Reality in Las Vegas is a lack of realism about the realities of the job
LAS VEGAS, Nevada––Each spin of the roulette wheel, each toss of the dice, each turn of the cards, each yank of the lever on the one-armed bandit slot machines, builds breathless anticipation, but ends with exactly the same result, tens of thousands of times day.
A few gamblers will exult over minor winnings that most will lose again within seconds. The rest will be just unequivocal losers, yet will remain primed by “Skinner box” psychology to make the same fundamental mistake again and again, until their money runs out.
Gambling does not get the job done
The Las Vegas animal control saga over the past forty years at least, and the Las Vegas casino saga playing on and on around the clock, tend to mirror each other because both endlessly recycle the delusion that one can somehow beat the overwhelming odds: that there is an easy way to get rich quick, and an easy way to end animal care-and-control problems, just by declaring a no-kill policy without preventing dog attacks, running at large, and surplus dog and cat births.
Professional gamblers know they cannot beat the house, so professionals look for gambling games against “marks,” not casinos, in venues where skill trumps luck.
Every animal care-and-control professional knows––or should know––that it is not possible to have both a genuine open admission policy, accepting every stray, every owner surrender, and every dog who has attacked someone, and have a no-kill policy.
90% plus of gamblers are losers
Even if enough targeted spay/neuter work is done to eliminate accidental dog and cat births from the intake, and rehoming programs are successful enough to give every healthy, adoptable animal a second chance, every big-city animal control agency will inevitably receive many irrecoverably ill and injured animals, and especially dangerous dogs, who will soon fill every cage.
At that point either animals must be turned away or animals must be euthanized.
“No kill” status is commonly yet misleadingly defined as maintaining a “live release” rate of 90%-plus.
This definition has been vigorously promoted by the Best Friends Animal Society and Maddie’s Fund since 2005, even though it as much nonsense as the notion of beating the house through some combination of luck with wishful thinking.
“Save them all”
Only if fewer than 10% of the animals an animal care and control department receives are neither healthy enough nor safe enough to rehome can a shelter genuinely achieve “no kill” status under the Best Friends Animal Society and Maddie’s Fund definition.
Otherwise, “no-kill” status can only be achieved through some combination of warehousing animals whose presence jeopardizes others, rehoming dogs whose placement will jeopardize both their adoptive families and the public, refusing to take in the very animals for whom taxpayers fund animal care and control services, and lying about the results.
Las Vegas animal care and control agencies have been promising staff, donors, volunteers, and the community since 1946 that they soon will be no-kill, or even that they already are.
The outcome, however, has time and again been predictable as gamblers leaving Las Vegas with empty pockets, even as touts shout to the unwary that there is now a way to get rich quick playing this game, or that one.
Declaring victory & bugging out with full pockets
The Animal Foundation, holding the Las Vegas and Clark County animal control housing contracts since 1996, is again under intense local media scrutiny for failing to live up to no-kill promises, even though 14-year Animal Foundation shelter director Christine Robinson claimed to have achieved a 90% “live release rate” in 2020.
This appears to have been accomplished mostly because closures attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic brought a 36.5% drop in dog intakes and a 34% reduction in cat intakes.
Robinson in August 2021 announced her retirement from her $250,000-a-year position effective at the end of 2021.
“Overcrowded, understaffed, & unsanitary”
Opened KTNV reporter Darcy Spears on November 22, 2021, “If your pet goes missing in the City of Las Vegas, Clark County or North Las Vegas, odds are it will end up at The Animal Foundation.”
Spears meant specifically at the Lied Animal Center, a 20-year-old shelter which was supposedly “state of the art” when opened in 2002 to bring Las Vegas to no-kill, yet inexplicably lacked enough isolation-and-quarantine facilities for incoming animals to keep diseased strays from infecting the other residents.
“Insider after insider is coming forward to 13 Action News, claiming The Animal Foundation in Las Vegas is putting pets in peril,” Spears narrated, describing cases of animals dying at the Lied Animal Center from easily avoidable accidents, neglect, and occasionally, euthanasia instead of being returned to owners who were looking for the animals.
“The words we keep hearing,” Spears said, “are ‘overcrowded, understaffed, and unsanitary.’
“The Animal Foundation is the contracted municipal shelter for the city, county and North Las Vegas,” Spears explained, “taking in an average of 25,000 animals a year,” for which the Animal Shelter is allocated about $4.8 million per year in public funding.
“Schedules we obtained,” Spears said, “show one person is often responsible for cleaning, feeding and caring for about 100 animals a day.”
No Kill Las Vegas prez blames COVID-19
No Kill Las Vegas president Bryce Henderson, whom Spears did not interview, issued a similar critique via Facebook.
“Since COVID-19 struck,” Henderson wrote, “everyone in the animal community has become aware of the lack of services offered by the Animal Foundation, from refusing strays, closing the adoption kennels, discontinuing vaccine clinics, and basically shutting down the shelter to public access for almost a year.”
