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Lack of staff at city animal shelter leading to improper care, audit finds

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Updated: June 4, 2013 6:18AM

Chicago’s lost, stray and impounded dogs and cats are not always being cleaned and fed properly — or getting veterinary exams within 24 hours — because of “significant” understaffing at the city’s animal shelter, according to an internal audit released Thursday.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson also concluded that five animals adopted more than a month before the audit were shown in the shelter’s data system as still housed at the David R. Lee Animal Center, 2741 S. Western.

In a press release accompanying the audit, Ferguson noted that managing city shelters can be “difficult and thankless work,” but that’s no excuse for neglecting the 300 to 600 animals housed at the city pound at any given time.

Animal Care and Control’s “mandated mission of humanely handling and caring for lost, stray and impounded animals cannot be achieved unless it uses all of the resources at its disposal. This includes ensuring it is fully staffed to meet both national industry standards and its legal responsibilities,” Ferguson was quoted as saying.

The audit recommends that animal care fill vacancies “as soon as possible” to alleviate a nearly 30 percent shortfall in its feeding and cleaning staff. The $4.9 million-a-year agency has the “full-time equivalent” of 72 employees, but only 56 of those positions were filled at the time of the audit.

Ferguson further recommended periodic evaluations to make certain the city is meeting “appropriate guidelines” for time spent cleaning and feeding animals and that City Hall consider “staffing strategies” — mixing hourly employees, salaried staffers and volunteers — to make certain animals are getting proper care.

Thirty-eight percent of neglected and abused animals were not examined within 24 hours, the audit concluded.

John Norton, a nine-year veteran animal control officer who worked at the city pound until February, said the conditions described in Ferguson’s audit don’t begin to explain those he worked under.

“Dogs and cats were lying in their feces and urine quite often because there wasn’t enough staff to clean the cages properly and other people didn’t care,” Norton said Thursday.

“A lot of animals brought in sick with upper respiratory infections were left to sit in cages for days before being treated,” Norton said. “Something should have been done immediately. Animals were constantly getting out of their cages and climbing into the ceiling, where they would stay for days and weeks sometimes. They were falling from ceiling tiles in every corner of building.”

Two years ago, the City Council signed off on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s p lan to put Cook County Jail detainees to work at the city pound to improve conditions for animals and reduce taxpayer-funded overtime.

Sixteen volunteer inmates — most convicted of driving on suspended licenses — were assigned to clean dog kennels and feed and water dogs at the shelter.

At the time, the city pound had a daily population of 500 dogs and cats but didn’t have enough volunteers to provide the level of care that animals deserve, according Cherie Travis, then-executive director of Animal Care and Control.

“We face staffing shortages on a daily basis, Travis said then.

It’s not the first time that Ferguson has homed in on the city pound.

In 2010, he cleared the decks of a 4-year-old case that saw two animal care supervisors fired and six others face disciplinary action for mistakenly euthanizing four dogs and administering “euthanasia narcotics without appropriate or legally required supervision.” Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley responded by attempting to privatize the cleaning and feeding of animals at the city pound. The city’s “request for proposals” attracted no responses.

Last year, animal-rights advocates were yelping about Emanuel’s surprise ouster of Travis, warning that the change could result in more dogs and cats being euthanized. Travis was replaced by Sandra Alfred, an 11-year veteran of the department who had twice served as acting director.

Asked then why Travis was shown the door, Emanuel would only say it was “time for a change and time for different leadership.”

The mayor was asked whether he was planning to merge the city’s AnimalCare and Control office with Cook County’s.

“If, in fact, Sandra comes back and [County Board] President [Toni] Preckwinkle looks at her operation with similar function, and we say there’s a better way to do it, we’ll do that. But we’re not there yet,” Emanuel said at the time.

Earlier this year, a settlement agreement with the Illinois Attorney General’s office permanently barred Travis from leading the animal rescue group she founded after a lawsuit triggered by $70,000 in loans she allegedly made to her mother and a friend.

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