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Gwinnett animal shelter ‘so much better’ under new department’s control

A little more than a year ago, the Gwinnett County animal shelter was lifted from the supervision of the local police department and placed beneath the umbrella of community services.

It was a change animal advocates had long lobbied for, arguing that the shelter and animal control operations needed to have a less rigid, more caring, more animal-centric philosophy — and that the police department should focus on police work.

Thirteen months into it the move, the advocates say, the difference is clear.

The shelter’s “save” numbers continue to rise. A full-time veterinarian was added to the staff. The shelter’s Lawrenceville facility underwent a face lift to make it more inviting. Staff have made more appearances at community events, assuming more of an educational role with animal control than a punitive, citation-writing one. And every day, statistics about intakes, adoptions and euthanizations are uploaded to the county website, a step toward addressing long-held complaints about transparency.

The move to county’s community services department was by no means a panacea. But “with that change came a whole different attitude,” said Jim Poe, a member of the county’s animal advisory council.

Morale has purportedly gone up, both among shelter employees and those that work in concert with them. A new manager and a second assistant manager are expected to join the team later this month.

Employees were eager for the change, said deputy community services director Blake Hawkins, who has acted as the shelter’s manager since last fall.

“We’re really happy to say that the staff, they’re in,” he said. “They want to be a progressive, modern shelter, and they want to be where animals are saved, to be part of that and make that happen.”

‘A complete turnaround’

Gwinnett animal welfare was placed under control of the county police department in 1993 and, during the latter part of the subsequent two-and-a-half decades, experienced its share of turbulence. Low morale and strained relationships have been a common theme.

In 2012, then-shelter manager Mary Lou Respess retired — and five other employees resigned or were disciplined — following an investigation into what one black shelter employee called a “culture of bigotry.” The same year, a newly formed animal task force found that the shelter had euthanized a shocking 4,100 animals in 2011.

The task force recommended operations be privatized or otherwise relocated. Neither happened at the time.

Respess’ successor, Chip Moore, was popular among volunteer and rescue groups and helped the shelter make major strides in community outreach and reducing euthanasia. He resigned in Nov. 2015, citing personal reasons.

The subsequent manager, Curt Harrell, took over in early 2016. The shelter’s relationship with volunteers and rescue groups soured and, to add fuel to the fire, Harrell was found guilty of contempt of court for ordering the euthanization of a court-protected dog.

Last May, officials released a months-long internal investigation into shelter operations. It was spurred by allegations of unnecessary euthanizations and fudged statistics, but the probe found no wrongdoing on behalf of shelter management.

Harrell resigned several months after the shelter’s April 1, 2017, move to the community services department.

That move to community services — and the leadership of Hawkins and new assistant manager Chandler Giddens — has made all the difference, advocates and officials said this week. The post-police culture has been a big factor, they said.

Poe, the animal advisory council member, said his group’s meetings have traditionally been nothing but complaints. The last meeting? Nothing but positive.

“It’s made a complete turnaround,” Poe said. “And it’s the perception that we actually care about the animals. … It’s just a good, good feeling that things are moving in the right direction.”

Marcia Bumbalough, the vice chair of the animal advisory council, described the shelter as “so different, so much better.”

Said Elizabeth Burgner, the director of Planned PEThood, which now provides full-time vet care at the shelter: “It has really hit its stride.”

‘The ways of Gwinnett County’

Hawkins said the shelter’s new manager, Alan Davis, is expected to begin work on May 29. Davis spent the last two years or so leading the animal shelter in Forth Worth, Texas. He took the helm there  in the wake of a citizen task force issuing a critical report that led to a staff shakeup.

A new assistant manager, Vern Sawyer, is also expected to join the Gwinnett staff soon. Sawyer is also from the Dallas, Texas, area.

Hawkins said he’ll remain hands-on at the shelter, especially until Davis and Sawyer get “trained and acclimated to the ways of Gwinnett County government.”

At the Gwinnett animal shelter, those ways are very different than they were a few short months ago.

“They’ve done an amazing job to change the culture as well as making connections with the community,” county Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said. “I’m thrilled with the change.”

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