Lines Drawn in Battle Over Rosenberg's Animal Shelter

A skirmish of sorts has been heating up in Rosenberg, where animal welfare advocates are pushing for reforming the small city's animal shelter, and city officials appear to find the critics shrill and annoying. 

For years, the shelter, which handles about 1,200 animals a year, has been staffed by two animal control officers and a director who keep track of things not via typical animal shelter intake software, but with what one city council member described as a Dewey Decimal System-type approach.

The animal control page on the city's website advises people who come to the shelter looking to adopt animals may  find the doors locked, in which case they should leave a note or call a dispatcher. There are only a handful of adoptable dogs on the department's Facebook page; there are limited offsite adoption events; and the shelter is closed on the weekends. 

The previous director, Brigitte Turner, was fired last May,. after only a month in the position, despite claims by her and her supporters that she achieved a historic live-release rate. These numbers have not been disputed by city officials, who say they are legally unable to disclose the reason for Turner's termination.

An advocate of the no-kill movement, Turner told the Houston Press she was never given a reason for her firing, but suspects it had something to do with the fact that she passed along a volunteer's allegation of animal cruelty on behalf of the animal control officers, and that she had the temerity to implement the first changes the shelter had seen in years.

Turner claimed that a volunteer said she witnessed an animal control officer vaccinate an uncooperative and kenneled dog by attaching a syringe to the end of an animal catcher's pole and jab at it through the kennel, freaking out the dog. The process allegedly began with one of the officers swinging the dog around on a pole, at one point leaving it "dangling in mid air at the other end of the pole," according to an email Turner said she sent her immediate supervisor. 

The officer then used a "pole syringe" — a needle attached to the end of a stick — to try to tranquilize the dog. 

"The end result was the loss of the needle with the dog possibly swallowing it," Turner's email stated.

A Rosenberg resident requested video from the shelter's lobby and office, but city officials sought a state attorney general's opinion in mid-June on whether the video could be withheld while the incident was investigated. It's unclear if the investigation is still pending. 

Turner also said she raised concern about animal control officers relying on on a euthanasia method called a "heartstick," whereby a syringe is plunged through the chest walls and into the heart, as opposed to an intravenous method.

Turner also told the Press that an inadequate drainage system causes animal waste to back up, promoting the spread of disease. 

In her budget request for a $2,500 sanitation upgrade for next fiscal year, Turner wrote that "feces does not fit through [the] drain grid covers" and requires staff to manually scoop and dispose of the waste in a single garbage can.

Turner also said she submitted a request for a part-time veterinarian and suggested that a large patch of city-owned land behind the shelter be utilized for a play area for the dogs, whose outside time is currently limited to the parking lot. She said these requests were ignored. (Turner also claims that, when she started, no photos of adoptable animals were being posted online, which speaks volumes). 

Rosenberg Mayor Cynthia McConathy said she was unaware of the request for the sanitation upgrade, but denied that she or any other officials were uninterested in improving the shelter. She pointed out the council and the police chief — who oversees the animal control department — have held special public sessions in addition to regular city council meetings, in order to hear advocates' concerns. 

The July 20 session is something of a mixed bag, with Councilmember William Benton seeming to support the advocates in his support for hiring an additional staff member, while then suggesting the advocates focus their yentaing  on more biblical matters. Benton actually said these words out loud, in public: “How many folks...have gone down to Planned Parenthood and protested about all the abortions we're having in this country?”

The session kicked off with McConathy saying this was not the time to complain about or criticize the animal control officers. But,  based on Rosenberg Police Chief Dallas Warren's opening remarks, it was a time to bathe the "hardworking and dedicated staff" in beatitudes.

Still, Warren did say that he did "want to use the resources and the generosity put forward by this community to continually lower the number of animals euthanized.”

Benton told the Press that he placed the sudden criticism of the shelter squarely on Turner's shoulders, without actually naming her.

”A lot of the criticism about our animal shelter, I feel, is being stirred up by a disgruntled city employee that worked for the city probably less than 60 days," he said. "I think that should say a lot about the scenario.” 

Benton said he didn't ask Chief Warren why Turner, who raised the live-release rate to more than 90 percent in her brief stint, was terminated, but he said he trusted the chief's judgment. 

"We didn't have this sort of attention before this individual came into the picture," Benton said.

And he's probably right: this appears to be the first time Rosenberg officials have received such a sudden outpouring of concern. The attention has already led to changes such as a volunteer handbook and application being more accessible on the city's website. 

McConathy, who said that the "heartstick" euthanasia method is only used in special circumstances, pointed out in an email to the Press that "The shelter has never had a big budget, but we still operate the best we can for the safety of people and animals. We want all the animals to find a forever home and be adopted. We try to network with other shelters also. It is not a capture and kill and we aren't trying to put down animals. Our efforts are for adoptions."

McConathy also asked if we were aware of the video of the July 20 session, which she felt showcased officials' dedication to taking concerns seriously. And there did seem to be some momentum, with Chief Warren saying he was looking to hire a kennel technician, which would free up the animal control officers.

But much of the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, seemed non-specific, with Warren whipping out the kind of hollow corporate-speak about developing "clear operating guidelines" and implementing a "framework for the future" by focusing on "key tasks." It seemed odd, for such a small city and a small shelter, which had already achieved tremendous success in one month, without a framework for the future. 

Of course, not all Rosenberg-ites are crazy about the no-kill crowd's braying. Longtime volunteer Carolyn Seiler told officials at the July 20 session that she was tired of critics "constantly badgering the shelter," and positing that "technically, there is no such thing as a no-kill shelter."

We think Seiler may have stumbled onto a real sticking point in the showdown: The term "no-kill" tends to be both vague, loaded and polarizing. Although the philosophy, which calls for animals not to be euthanized for the sake of convenience or space, has been relatively mainstreamed, it can often sound like pie-in-the-sky hokum if not properly explained to, say, city officials who have previously demonstrated zero interest in animal shelters. There's probably a learning curve that a lot of the advocates are not willing or patient enough to handle.

Of course, Seiler might want to take a gander at Houston's Friends For Life rescue, a wildly successful no-kill shelter that partners with BARC, the city's pound, to provide free spay/neutering services. That seems like the kind of reasonable, attainable thing that the Rosenberg shelter could shoot for, if officials were so inclined. 

Yet, for the most part, the changes the advocates are pushing for are more of the common-sense variety and not limited to the provenance of no-kill: customer-friendly hours to increase adoptions and free up space; better use of social media to advertise adoptable animals; better sanitation; creating a more welcome environment to attract volunteers. 

We look forward to seeing how Rosenberg officials handle these concerns — they have the potential to turn things around and make the shelter a jewel of Fort Bend County, no matter how obnoxious they may find the critics. 
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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow