Late last year, Kansas City reached out to a new private management group to try to improve its struggling animal shelter.
But in the ensuing six months, the new management team, called KC Pet Project, has dealt with the departure of its executive director, delays in getting nonprofit status to start crucial fund-raising, and a critical inspection report.
What’s more, the shelter at 4400 Raytown Road is more crowded with animals than ever, and it’s costing more taxpayer dollars now than when the city controlled it.
Supporters say that KC Pet Project is turning the shelter around — reducing the euthanasia rate, eliminating serious disease outbreaks at the facility, and getting its management act together. But they acknowledge it’s been a bumpy ride.
“They’ve had fits and starts,” City Manager Troy Schulte said Monday. “This is a group that didn’t have a long track record. They came together to do this project.”
City Council members said a major reason they approved a contract was because the KC Pet Project board had recruited an executive director, Kim Staton, who brought 25 years experience in animal sheltering and an additional 10 years as a vet tech.
But Staton left May 31, and her departure after just six months caused some alarm among city officials.
“I was concerned, and I am still concerned,” said Deletta Dean, who leads the city’s Neighborhood Services Division, which includes animal control.
KC Pet Project Board President Brent Toellner, a longtime dog advocate, said the board has received applications from excellent candidates to replace Staton and hopes to have someone new in place by August.
In the meantime, the interim executive director is Teresa Johnson, who was on Wayside Waif’s board for 10 years and had prior shelter management experience before coming to Kansas City’s shelter.
Toellner said the board also has taken steps to address other shortcomings, including sanitation problems identified in a Missouri Department of Agriculture inspection.
Toellner and others, including Staton, say KC Pet Project has made significant improvements. The facility has a full-time veterinarian and more than two dozen other employees, has recruited a strong volunteer network, and has created a more friendly environment for people looking to adopt a pet.
They’ve scrubbed from top to bottom, painted the walls in cheerful colors, and hung banners in the entry area to make it more inviting.
Still, Toellner concedes, the antiquated facility is a huge challenge, and overcoming the shelter’s poor reputation from the decades when it was city run is going to take time.
“It’s going to take a while to build that up,” he said. “There are people who care and are working their butts off to try to do right by the animals down here.”
Airianna Brewer says she saw that first-hand on her visit to the shelter last week.
Brewer drove with her five children from Elsberry, an hour north of St. Louis, to Kansas City to see about adopting a young German shepherd that she had heard about through a rescue group.
Brewer was impressed with her experience. A shelter trainer spent an hour making sure the dog would get along well with her children, and they all felt comfortable with the adoption.
“The staff were so friendly,” she said. “They were very, very good.”
But Brewer said she could also tell the shelter was “very, very crowded.”
Full to bursting
KC Pet Project’s goal is to get as close to no-kill as possible, euthanizing only dangerous animals or those that are too sick or injured to survive. Toellner notes that when the city used to run the shelter, prior to March 2009, it euthanized as many as 65 percent of animals, saving only 35 percent.
The private veterinarian, Wayne Steckelberg, who ran the shelter from March 2009 through April 2011, improved the save rate to 65 percent or better.
Since it took over management Jan. 1, KC Pet Project has done even better, improving the save rate to more than 86 percent of cats and dogs. But that also means far more animals remain at the shelter for weeks or months until they are adopted.
The facility, whose capacity is about 200 to 250, now routinely holds 350 animals at any given time until they can find a new home.
“Until the residents and the City Council decide to do something different, and create a modern facility ... the crowding issue is always going to be an issue,” Toellner said.
Staton applauded the goal of getting close to no-kill, but said that’s a major challenge for a municipal shelter like Kansas City’s that can’t turn cats and dogs away.
She said there had been no planning on the part of the board to get to no-kill — with sufficient foster families, off-site adoption partners and rescue networks already in place. Thus, the first few months at the shelter were crisis management, addressing disease and sanitation issues while they were getting inundated with animals in an already overcrowded building.
That was a contributing factor to her departure.
Staton emphasized she wants nothing but the best for the shelter. She said the staff who remain are highly dedicated and deserve the public’s support.
