Mixed messages over shelter

Daniel Byrne wasn’t tall enough to reach the lectern at Chico City Council chambers, so he had to get a little lift. Suitably elevated, the 11-year-old boy put the punctuation mark on the Butte Humane Society’s public meeting Tuesday night (Aug. 22).

Speaking to adults has grown commonplace for Daniel. Along with his father, John, a BHS advisory board member, he has attended a number of meetings with local officials regarding the city’s announced intention to assume operations at the Fair Street shelter.

At the end of one such sit-down, John Byrne told the standing-room-only crowd, Mayor Scott Gruendl asked Daniel what he thought should be done. Daniel’s response: “I think it would be better for the people who work with the Humane Society now to run the shelter.”

He is not alone, and he may well get his wish.

Larry Wahl, one of three councilmembers in attendance (Andy Holcombe and Maureen Kirk were the others), said despite definitive wording in a municipal press release, “the city has not determined we will take over operations.” That action—and the allocation of funds for it—has not been approved by City Council.

“Quite frankly, I think it will remain with the Humane Society,” he said, to a round of applause.

If so, that would happen despite city staff members’ strong concerns about BHS operations—unarticulated in public statements but part of the public record.

In an Aug. 8 memo sent to councilmembers, City Manager Greg Jones wrote that the city “has deliberately taken the ‘high road’ in how we describe the events related to BHS. However, the bottom line is that staff has lost all confidence in shelter management over the past several years for several reasons, including poor financial accounting, customer complaints, poor facility maintenance and overall distrust of the Executive Director.”

Wahl, who along with Gruendl constitutes the council’s Humane Society subcommittee, acknowledged after the meeting that there are “some discussion points” but did not want to elaborate on them.

At issue is what happens when strays or “surrendered” pets first come to the shelter. State law requires the city to care for the animals for five days; then the obligation ends. Chico has contracted with BHS for that service, at the facility once owned by the nonprofit group and now owned by the city.

The sheltering contract expired in June. During the spring, the city sent out requests for proposals to see if other animal-welfare agencies might be interested (something Wahl explained is standard and required when any municipal contract expires). Only BHS responded, and the city bristled at the proposed cost of about $335,000 a year.

Jones and Assistant City Manager David Burkland both say the city wants to take charge of its legal obligation. BHS performs a dual function—the five-day sheltering, then long-term care and adoption—and was not able to parse its accounting to the city’s satisfaction; by assuming hands-on control, the city could take stock of the operation.

Both Jones and Burkland say the city would like BHS to continue the shelter’s adoption work. Toward that end, city and BHS officials met for two hours last Thursday (Aug. 17) and agreed in principle to do so.

Many details remain unsettled, such as how the Humane Society and Police Department’s animal control officers will share a facility where space is at a premium. Wahl said he hopes to have something worked out soon—"the end of next week would be great.”

Part of the urgency is a Sept. 15 date set at Thursday’s meeting. That is when the sides have tentatively agreed that the city will take over euthanasia at the shelter. BHS no longer has an agreement with a veterinarian for the medical solutions needed to put animals down. BHS Executive Director Cathy Augros said the shelter has an ample supply, but for the long term “either a vet the city pursues or Butte Humane pursues” will be needed.

Capt. John Rucker, who oversees the Chico Police Department’s animal control division, said the city has “a relationship with vets to get the drugs” and that his department would be ready Sept. 15 if needed.

Euthanasia has been a major concern since the city’s announcement. Augros, Jones, Burkland and Rucker all say the city would not step up the killing. Decisions to euthanize primarily come when an animal is very ill or violent, and a BHS report to Chico police shows 1,537 animals were euthanized in 2005, a year in which the shelter took in 4,239.

Rucker stressed what city officials have said: Chico wants to work with the Humane Society, for adoption. If the City Council decides his department should move into the shelter, “we could take over immediately” but “would prefer a transition period.” If the council renews its service contract with BHS, animal control officers will be ready to assist.

Augros felt heartened by the support that pervaded Tuesday’s meeting—particularly what Wahl had to say.

“It wasn’t a total surprise,” she said of the encouraging forecast, “but I was happy to hear it here.”

Wednesday morning, after hearing about the memo, she said she would have to talk to the BHS board and ascertain what this means for the future.

“If the city thinks it is taking the high road,” Augros said, “the Humane Society is taking the high road and plans to stay there.”