FARMINGTON — Tuesday evening could mark the point at which the Farmington Animal Shelter takes a leap into the future or continues to languish in the past.
The Farmington City Council will hold a formal hearing to discuss shelter operations and future plans at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 800 Municipal Drive. The council will also discuss a spay and neuter proposal.
A clear plan, officials say, is essential as the city prepares to open the $4.6 million Regional Animal Shelter later this year. Inadequate staffing, lack of leadership, an influx of animals, a high euthanasia rate and other factors present an imminent threat to animal welfare and the shelter's ability to operate effectively and efficiently. The new shelter is currently under construction on Browning Parkway near Animas Park.
Among the challenges facing the shelter, the most significant is insufficient staff.
City officials and animal welfare advocates have stressed the need for a variety of measures, such as an improved spay and neuter clinic, volunteer program and a foster program.
Without proper staffing and training, these will likely be impossible to implement.
"We're very light on staff," said Marcy Eckhardt, shelter consultant and acting shelter director, at an emergency Farmington Animal Services Advisory Commission meeting last week. "We don't have the staff to train foster families. Right now, we're fostering to keep them alive."
The shelter lost three employees in the last six months, according to documents obtained in a public records request last week.
"People that come in have a disposable attitude toward animals," Eckhardt said. "We're forced to euthanize, and we're hiring animal lovers that don't want to euthanize animals. They can't handle it."
A temporary employee receives no benefits and typically comes from a nonprofessional background, she said.
Shelter employees come on board with little to no professional animal training, Eckhardt said. They need to be trained on a variety of animal handling techniques and operational procedures, but there simply is not enough time to conduct formal training. The employees are trained "on the job," as a result.
Having six full-time employees could attract applicants with professional training, Eckhardt said.
The city is currently searching for six full-time shelter employees, two part-time employees and one temporary employee, said Cory Styron, the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs director.
Styron is also working with the Farmington Police Department to move the animal control officers into the department. It's a move, he says, that will help give them more training and authority.
The path forward is slowly emerging.
Eckhardt drafted a manual outlining shelter policies and procedures aimed at shifting the shelter's initiative from animal control to animal welfare after she was hired as shelter consultant in December 2012.
That manual was provided to The Daily Times in the public records request.
The plan pushes for a number of polices crucial in making the shelter eligible for grant money in the future, including implementing an animal management and tracking software system, creating an active foster care program, setting up basic shelter vaccination protocols and partnering with neighboring shelter for staff training.
The shelter implemented a new intake process on June 1 that prohibits animals from immediately being euthanized when they are taken into the shelter, according to the manual.
The manual also outlines best practices for the shelter's budding foster care program, community support and outreach, facility cleaning, vaccination guidelines, medical examination and other shelter operations.
Animal welfare advocates say the changes are a good sign, but that boosting the shelter's staffing levels with qualified candidates and hiring a qualified shelter director are essential to improving conditions and operations.
"If you have the right person in the shelter, they may be able to turn it around," said Joel Farrell, president of the San Juan Animal League, in an interview earlier this month. "They haven't had the leadership. There needs to be a formal plan that will be approved by the (city council). When you don't have that kind of thing, there's too much wiggle room."
Although some staff have been reluctant to adopt the new operating procedures, Farrell said action and leadership will be key.
"People don't like to have their cheese moved, but they don't have a director down there in a supervisory role. We need to be moving to the new shelter. That's where the vision needs to go," he said.
Although Eckhardt is serving as the acting shelter director, Farrell said she doesn't have hiring and firing power and that her ability to affect change is somewhat limited.
But pooling Eckhardt's ideas with the resources and expertise available through the San Juan Animal League, the Humane Society of the Four Corners and the Pet Project could set the Farmington Animal Shelter down the road to a lasting and significant transformation, he said.
"There's no reason that there can't be a happy medium," Farrell said.