“Another more serious problem developed,” Henderson observed, when beginning in early 2021 “The Animal Foundation experienced grave staffing issues in all of their departments, including losing seven of their eight veterinarians, 60% of their animal care specialists, and half of their executive level management team.”
The staffing hemorrhage began, Henderson assessed, when in April 2021 a new Animal Foundation chief operating officer, John Coogan, who resigned effective on November 1, 2021 “terminated their lead veterinarian. People started to quit,” Henderson recalled, “all throughout the summer and up to the present day.
“Lack of staff profoundly overburdened the remaining employees, creating a dangerous situation for animals, and a psychological torture for the workers who remained there,” Henderson said.
“I have heard stories of animals not being fed regularly, kennels left uncleaned, animals waiting 24 hours just to be processed, people being told at 11 a.m. that they are too busy to adopt out any more animals, phone calls that are, as a practice, never answered, a kitten accidentally being thrown in the trash,” resulting in her death, “and over 2,000 animals leaving the shelter without being fixed,” even though the Lied Animal Center contracts with local governments stipulate that the shelter must “spay or neuter every cat or dog they transfer or adopt unless health conditions preclude,” and even though the Animal Foundation runs one of the biggest spay/neuter clinics in the world.
“Almost the complete breakdown of animal services”
Joanna Jarred, the last Lied Animal Center veterinarian, at latest report had also resigned, effective November 30, 2021.
“What we are experiencing right now as a community,” Henderson said, “is the almost complete breakdown of animal services. So where do we go from here? How do we fix this problem?” Henderson asked.
“I do not feel a practical solution is getting rid of the Animal Foundation,” Henderson opined. “We have tried that before and the circumstances that prohibited it last time remain.”
“Make sure the work undertaken by the shelter is aligned with what it can handle”
Kate Hurley, DVM, as director of the Koret Shelter Medicine program at the University of California, Davis, holds a position sponsored by Maddie’s Fund specifically to promote tactics to enable animal shelters to achieve the 90% “live release rate” no-kill standard, even if it means refusing animal admissions and not euthanizing dangerous dogs.
(See San Diego showdown: trap-neuter-return advocates sue vs. return-to-field.)
But even Hurley recognizes that the Animal Foundation is trying to do more than it can
“When you’re large, the fluctuations of a normal shelter quickly get magnified,” Hurley told Spears, after recently evaluating the Lied Animal Center for the second time in 14 years.
Said Hurley, “It’s about getting really tight on priorities and making sure that the work undertaken by the shelter is aligned with what they can actually handle.”
Hurley suggested to Spears that the Animal Foundation contracts need to be re-negotiated, “Even if it means you’ll compensate us less this year because we are able to do less.”
Clark County: “We agree that there have been some issues”
Responded the Clark County administration to Spears, in a prepared statement, “We agree that there have been some issues at the Animal Foundation. It is our understanding that like many businesses and organizations across the country, the Animal Foundation is struggling to maintain adequate staffing levels. There is also a nationwide shortage of veterinarians, which we are feeling the effects of here too. We believe the staffing challenges have caused or exacerbated some of the issues, but that does not lessen their importance. We have expressed our concerns to the Animal Foundation leadership, and they are working to address them.”
Ironically, Animal Foundation founders Mary and Richard Herro in 1978 set out in exactly the opposite direction from the course the Animal Foundation has haphazardly steered since 1996.
The Herros recognized that neither the Southern Nevada Humane Society, founded in 1946, nor the Nevada SPCA, founded in 1982, seemed to be making much progress, if any, toward achieving no-kill animal control.
Neither did the Herros have much confidence in either organization.
An individual calling himself Dart Anthony, a former casino dancer and local Republican politician, heading the Southern Nevada Humane Society since 1980, claimed his organization had always been no-kill, but was also known by his given name, Richard Wardy; claimed birthdays in at least four different years; failed to file accountability documents, according to extensive exposés by both the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun; and in March 1988 was fined $315 for failing to collect dog waste from his yard.
The most prominent Southern Nevada Humane Society supporter appears to have been entertainer Bobby Berosini, exposed in 1987 by the Performing Animal Welfare Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals after an undercover video made by dancer Ottavio Gesmundo appeared to show him beating his performing orangutans.
Eight years of litigation followed, after which Berosini retired to Costa Rica.
Fixing the problem
The Herros accurately assessed, as many other observers of animal sheltering had been doing for decades, that no-kill sheltering could not be achieved at open-admission facilities until and unless the incoming volume of surplus puppies and kittens could be reduced through providing high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter.
Therefore the Herros started the Animal Foundation to do spay/neuter, and beginning a decade later, built what was at the time the biggest high-volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinic in the world. For that matter, it may still be.
Opened in 1989, the Animal Foundation clinic sterilized 75,000 dogs and cats by mid-1996, and has continued to sterilize dogs and cats: 17,845 in 2020, according to the Animal Foundation web site.
