CLAYTON — In January 2018, Steve Stenger bragged about a major success as county executive. Under his watch, the euthanasia rate at the St. Louis County Pet Adoption Center had been dramatically lowered.
An external audit released this week says that might not have been true.
Auditors found that a former director hired by Stenger had required all owners surrendering pets to check a box labeled “ORE” on a form. No one explained to owners that the code meant “owner requested euthanasia.”
If the animal was put down for any reason it would be excluded from statistics reported to the county’s Animal Care & Control Advisory Board, withholding data on the number of kills from officials providing oversight.
That was just one of several problems at the troubled shelter identified in a 268-page report.
Acting health director Spring Schmidt said the shelter is trying to comply with several recommendations in the audit.
Among the changes, she said she ordered her staff to use more transparent language when taking in animals to make sure owners know they are requesting euthanasia. And, she said, pet owners are being offered support with challenges like housebreaking a pet, as an alternative to surrendering it. That wasn’t being done before, she said.
Members of the advisory board were “very disappointed” to learn they were duped, she said.
Schmidt said a low euthanasia rate had been a “clear expectation” of Stenger, and there was pressure to show progress. She said she wanted the rate to be lower but “I expect that to be met through systemwide change and not through a manipulation of numbers.”
She said that because the problems were systemic, she has not disciplined anyone. “I think there were staff who had concerns but didn’t have authority to act on them.”
The center has long been the target of criticism by animal welfare advocates, who have frequently complained to the County Council that animals were being kept in a dirty environment, far too many animals were being euthanized, and that the staff was dishonest and unresponsive to their concerns.
Those advocates harshly criticized the director installed by Stenger in late 2017, Beth Vesco-Mock. At a public hearing about the center, Vesco-Mock was described by volunteers as a bully who drove out more than a dozen staffers.
Stenger fired Vesco-Mock in March 2018, after just six months on the job, because of allegations that she had used racist language. (The county later paid her $150,000 to settle a sex discrimination claim.) Complaints about the center persisted for months after Vesco-Mock was gone. In October, Stenger moved the shelter back into the health department, and the council authorized $85,000 for management consulting firm Citygate Associates LLC to conduct an audit.
The auditors found that a woman who brought her dog to the shelter asked if it was a no-kill shelter and said she did not want to have her dog euthanized. Shelter staff told her it was not a no-kill shelter but that the center tried to find people to adopt every animal that wasn’t aggressive or sick.
She checked the “ORE” box, but nobody explained what it meant.
The auditor also said shelter staff members were upset about a haphazard management of euthanasia. Aggressive animals were sometimes kept for for a long time and nicer animals killed more quickly because none of them were being counted.
In one case, when an owner requested a very sick dog be put down, the animal had to wait four days because euthanasia was only performed once or twice per week.
The audit found the shelter was unable to control infectious disease because of overcapacity, preventing sick animals from being isolated. And it found animals were being held much longer than necessary, haphazardly moving animals without urgency. Cages and kennels were not being properly disinfected, contributing to the spread of disease.
And, the audit found, very little effort was spent marketing pets for adoption.