Animal services

Resources for animal services in Montgomery County dwindle due to pandemic


The pandemic and other challenges have strained the resources available at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter. (Jishnu Nair / Community Impact Journal)

Montgomery County Animal Services, which operates the county animal shelter, suspended reception services for two weeks in August due to a combination of the spread of distemper among animals and an outbreak of COVID- 19 among the staff.

This was the latest challenge facing the department, which has also seen denied funding requests, a drop in volunteer numbers, and an increasing influx of animals dropped off by their owners over the past year.

In an Aug. 16 press release, MCAS deputy director Mark Wysocki said the closure was necessary to keep the shelter’s population stable. Wysocki said the combined outbreaks came at a bad time for the shelter, which took in 1,369 animals in July and found adopters for 769.

“[The COVID-19 outbreak] comes at the worst time for us because it’s a bad year for distemper, ”said Wysocki. “Either is a bit of management work. Together, it’s a managerial nightmare.

Pandemic, distemper hit shelter admission

Wysocki and shelter manager Aaron Johnson have led animal services for more than five years after the county took over operations of the shelter in 2015 from a private operator.

One of the many challenges they have faced since, Wysocki said the shelter canceled its calendar of events when COVID-19 hit in 2020, including education on vaccines for pets.

“We had a lot of plans in place, a whole schedule of offsite events that we wanted to put together to get to all over the county,” Wysocki said.

The latest wave of county-wide coronavirus cases has also affected staff. The August outbreak was the shelter’s first, and Wysocki said staff capacity had been cut in half.

The pandemic has hit the shelter in other ways as well. The MCAS has seen an increase in owner surrenders, when pet owners voluntarily hand over their animals to a shelter. Wysocki said the effects of the pandemic on jobs and households have meant people who have suddenly become unable to care for their pets have turned to shelters for help.

According to MCAS data, 38% of all inflows from March 10 to July 31 were from owner disposals, an increase from 28% for the same period in 2020 and 2019. Total inflow increased from 6 024 in 2019 to 2,673 in 2020 during the period from March to July, but in 2021 the same period saw that number increase to 5,372.

Wysocki attributed the increase in owner buybacks to a number of factors.

“Relocation, downsizing, house to apartment, new owner, breed or number limits, all of those types of things,” Wysocki said.

The number of adoptions from the shelter was also hit during the pandemic: MCAS data showed from March to July 2020, there were 1,658 adoptions, just over half of adoptions from the same period in 2019. .

Lee Ann Shenefiel, South Central Regional Director of the Best Friends Animal Society, said there were several strategies shelters could adopt to manage admissions and adoptions during the pandemic.

“We’re seeing more adoption by appointment, more remote technology to help manage admission,” Shenefiel said.

Wysocki said the MCAS takes adoptions by appointment.

In addition to the pandemic, Wysocki said MCAS had a “particularly bad” year of distemper. Distemper, caused by a virus that primarily affects dogs, attacks the nervous system and can lead to permanent damage, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The distemper at the shelter forced MCAS to shut down reception services in August, although adopters who observed symptoms in their animals within 30 days of adoption can return the animal at no cost. .

Staffing, funding difficulties

Accommodation services have also been strained due to a lack of staff and additional funds from the county. During Montgomery County’s 2021-22 fiscal year budget submissions in July, Johnson requested a 10th animal control officer position, which county commissioners turned down.

It wasn’t the first time that one of Johnson’s staffing requests went unanswered. MCAS provided its county budget presentations to Community impact journal, which showed from fiscal 2018-22, the ministry requested 16 new positions ranging from veterinary technicians to adoption coordinators, none of which have been approved. Two positions received salary and responsibility increases in fiscal 2018, but MCAS’s full-time staff has not increased by 55 since 2016, Wysocki said.

Wysocki attributed the lack of new staff to county responsibilities that commissioners must balance. He also said county leaders have been more receptive to the shelter’s mission since he and Johnson took over.

“Commissioners have the unenviable task of balancing the needs of everyone in Montgomery County,” Wysocki said. “We are responsible for meeting the needs of pets in Montgomery County. “

County Judge Mark Keough declined to comment at the time of publication.

Wysocki said he believes a shelter aimed at meeting the needs of Montgomery County would have double the staff it has, especially given the county’s growth. In fiscal year 2020-21, MCAS had 237 registered volunteers, a sharp drop from 1,742 in 2018-19. Volunteer Coordinator Jill Becker said in an email that the orientation for MCAS volunteers ended from March to December 2020.

“If you look at the population and therefore the assumed population of pets, the median income, the intake, what a good level of staff should be based on animal care, one of those criteria, we’re still under. -funded, ”Wysocki said. “We’re definitely better than we were, but we’re still not where we need to be.”

Data from the 2020 US Census Bureau shows that the population of Montgomery County has increased 36.1% since 2010. Wysocki and Shenefiel said they believe animal shelters should represent their surrounding communities, including their populations. .

“What happens in a shelter is a reflection of what is happening in the community,” said Shenefiel. “People move into a community, bring pets with them, and the shelter may not be equipped to handle this increased pet population. “

Other staffing issues at the shelter include high turnover rates due to emotional turmoil. According to Wysocki, staff can invest in an animal’s well-being, which can put high stress on their care and future, but positive emotions are also involved, such as the first adoption of an animal. anybody.

“The issues we are dealing with are emotional issues,” Wysocki said. “There is a very high rate of compassion fatigue and suicide in animal welfare, and I think a lot of people don’t realize that. “

Hosting plans

Another talking point during Johnson’s presentation in July was the construction of a new animal shelter. County commissioners have allowed Johnson to begin collecting data on what the shelter would look like.

For Nelda Blair, president of the Montgomery County nonprofit Humane Society, that step is about creating a short-term plan and a long-term goal for the company. Blair said the company has been discussing a new shelter with MCAS and the county for a few years, and she believes it would foster a greater vision of animal welfare across the county.

“The county would be the primary entity to build the shelter, but their obligation doesn’t go any further,” Blair said. “So if we want improved services at a county shelter, we’ll have to fundraise or find other ways to pay for them. Our real desire is that [animal welfare groups] can come together and do what we can to create the refuge that we really, really need in this county. “

Blair said the Humane Society will provide funding, but details will come from MCAS. Both Blair and Wysocki said the parties have only just started talks and neither can provide cost estimates.

Wysocki said MCAS will prioritize designated spaces for accommodation services with new shelter. With the current configuration, several zones of the building manage several functions at the same time.

“Everything was happening in this hall, whether it was a person having their first puppy or a dog being euthanized,” Wysocki said. “Ideally, we would like to have separate spaces so that people can come to the shelter to do what they need. “

Other improvements would include larger living spaces for animals. When the shelter reached critical capacity in May, Wysocki said often two or three animals were in a kennel.

“Having two or three animals in a kennel, as a standard, is not good,” he said. “Once we start overtaking the animals, it becomes more difficult to do any enrichments, like throwing toys in the kennel. ”


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