Bibb County receives Animal Welfare evaluation

pramati@macon.comOctober 26, 2012 

Former Bibb County Animal Welfare consultant Deborah Biggs has delivered a 100-plus page evaluation to county officials that suggests policy changes in euthanasia, housing and sanitation at the animal shelter.

Biggs was hired by Bibb County this summer to serve as shelter manager for 60 days when the county took over the shelter’s operations July 1 from Macon. As part of her $22,580 contract, Biggs was required to evaluate the shelter and make recommendations for improvements. The report was delivered several weeks late, and most officials said late this week they still haven’t read it in detail.

Animal Welfare Director Sarah Tenon, who started work Oct. 1, said she has reviewed sections of the report. She said she drew some of the same conclusions as Biggs, even before seeing the report.

“I think there had been some neglect in the shelter’s standards,” said Tenon, who has spent most of her career working in shelters that followed accepted American Humane Society guidelines, which for the most part didn’t seem to be in place before her arrival.

Bibb County Chief Administrative Officer Steve Layson said he noticed some of the statistics included in the report didn’t seem to add up, but he said other parts of the report made sensible suggestions. He plans to meet soon with Tenon to discuss Biggs’ report.

“She pointed out the fact that there was little or no organization, no rules,” said Layson, who served as interim shelter director from July 1 until Tenon was hired earlier this month. “The first thing I picked up on was there was no accountability and very poor record-keeping. ... I think most of (Biggs’) observations were correct.”

Biggs’ brief tenure running the daily operations drew heavy criticism from local animal welfare groups, which she acknowledged in the report.

“(Biggs), (Commission) Chairman Sam Hart, Commissioner Lonzy Edwards and Chief Administrative Officer Steve Layson have experienced first-hand the verbal and vicious attacks put forth by some (of) the local animal groups,” she wrote. “It was soon realized that staff members, both (shelter and commission staff), were unknowingly instigating the attacks by dispersing information to local animal rescue groups without 100 percent factual knowledge of the situation. Due to the passionate emotions of the community surrounding the welfare of animals, it is imperative for employees to refrain from discussing Animal Welfare issues, events, concerns, etc. with individuals not employed by the county.”

Biggs did, however, praise the efforts of local rescue groups, noting that those group’s volunteers are “interested in assisting with daily care and outside adoption events.”

Report critical of humane society approach

The report is critical of the time when former Macon Animal Control Officer Van VanDeWalker oversaw shelter operations, though she didn’t mention him specifically by name. Biggs noted a “paradigm shift” that began in November 2011 within the shelter’s operations.

Biggs wrote that under a former interim director when the shelter was under oversight of the city of Macon, emphasis was placed on low-kill or no-kill shelter operations.

“This resulted in the ‘conversion’ of a typical animal control agency wherein public safety is the main objective to one more like a humane society where emphasis was placed on a huge reduction in the number of animals killed,” Biggs wrote. “Additionally, it led to overcrowded conditions in the facility.”

VanDeWalker, who said Friday he had scanned a copy of the report, said Biggs mixed up the dates when he was interim director, confusing them with some of the time that former director Jim Johnson or police Sgt. Robert Carr, an interim director, were in charge. However, he said he thinks most of Biggs’ criticisms of those times were aimed at him.

“They paid her a lot of money, yet she couldn’t get the dates of who worked when right,” said VanDeWalker, who added that he initially was “100 percent in favor” of the county bringing in an outside consultant to evaluate the shelter. “Why shouldn’t I think the rest of the report is inaccurate?”

Biggs further noted that it was difficult to document data from the shelter because “necessary” reports weren’t written.

“Due to the philosophical change in operation, animals were held for longer periods of time in an effort to find them homes,” Biggs wrote.

As a result, she concluded, the shelter was over capacity on a daily basis, and there was no room to take in additional animals.

Biggs noted an unidentified former employee directed staff not to document litters of puppies and kittens in case they were euthanized. She said they were only put into the computer system if the animals were adopted. The same former employee directed other shelter workers to release feral cats through a hole in the fence adjoining the landfill, Biggs alleged.

Biggs also was critical of the low number of euthanizations over the same time period, which she said was the primary source of overcrowding.

VanDeWalker ultimately resigned during Biggs’ tenure, he said, because he was put in charge of euthanizations, including identifying which animals would be killed.

Biggs said former employees also thought the maximum capacity for dogs was 80. In fact, she noted, the shelter’s capacity -- as designated by the state in 2010 -- was 80 animals total. The current capacity is 64 dogs and 16 cats, she said.

The overpopulation of animals also led to unsanitary conditions, Biggs said.

She observed that most staff members “were not knowledgeable about general cleaning methods in an animal shelter, including the rationale for all steps.” Biggs also noted that staff used floor degreaser and drain maintainer rather than the disinfectant that was being stored in the shelter.

When the county first took over the shelter, she observed dog food bowls being placed in unclean cages; nobody recording the animals’ weights and eating habits; and nobody ensuring animal feeding times.

Tenon said that even though there are new staff members, there haven’t been major problems since she arrived. She said she’s “micro-managing” the shelter right now, because “we can’t afford to be shut down by the state any more.”

Layson said no matter what the report says or what changes are made, ultimately the problem won’t get any better if animals aren’t spayed or neutered.

“This is a problem that we the people concocted,” he said. “It’s a huge issue. It’s reflective of our demographics. We’re a poor community, and those usually have more stray animals.”

Tenon said she will not only look at the recommendations in the report, but she also will look at how other cities manage their animal shelter operations.

“We want to be a light,” she said. “We want other counties to model their shelters after us. But, we’ve got a long way to go.”

Telegraph writer Mike Stucka contributed to this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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