Niagara Gazette

January 27, 2012

Investigation into Niagara SPCA advises 'wholesale changes'

By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette

WHEATFIELD — "Wholesale changes” are being recommended for the Niagara County SPCA following the release of a report on Friday that expresses serious concerns about the handling of animals at the shelter while describing the organization as “dysfunctional in many ways.”

The 115-page report, which followed a three-week investigation of the Lockport Road animal shelter by the Erie County SPCA, is highly critical of management at the Niagara County facility, suggesting the executive director and board of directors failed to provide standard operating procedures, strategic planning, job descriptions and other “basic building blocks” needed to provide the “structure” of a sound organization.

As a result, Erie County SPCA Executive Director Barbara Carr, who conducted the investigation at the request of Niagara County SPCA officials, determined that the situation helped foster a “chaotic environment” that was detrimental not only to the staff, but some of the animals that were under the facility’s care.

During a press conference at her office in the Town of Tonawanda, Carr appeared particularly disturbed by what she described as an “awful” procedure that was used in the past by former staff members responsible for euthanizing dogs. A choked-up Carr paused while attempting to describe the use of “heartsticks,” an intercardiac injection that is supposed to be performed only on unconscious animals. Carr said the practice is legal in New York, but banned in several other states.

She described the procedure as “excruciatingly painful” for the animal involved and  “totally improper” in her opinion. Carr said she discovered the practice of euthanasia “by heartstick” through interviews with a former veterinary technician and euthanasia technician. Carr noted that it is general practice to euthanize animals intravenously. Her report notes that the euthanasia technician admitted that she was not trained to use “heartsticks” to euthanize animals, but followed the lead of the veterinary technician because it was “easier.” Carr stressed that the staffers in question are no longer with the Niagara County SPCA and the practice has been discontinued.

Carr noted that staffers told her euthanasia due to “space constraints” was “fairly common,” although evaluators running reports on reasons for euthanasia reasons did not find “space” listed as a reason. According to Carr’s report, the euthanasia technician told evaluators: “We generally would look for another reason to write because we felt it was wrong to euthanize for space. The veterinary technician and I would examine the animals to find if the teeth were bad or if there was any other reason to list for euthanasia.”

When the same question was posed to a previously employed veterinary technician, she indicated that they were “told” not to list “space” as a primary reason so it would “not show up in reports.”

Carr’s report notes that while there is no way to know “for a certainty,” it appears that much of the euthanasia information was kept from Executive Director John Faso. However, the report notes, had Faso taken “any time” to learn how to use the reporting system software at the shelter, he could have run daily reports to check against the information he was provided.

“Any reports that would have been run on euthanasia would have pointed out that there was a huge discrepancy in what the executive director believed and what was actually happening,” the report notes.

Carr’s report found overall record keeping at the shelter to be “incomplete or inaccurate.” She noted that while the SPCA started using the software program PetPoint in 2011 to track animal data, records examined by her office were found to be “incomplete, flawed or not utilized properly by Niagara County SPCA staff.” Her investigation confirmed allegations previously aired by SPCA staffers, finding that several hundred cats and dogs, some of them healthy, had been euthanized between Oct. 1 and Dec. 15.  She noted that the lack of sound reporting impacted her ability to determine how many animals were actually euthanized during the period in question.

“While the accusation of 100 dogs and 473 cats being euthanized is accurate as what has been properly recorded, these numbers are more than likely lower than the actual numbers of euthanasia,” the report notes.

The report points to a lack of operational standards and poor training as contributing factors to the shelter’s situation. Under the circumstances, Carr said there is “blame to go everyplace,” while noting that the organization is asked to deal with a high volume of animals often with minimal or insufficient resources. Her report characterizes the board as “self-admittedly dysfunctional” and notes several instances in which members failed to follow the SPCA’s by-laws, including missing annual meetings for the past two years, holding fewer than the minimum number of meetings required each year and not having committees in place to oversee operations.

