Accounts of shelter operations clash

Animal welfare advocates filled the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council chambers Wednesday night for an emotionally charged debate that offered two opposing portraits of conditions at the parish animal shelter.

One group of mostly former employees of the Companion Animal Alliance, the nonprofit organization that runs the shelter, said the shelter is being mismanaged and regulatory laws are being violated; the other group said the shelter is stronger than ever under its current management.

Both sides agreed the shelter needs more money to operate properly.

The Metro Council, generally, did not take sides in the quarrel, but suggested that animal advocates look elsewhere for additional funds.

The CAA was ordered to report to the Metro Council on Wednesday night in response to a recent investigation by the parish Animal Control and Rescue Center, and because of a letter signed by some employees alleging illegal activity and regulatory violations at the shelter.

The investigation found that the CAA lacked protocols and qualified supervision, but did not examine claims of illegal activity.

CAA Board President Christel Slaughter defended the organization.

“We believe the shelter is very well run,” Slaughter told the council. “But we’re not where we want it to be yet.”

She said the agency has responded to many of the management issues cited in the Animal Control report, which called for CAA to update protocols and manuals, implement training and improve communications with staff.

Jaden Stafford, a former intake specialist at the CAA, said under new director Kim Sherlaw, sick and injured animals would come to the shelter and go for hours and sometimes days without medical treatment. She provided the council with graphic photos of injured animals she said were left unattended.

Dr. Amy Cangelosi, a former CAA veterinarian, said the CAA management should be replaced and the board restructured.

She said CAA management has allowed unlicensed employees to euthanize animals and provide medical treatment, which is against the law.

“The CAA has the right to make mistakes, but not the right to break the law,” said Debbie Pearson, the former director before Sherlaw.

Pearson, who was fired as the CAA’s director, urged the council to consult the parish attorney’s office about violations of state, federal and local laws.

But several volunteers and current employees testified that the CAA is improving conditions at the animal shelter.

Jessica Card, the director of YELP animal welfare organization, said she has confidence in Sherlaw’s leadership over the CAA.

“It’s more organized, cleaner and easier to work with,” Card said. “There’s been great improvements and I feel like we’re going in the right direction; we just need time.”

Andrew Baer, a volunteer, said he’s watched the shelter steadily progress over the past 14 months.

“I implore you to find a shelter with this level of funding that doesn’t have problems,” he said, adding that the images of injured animals are common to any open-access shelter.

David Senior, a CAA board member and an associate dean for the LSU Veterinary School, said they are building up a “robust adoption program,” but stressed that the organization needs more funding to have a larger impact.

“Without resources, we will struggle,” he said.

The CAA, concerned about the high euthanasia rate of the city-parish run shelter, took control of 15 months ago in an attempt to transform it into a no-kill shelter.

Its officials had promised to pair the city-parish’s financial contribution with private funds to build up services and improve conditions. Within the first two months of taking over, the shelter was investigated for cruelty because it grew overcrowded with animals.

More than a year later, the agency has transitioned through three different directors.

The council asked Animal Control Director Hilton Cole to weigh in on the situation, who said the problems are both structural and financial.

“The solution is ultimately, possibly building a new shelter,” Cole said, noting when he was overseeing the shelter operations he had pursued building a $1.8 million facility on Old Hammond Highway and Millerville Road.

Slaughter said the CAA is pursuing a couple options and has had an architect provide renderings of what a new building might look like. However, she said, that effort has been hindered because of the costs and because all of the CAA’s money is going toward operational costs.

In a previous interview, John Davies, president of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation — which provides fundraising support to the CAA — said it funded the architect renderings, which estimated a new facility suited to their needs would cost $10 million.

This year the CAA was budgeted to receive for $459,970 from the city-parish, and in next year’s budget, Mayor-President Kip Holden appropriated them an additional $113,800.

At a previous budget hearing, some Metro Council members said they were hesitant to increase the agency’s funding level. The council will have final say on the budget at their Dec. 11 meeting.

But at the Wednesday meeting they signaled that they were not inclined to provide any additional funds beyond what’s budgeted.

“There’s only so many dollars in the pie, and we want to give everyone their wish list,” said Ulysses “Bones” Addison. “But the government can’t work that way.”

Council members noted that they are inundated with requests for additional funds from agencies that support youth, safety and early education.

“The raw truth is there will never be enough money,” said Councilman Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois. “There will never be a facility big enough.”

Following the meeting, former staff members said they were disappointed the council did not seriously consider their complaints about illegal activity.

“We came with facts, and hard evidence,” Melanie Scott said. “The CAA presented flowers and rainbows.”