As BARC's new bureau chief, Ray Sim has his work cut out for him. He now heads an organization that has historically resisted change and ostracized volunteers who have made claims of cruel conditions, with the full support of an administration and city council that believes the best way to deal with things is via bargain-basement lip service.
But Sim brings some experience to the table. Most recently, he was the director of Broward County's Animal Care & Regulation. His post was short-lived, however, when the county announced its interest in privatizing the shelter. Although it never happened, it was enough for Sim to put out feelers.
Before Broward, Sim headed Alachua County (Fla.) Animal Services division and held a similar position in El Paso.
Sim wants to improve the rate of animals that are licensed and spayed/neutered. And he says he wants input from outside groups on how to make that, as well as shelter improvements, possible. He says he's recently reached out to Kate Hurley, the renowned director of shelter medicine at the University of California-Davis. (Strangely, Hurley is a critic of the so-called "no-kill" philosophy; prior to Sim's coming aboard, Health and Human Services Director Stephen Williams asked no-kill advocate Nathan Winograd to provide a "snapshot assessment" of BARC. While we'd get a kick out of seeing those two go at it Fight Club-style, Sim says he's worked successfully with disparate groups in the past).
We talked with Sim about some of the issues that have raised some eyebrows lately.
Category I: All Volunteers are Created Equal. Some are More Equal Than Others.
A long-standing BARC complaint is that volunteers who allege cruel and incompetent treatment of animals are not welcome, while the volunteers who shuck-and-jive and bring apples for the teacher get a pat on the head. It could be that the griping volunteers are blowing things out of proportion. Or it could be that certain groups have Stockholm Syndrome. But it appears that, either way, the environment is not conducive to critical feedback. So here's what Sim says:
"I think some initial things that I've seen that are here that have been recently instituted are...the Take It to the Chief Program. There's boxes located throughout the shelter facilities...it's a locked box. There are suggestion cards, or concern cards, next to that. And I think that's a good initial step. But I think the overall environment of...tolerance for concerns and/or criticisms is a valid thing to be looking at." And, he adds, "We need to be tolerant of what people's concerns are, and accurately address those, as to whether they're valid concerns -- if there's a foundation in fact for them or not. But at least look at them."
Category II: What's This Crazy Thing Called "Transparency in Government"?
In a Q&A with the Chron, Sim said he would like to make BARC's operations "fairly transparent," which is a whole lot better than the standard practice of "charmingly opaque." But what does that really mean?
"I think one of the things that...I will look to really make available is our valid statistical information on what animals are coming to us. How many [of the animals] in the community do we receive, what really is the outcome for those animals; are they returned to their owners, are they adopted, are they euthanized. And if they're euthanized, what are the reasons associated with that. And really try to conform a great deal to many of the initiatives that are out there, primarily the Asilomar Accord on reporting of animals coming into shelters. (Read more about the Asilomar Accords here). I think it's important that...those numbers be accurate and that we're not really playing with numbers....I think having individuals from outside the bureau actually look at the bureau and make recommendations is a valid way of opening, if you will, our doors and our windows. At the same time, I think the individuals that would be invited in...need to be able to provide solid recommendations."
To recap: "I look forward to working with many types of organizations, professional as well as lay organizations to provide input on what we're doing and to provide explanations of what we're doing."
Category III: Paging Dr. Costas.
Earlier this year, the city canned BARC veterinarian Gil Costas for allegedly violating Texas Department of Public Safety registration requirements for doctors who administer and dispense controlled substances. At issue was not if Costas had the registration (he did, unlike another veterinarian who worked there for a decade without one); nor was it allegations of incompetence. No, the city said Costas broke state law by listing an address other than BARC's with the DPS's controlled-substances division. We're not exactly sure how that would be hazardous to the health and welfare of animals -- after all, it's not like Costas's license was ever suspended for something like mistakenly giving someone's pet a lethal overdose while whacked-out on painkillers. (That would be BARC's chief vet. But thank Jesus she gave DPS the correct address).
Costas has informed the city he would like his job back. So we asked Sim if he would consider re-hiring Costas, or if he thought it would best to move on.
