The Austin Chronicle

Damage Control at Shelter Raises More Dander

By Patricia J. Ruland, July 27, 2007, News

After a series of negative press reports on alleged inhumane conditions at the Williamson Co. Regional Animal Shelter, county and local officials now are being questioned about their attempts to stifle criticism and engineer a damage-control campaign.

The questions center on the termination of WilCo shelter veterinary technician Kathy (Lopez) Abdella, just two days after her criticisms of the troubled shelter were published in the local media. Abdella's firing was followed by the county's claim that the shelter had received a glowing report by the Department of Health and Human Services, in what officials boasted was an "unannounced" inspection of the facility.

Both the firing and the inspection took place in the wake of news articles that carried photos of cats -- at least one of which was dead, surrounded by feces, blood, and urine-soaked litter pads -- which animal-rights advocates say were taken at the shelter. The unfavorable coverage has put county and local officials in the hot seat over the taxpayer-financed $5 million facility in Georgetown. Although the county has been mum on all other aspects of what they say is an internal criminal investigation of the shelter, WilCo spokeswoman Connie Watson wasted no time releasing an exuberant "all's fine" status report on the shelter shortly after the state inspection.

But the celebration was short-lived. On July 20, Austin lawyer Philip Durst, acting on behalf of Abdella, filed a grievance against the county and requested a hearing in an attempt to reverse the "terrible injustice" inflicted on his client. The filing alleges the county fired Abdella in violation of the Texas Whistle­blower Act as well as her right to free speech. Addi­tion­ally, former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire, representing a group of animal-rights advocates, is raising doubts about whether the state's inspection was actually "unannounced," as county officials claimed. "The [WilCo] sheriff's detective told [state inspector Beverlee Nix] the date and time to conduct the inspection," Aleshire said. "This leaves open the possibility that someone from the sheriff's office leaked notice of the inspection in time for the cleanup project to get finished before Dr. Nix arrived," he said.

Aleshire asserts that a cleanup crew (made up of various muckety-mucks from around the county) converged on the shelter to conduct a scrubbing just one day before the inspection. According to attorney and WilCo consultant Charlie Crossfield, the informal cleanup crew included three Hutto city leaders -- City Manager Ed Broussard, Assistant CM Joanie Clarke, and Council Member Debbie Holland; a trio of Round Rock officials -- Assistant City Manager David Kautz and police Lt. Bob Drawbaugh and Assistant Chief Tim Ryle; and WilCo Commissioner Valerie Covey.

As it turns out, animal cruelty -- one of the key allegations against the shelter -- is not typically addressed by state health inspectors. "Our agency does not investigate animal cruelty," Nix told the Chronicle, adding that the state doesn't routinely conduct animal impoundment inspections either. When called on to do so, however, Nix says the agency immediately notifies cities and counties to make an initial investigation.

In WilCo's case, e-mails to the agency from County Judge Dan Gattis, Covey, and others, convinced Nix that the county was making sufficient progress toward improving shelter conditions. Nix also concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove that photos depicting unhealthy shelter conditions were taken at the WilCo facility. Asked if the photos conveyed evidence of cruelty or neglect, Nix said they did not, but her next comment suggests that county officials still have a lot of housecleaning to do: "My wish," she said after a pause, "was for better conditions, like clean cages."

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