Carr said she did not find anyone she interviewed to be lacking in compassion for the animals under their care and said it was difficult to prove incompetence or negligence on the part of any SPCA officials. In her report, Carr noted that there was “no question” concerning the ability of the Niagara County SPCA to handle all of the animals that come in, saying it simply “cannot” and would be better served building relationships with other local groups in an effort to build life-saving programs. She also said “many positive changes” were made at the shelter from a visit she made as part of another review more than a year ago.

“I think the people I spoke to care deeply and they want to do the right thing, but they weren’t given the resources,” Carr said.

She also stopped short of recommending specific changes to personnel at the facility and did not offer any opinion when asked about the performance of Faso or any other SPCA employees. Carr said it will be up to the board of directors to decide which direction to take from here.

“Who should stay or go? That’s not my call,” Carr said. “That’s not what I was asked to do.”

It appears as though the organization is heading for what attorney Paul Cambria described as “wholesale changes.” Cambria was hired by the Niagara County SPCA to participate in the investigation and attended Friday’s press conference on behalf of the organization. He said his office concurred with the findings of Carr’s report and he called for the creation of a new mission statement, standard operating protocols, job descriptions and by-laws for the organization. Cambria said the Niagara County board has authorized his office to assist in the implementation of those changes and has drafted a new set of by-laws that will be submitted for approval in the coming days. Cambria is also recommending that the board hold an election for board members and acknowledged that the issues raised in Carr’s report “clearly appear to be the product of a failure to function by the board as well as the executive director.” In a statement, Cambria also acknowledged that “some or all” of these positions may need to be replaced as the process moves forward.

“It appears to us that a number of the recommendations that Barbara has made need to be implemented,” Cambria said.

Cambria said he expects the board to hold an election in a matter of weeks. He is also calling for the creation of a new “advisory board” that would consist of representatives from the various Niagara County municipalities that contribute funds to the organization for animal control services. Cambria said advisory board members would help the board ensure that the operation serves the animals of Niagara County in the “best possible manner” moving forward.

Carr invited Faso and members of the board to attend Friday’s press conference, but neither Faso nor any board members appeared. Cambria said he advised them to stay away because he did not want their presence to detract from the investigation’s findings. Cambria added that board members recognize the need to revamp the way the SPCA operates in order to “regain the confidence” of the community and are committed to doing so in an open and transparent way.

“There’s no reason to hide because there’s no hiding going on,” Cambria said.

Local advocates for the development of a “no kill” shelter in Niagara County expressed “disappointment” that an “independent, third party” was not allowed to participate in the Erie County SPCA probe.

Carol Tutzauer, the president of Buffalo Humane, an animal advocacy group in Pendleton, said she’s willing to keep an “open mind” about the report’s findings, but remains concerned about the board’s decision to hire Faso even though he had “little or no background” in animal welfare and protection as well as Faso’s “ties to some existing board members.” Tutzauer also expressed concern about what she described as potential “retaliatory and threatening behavior” against individuals with knowledge of the shelter’s inner workings who stepped forward to voice their concerns.

Buffalo Humane intends to issue its own critique of the report now that it has been released.

“Regardless of the Erie County SPCA’s report, it is apparent that improvements are sorely needed at the Niagara SPCA,” said Clara Miller, a Buffalo Humane board member. “If we can move forward and help the shelter and Niagara County embrace a truly no kill mindset, then much good will have come out of this crisis.”

Carr reserved decision on the possibility of establishing a no-kill shelter in Niagara County, but did not rule it out as a possibility. Cambria said the board is not adverse to the idea and has reached out to other entities, including Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine for more information on the subject.

 Carr recommends the board consider using part of its endowment funds to staff and train employees in the future. She said she would also like to see an outside party other than the Erie County SPCA conduct a follow-up review of Niagara County SPCA operations within the next six to eight months.

When asked if she thought Niagara County residents should continue to use its services, Carr said there’s no question Niagara County needs an organization like the SPCA to provide animal care and would benefit from volunteers, financial assistance and other forms of support as it goes through this period of transition.

“I think the emphasis should absolutely be on building, not tearing down at this point,” Carr said.