Cats seized from Steel City Alley Cats Coalition's shelter in Pueblo

The 135 cats seized from Steel City Alley Cats Coalition’s shelter in Pueblo for potential neglect have been treated by the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, and some are now available for adoption.

Recent incidents of violations at two no-kill animal shelters and one animal rescue in southern Colorado raise the question of how efforts designed to save animals from poor health and unnecessary death inadvertently cause that to happen.

State inspections uncovered abuses that included inhumane conditions, rampant disease leading to fatalities, general neglect of cats and dogs, and failure to follow proper procedures in handling animals.

The infractions led one shelter to relinquish its license and be taken over, the seizure of 135 cats at another and a third to be fined and placed on probation:

• PAWS for Life — Animal Protection & Welfare Society in December 2018 won the contract to operate the city of Pueblo’s animal shelter and control services but forfeited its license in March after an investigation by the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act, a licensing and inspections program, found mistreatment.

• One month ago, the state agency and the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak region removed 135 cats from the Steel City Alley Cats Coalition shelter, also in Pueblo, for improper care causing disease, with several cats dying during the investigation.

• Also in September, National Mill Dog Rescue, a 12-year-old nonprofit in Peyton that saves puppy mill dogs produced by commercial breeders, was fined $15,000 and placed on a one-year probationary status under the state’s Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act for 15 separate violations, including bringing dogs into Colorado without proper veterinary inspections and allowing a female dog to become pregnant. The organization also was flagged for violations in 2017.

“It’s easy to demonize shelters who are forced into making difficult decisions with pets,” says Lisa Robertson, executive director of Teller County Regional Animal Shelter, a no-kill, or “limited admissions,” shelter in Divide. “Animal welfare is hard and heartbreaking.

“Be assured that no one gets into this line of work to see pets hurt or suffer.”

The system also is complex, says Gretchen Pressley, spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, which operates shelters in Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

“A lot of these situations are caused by very well-meaning people getting in over their heads,” she said. “Animal welfare is incredibly complicated and takes a lot of know-how and a responsible team staying up on the latest trends to give them (animals) the best outcome as possible, based on their needs.

“And if the best outcome is humane euthanasia, we’ll do that to end their suffering.”

Statewide enforcement actions and complaint investigations into problems at animal shelters and those who breed, groom and handle animals nearly doubled in five years, from 467 cases in fiscal year 2012-13 to 829 in 2016-17, according to a 2018 review of the Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act.

The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region is nearly back to full operation at what’s once again called the Pueblo Animal Shelter, Pressley said. The Humane Society ran the shelter from 2002 to the end of 2018, when Pueblo city and county leaders did not renew its contract.

Government officials instead selected PAWS for Life, which named its shelter Community Animal Services of Pueblo. The organization won the contract based on its no-kill philosophy, which is considered as having a 90% live release of animals.

Pueblo City Council had enacted an ordinance that took effect in January requiring all animal shelters in the city to have a 90% save rate and banning euthanasia in many circumstances.

The March investigation led by the Colorado Department of Agriculture revealed faults with hygiene, overpopulation, medical care and animal control, prompting state intervention and closure.

A few weeks ago, the shelter’s former director and veterinarian under the PAWS for Life management each were charged with 10 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty.

The Humane Society took over the shelter on an emergency basis in April, Pressley said, and in July negotiated a new three and a half year contract with Pueblo officials.

Restarting the facility has been a whirlwind of activity, she said.

“We had liquidated assets and released staff, so going back in has been a process. But we’re almost at full service.”

Adoptions, animal law enforcement services, surgery and other medical care are up and running, Pressley said, while building a volunteer corps will be completed by year’s end. The shelter also plans to offer mobile public pet vaccinations.

Eight animal shelters along Colorado’s Front Range, which assisted in taking animals when the Pueblo shelter closed, issued a strongly-worded statement saying animals suffered death by illness and injury instead of being euthanized in order to “adhere to a damaging local ordinance.”

“This is a regretful example of how the no-kill movement, when taken to the extreme, preys upon compassionate people’s desire to protect animals,” the statement said. “The suffering that happened was unacceptable.”

Violations at Steel City Alley Cats Coalition included unsafe conditions and not quarantining diseased cats. A request for neglect charges has been submitted to the district attorney’s office, according to the Humane Society, whose law enforcement team was involved with the investigation.

The Humane Society took responsibility for medical care of the cats. The majority had ringworm and were sent to the Colorado Springs shelter for treatment.

Nine of the cats now are available for adoption, the Humane Society announced Friday.

When The Gazette requested an interview with National Mill Dog Rescue about the $15,000 fine and probation period it received for violations, the organization instead responded with a statement saying it “has never and will never waiver from our mission of rescuing, rehabilitating and re-homing discarded breeding dogs.”

The organization has a “near-flawless USDA and PACFA inspection results, and the exemplary care we have provided for over 14,400 dogs over the past 12 years” the statement says. “In fact, as recently as Sept. 27, National Mill Dog Rescue passed a no-notice PACFA inspection,” and “remains committed to working closely with all federal and state regulating authorities to ensure we continue to be in compliance with all laws, statutes and regulations.”

That such incidents occur are not entirely the fault of the shelters and rescues, said Robertson of the animal shelter in Divide.

“It’s easy to point fingers at the shelters, when what we have is a problem in our community,” she said.

Overpopulation from pet owners not spaying and neutering cats and dogs is the largest contributing factor to overcrowding at shelters and rescues, Robertson said.

“Understand that a pet is a lifetime commitment,” she said. “Keep your pet’s vaccinations up-to-date, microchip your pet — over one-third of the pets we see are returned to owners.”

Like other no-kill facilities, Teller County Animal Rescue Shelter limits animals it accepts.

“We select animals we feel maximize our organization’s unique skills,” Robertson said. “We sometimes have a waiting list. Because we are a rural shelter, we do not have breed bans.”

The shelter handles special-needs and what Robertson calls tough cases, and takes pets from other shelters with high euthanasia rates, when there’s space available.

Robertson said the shelter does not euthanize animals due to a lack of room or staff time but does euthanize sick, injured or dangerous animals.

“It’s a very rare occurrence for us,” she said. “Less than 1%.”

The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region accepts all animals that come through its door, Pressley said. In addition to providing medical care, the shelter operates on a “socially conscious” philosophy — a framework that seeks to find the best outcome for animals, based on respectful treatment, she said.

According to the Humane Society’s 2018 annual report, “no healthy, adoptable pets were euthanized.”

The shelter euthanized 1,832 animals last year due to illness or injury and performed another 1,534 owner-requested euthanasias. In all, the shelter worked with 25,579 animals in 2018.

“We measure success not on statistics because there are so many statistics that matter,” Pressley said.

Concentrating on” one individual number instead of the animals’ needs,” doesn’t give the whole picture, she said.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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