“I really want that organization to succeed because for me it’s about the animals,” she said.
Toellner said the board does have a plan to increase off-site adoptions, boost fund-raising and improve the shelter, and it has continued to make progress since Staton’s departure.
“We’ve worked really hard to make this a nice place for people to come visit,” Toellner said.
Concerns persist about the ability of the city and the new private manager to provide a healthy, humane animal shelter at a reasonable cost to taxpayers.
When the city first switched to private shelter management with Steckelberg in 2009, it hoped to improve service while saving money. Steckelberg received $600,000 from the city but supplemented his operation financially with veterinary clinic services.
After some people raised concerns about animal disease and other issues, the city cancelled Steckelberg’s contract in April 2011. It chose KC Pet Project as the new manager last October, and the initial $410,000 contract ran from Nov. 22 through April 30. The new, one-year contract beginning May 1 is for $1.17 million, nearly twice what Steckelberg was being paid.
City Councilwoman Jan Marcason, head of the council’s finance committee, said the city realized it can’t nickel and dime the shelter.
“We are not saving money,” she said, adding that previous attempts to reduce the shelter’s cost compromised animal care.
Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, said KC Pet Project was not his first choice to take over the shelter management, but he thinks it’s doing as good a job as it can, given the poor condition of the existing facility, built in the early 1970s.
“I don’t think the management of the shelter is the problem,” he said. “I think the shelter is the problem.”
So far, Toellner said, the KC Pet Project has taken in 26 percent more dogs and cats in the first five months of this year compared to last. The count was 1,934 dogs and 808 cats, plus 205 others, including goats, chickens, peacocks and rabbits. It adopted out 975 dogs and cats, reunited 390 with their owners and transferred 775 to other shelters and rescue groups.
The city has also recently beefed up its animal control staff from 13 to 18 to improve public safety and hasten response to citizen complaints. But that’s likely to increase animal control deliveries to the shelter. If that occurs, Toellner says the city could impound 8,000 animals this year, versus 6,100 in 2011.
Other challenges include:
KC Pet Project had pledged to raise private donations to supplement city funding, but it still doesn’t have its nonprofit organization approved. Toellner said the paperwork was filed Dec. 1, and he’s been told it can take six to eight months. He is hopeful the approval will come by August.
An agriculture inspector visited the shelter May 22 and found a number of sanitation problems.
Many of the observations echoed those in previous inspections and were a function of the antiquated facility and worn-out kennels. But one finding related to a dirty, feces-soiled cat area, and failure to feed the cats and kittens within a 12-hour period.
Toellner said a cat staffer had just quit and the shelter had also been inundated in recent days as the result of two cat hoarding cases. He said the shelter has hired additional staff and taken steps to address that finding.
“It looked horrible on one day, and I don’t think it’s indicative of how things are really cared for,” he said.
The city had also hoped to raise additional funds for the shelter by increasing pet licensing compliance. But Toellner and city officials acknowledge that hasn’t happened yet.
In the past, city officials estimated only 17 percent of dog owners and 3 percent of cat owners properly licensed their pets. In late January, the city lowered the price for some pet licenses to improve that performance. But from February through May, license sales increased only modestly to 7,210, from 6,742 during the same period a year ago.
Schulte acknowledged it is the city’s responsibility to get the word out. He said that will take time, as the city tries to make it more convenient for the public by recruiting more veterinarians to sell the licenses.
Sharp said the real answer for both the animals and the public is a new animal shelter. He’s pushing for a $10 million bond issue on the November ballot, an idea that he’s floated in the past, gaining little traction with the rest of the council.
“The city needs to consider giving the voters of Kansas City a chance to see if they will approve a small bond issue,” he said, “to build a modern, humane animal shelter that isn’t an embarrassment.”
In the meantime, Johnson said she’s determined to improve the shelter’s image and reputation with the public.
“It’s always going to be a challenge in an open admission, high volume shelter, but I think we can save many, many more dogs and cats than had been saved here in previous years,” she said. “We’re doing that now.”