Bye-Bye Doggie 

As city leaders seek a new boss to manage the Oakland pound, an ex-employee alleges sloppiness has led to animal deaths and cruelty.

The Oakland Police Department's internal affairs division is investigating the city's animal shelter in response to a former shelter employee's allegations of animal cruelty and overall mismanagement. The ex-employee, Lori Barnabe, a veterinary technician and animal control officer, turned over information to city council members last month in which she alleged, among other things, two instances in which live dogs were accidentally put in a freezer with euthanized animals. Barnabe also alleges that adoptable pets were put to sleep in violation of state law -- including in a case in which a friendly nine-month-old beagle mix was euthanized even after the owner had come to reclaim the dog.

The timing of the revelations is no accident. The city is in the process of hiring a new shelter manager to replace Glenn Howell, who left in June 2004 to become top dog in Contra Costa County. Barnabe and other local animal-rights activists don't want the acting director, ReShan McClarty, to get the job. McClarty has been the shelter's operations supervisor for years. He left a voicemail response for Feeder saying he'd like to give his side of the story but couldn't at this point. But in a recent e-mail to shelter volunteers, he wrote, "Many of the concerns listed by Lori in her letter are issues that we have been well aware of and have been hard at work to improve."

Barnabe worked for the animal shelter for five years. She left in June 2004 because, she says, she couldn't tolerate the situation anymore, and now works at the Alameda Pet Hospital. Representatives for rescue groups spoke highly of Barnabe as a compassionate caregiver who felt conflicted. In her letter to city officials she wrote, "Oakland deserves a humane, effectively run shelter that the city can be proud of on all levels. It is imperative that the city council and personnel follow up on these issues immediately since the hiring process is in motion." One of her main gripes, which she shared with Feeder, was a lack of accountability at the shelter.

Take the cases involving the live dogs allegedly left in freezers with already euthanized animals. In the first instance in March 2002, she says several dogs were put down at one time, but one dog in a pile of dead dogs was found to still be alive. The animal had apparently been sedated but never given a lethal injection. Less than six months later, Barnabe says, the same team of animal control officers repeated the mistake; the live dog in that case was discovered by the company that disposes of the carcasses. In both cases, according to Barnabe, no one was disciplined, reprimanded, or retrained.

After she left her job, Barnabe says, a shelter employee told her that McClarty ordered 26 dogs put down one day last fall even though the shelter had run out of sedative.

Kim Intino of the US Humane Society says that it's unfortunately not uncommon for shelters to accidentally put an anaesthetized animal in a cooler with dead ones. Intino is the manager of the humane society's animal shelter consultation program, which advises shelters around the country how to make their operations more humane.

In his e-mail to volunteers, McClarty didn't address the specifics of Barnabe's allegations, but did say that Barnabe was the person in charge of training the staff and overseeing euthanasia. Since Barnabe's departure, McClarty wrote, "We made the euthanasia protocols easy to read and more accessible; the vet has met with all of the Animal Control Officers multiple times to review these protocols and has shadowed them individually."

While mistakes may be inevitable, Barnabe suggests they also have been avoidable. One instance she cites involves the aforementioned nine-month-old pup, Oliver, who was brought into the shelter in September 2003.

Oliver belonged to Oakland resident Adriana Fischetti and her family. According to Fischetti, Oliver was a friendly, if hyper, pup who escaped from the backyard one day by chewing through a wooden fence. The owner went around her neighborhood posting fliers for her missing dog. To her relief, she found him three days later on a Friday at the Oakland Animal Shelter. But Fischetti, who had just had a baby, didn't have the $60 to cover impound fees and wouldn't have the money until her husband got paid the following Tuesday. Barnabe recalls Fischetti questioning whether her growing family could afford to give Oliver the attention he needed. Barnabe then persuaded her to surrender Oliver to the shelter. However, she assured Fischetti there was nothing to worry about; Oliver was friendly and clearly "adoptable." A 1998 state law mandates that "no adoptable animal should be euthanized if it can be adopted into a suitable home." So Fischetti reluctantly left the dog behind.

The same day, her ten-year-old daughter begged her to go back and get Oliver. Fischetti returned with her checkbook, hoping the shelter would take a check. By the time they arrived, it was one minute too late. The shelter had just closed, she says. An animal control officer told her to leave and come back during regular business hours.

Over the weekend, Fischetti and her husband fixed the fence in anticipation of Oliver's return. On Monday, she visited the dog at the shelter for an hour and spoke a volunteer about hiring a trainer to help her control her rambunctious pup. Finally, on Tuesday, her husband got paid and Fischetti happily headed back to the shelter with her daughter and baby to bring Oliver home. She was told that he "was gone" -- he'd been put down earlier that morning. Fischetti and her daughter burst into tears. The upset mother demanded to know why her dog had been "killed." Rather than apologize, Fischetti says, an animal control officer began yelling at her, saying she had no one to blame but herself. "They knew I was coming back," she says. "I'd been there more than once. Just because I showed some trepidation didn't give them the right to kill my dog."

Barnabe remembers the dog: When she went to see him in his holding cage he wagged his tail happily and jumped up for attention. "I knew he was an adoptable animal," she says. Barnabe doesn't understand why the order was given to kill Oliver. Shelter records provided by Barnabe show that Oliver was put to sleep because of his "temperament." But she says such a designation is usually reserved for aggressive animals, and Oliver was obviously not dangerous. Moreover, a temperament evaluation hadn't been done for Oliver before he was euthanized, Barnabe says.

The former employee claims shelter management has euthanized other animals identified as candidates for rescue or adoption. Longtime shelter volunteer Catherine LeBlanc, who specializes in rescuing small dogs, confirmed that she and other rescue volunteers have had the sad experience of coming into work to find that animals they had indicated they wanted to save had been killed. It became common enough that volunteers like LeBlanc eventually requested a better tracking system. Howell, LeBlanc says, saw to that last year. "They listened to our concerns," she says.

It's important to remember that Oakland runs one of the busier and more complex shelters in the country. Animal control officers deal with everything from wildlife in the hills to illegal dogfights in the hood. The shelter estimates it brings in about six thousand strays a year, many of those aggressive or unadoptable. Even local animal-rights activists acknowledge animal-control operations have improved over the last few years since the shelter moved from its crowded old facility to its new site on 29th Street. Nonetheless, problems persist, and Barnabe and others fear they will get worse if the wrong person is hired as shelter director.

The issue won't be running away anytime soon: City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente has scheduled a town hall meeting for February 17 at City Hall to deal with the shelter allegations.

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