Columbia Animal Services set to make changes must report back to city council committee

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Published: Jul. 5, 2023 at 8:20 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Columbia Animal Services has been asked to give a city council committee quarterly updates on its practices and euthanasia rates.

This comes after a WIS investigation found about a thousand dogs euthanized at Columbia Animal Services over a 13-month period, nearly half were killed within five days of entering the shelter. Shelter records show the dogs were killed for medical or behavioral reasons.

A big focus during last week’s committee meeting was on the shelter’s data and data collection.

A big focus during last week’s committee meeting was on the shelter’s data and data collection.
A big focus during last week’s committee meeting was on the shelter’s data and data collection.(WIS News 10)

Council member, Dr. Aditi Bussells asked Columbia Animal Services Superintendent Victoria Riles about data the city provided WIS in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Some dogs listed as killed for medical reasons were listed as normal after an intake examination on the dog’s medical history form.

Riles said when an animal comes to the shelter, the employee will report dog’s vaccinations, weight, heartworm status, temperament, and other observations.

“There is a field in that screen that I believe is titled ‘condition,’ and it can be ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal,’” Riles said.

She went on to say the “normal” or “abnormal” field is “rarely used, if ever.”

“We actually had a conversation with our veterinarian. She thinks she’s the only one who uses that field because she’s filling that in when she’s doing medical assessments,” Riles said, “An intake evaluation is not a medical assessment performed by a veterinarian. It’s just showing the intake process was complete and the animal was vaccinated.”

Columbia Animal Service’s own documents show that field is often used. It’s often detailed, listing things as abnormal such as “stomach red and irritated,” “hair loss,” “distended belly,” or “very thin,” throughout the 13-month time period WIS reviewed from Jan. 1, 2022, to Feb. 2.

WIS went through medical records for 285 dogs Columbia Animal Services euthanized for medical reasons. The City of Columbia said for 136 of those dogs, the owner had requested euthanasia.

But in cases with stray dogs or owner surrenders, that medical history form was filled out about half the time.

“If someone sees a form that says normal, the story that’s being told to everyone that’s not watching this or not involved is that we are killing normal dogs,” Bussells said, “And I have a problem with that because that’s not true based on what you’re saying.”

“I have a problem with that, too,” Riles responded, “But I would also like to notate that there are times, again, last week for example, where we are euthanizing normal dogs, purely for space.”

According to data Columbia Animal Services provided WIS — only seven dogs were listed as euthanized for space during a 13-month period.

Riles said euthanizing to make space in the shelter is a last resort.

In a previous interview with WIS, Riles said rarely they euthanize just for space, saying there are other contributing factors.

“But again, if you have 12 dogs come to your loading dock at 4 p.m. or before 5:15 p.m. and you have no open runs, you have to make space for those animals because you legally have to hold them,” Riles said during the committee meeting.

State law requires shelters to follow a “stray hold.” That means the shelter must hold stray dogs for five days unless the dog has severe medical issues or is dangerous.

Riles said they have reached out to the company that creates the software for shelter employees to input data about animals.

“So many times that field would be left normal, even if there was an abnormality,” Riles said.

Councilman Peter Brown said Columbia Animal Services needs to embrace the data.

“When I say, ‘embrace,’ there are going to be things in that data that we don’t like,” Brown said, “And that’s an opportunity for conversation, for us to talk about accountability and different ways in which we can do things. But right now, we are between a rock and a hard place because we don’t know the truth.”

Moving forward

On the same day of this meeting, Riles said Best Friends Animal Society came to Columbia Animal Services and gave an assessment of their operations.

Best Friends Animal Society is a national non-profit that helps shelters reach no-kill status, meaning they have a 90% live-release rate for animals.

Columbia Animal Services previously received a grant from Best Friends Animal Society to join its mentorship program, pairing the shelter with the Horry County Animal Care Center.

Riles said since entering the mentorship, the shelter has implemented training opportunities, enrichment techniques for animals and the shelter is exploring self-rehoming options for owners.

Riles said Columbia Animal Services has also increased marketing efforts.

“One thing that I learned very quickly, is we weren’t being transparent enough with our marketing,” Riles said.

Riles said they weren’t telling the community when the shelter was reaching capacity and when they needed help to save dogs from euthanasia.

In an emailed response to WIS today, Riles reiterated the statement that they will change how they document a dog’s health status during intake.

“Intake examinations are performed by non-medically licensed personnel, the “normal” field is subjective to the opinion of whomever is entering the record details at the time. The medical history is a reflection of the animal’s intake examination as well as any medical documentation that follows the animal through its stay,” Riles wrote in the email, “The ‘normal’ field is not used to make any decisions pertaining to the animal’s outcome. In consultation with our leadership team at the shelter, we have decided to have this field removed as it is not adding any value to us or the animals.”

The city council committee hopes that by getting these updates from Columbia Animal Services, the city council can better see how it can help the shelter.

Bussells said she thinks Columbia Animal Services needs a new facility.

Riles said they recently went through a space study and selected an architectural firm to look at the facility and see how functional it is and where the facility could be improved.

As for changes at the shelter other than in data collection and marketing, Shealy said they will see what Horry County Animal Care Center and Best Friends Animal Society say after the evaluation.

“But after meeting with our staff and team, we feel really confident that they are making sound decisions and are very passionate about the work there are doing,” assistant city manager, Clint Shealy, said.

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