Departure of Pr. George's Shelter Director Raises Concerns About Animals' Welfare

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ten months after taking over the troubled Prince George's County animal shelter, a veterinarian who won praise for improving its operations has decided not to renew her contract.

Lizel Salmon, executive director of the nonprofit Animal Protective League, announced her decision to animal rescue volunteers and others in a written statement that cited conflicts with county officials over the facility's mission and concerns about inadequate funding for a facility scheduled to open next month. The announcement is sparking fears among animal welfare groups that the pace of animal euthanizations at the Forestville shelter will increase.

"The prospect of [the county] running the shelter is a disaster," said Denise Arnot, a volunteer with Fancy Cats Rescue Team. "They really don't care about the animals."

Rodney Taylor, chief of the county's animal management division, will assume control of the shelter July 1 when the Animal Protection League's contract expires. He said the fears are overblown.

"A lot of comments are being made," said Taylor, who has worked in the county's animal management division for more than two decades. "We encourage all rescue groups who want to be part of the solution to come participate with us."

Efforts to reach Salmon were unsuccessful. In her statement last month, she wrote that the Animal Protective League's goals include increasing adoption rates, decreasing euthanasia rates, raising more funds from private donors, improving the quality of animal care and increasing the participation of animal rescue groups. "Over the last 10 months, it has become evident that there is a significant disparity in the mission and vision of the APL vs. the County," she wrote.

Exacerbating the issue, she said, are inadequate funding and the absence of a sound organizational plan for the new county animal shelter.

The current shelter can house 100 dogs, 50 cats and other kinds of animals, such as guinea pigs. A new $13 million shelter had been scheduled to open this spring, but Taylor said it will open next month. It will have room for about 300 dogs and 150 cats. Taylor said the budget for the shelter for the fiscal year that starts July 1 will be $1.6 million, the same amount APL had.

Conditions at the shelter have been poor for more than a decade, but animal-rescue volunteers said they improved under APL. With the county poised to regain operation of the shelter, animal-rescue volunteers said they fear that shelter conditions will deteriorate.

Arnot noted that before APL took over July 1, many of the animals in the shelter suffered from respiratory infections, caused in part by poor ventilation. Shelter volunteers said that kennels were not cleaned properly and that dogs were not walked often enough.

"The animals were in such bad shape before APL took over," Arnot said. "I think it's just going to revert to the way it was."

Lisa Marie Ordakowski, a member of the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, based in Northern Virginia, said Salmon dramatically improved conditions at the shelter. Salmon hired staff and initiated standards for cleaning kennels and cages and making sure dogs were walked.

"I think the changes she implemented were extraordinary," Ordakowski said.

Ordakowski said Salmon has been doing all she can to increase adoptions and decrease euthanizations. For example, before Salmon took over, pets that were surrendered by their owners -- a more frequent occurrence in the past year as the economy tanked -- could be euthanized after just 24 hours.

Salmon "would do everything she could to keep those animals alive," Ordakowski said. She added that she is worried about what will happen when APL's contract expires.

"Chief Taylor talks a great game," she said. "He makes it sound like everything's going to be hunky-dory, but at the end of the day, he's been there a long time and hasn't done anything to help the animals."

Taylor sought to calm fears. He said the county works with 150 animal rescue groups, 10 times more than a decade ago.

"I promise you the new shelter will be run correctly," Taylor said.

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