the policy is meant to reduce arbitrary complaints and is necessary because Animal Services officers are not sworn like police. She said it is untrue, however, that officers will not investigate an incident without a complaint, as the report alleges.

Other issues the report addressed included salaries that it said are higher than industry standard – more than $148,000 on average for each of five veterinarians, for example – and a “toxic working atmosphere created by management” in which whistleblowers fear to come forward. It also had sharp words for a report the county commissioned from a company called Team Shelter USA for about $11,000 that was positive about the department’s progress.

“The Team Shelter USA Progress report appears to simply be a PR document,” the report said.

Oscar’s legacy

The commission’s report began by outlining the story of Oscar, a dog that died in Arbutus around New Year’s Eve. The chow chow’s death sparked viral outrage on social media after a neighbor posted a photo of the dog lying in the yard in sub-freezing temperatures. His owner, Selvin Gnanakkan, has been charged with three counts of animal cruelty and has a trial date set for this month.

After Oscar’s death, records showed that Animal Services had been called before the dog died, and had previously received more than a dozen calls to the location. No Animal Services officer responded to the scene.

After the dog’s death, advisory commission member Joy Freedman said Animal Services “shut us out,” ending its monthly meetings with the commission’s liaisons. Freedman was one of the authors of the commission’s 2018 report.

"The death of Oscar raised serious concerns, and made it clear that there is no transparency at BCAS,” the report said.

“We stopped meeting with the liaisons because we didn’t have anything else we could say,” Jones said. Animal Services released all the information available about Oscar’s case at the time, Jones said, and had nothing else to give the commission. Instead of a meeting, she said, “the idea was that they would submit questions.”

Jones declined to comment further on the Oscar case, citing ongoing litigation.

The Animal Abuse Unit

Oscar’s death sparked County Council legislation mandating the temperatures at which animals that are outside must be brought inside. It also spurred the Baltimore County Police Department to create an animal abuse unit to investigate allegations of animal cruelty.

Initially, Freedman said, the advisory commission was glad about the Animal Abuse Unit. But on July 1, the county issued guidance to Animal Services staff, directing them to refer many calls to police. According to the report, that guidance directed staff to refer “routine Animal Control duties” to the police.

A June 27 email from Jones to Animal Services staff, which was sent to the advisory commission, outlined common animal situations in which police would be called. Police, the document said, are to handle calls alleging abuse or neglect. Animal Services is still to investigate calls reporting abandoned animals, “hoarding” in which too many animals live in one home, or barking complaints – but in any of those cases, if criminal charges might be filed, the case is transferred to police.

Freedman said the new policies push the majority of Animal Services duties to the police. Jones, however, disputed that claim.

"Animal Services officers retain all of their duties, with the exception of initial investigations of animal cruelty,” Jones said. “That allows centralization for animal cruelty investigations and clear lines of communication.”

The commission’s report criticized this policy, saying sending police to respond to animal calls could be dangerous as they are not trained in how to handle animals or interpret their body language.

Police spokesman Cpl. Shawn Vinson said police respond to the calls they get, and have always responded to 911 calls reporting issues like loose dogs. Police do not have specific training in dealing with animals, he said.

"We don’t train for everything an officer’s going to handle on the street,” Vinson said. “We don’t train officers on how to handle people locking their keys in the car. We equip officers to think for themselves and address the situation.”

The commission said, in its report and in County Council testimony, that multiple people have said they were passed back and forth between Animal Services and the police, with neither responding to a scene.

Woodlawn resident Nina McFadden testified at Monday’s County Council meeting that this summer she discovered her elderly neighbor had 16 cats kept in unsanitary conditions. She testified that she called Animal Services, which told her to call 911. The police, she said, requested help from Animal Services and were denied. Eventually, she said, Animal Services transferred some of the cats to the county’s shelter in Baldwin, but McFadden said she was left to try to trap the rest herself while wearing a Hazmat suit. As a result, she got bronchitis from the fumes of the home and brought fleas into her own house, she said.

“Baltimore County Animal Services comes under our county health department,” McFadden said. “Does anyone care about my health? This is a nightmare.”

Without going into the specifics of the case, Jones said in cases like that one, Animal Services often requires a warrant to enter a home, like the police would.

The report is useful in that it highlights processes that the public does not understand, that Animal Services needs to communicate better, Jones said.

“It’s important people do know what services we provide, where to report, what we can and can’t do,” Jones said. “Obviously, we need to clarify that with citizens.”

At the County Council meeting, Fred Homan, the county administrative officer, asked the council to have its auditor investigate Baltimore County Animal Services, saying the county would make staff time available for the investigation.

“I think it would be a good exercise for the auditor’s office,” Homan said.

In an email sent to the Towson Times Oct. 3, Jones issued this statement in response to Animal Services Advisory Commission’s report on Animal Services:

“The report is rife with inaccuracies and flawed assumptions and is insulting to the professionals and dedicated animal services staff members who have done a tremendous job establishing our programs as nationally recognized models of effectiveness. The claim that we have reduced our enforcement of animal cruelty and neglect cases is preposterous; in fact the shift to a Police-based animal abuse greatly enhanced the resources and authority with which these cases are pursued.

It’s just very sad that this group has chosen to take this destructive approach and appears to be trying to undermine the incredibly positive results we see every day.”

This story has been updated to include an email from Dr. Melissa Jones, a veterinarian and director of Animal Services.

asolomon@baltsun.com

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