State to overhaul New Mexico animal shelter watchdog board

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Their mission was clearly laid out: help New Mexico solve the grim, multi-million dollar pet overpopulation problem in the state’s animal shelters.

In 2005, the state launched a volunteer board to do so. Nine experts, who were handpicked to lead the state’s so-called “Animal Sheltering Board.”

More than a decade since its inception, the board is now set for a major overhaul, while some former members say they were never able to fully accomplish what they set out to for various reasons from funding to a lack of legislative support.

The Animal Sheltering Board emerged after years of headlines about the cruel ways some of New Mexico’s animal shelters were euthanizing dogs and cats.

In 1998, a dog was found alive in a freezer at a city of Albuquerque animal shelter, following a failed lethal injection. In 2000, reports of kittens being choked to death spawned a lawsuit, and a review of Albuquerque’s animal shelters by the Humane Society of the United States. In 2003, Carlsbad’s city shelter was accused of suffocating puppies and kittens in plastic bags. In other parts of New Mexico, some shelters were using carbon-dioxide gas chambers to euthanize pets up through 2009.

“There was nothing in place,” said Peggy Weigle, an animal advocate and former shelter director. “There was absolutely no oversight what-so-ever.”

Before 2009, pet euthanasia in New Mexico was essentially lawless. There were no standards and no rules on the books on how to humanely put animals down. Without a system of rules, several New Mexico shelters were left to control pet populations by any means necessary.

Weigle, who was executive director for Animal Humane New Mexico until 2016, remembers the problem vividly.

“There were literally cases where shelter staff were taking catch poles, like the dog catch has, and breaking the necks of kittens and puppies to euthanize them, that’s what was going on in our state back then,” said Weigle.

Those stories inspired change. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced the creation of the Animal Sheltering Board in December 2005.

“These changes are long overdue,” said Gov. Richardson during the announcement of the board. “Animal Shelters are an unfortunate necessity in our community. They’re dedicated people who play an important role in providing a safe place to shelter stray, abandoned or unwanted animals.”

The Board’s Beginning

The board began meeting in 2007. By 2009, new state law barred New Mexico’s animal shelters from using gas chambers to euthanize dogs and cats.

Later, in July 2009, the Animal Sheltering Board published New Mexico’s first euthanasia rules as part of the state’s administrative code. The rules also created the state’s first licensing program for shelter euthanasia technicians. It ensures that anyone performing euthanasia in a New Mexico animal shelters is properly trained, and certified by the state.

“This was a big, big step forward for the state, the animals for our state, and for the people who still have to euthanize pets,” said Weigle.

Both the euthanasia rules and the euthanasia technician licensing program are still in place in New Mexico today.

The board also helped drive passage of Senate Memorial 36 during the 2011 New Mexico legislative session. The memorial spawned a study looking at the feasibility of creating a dedicated fund for low-cost spay and neuter programs in New Mexico. Some estimate 60,000 to 70,000 dogs and cats are euthanized in New Mexico each year. A 2012 Animal Protection New Mexico study found around 55,000 dogs and cats were euthanized at New Mexico shelters in one year.

But beyond the euthanasia rules and the spay and neuter study, Weigle and other board members also felt that their success was being handcuffed.

“I really feel in many respects that our board, you know, was in a no-win situation,” said Weigle.

A Lack of Support

Weigle says the board quickly hit a financial brick wall after creating the euthanasia rules.

“I would agree that we are hamstrung by funding, or lack-there-of,” said Weigle.

In an email to KRQE News 13, another former ASB board member, Judy Babcock wrote, “I believe lack of financial support and the hours in travel meetings wore everyone down.”

“Good intentions, but fell short of our goals,” wrote Babcock.

Under the Regulation and Licensing Department (RLD), the Animal Sheltering Board started its work in 2007 with about $200,000 in one-time funding. That money was supposed to cover any staffing needs, contractual services, supplies, and board member per-diem, which covers meal and travel costs during official board business.

According to documents obtained by KRQE News 13, by the end of 2009, the board spent about $112,000.

While the board was able to meet, research and discuss policy, Weigle indicated the board’s funding didn’t allow for much else.

“We had an administrator, paid administrator at the beginning who helped us do a lot of the work we had to do, but when the funding ran out, we had to basically take a part time administrator that RLD divided up amongst … three or four boards,” said Weigle.

Meanwhile, the amount of money the Animal Sheltering Board generated in fees for euthanasia related licensing was not enough to sustain the board’s assigned work.

“If you (are) the cosmetology board, you have many barbers and hairdressers across the state and they pay a licensing fee, and there’s so many of them that the board is self-funding,” said Weigle. “In New Mexico, there are only about 150 euthanasia technicians and about 34 shelters.”

