ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MO - An audit of a local municipal animal shelter identified several areas of concern including inaccurate reporting of euthanasia rates. Shelter leaders said they are committed to making changes to improve operations.
The audit of St. Louis County Animal Care and Control (ACC) was completed by Citygate Associates, LLC, a third-party company based in California that specializes in municipal audits. The audit came after a recommendation from the St. Louis County ACC advisory board.
Fox 2 started asking questions about the euthanasia rate at St. Louis County ACC after volunteers raised concern about what they were seeing firsthand. The report showed there were more animals being euthanized than previously reported.
"What became important to some people in previous leadership was the number that was reported instead of how things were truly being counted," said Spring Schmidt, acting director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.
The more than 250-page audit report focuses on what Schmidt called "chaos" and "inefficiencies" at St. Louis County ACC.
The audit said the shelter required people who surrender their pet to initial a box labeled "ORE" before it would accept the animal. Neither the form nor staff explained that "ORE" means "Owner Requested Euthanasia."
While an auditor was on-site, a woman surrendered her dog to the shelter and said she did not want the dog euthanized. "She checked and initialed the ORE box as directed by staff, but Citygate did not hear her being told what the ORE initials actually meant," the report states.
Schmidt said she became aware of this practice when she took over last year. However, when she asked about it, it was unclear how often the policy was being followed, and it created confusion for staff and in the reporting.
It also meant the reported number of euthanasia cases was skewed in the shelter's favor because the shelter only had to report euthanasia cases when the decision was made by the shelter and not at the owner's request.
"Which is why that number was decided by the previous administration that (the euthanasia cases decided by the shelter) would be the primary number that would be reported," said Schmidt.
The shelter previously told Fox 2 it euthanized 291 dogs in 2018 and 575 dogs in 2017. According to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, St. Louis County ACC euthanized 733 dogs in 2018 and 804 dogs in 2017.
MDA reports St. Louis County ACC euthanized 1,107 dogs and cats in 2018, 25 percent of the dogs and cats it took in into the shelter.
The report recommends St. Louis County ACC "discontinue making all owners of surrendered animals check off and initial the 'ORE' box. If ACC continues to provide the Owner Requested Euthanasia (ORE) service, animals should only be categorized as ORE if the owner or another shelter brings the animal to ACC specifically with the intention of having the pet euthanized due to a serious health problem, old-age-related problems, or a serious behavioral issue."
Schmidt said the county has already made changes to the intake form, and the shelter no longer requires owner surrenders to check the request for euthanasia box and had adopted the recommendation of the report.
"The intake staff are going through a process to have some discussion about how they can also counsel people who may be surrendering their animals about what some of their options are," said Schmidt.
Schmidt said she accepts responsibility for what is unveiled in the audit, and she hopes this is an opportunity to improve shelter operations. She was part of the committee that selected Citygate as the auditors, and she looked forward to getting the feedback.
"What I wanted at that time was a transformational top to bottom audit with a strategic plan of how we move forward, how we really fundamentally create change from here on out," she said.
St. Louis County ACC is an open-access shelter and does not turn any animal away. It also takes in animals from other shelters and rescues when an animal has not been adopted.
As a result, the shelter is often at capacity or over capacity. Schmidt said the shelter has a capacity for 104 large dogs. There is more flexibility when trying to space out smaller animals like small dogs and cats, she said. As of Friday (July 12), the shelter had a population of 369 animals.
The shelter runs on government funding and does not receive donations like many non-profit rescues. Schmidt said they rely heavily on volunteers to help care for the animals.
Over five months in 2019, auditors met with St. Louis County ACC board members, staff, volunteers, and surveyed them along with recent adopters.
Intake records were "spot-checked" and concerns were raised over inaccurate and inconsistent reporting. "More than half of the records examined had an error or inconsistency," the report said.
Schmidt said they will work on retraining staff and will conduct internal audits to keep an eye on records.
The report stated there was "no sense of urgency observed to move animals out of the shelter expeditiously" which resulted in longer than necessary stays for many of the animals. The report recommends the shelter do more marketing to help speed up the adoption process which Schmidt acknowledged would improve conditions for the animals and staff.
The shelter is currently without a permanent director after the former shelter director was removed from the position more than a month ago. Schmidt said a recent national search was unsuccessful, but they are committed to finding the right fit to help the shelter move forward.
Schmidt said the shelter recently recruited and hired a rescue coordinator from Indianapolis who will work with area rescues on how to better place adoptable pets.
"I have authorized all staff to do whatever it takes to help provide as many services as we can for an animal if that makes it more likely to be rescued," Schmidt said.
The full audit of the St. Louis County Animal Care and Control can be found here.
The Animal Care and Control Audit Action Plan can be found here.
Future updates can be found here.