Sugar Land animal shelter works to turn the page after turmoil

After receiving a raft of negative publicity last year following the revelation of unauthorized euthanizations and the firing of several employees, the Sugar Land animal shelter is working hard to turn a new page.

The shelter has a new staff veterinarian, Dr. Carolyn Bender, and two interim service managers in place who assured members of the the city's animal advisory board in a meeting last week that a new emphasis on ethical standards is now in place at the shelter.

Last September, Sugar Land officials announced that an investigation into unauthorized euthanizations at the shelter found that more than 38 dogs and cats had been killed without following proper procedure, according to previous reporting by the Fort Bend Star.

At least five shelter employees were fired in connection to the investigation, and the city was working with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to determine whether there was any criminality involved, according to the Star's reports.

The revelations drew the ire of animal advocates in the city and beyond, many of whom had longstanding concerns about how the city calculates its save rate. City officials said at the time that it was reviewing how it makes its calculations and whether any changes needed to be made.

City officials have also been considering shifting its shelter funding toward a regional shelter and partnering with a nonprofit organization to oversee operations, city spokesman Doug Adolph told the Star in October.

During the March 8 meeting of the animal advisory board, the members heard a presentation on fact-findings and possible actions on revisions to the shelter's euthanization and sterilization policies and medical standard operation procedures, as well as a discussion of the shelter's community engagement program and a discussion of partnership options.

Assistant City Manager Robert Venezuela told the members that staff had a meeting with the Best Friends nonprofit group about what public shelters and private entities have the best practices. The city has had conversations with shelter officials in Pascal County, Fla. Anther meeting was scheduled with shelter officials in El Paso, he said.

Dawn Steph, the city's director of environmental and neighborhood services, discussed the work so far on proposed policy and procedures updates.

Under the new euthanization policy, a medical decision to euthanize would have to be made by the staff veterinarian and approved by the shelter supervisor, Steph explained. A decision of euthanize an animal based on emotional or behavioral issues would be made by the supervisor and signed off by the veterinarian, Steph said. Those decisions would then to go the shelter's leadership team (the animal services manager, the veterinarian, and the supervisor), who would make the final decision as a body.

All euthanasia would be performed by a licensed veterinarian, Steph said.

"This lays the groundwork of who's making the recommendations, who is signing off, and the team is making the decision," she said. "So it's not based on one person making a decision based on their reason. It is a conversation that has to be documented. So it takes us to a level that we haven't been at before."

At the end of the discussion, the members of the animal advisory board unanimously voted to approved the euthanization, sterilization policies and procedures.

Toward the end of meeting, Capt. Danny Cornelius, and Cindy King, the city's new interim animal services managers, introduced themselves to the board. Cornelius came from the Sugar Land Police Department and King came from the Fire and EMS Department.

"Ethics is a big deal between the both of us and that's what we're trying to preach to our staff," Cornelius said. "You can have all of the policies in the world, and all of these things that try to guide. But if we're not hiring ethical people, and we're not training people the way then need to be trained, these policies aren't going to mean anything.

Cornelius said he and King are running the shelter as if it were a business, and employees are being held accountable to follow policies.

"I just wanted you to hear from us that we are ethical people and we hear your concerns, and are making sure that the shelter is being run the way it needs to be," he said.

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