More than 100 protestors lined the sidewalk in front of the Baltimore County Council’s offices on Washington Avenue in Towson, holding signs with pictures of dogs and cats and shouting call-and-response chants.
“Who kills our dogs and cats?” a woman shouted, to which the crowd answered, “Baltimore County bureaucrats!”
The April 21 protest was organized by a group called Reform Baltimore County Animal Services, which is calling for increased community outreach and transparency to reduce the shelter’s kill rate, better facility conditions and veterinary care and an increased volunteer force.
“People have been trying to bring about change at this place for the last couple of years and have been met with resistance from the county,” said Lynn Greene, spokeswoman for the organization. “They are still functioning like a 1940s shelter.”
But Dr. Gregory Branch, director of the Baltimore County Department of Health, said there is “no merit” to the group’s complaints.
“A lot of things they’re talking about are unfounded,” he said. “All the animals are actively adopted, and we try to work with different rescues and adopt them out to the public as quickly as we can.”
The Baltimore County Division of Animal Services’ shelter is located in Baldwin, a point of contention among Reform BCAS since it’s on the far northeast side of the county, on the border with Harford County.
Branch said the shelter takes in about 2,800 cats and 1,800 dogs per year. Approximately 23 percent of the dogs and 59 percent of the cats are euthanized, he said, a procedure used for sick animals and at owners’ requests.
“If a dog is adoptable or [can be rescued], we will not euthanize that animal unless we have no space,” said Branch.
While Branch disputes the group’s accusations, local activists, animal rescue workers and former volunteers tell horror stories about neglected animals, dirty animal cages and a staff that fired volunteers for questioning the shelter’s conditions.
“I saw things that were so unsanitary, just the spread of disease and sick animals, and I thought I had to let these people know there were ways to do this more effectively, and they didn’t appreciate that at all,” said Kathy Soul, a former kennel owner and dog walker who volunteered from March to July 2013. She said she was “fired” from that position.
“They didn’t seem very receptive to my ideas or suggestions,” added Soul, “and we’re talking about things like, ‘Why don’t you clean out feces at the end of the day? Why don’t you clean out the water bucket between dogs?’”
There are about 50 registered volunteers with the Baltimore County shelter, according to Branch. Protesters contend that number is staggeringly low compared to other shelters. The Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown, for example, has about 250 volunteers, at least 125 of whom volunteer in any given month, said executive director Jen Swanson.
Branch acknowledged in a statement that the 30-year-old shelter is inadequate in design and size to meet the shelter’s demand, and he expects that problem to be remedied with a new shelter that will be built on the 14 acres where the current shelter is located.
“We’re going to have a new, state-of-the-art $6 million facility,” he said. “We’re excited about the possibilities.”
The new facility, expected to open in August 2015, will have more kennel space, a meet-and-greet room for adoptions, a surgical site, two dog parks (one for the shelter and one for the public) and a cat socialization room.
The county also hired two full-time veterinarians in April and introduced public spay-and-neuter services.
But Jody Rasoff, a member of Reform BCAS who works with several rescues, isn’t convinced a new facility will solve what she sees as systemic issues.
“These things can get changed without spending the $6 million on a new shelter,” she said.