Tensions swirling at animal shelter

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Tensions are brewing between animal advocates and the Jefferson Parish over what they see as problems in the shelter, among them glossing over the background of dogs who might be aggressive in an effort to get them adopted. Here  Robin Beaulieu snuggles a puppy at the shelter.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tensions are brewing between animal advocates and the Jefferson Parish over what they see as problems in the shelter, among them glossing over the background of dogs who might be aggressive in an effort to get them adopted. Here Robin Beaulieu snuggles a puppy at the shelter.

Accusations of misconduct and fraud continue to swirl around Jefferson Parish’s east bank animal shelter, and while recently released records raise questions about practices at the facility, parish officials say many of the accusations are driven by personal animus rather than wrongdoing.

Critics of Animal Shelter Director Robin Beaulieu provided documents to The Advocate that purport to show her misusing parish resources while misleading the public about the safety of the pets they take into their homes.

Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts has discussed the possibility for an investigation into the operations at the parish’s east bank and West Bank animal shelters but has not made formal request at this time.

“I think there’s still some unanswered questions that need to be resolved,” Roberts said.

Beaulieu said much of the criticism is driven by shakeups she made to operations at the east bank shelter when she took over fewer than two years ago. She claimed she ruffled feathers with a hands-on management style that differed from past directors.

“Essentially the director was not running that (east bank) shelter, other people were,” Beaulieu said. “There are going to be people unhappy with the changes that I’m making.”

The criticism of Beaulieu involves allegations that she:

Some of those allegations, and the records used to support them, were given to the council in December by former east bank veterinarian John Edwards, and volunteers who criticized Beaulieu.

On the issue of animal aggressiveness, reports show that a shelter animal killed a foster family’s pet and that another animal was advertised as “friendly” and “good with children” despite showing aggression in his kennel. Another report shows that a puppy initially listed as a “pit bull mix” had its records changed to make it a “lab mix,” which led to its adoption.

Roberts said allowing aggressive or poorly trained dogs into homes is a threat to public safety. He added that changing records raises questions about the parish’s liability when problems occur.

“We’ve ... got to make sure that we don’t put the parish at risk,” Roberts said. “I’m not totally satisfied with the operations over there.”

However, Beaulieu noted that the shelter does have procedures in place for adoptions, and for assessing those dogs it takes into shelters. Animals brought to the shelter are assessed by shelter staff to determine if they have aggression issues over food, territory or physical contact. Potential adopters or foster families also must fill out a questionnaire, she said.

“We don’t just let anybody take a dog home,” Beaulieu said.

She noted that the dog that killed a family’s pet had shown no signs of aggression, and the death was related to the other animal’s aggressive behavior. In the case of the aggressive dog advertised as friendly, Beaulieu said the animal, which was a breed known as Dogo Argentino, was assessed by several independent trainers and deemed “adoptable.” It only showed aggressive behavior in the kennel, and its former owner told the shelter it was good with children. The dog was eventually euthanized after it bit someone at the shelter.

Beaulieu said the change in the records was due to an initial misidentification, not an attempt to deceive. Often, dogs will be labeled “pit bull mixes” because that is the most common breed at the shelter, but a later assessment proves that is incorrect.

“It’s a common misidentification in the shelter,” she said.

Beaulieu and Loren Marino, chief administrative assistant to Parish President John Young, acknowledged that some of the numbers used to discuss increases in adoptions and decreases in euthanizations might be inflated, but blamed that on an antiquated computer system that the parish is in the process of replacing.

“Our statistics have been problematic for years,” Marino said. “It has not been intentional; we, too, want a better system.”

And on the issue of using parish facilities to spay and neuter private dogs, Marino contended that it is a gray area when it comes to the state’s prohibition on public agencies giving away things of value. She noted that the shelter will often have specials where it offers steep discounts on vaccinations, and that the regular charge for some services is less than what the parish actually spends.

“I would say it’s a bit of different animal, no pun intended,” she said.

Beaulieu said the shelter typically does surgeries on animals that have had prior contact with the shelter, and where she determines getting them “fixed” immediately is priority. The shelter refers most owners to low-cost spay and neuter programs, which can even be free in some cases. Beaulieu said that very few owners want the shelter to do surgery on their pets.

“That’s very rare,” Beaulieu said. “My first choice is to refer them to the program. The key is not letting the animal go home; you might not see them back.”

Marino expressed displeasure that persistent criticism by a vocal minority has overshadowed the good Beaulieu has done with shelters that see roughly 12,000 animals a year. Beaulieu touted a new $60,000 grant she received to do outreach in the Lincolnshire neighborhood in Marrero to talk to residents about the services the parish offers for their pets. Her goal is make the shelter more pro-active in how it service residents.

“That proactive stuff that we’re doing is one of the steps we have to take to get to where we want to be,” Beaulieu said.