Sim's answer was short and to the point: "We currently have a veterinary position open, but I have not received any application from him...If he's not interested in applying for a current open position, then I would suggest he's not interested, for whatever reasons that may exist out there."
Category IV: Houston is Overrun With Satanic Cults
Like many other shelters throughout the country, BARC does not adopt out black cats during October, out of fear that they may be used for ritual sacrifice by satanic cults. We wonder if those shelters also give money to exiled Nigerian billionaires and attend annual Bigfoot conferences. Here's an October 2008 memo from BARC Administrative Supervisor Dorian Strickland to staff and rescue groups:
"It is the decision of BARC that we are suspending the adoption program for cats through the end of October, due to the concern of adoption for the purpose of ritualistic sacrifice reasons prevalent during this time of year."
Strickland then outlined the exceptions, which include foster- and rescue-groups that have an "established relationship" with BARC. Also, it would not apply to a member of the public who can provide a letter from their regular vet attesting to the following:
-- this person has an existing (or previous) client/veterinarian relationship.
-- this person has a history of having previously sterilized pets (is not looking to breed the adopted pet), and
-- this person has a history of following through with routine preventative care (vaccines, etc.)
We think this policy does a good job of weeding out the Satanists who procrastinate and wait until the last minute to adopt a pet they're going to hack apart with a machete, or whatever it is Satanists use these days. But the more proactive ritualistic animal killers who plan ahead and adopt their sacrificial kittens in, say, September, will still be in good shape. Plus, even if a person brought in a letter from a veterinarian, who's to say the vet isn't in on it? Maybe there are vets who are sympathetic to cults, like creepy Charles Grodin in Rosemary's Baby. And how would anyone even know if a dude sacrificed an animal in the first place, unless they came in a few hours after they adopted a black cat, with a bloody pentagram on their chest and a Black Sabbath album under their arm? So we asked Sim what he thought of this policy.
"I would need to look at Houston and see what our experiences have been, what other organizations that are adopting animals in Houston...is it a problem with black cats? Is it just cats? Are rabbits being mutilated for religious purposes....I would need to really have some foundation in fact [in order to] make a decision, as opposed to rumor or scare."
Category V: The Incident Command Team In the Hizzee
Earlier this year, the impressively monikered ICT has been identifying major areas of concern and figuring out how to address them. Or so we're told. Fortunately, Sim gave us an idea of what these folks are actually doing. And one of the priorities has been identifying and improving problems in policies and procedures, because that just appears to be a big black hole.
These policies and procedures include "Everything from how are we cleaning a kennel, how are we purchasing the materials and supplies that we utilize, what are our agreements or [memoranda] of understanding that we have with volunteers and rescue groups."
He also describes the communication breakdown in a pretty cool way: "One of the things that I have often found in this organization and others is what I call 'shaman medicine.' You remember the medicine man --- that nothing is written, everything is passed on from one shaman to another shaman? I find that in organizations, rather than having a written policy or a written procedure, I learn it by seeing and doing and hearing, but I don't necessarily understand why I'm doing it, and nothing's written down so that I don't know if I'm doing it right. Those are terrible ways to practice procedures in a shelter environment... 'Somebody told me this is how I do it, and I don't have the foundation in knowledge for why I'm doing what I'm doing, it's just somebody told me, Do it this way.'"
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Sim also highlighted for us a few of his other goals:
"I'm concerned again with some of the obstacles that I see right now to placing animals out into the community. And right now, the one that really is of concern to me is the health of the animals. And that varies, you know, from animals that have been here...for an extended period of time that we're sending out into the community that may have health issues that they have acquired here. And we've also sent animals to rescue organizations that have not even been here for but a few hours, in the box that they were brought in, and have health issues as they go out into someone's home or into a rescue area."
And: "I want to ensure that while they're here, that the care that they receive is humane, that the treatment is appropriate for the condition of the animals, and that we can provide an environment that they can be maintained and improved in, and not degraded."
Sounds good to us. We sincerely hope the city will give Sim the support and resources necessary to make his goals a reality.