City withholds details about consequences
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico––A City of Albuquerque internal investigation has found the city’s Animal Welfare Department to be “only partially in compliance” with the city dangerous dog ordinance, including in rehoming dogs who should have been classified as dangerous.
What the cost has been to public safety remains unclear, since the City of Albuquerque has withheld a report by the private eye firm Robert Caswell Investigations about the outcomes of 132 adoptions of dogs who flunked the American SPCA-developed SAFER test to identify dangerous behavior.
The validity of the SAFER test as may in itself be called into question. On July 7, 2015, in Henderson County, North Carolina, a pit bull rehomed by the Asheville Humane Society after apparently passing the SAFER test only three weeks later killed Joshua Phillip Strother, age 6.
Two of top dogs complained
But Strother had not yet been killed on March 27, 2015, when City of Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department second-in-command Jim Ludwick and former animal welfare program manager and behavior specialist Carolyn Hidalgo alleged in written complaints to Albuquerque city inspector general Peter Pacheco that 100 dogs who failed the SAFER test had been placed directly with families, while 32 more were transferred to rescue organizations,
Hidalgo punctuated her complaint by resigning from the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department. Ludwick “still works for the Animal Welfare Department but said that he has been moved to an office in the building where employees of the city’s air quality division work and that his duties have been restricted,” wrote Albuquerque Journal investigative reporter Colleen Heild on June 19, 2015.
This was one day after Ludwick, who for 30 years was an investigative reporter, filed a lawsuit contending that Albuquerque has no legal grounds to withhold the Robert Caswell Investigations findings.
The Ludwick lawsuit was on July 12, 2015 endorsed by Albuquerque City Council member Isaac Benton, who also asked Albuquerque mayor Richard Berry to “Immediately and administratively increase the insurance requirement for owners of dogs who have been declared dangerous from the current $100,000 to $1.5 million.”
Mayor promised changes
Berry earlier “instructed his staff to prepare proposed changes that would strengthen the city’s Angel’s Law,” named after pit bull attack victim Angel Martinez, “which was designed to help protect the public from dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog owners,” Heild reported. What those changes might be, however, has not been clarified.
Heild and the Albuquerque Journal earlier requested a copy of the Caswell findings, but was told “the report can be kept confidential because the inquiry was commissioned in ‘anticipation of litigation,’” Heild said.
“We didn’t find adopter” means “no problems”?
City of Albuquerque chief operating officer Michael Riordan told Heild that the Albuquerque internal investigation team “also wrote a letter to owners of dogs listed in the [Ludwick] complaint as a potential risk to public safety. The lack of problems with those dogs so far, Riordan told Heild, indicates “We did not adopt any dogs out there that were unsafe or dangerous. The fact that there have been no issues with those dogs means those allegations have been cleared up.”
But in truth, Heild learned, only “about half of the nearly 100 people who last year adopted shelter dogs that failed standardized behavior tests have reported back to the city, saying they had no problems with their new pets. The rest haven’t responded.”
The apparent inability of the City of Albuquerque to locate and obtain responses from adopters within a year or less of rehoming dogs is in itself a cause for concern. The non-responders might potentially include people who have been instructed by counsel to refrain from communication with the City of Albuquerque in anticipation of litigation, and/or people who have fled the jurisdiction to avoid liability for dog attacks, along with people who encountered dangerous behavior only after relocating.
City of Albuquerque tribunal
The City of Albuquerque internal investigation of the Animal Welfare Department was conducted by a panel including fiscal manager for the city transit department Chris Payton, Department of Municipal Development capital and infrastructure manager Mark Motesko, and assistant city attorney Hessel E. Yntema IV.
“There are two ordinances that govern the administration of the Animal Welfare Department,” the panel reported. “They are the Humane & Ethical Animal Rules & Treatment Ordinance (HEART) and Angel’s Law.” Both ordinances date to 2006.
“HEART,” the panel report explained, “deals generally with the department’s daily operations, administration, and permitting schemes. Angel’s Law is a compliment to HEART, which dictates how the department is meant to deal with dogs who pose an increased risk to the public, i.e. dangerous dogs.
