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FARMINGTON — About 50 people crowded into Farmington's City Hall Tuesday evening to voice concerns and hear about future plans for the city's animal shelter.

In the last six months, the Farmington Animal Shelter has tackled numerous population, staff and medical care issues. Modernizing the animal services department's practices and preparing to move into the new Farmington Regional Animal Shelter have been top priorities for city and animal services staff.

The Farmington City Council on Tuesday reviewed the shelter's past performance and discussed future policies, including a low-cost spay and neuter program. The packed meeting included members of the San Juan Animal League, Humane Society of the Four Corners, local veterinarians, La Plata County Humane Society representatives and local animal welfare advocates.

As of 10 p.m., the city council had not made a decision on whether to pursue a spay and neuter proposal.

The period of transition has not come without its challenges.

"You're watching us in the middle of a change," said Marcy Eckhardt, animal shelter consultant and acting director. "You take two steps forward and three steps back. I would say the biggest factor is that we don't have a director. You are looking at a shelter that is in the middle of a monstrous flux."

The shelter's live release rate has risen to historical highs, the quality of care has improved and the euthanasia rate has fallen, in spite of overcrowding and staff shortages, said Cory Styron, the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs director.

In response to rising intake levels, the shelter began placing two dogs in each dog run and placing cats in housing known as "cat condos," Styron said.

"We woke up on July 13, and we had almost 200 animals in the shelter," he said. "We overwhelmed our staff."

The current shelter should be housing about 146 animals, Styron said. The maximum number at the new shelter will be 358.

Loyd Lillywhite, a veterinarian and one of the founders of the San Juan Veterinary Hospital, spoke at Tuesday's meeting and said that he has heard a number of concerns over cleanliness and quality of care because of overcrowding at the current shelter.

"We have a serious problem at the shelter," Lillywhite said. "The numbers need to be brought down to the number that can be cared for."

Implementing a clear plan for operations should be the top priority, he said.

"We have to have some implementation of policies and procedures right now," Lillywhite said. "We're going to be moving into the new shelter soon."On July 19, the San Juan Animal League and the Humane Society of the Four Corners wrote a letter of concern to Mayor Tommy Roberts, the city council and City Manager Rob Mayes about operation plans for the Farmington Animal Shelter.

Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts speaks to Cory Styron and Marcy Eckhardt during Tuesday’s city council meeting at Farmington’s City Hall. Styron
Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts speaks to Cory Styron and Marcy Eckhardt during Tuesday's city council meeting at Farmington's City Hall. Styron is the director of the city's Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department, and Eckhardt is a shelter consultant and the acting director for the Farmington Animal Shelter. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

The letter, provided to The Daily Times in a public records request, contains a list of 18 questions and concerns, including what role animal rescue will play at the new shelter, how to implement a low-cost spay/neuter program, whether a nongovernmental organization or contractor should advise or operate the shelter, whether the city should seek assistance from New Mexico's Animal Shelter Assistance Program, how to effectively implement the foster program and how the city and San Juan County should work with the Navajo Nation to address animal overcrowding on the reservation.

Both organizations have also requested monthly progress reports from the city.

Councilor Gayla McCulloch said culture change will present a significant general challenge."It takes years," she said. "It's not going to happen quickly. This is a major change from where we've been."

McCulloch also asked whether there has been contact with the Navajo Nation about animal population control.

Mike Stark, San Juan County operations officer, and Kim Carpenter, county CEO, contacted Navajo Nation officials who expressed no interest, Styron said.

Councilor Mary Fischer, however, said that she had numerous complaints about the shelter.

"What I am seeing is chaos," Fischer said. "What I expected to see was a plan saying how we're going to fix it. I haven't seen anything tonight that makes me confident."

Greg Yee covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and gyee@daily-times.com. Follow him @GYeeDT on Twitter.