ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s the city department charged with caring for stray animals and keeping the public safe, but employees claim Albuquerque’s Animal Welfare Department suffers from dysfunction, low morale and ineffective leadership.
City of Albuquerque Inspector General David Harper says when employees at the city’s Animal Welfare Department voiced concerns about issues in their department, his office launched an investigation. Now, two months later, the Inspector General report is complete.
“Listening to the different people that came and spoke to us, that’s still a concern that they have, that public safety is not the number one priority in the office,” Harper told KRQE News 13.
The report released Thursday points to a problem KRQE News 13 reported about on Special Assignment back in April. The city violated its own dangerous dog law when an Animal Welfare employee’s dog jumped a wall and killed a neighbor’s Chihuahua.
Angel’s Law states the city must take custody of a dog who kills a person or pet without provocation, but AWD staff allowed the dangerous dog to return home for a month. The Chihuahua’s killer, a dog named ‘Aurora,’ only re-appeared in the city’s shelter the day after KRQE News 13 inquired about the case.
The OIG report states, “It was not until the incident involving the AWD employee’s dog killing the neighbor’s dog garnering media attention, that employees started becoming more aware of Angel’s Law and the amendments to the ordinance.”
It was then, a year after Angel’s Law was amended, the report states, that Animal Welfare’s Director Paul Caster “agreed that a refresher on Angel’s Law would be a good idea.”
The report continues, “However, the OIG recently learned that this training never occurred and many employees are still unclear on Angel’s Law.”
“That’s very concerning,” Harper told KRQE News 13 Thursday. “Obviously every day is a potential for something bad to happen. It’s important that every employee in that department from animal control to the folks that work in the shelters are aware of the law.”
The report also points to examples of the city adopting out dangerous dogs — something Animal Welfare has come under fire for in the past.
In one example, Animal Welfare’s Director Paul Caster goes against staff recommendations after a dog went on the attack during a pit bull training class.
The dog “bit down on another dog’s head,” and bit its owner who tried to break up the fight. According to the report, staff felt the dog was unadoptable. But Caster disagreed, saying the bite was “displaced aggression” that was “more the fault of inappropriate handing than anything else.” The dog was later adopted by a volunteer.
This topic of releasing dangerous dogs into the community was also the subject of a 2015 OIG investigation.
“We look at where we are today, there have been some improvements,” said Harper. “But as our report discloses, there’s opportunities to improve.”
The OIG report also points to AWD leadership misinforming staff on the law when it comes to handling dogs who kill livestock. In one case, two dogs were taken to the shelter for killing three sheep.
According to the report, one of the dogs “ate the face off of the sheep.” After a review, it was decided by AWD that due to his age, this dog could be adopted.
The OIG report points to state law which addresses “dogs that were known to have killed or attacked livestock should not have been released.”
“It’s not an easy task,” Harper told KRQE News 13, regarding AWD’s role in dealing with dangerous dogs.
“You probably don’t go into Animal Welfare unless you have a lot of compassion for animals, and a lot of interest in animals, and so absolutely it’s a struggle, it’s an internal conflict,” Harper added. “But at the end of the day the law requires public safety at the state level, and at the city level.”
Animal Welfare Department staff worry about dysfunction, low morale and ineffective leadership. Staff claims leadership focuses priority on “live exit rates” over public safety.
Still, Caster claims public safety is AWD’s primary objective and said he hosts monthly open forums for staff and volunteers to have open discussions.
The AWD Director stated, “there are 424 fewer animals in AWD’s care than there were last year.” According to the report, Caster also stated 1,703 animals were euthanized last year and that 99 percent of those were animals with behavior issues.
Still, it’s apparent from the report that many employees don’t feel heard.
“I think leadership of any organization needs to be concerned because low morale can lead to safety issues, performance issues, etc.,” Harper said.
Animal Welfare directed KRQE News 13 to the mayor’s office for comment Thursday.
The City’s Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan issued the following statement:
We have just received a copy of this OIG report but from our brief review, the report is based on the same allegations and same dog cases that the TIGER team completed their investigation on nearly four months ago. Based on the latest TIGER Team report, the Animal Welfare Department has already addressed needed revisions to their policies and procedures and distributed these to all AWD staff. We remain dedicated to maintaining a safe and effective Animal Welfare Department which handles more than 17,000 animals annually and has steadily increased all performance measures for reducing intake, increasing adoptions, and total spay / neuter procedures.