That amounts to a very good start toward eventually achieving no-kill animal control, but the reality that at least 17 of the 35 dogs showcased for adoption on the Animal Foundation web site as of November 27, 2021 are pit bulls demonstrates that the high spay/neuter volume still is not cutting into the most problematic part of the Las Vegas dog population, which must be reduced to near zero if a no-kill policy is to succeed.
Animal Foundation beat Dewey
The Herros in 1995 deviated from their previously tightly focused emphasis on spay/neuter to win the Las Vegas city animal control contract by underbidding Dewey Animal Care.
Dewey Animal Care, a for-profit veterinary firm, had held the city animal control contract since 1985, and continued to provide animal control sheltering for Clark County and North Las Vegas.
Dewey Animal Care had long been fiercely criticized by Las Vegas animal advocates for all the same things that the Animal Foundation is criticized for now.
Mary Herro herself personally directed the Animal Foundation sheltering operations until February 8, 2001, when the Lied Animal Center opened, costing $3.5 million to build.
By then Herro and the Animal Foundation were in turn accused of just about everything that Dewey Animal Care had been.
The Nevada SPCA meanwhile opened a $3.3 million no-kill shelter on October 1, 1997, adjacent to the Dewey facility, completing a shelter begun by the Southern Nevada Humane Society but abandoned when the Dart Anthony/Richard Wardy regime and the Southern Nevada Humane Society itself collapsed circa 1995.
Expanding in 2003, after suing the Dewey Animal Center and the Nevada SPCA for defamation, the Lied Animal Center won the Clark County and North Las Vegas animal control housing contracts.
A premature attempt to go literally “no kill” followed, in 2007, leading to what remains the worst disease outbreak in an animal shelter on record.
Outside personnel, led by Kate Hurley, were eventually brought in to help euthanize more than 1,000 of the 1,800 animals then in custody.
About 150 of the animals were ill, and 850 were believed to have been exposed to both parvovirus and distemper among the holding kennels for incoming dogs, and panleukopenia among the incoming cats, along with a bacterial infection never previously found in shelters that caused a fatal hemorrhagic pneumonia.
Further allegations against the Lied Animal Shelter have surfaced often in the years since, including a cockroach infestation in September 2008 that apparently originated from a donation of about 500 pounds of dried kibble in opened bags.
In 2009 the Lied Animal Shelter reportedly returned to a policy of euthanizing unclaimed dogs and cats within 72 hours of admission. The introduction of a spay/neuter ordinance in 2010 appeared to help, but the Las Vegas “live release” rate as of 2012 was still 41%, right where it had been 15 years before.
Activist and media pressure rose for the Lied Animal Shelter to either go no-kill or surrender the animal control holding contracts to new organizations which neither had shelters nor had shelter management experience.
“We cannot adopt our way out of this problem. To think we can adopt our way out is living in Never Never Land,” warned then-Lied Animal Shelter veterinarian Amy Mitchell.
(See Why we cannot adopt our way out of shelter killing, by Merritt Clifton, and We cannot adopt, warehouse or rescue our way out of dog & cat overpopulation!, by Jeff Young, DVM.)
Reality lessons ignored
But Las Vegas is Never Never Land, from the fantasy-themed gambling emporiums to the Lied Animal Center adoption policies.
On September 28, 2018 the Lied Animal Shelter, pushing unsuccessfully to increase adoptions, rehomed a Presa Canario to Hilton Hotel room chef Stephen Sweeney, who acknowledged his inexperience with such dogs on Facebook.
On October 1, 2018, just three days later, the newly adopted Presa Canario killed Susan Sweeney, 58, Stephen Sweeney’s wife of 26 years.
That reality lesson, like every other reality lesson in Las Vegas, seems to have gone ignored by everyone except the survivors.
(See Safety agencies failed woman, infant killed by pit bull mixes.)
Jamaka Petzak says
Gambling is forbidden to me and I have always said that one of the places I would never set foot in is Las Vegas. I have had to go there a couple of times, but of course not for gambling or entertainment!
I think “Vegas” is not only a big, corrupt illusion that has destroyed the environment and taken many gullible lives — it is also a microcosm of the larger society that was founded on lies and continues to sink deeper and deeper into the morass of its own making.
And as always, it is the innocent who suffer.
Sharing with gratitude.
Linda Faso says
Thank you for addressing this problem here.. So many people live in Neverland. And as you and I know the animals lose in these situations..
Hope you and Beth are well. I appreciate your candor and honesty.
Annoula Wylderich says
Thank you for writing about this, Merritt and Beth. When we try to make animal care more about numbers and satisfying quotas, the animals are often the ones to suffer. There’s no easy solution to the problems and we hope that the shelter will be able turn things around.
Diane Randolph says
I wish the “no-kill” movement never started. Here in the Dallas area, many of our municipal shelters are refusing to take in strays or surrenders unless ill. Dumped animals are all over town, many left to breed.