The Dec. 31 closure of the non-profit Pueblo Animal Services shelter was preceded by months of public uproar, and not a little politics. Going forward, the contract from the City and County of Pueblo to handle the community’s needs for animal rescue will be filled by another non-profit group called Paws for Life Animal Welfare and Protection Society. The closure leaves questions unanswered, including how PAWS is going to gear up an organization that has handled only 15 percent of the annual volume of the PAS group. Another question important to Chaffee County; whether the group, which bills itself as a “no-kill” facility will offer free euthanasia for dog owners as PAS did.
“We are disappointed that 10 years of compassionate service and dedication is coming to an end,” said Pueblo Animal Services Director Julie Justman of the facility that closed at 4600 Eagleridge Place, Pueblo. “All of us at PAS care about the health and safety of pets and people in our community.”
The brew-ha-ha over the shelter began with the euthanizing of a year-old pit bull dog. The action garnered public complaints to Pueblo City council about that specific action, as well as what they perceived were high euthanizing numbers at PAS.
PAS said the pit bull was aggressive, had not responded to modifying programs and couldn’t be placed. An inspection by PACFA, a division of the Colorado Department of Agriculture which oversees animal operations, found no evidence that PAS had violated any PACFA rules “in choosing not to adopt out an animal that did not meet the facility’s behavior requirements.”
That did not stop the critics. The issue became heated. Some of those who took the side of the PAS shelter received death threats. (an ironic response to critic’s objection to euthanizing animals.)
Following initial complaints, a group of residents began an intense lobbying effort, hounding the city to change the city’s animal treatment guidelines. In February 2018, following months of contentious debate, Pueblo City Council voted 4-3 to approve a controversial ordinance called the Pueblo Animal Protection Act. It required the operators at Pueblo Animal Services to follow a set of protocols before euthanizing an animal. It set a save rate goal above 90 percent and a five business day holding requirement (not applied to animals that are “irremediably physically suffering.”)
Even Pueblo city council members said that without county support, the measure was unenforceable, but the city found a work-around. PAWs Executive Director Linda Mitchell said that animals have to be surrendered in city limits, where the act is in force. Initially council members said that the new ordinance did not affect PAS, but the consequences have been quite different.
Those who submitted complaints said they were incensed over the number of animals being euthanized at PAS. Justman confirmed that PAS willingly and regularly submitted all its data to an online, self-reporting data collection source aimed at compiling data from shelters country-wide to for the public to see and to help keep shelters accountable; www.shelteranimalscount.org.
“We are saving more animals than ever before; we save eight out of ten animals,” said Pueblo Animal Services Director Julie Justman a few days before PAS closed. She referred to their rescue track record, noting they had done everything asked of them by the city and took animals other shelters wouldn’t. “We never turned away an animal in need, whether diseased, injured, or with bad behavior problems.”
A Colorado Open Records Act request for 2016 and 2017 rescue and euthanasia records (the latest years for which full statistics are available) for PAS, PAWS and the Arkansas Valley Humane Society reveals three key findings.
|Returned to owner||87||84||571||686||163||225|
Source: Colorado Open Record Requests: Colorado Department of Agriculture
First, actual numbers and percentages can be deceiving. The PAS 2017 intake volume is 6.3 times higher than PAWS total animal intake; 3008 compared to 473.
The shelter-initiated euthanasia actions at PAS are high as an absolute number and a percentage; roughly two of every ten animals taken in were euthanized. Justman explained situations in euthanasia becomes a necessary action. “Sometimes, we have to make very difficult decisions based on the health of the animal, the quality of life of the animal, the behavior of the animal, and the health and the safety of the community where the animal could end up. Many times we waive fees for that service and perform that service on the owners request.”
In 2017 at PAS, 300 animals were euthanized at owner request. Justman says that PAS total euthanasia numbers are impacted by the fact that they often face heart-breaking requests from owners without the funds to take their pets to veterinarians for treatment or end-of-life services. (She noted that asking a vet to euthanize a family pet is more common among middle class income levels.)
Mitchell said that PAWs plans to operate two facilities, and considers both “no-kill”. It will maintain its current limited-mission location, and it will take over the city and county facility at 4600 Eagleridge Place location as part of its contract. “Our current facility will remain a limited mission facility – it’s a space-based organization — and the second location will be the same open admission as under PAS. Both are going to be no-kill. We are required to meet the Pueblo Animal Protection Act.”