Ignoring dangerous dog law
“It appears that the department is in compliance with HEART,” the panel concluded, “but is only partially in compliance with Angel’s Law,” which “creates a classification system and administrative mechanism for dealing with dogs who pose a risk to public safety. A dog can be considered ‘potentially dangerous’ or ‘dangerous,’” the panel report explained. “If a dog is designated as dangerous, then a series of requirements attaches to the dog and owner. This includes exclusion from certain types of property, insurance requirements, and notice requirements. Violations of Angel’s Law carry criminal liability.
“Presently there are [written] standard operating procedures for the Field Service,” meaning animal control officers, “to designate dogs as dangerous as per Angel’s Law,” the panel found. “The Field Service appears to do a reasonable job working with the city attorney’s office to administratively determine dogs as dangerous and then tracking these dangerous dogs.”
No standard operating procedures
However, the panel report continued, “Within the Kennel Division (the shelter) there are no dangerous dog standard operating procedures. For example, currently the department has the incorrect view that the department is only able to classify dogs as dangerous if they are in the possession of a private individual. Therefore, some dogs who would otherwise be classified as dangerous, but for being in the department’s possession, have subsequently been adopted out by Kennel Division staff.
“Additionally,” the panel found, “there appear to be instances where dogs who meet definition of a dangerous dog are subsequently adopted without written notice,” exactly as Ludwick and Hidalgo charged.
“This is particularly troublesome,” the panel pointed out, “considering the requirement [of Angel’s Law] that the ‘owner of a dangerous dog shall not sell, loan, transfer, give, devise, board, or otherwise convey ownership or custody and control of a dangerous dog to any other person in the city without notifying the recipient in writing that the dog is a dangerous dog.
“The City of Albuquerque meets both the definition of Person and Owner set forth in the ordinance,” the panel acknowledged.
“For the Kennel Division,” the investigative panel emphasized, “a dangerous dog as defined by Angel’s Law standard operating procedure is urgently needed. Presently there is no mechanism in place to deal with dogs who are dangerous as a matter of law, as current standard operating procedures relating to adoption exclude any mention of dangerous dogs.
“For the Animal Welfare Division to be compliant with Angel’s Law for the adoption of ‘dangerous dogs,’” the panel said, “a change to the language on the existing waiver and adoption forms is needed.”
The City of Albuquerque investigative panel compared the Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department procedures for identifying dangerous dogs to those of the Animal Humane Society of New Mexico, the largest nonprofit limited admission shelter serving the city.
Both agencies use the Asilomar Accords definitions of adoptable, treatable, and rehabilitatable dogs developed by the no-kill advocacy foundation Maddie’s Fund, characterized by the panel as “a written guideline for categorizing the medical and behavioral conditions of each animal who enters a shelter.”
The Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department “uses some of the terminology of the Asilomar Accords, but no one could tell us when the implementation of the terms began, or why the [decision-making matrix used by the Animal Humane Society of New Mexico] was not used,” the investigative panel found.
“While Animal Welfare Department uses some phrases of the Asilomar Accords,” the panel report continued, “those phrases are more of a judgment call rather than following a written procedure.”
Euthanasia protocol needed
The panel recommended introducing a written procedure for determining which dogs should be euthanized. Written procedure, the panel wrote, “removes the emotional stress that can arise when deciding on which animals are to be euthanized because the decisions are based on a written document rather than a ‘gut’ feeling. It will also provide a written process and accountability tool as to why an animal was euthanized.”
The panel reported that when Animal Welfare Department staff were “asked about how dogs are put on the euthanasia list, there was not a consistent method for determining this list. Several staffers said there was a Population Management Team who made a list twice a week. However, other staff members said there was no longer an operating Population Management Team and the euthanasia list was generated by a kennel supervisor and a senior animal handler, or the euthanasia list was generated only by a single senior animal handler at times.
“No clear policy”
“Other staffers said all three types [of euthanasia list construction] may be used in a given week depending on who is available. There was no clear policy for determining how a euthanasia list is created,” the panel emphasized, “and there was no consistency on who can create a euthanasia list. This led to staff accusing other staff of inappropriate selections for dogs to be added to the euthanasia list for capricious reasons.