Those technicians and shelters paid fees typically between $25 and $200 a year. With slim revenue collected from those fees, a lack of additional state support and an inability to fundraise due to legal concerns, Weigle says the funding issue quickly caught up with the board.

There were other matters the board wasn’t able to fully tackle. First, an animal shelter inspector was never hired.

“The state really bears responsibility and the legislature bears responsibility for never having funded that job,” said Weigle.

Today, beyond citizen complaints to the ASB, there’s no way to tell if anyone’s following the state’s euthanasia rules.

The Animal Sheltering Board was also tasked with making guidelines on how to run a shelter, which they did.

“There’s 22 pages of shelter guidelines,” said Weigle. “Everything from how big should the enclosure be that a dog or a cat needs to be in, how do you sanitize, how do you clean effectively so that disease is not spread, how do you vaccinate, how do you feed … how do you handle (animals) safely and humanely.”

But the state treated that work as merely a suggestion.

“The board was not authorized, and still is not authorized to actually enforce any of these recommendations,” said Weigle.

The board was also tasked with creating a statewide low-cost spay and neuter program, the most basic way to bring down kill rates at shelters. A 2012 state study showed pet overpopulation costs New Mexico shelters about $27 million.

“When you invest in spay neuter programs, you are reducing the cost to the state, said Weigle.

But since 2014, New Mexico has spent around $100,000 on low cost spay and neuter programs in specific communities statewide, including Clovis, Roswell, Farmington, Hobbs, Peralta, Gallup, Carlsbad, Las Cruces, Deming, Silver City, Aztec and Grants. The money, some of which was generated from special state license plate revenue, has funded about 2,000 spay and neuter surgeries.

By comparison, the state’s 2012 study highlighted a need for New Mexico spend $2-2.5 million a year for five years to solve the state’s animal overpopulation issue.

The Board’s Future

Around early 2015, Weigle left her position on the Animal Sheltering Board.

“I just didn’t see a way forward,” said Weigle.

In the last several years, the state appears to have written off the work of the Animal Sheltering Board, as well. Today, the board has a budget of roughly $26,000. The board has been functioning with between 3 and 4 members per meeting for the last several years, while the board’s governing documents require nine members.

While the board still takes complaints against shelters and euthanasia technicians, documents online indicate that the board has only met four times since October 2015. The last posted meeting minutes on the Animal Sheltering Board’s website showed an August 2016 board meeting with three members participating.

By the end of the year, the Animal Sheltering Board will change. A bill from a Santa Fe County State Representative, Democrat Carl Trujillo will reformat the board beginning in 2018.

“We realized the Animal Sheltering Board wasn’t going to find a sustainable source (of funding),” said Rep. Trujillo.

Under Trujillo’s House Bill 219, the Animal Sheltering Board will be reformatted into a committee under the New Mexico Board of Veterinary Medicine. The committee’s job will now be to make recommendations to the Vet Board on animal shelters and spay and neuter programs.

Trujillo says he doesn’t believe the board has been a waste of time, or a waste of money.

“They really had to rely on the Regulation and Licensing Department to give them money to operate, so, I think there was always a time where they felt they didn’t have the resources, and likely so, I don’t believe they had the resources,” said Trujillo. “I think they achieved a tremendous amount for the resources that they had.”

Weigle agrees.

“We were really a step child, and I’m going to be frank, RLD wanted nothing to do with our board, and they made our lives very difficult to accomplish what we did,” said Weigle. “We were tough, and we got it done with basically zero help, so I think the board accomplished a lot.”

Trujillo says the new committee should be financially sustainable under the Vet Board. He also thinks the Vet Board will be able to provide better enforcement of humane euthanasia standards and veterinary care in shelters. Trujillo says he hopes the future committee will also be able to establish a more robust spay and neuter program.

“This is a real problem,” said Trujillo of New Mexico’s animal overpopulation issue.

While Trujillo says he’s hopeful the incoming Animal Sheltering Committee can be more effective, Weigle too says she’s hopeful. But she’s also cautious.

“If you think about the veterinary board, they’re private practice veterinarians, their goal in life is not to raise money for spay neuter, however, I do think they can have some impact by influencing their legislators and that is the best way to move forward,” said Weigle.

The New Mexico House passed a bill during the 2017 legislative session that would have made a dedicated, recurring fund for more spay and neuter programs. According to the Legislative Finance Committee, the fund would have raised about $830,000 a year through a fee hike on pet food manufacturers. Rep. Trujillo says the fee hike would only have cost consumers just a few dollars a year in the course of normal pet food purchases. House Bill 123 did not make it to a Senate vote before the 2017 regular session ended.

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