Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Former shelter head signed out 83 cats

Valencia Pullin said she was surprised one evening to see the new director of the Fulton County Animal Shelter and her husband carrying crates with cats from the building.

“They said they were bringing them to a rescue,” said Pullin, a veterinarian technician. “They were very secretive.”

Pullin thought it odd to see Jere Alexander carrying out the cats — 19 that night, records show — because “you can’t do much with feral cats. They don’t mix with humans. We usually put them down.”

Longtime kennel manager Myles Swain said he confronted Alexander the next morning and she filled out a form saying the rescue organization was called Nine Lives, a “trap, neuter and release” group. Over four months, Nine Lives took 83 cats from the shelter, more than twice the number taken by all other groups.

Rescue groups that take animals from shelters must be licensed by the state Department of Agriculture, but officials found no such records. An investigation by the department last week found Alexander ran the rescue group. But it could not determine what happened to the cats, including whether they were neutered or released. Charles Woody, who was listed on the form as a vet who neutered the cats for Nine Lives, said Friday he never heard of the group.

“The big question is where are all these cats?” said Swain, a 27-year employee who was later fired by Alexander after a dog was accidentally euthanized. Swain surmises their disappearance helped the shelter lower its kill rate, a vexing problem nearly all urban shelters face.

It’s a problem the Fulton shelter faced. Swain was accused last week by another employee of improperly killing pit bulls to clear up space in the crowded shelter. Several former employees complained that Alexander, a pit bull enthusiast, often overrode decisions to euthanize aggressive pit bulls, making the shelter overcrowded and dangerous.

Alexander resigned earlier this month after a critical report on Fox 5 TV. Alexander did not respond to several phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment.

The debate over pit bulls and questions about missing cats are the latest strange circumstances surrounding the Fulton shelter’s operations for nearly eight months under Alexander, a Notre Dame-educated lawyer who has said she is studying dog-fighting for her thesis.

One of her first hires was a pit bull breeder whose husband was under indictment for transporting fighting dogs. Alexander also ran a Web site with advisers who had dogfighting-related charges in their pasts, according to humane groups and newspaper accounts. And she told others she had attended dogfights as research for her studies.

Alexander became director in March after Barking Hound Village Foundation was awarded a five-year contract to run the shelter. Barking Hound, an offshoot of a successful doggie day care chain, received the contract although the previous contractor, Southern Hope Humane Society, was picked by a selection committee as being more qualified.

Barking Hound, however, was the low bidder, offering to run the shelter for $2.1 million a year, $300,000 a year less than Southern Hope was receiving. But the new organization had to scramble to take over the shelter after Southern Hope gave 30 days’ notice it was leaving.

Mary Green, the agriculture department’s director of animal protection, said she walked through the shelter after Barking Hound took over and “I remember an enormous amount of overcrowding and a tremendous amount of disease.”

But the environment had improved, Green said. Last week, the shelter “was very clean. I did not observe overcrowding.”

David York, who founded the Barking Hound doggie day care operations and the foundation, said urban shelters are facing a “crisis” because of the number of strays and the animals being dumped by people unable to care for them.

In an earlier interview last month, York said, “We have far too many [pit bulls]. Sometimes our numbers are up to 70 percent. It’s sad, because they’re difficult to adopt out.”

But things had apparently improved by last week. A check Friday of the shelter’s lost and found and adoption lists found only about 30 percent were pit bulls or related breeds.

York, who has previous experience with rescue volunteer groups, last week said he sought the contract because he read a news article in December saying Southern Hope would not seek renewal “and there would be no one to run the shelter.” Southern Hope later bid.

Alexander did not have the necessary humane experience needed to run the facility, but York said her knowledge of pit bulls seemed to be a good fit because the shelter was overrun with the breed.

But her advocacy for pit bulls caused problems, several said.

Pullin, the vet tech, said staff members constantly broke up dogfights and attended to the injured animals.

“She had a favoritism toward pit bulls,” she said. “Dogs you’d see tear other dogs apart, we’d put on the list to euthanize and she’d take them off.”

Swain said he was bitten by a dog. He also said five dogs were killed in fights with pit bulls. One, a Sheltie mix, was killed after being housed overnight with a pit bull.

“It was so bad we could not tell it was a dog anymore — it was a glob,” he said.

The agriculture department report said no fighting was evident last week. The report also carries an accusation by employee Shelton Robinson that Swain improperly took sodium pentobarbital and euthanized “as many American pit bull terriers as possible to prevent fighting in the kennels and make excessive room for daily intake.”

Swain called the allegation “100 percent false.” He said the accusation was put into his personnel file three months after he was fired. “It’s a way to make me look like a disgruntled employee,” he said.

Danielle LaMarr, a vet who started working at the clinic when Alexander took over, said keeping aggressive dogs caused problems. “They’d have seven dogs in a run sharing diseases because they’d have one pit bull in [another] run because he couldn’t be housed with other dogs,” she said.

LaMarr produced an e-mail from Alexander saying she had attended dogfights because she was writing a dissertation on an “ethnographic study of dogfighting, pit bulls and pit bull people.”

“So I have worked with dogfighters to learn about this practice and culture,” Alexander wrote. “Of course I don’t condone dogfighting, and my research was very traumatic at times.”

Pullin said Alexander and her husband, Rocky, took home one especially aggressive pit bull named “Beast.” They never returned the dog, she said, adding “they said they had to put it down because of pneumonia.” Beast was being held at the shelter as evidence in a criminal dog-fighting case, former shelter officials said.

Alexander founded a Web site, since taken down, called pitarchive.org “dedicated to preserving and reimagining the American pit bull terrier through the creation of an online museum.”

One of her first hires at the shelter was a vet tech named Sherri Shelf, whose husband Tony was arrested in Illinois with a van full of pit bulls. On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of transporting dogs for fighting and was sentenced to a year in prison, said Cook County prosecutor Bob Schwarz.

Sherri Shelf, who was the president of the Georgia American Pit Bull Terrier Association, called Alexander a “lover of the breed” who opposed fighting.

Alexander and her husband own several pit bulls at their Decatur home. He could not be reached for comment.

On an Internet site, Rocky Alexander called himself “a professional canine behaviorist, trainer, handler, historian and conditioner” who grew up in Washington state in an area where “a professional dogfight was as normal as a baseball game.”

Staff researcher Nisa Asokan contributed to this report.

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