“Further, at times there was no clear reason why upper management removed dogs from the euthanasia list. Staff felt ‘defeated’ when they were not informed as to why their decisions on selections of the euthanasia list were being overturned.”
These findings affirmed the opening anecdote in the March 27, 2015 complaint by Ludwick to the Albuquerque city auditor that triggered the panel investigation. Ludwick described how a dog named Lienda “was horribly killed by a pit bull named Pappy, who had recently been released from a city animal shelter despite a history of aggression and repeatedly failing behavioral tests. During the attack, Pappy also bit Lienda’s owner.
“After the killing, Pappy was returned to the animal shelter,” Ludwick testified, “and I personally put him on a euthanasia list for public safety reasons. However, by the end of the day, Pappy had been removed from the euthanasia list on orders of the department director [Barbara Bruin]. Later, the director approved giving Pappy to a rescue group, who recently arranged for Pappy to be adopted.”
Indirectly responding to Ludwick’s complaint, the investigative panel recommended “ creating a euthanasia list removal committee for non-medical euthanasia to review the Population Management Team outcome list. The committee should include a management level staff person to check for ‘holds’ on dogs,” meaning requests that a dog not be euthanized because someone has claimed the dog.
“The committee should come to a majority decision,” the panel said, “to remove a dog previously identified as a candidate for euthanasia by the Population Management team.
Volunteers placing “holds”
“The current standard operating procedure for placing a euthanasia hold on animals does not identify volunteers as able to place holds,” the investigative panel continued.”
Nonetheless, the panel learned, “volunteer holds occur frequently. During the second day of the investigation, the team was provided an undated, unsigned copy of a document titled ‘Volunteer Project Animal Protocol.’ This document is unclear and allows volunteers to place up to two holds every 30 days.”
By contrast, the panel report continued, “The Animal Humane Society of New Mexico formerly had allowed a volunteer to place a hold on animals identified on their euthanasia list or at risk list,” but volunteers there “no longer are allowed to place holds on dogs or cats who are on the euthanasia list or at risk list. The Animal Humane Society of New Mexico does allow volunteers (and the public) to place a hold on an animal,” the Animal Welfare Department investigative panel said, “as long as the animal is adopted within 24 hours of the hold. If the hold is placed and an animal is not adopted within 24 hours, the volunteer is no longer allowed to place holds on any animal.”
The Albuquerque investigative panel recommended that volunteers should not be allowed to place holds “on animals deemed by the Population Management Team to be euthanized. It is our opinion,” the panel stated, “that volunteers should not be allowed to serve on the aforementioned recommended euthanasia list removal committee.”
Why the investigative panel made the latter recommendation was not specified. However, most animal shelters and almost all animal control agencies exclude volunteers from participating in final decisions about euthanasias done for behavioral reasons, because volunteers, by definition, have little or no liability for the consequences if a dog who is not euthanized goes on to seriously injure or kill someone.
Mugsy Malone & Angel’s Law
Ludwick in his March 27, 2015 complaint summarized 14 recent cases involving dangerous dogs who were returned to the Albuquerque community despite staff recommendations that the dogs should be euthanized. Eight of the 14 cases involved pit bulls.
In perhaps the most egregious case, Ludwick recalled that “A pit bull named Mugsy Malone was officially declared dangerous even before he attacked a 3-year-old girl. The dog had twice come and gone from our animal shelters. The attack on the child was not enough to warrant euthanasia under our practices. Neither was the fact that Mugsy Malone killed a small dog, and also bit a man in our own facility. Mugsy Malone went on to injure a shelter volunteer, but was transferred to Fur & Feathers Animal Assistance of Pie Town. There he injured the two founders of the organization.”
Finished Ludwick, “A decade ago, I stood with Mayor Martin Chavez at the hospital bedside of Angel Martinez. Angel, 10 years old, had saved his little sister when she was attacked by two large dogs. His heroism carried a terrible price: more than 30 bites and a mauling that could have ended his life.
“Chavez said he would develop a new law aimed at regulating the ownership of dangerous dogs. The mayor kept his promise, and now there is a city ordinance known as ‘Angel’s Law,’” but the law has been poorly enforced, while the focus of Albuquerque Animal Services has drifted from protecting public safety.”