Trouble in Puppy Paradise

No money budgeted for pet food, vaccinations, and other basic items at new Williamson County animal shelter

If Old Mother Hubbard worked for the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter, would the Commissioners Court make her beg to get her poor dog a bone?

Melanie Sobel – former director of the multimillion dollar "state of the art" shelter, which opened in March 2007 – quit this month over a variety of troubles in puppy paradise, including a zero budget for the most basic of items, like pet food and vaccinations.

Sobel's last day was May 31, and she's not the only one to scram. Shelter manager Kim Harrington is set to leave June 14. In the wake of the resignations, the board of directors recently hired Dr. Dana Boehm, a graduate of Texas A&M, to serve as interim animal services director for 90 days beginning June 1.

At least the cupboard's not totally bare, thanks largely to the efforts of Dave Frase of Georgetown, a community volunteer active in animal causes. Frase has been scrounging the shelves of Wal-Mart, looking for torn bags of dog and cat food, which he delivers to the WilCo shelter. "The donations have been critically important since I was told that no money was budgeted for food," he wrote in a letter to the Georgetown Sun, chastising the commissioners for their indifference. "It's time for them to get their collective heads out where the sun shines," he wrote.

Nonetheless, it's easy to see how the county wooed Sobel and Harrington. During the design phase, William Connelly, lead architect, told commissioners the WilCo facility was "the most advanced" he'd ever worked on. It would be more like a pet store than a pound, with glassed-in "habitats" and a "get-acquainted area" to spark people-pet "chemistry." Each stray would have its own shower and drain. "If you were a dog or cat, you'd want to live in Williamson County," Connelly said.

But the shelter, which can handle about 80 dogs at a time, has been over-capacity since day one – despite Connelly's promises that it would accommodate 7,000 dogs and cats when opened and up to 28,000 upon later expansion. One confidential source said Sobel was "set up to fail" because she had to create a top-drawer program for thousands of animals with only a skeletal crew. "How could she do that when she was cleaning kennels all day?" one source asked.

Residents saw all of this coming. In July 2005, Wes Porch, along with about 60 others, protested the shelter before the court. It would be a "$3 million extermination facility," Porch said. According to WilCo Public Information Officer Connie Watson, 501 out of about 1,372 strays got the needle between March 1 and May 24. Their carcasses are piling up alongside roadkill at the Hutto dump. "That rate is low compared to other open-admission shelters in the state and country," Watson said.

The county shelter replaced the Williamson Co. Humane Society as the go-to facility for pet welfare. After years of accepting all county animals, the Leander institution fell out of favor with commissioners as shelter fever overcame officials. "We're spreading it around. [Animal control] has been located in my precinct in a horse barn," said former Commissioner Greg Boatright before one vote. In an interview with the Chronicle this week, WCHS Director Gretchen Guyer countered this common dig with: "Yes, it's a horse farm – that's now a doggie and kitty farm. We are on track, placing 2,500 animals this year. We are no-kill. We have 22 acres, where pets can walk and run six hours a day.") The Humane Society and the county parted ways in February, because the county didn't want to increase its contribution to the $250 per animal the Humane Society requires for operation. That amount is now completely funded by private donations.

The County Attorney's Office denied a public-information request for itemized financials for the animal shelter, including euthanasia expenses, saying County Treasurer Vivian Wood doesn't have the authority to fulfill it. Neither Sobel nor Harrington could be reached for comment, nor could any member of the Commissioners Court. Watson provided a May 7 statement that doesn't list pet food but does include such luxuries as $40,000 in computer software and $4,000 in cell phones. If only dogs could talk.

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Williamson County animal shelter, animal welefare, Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter, Melanie Sobel, Kim Harrington, Dana Boehm, Dave Frase, William Connelly, Wes Porch, Connie Watson, Williamson Co. Humane Society, Gretchen Guyer, Vivian Wood

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