This raises a practical question for residents of Chaffee County. The Arkansas Valley Humane Society AVHS in Chaffee County does not euthanize animals. If PAWS proclaims that they do no euthanasia, then where do residents of the Arkansas River Valley take their suffering animals if they can’t afford the vet fee?
When that question was posed to Mitchell she answered, “That’s an owner-requested euthanasia – we’ll be filling that in the most humane possible at the Eagleridge location. You see everything about the PAPA is for the humane care of animals with the goal to prevent any healthy or treatable animal from being euthanized.”
Depending upon how you interpret that answer and which of the two PAWS facilities you visit, it seems Colorado Springs may be the closest location where families needing no-cost, humane end-of-life treatment for pets may be done.
Statistics at PAWS current location at 800 N Pueblo Blvd. in Pueblo, revealed seven unexplained dog deaths in 2017 at PAWs, and five the year prior. If animals were suffering, would it not be reasonable to assume they were euthanized? If so, why wouldn’t they be recorded as such – or would that run head-on into the shelter’s no-kill marketing claim?
When queried about how Paws could both perform euthanasia and still maintaining their ‘no-kill claim, she said “Our goal is the humane care of animals – to prevent any healthy or treatable animal from being euthanized.”
Asked about the definition of what is “treatable”: she said, “Well, the 19-year-old dog with cancer, that’s not treatable. Overall our goal is to alleviate suffering, to get these animals into homes. She pointed out that even aggressiveness could be treatable.
“We include aggressiveness among the behaviors that can be treated with behavior modification. There are always going to be those feel that you can’t do a behavior modification on some animal. But we don’t put the public at risk, we’re not going to let that happen,” said Mitchell. “We test a dog or cat with the family – kids – we make sure this animal is a fit for that family. For all the larger breed dogs we require a six foot fence. We do everything in our power to place these in appropriate homes.”
Mitchell said that PAWS 800 N Pueblo Blvd location places 100 to 120 animals in homes per month. She tried to reassure families with pets needing medical care that they couldn’t afford.
“ If there are people up there (in Chaffee County) with animals that need treatment they can’t afford, we’ll treat at no charge, and spay or neuter them at no charge, then return them to the owners. Those are medical issues, not a surrender kind of deal … we want to see animals in homes.”
The shelter situation has played out in the political arena; Justman says it’s been ugly, with untrue accusations aimed at a non-profit trying its best for the community it served. The end result also holds financial benefit; one small 501(c)(3) stood to gain a lot when the larger competitor 501(c)(3) came under often unsubstantiated attack.
A great irony is that the passage of the ordinance coincided with a six-part series airing on National Geographic Wild called “Rocky Mountain Animal Rescue” which chronicled the Pueblo Animal Services shelter and its service role with the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region. The show gave a behind-the-scenes look at how PAS worked to save animals in need and featured animal rescues, medical emergencies, interesting animals and adoption stories.
While the Pueblo Animal Protection Act pro-ports to protect all animals, the initial complaint filed about the euthanized pit-bull compared, without any substantiation, the treatment of the dog to people, saying “we don’t euthanize people when they are aggressive, we treat them.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, the question might come down to what some maintain are “animal rights” versus what others consider to be “animal welfare”. A visit to their site (https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Pages/what-is-animal-welfare.aspx ) reveals their definition of animal welfare: “Ensuring animal welfare is a human responsibility that includes consideration for all aspects of animal well-being, including proper housing, management, nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care, humane handling, and, when necessary, humane euthanasia.”
The AVMA says it is in the midst of preparing new euthanasia guidelines. First developed in 1963, the guidelines are reviewed and updated around once a decade.
Only three days into it’s new duties, whether PAWS shelter will be operating under the same scrutiny that PAS did is an unanswered question. Logical concerns include; how will it handle the much larger volume of animals; nearly seven times its intake volume from only a year prior? How will it navigate the move from a private facility where it could selectively accept intakes, to operating a public contract shelter? Its website now advertises an extensive list of positions – how quickly can it staff up to handle all animals that reach its doors?