Issue October 28, 2009

Dog days

Grudge match under way between MAS director, foes

The emergence of the so-called dangerous dog ordinance as a marquee issue in Louisville has created a royal pissing match between groups entrenched on either side of the issue.
 

Metro Animal Services director Dr. Gilles Meloche was hired by Metro government last year with marching orders to change the culture at the animal shelter. Since November, he’s also been under pressure from Metro Council members to help develop a new law to deal with the city’s supposed pit bull problem.

But the Louisville Kennel Club, incensed over a draft dog ordinance it deeply disagrees with, is calling for Meloche’s head, primarily because of what members say is a troubled work history.

Both sides have lawyers in their corners, and the stare-down is ongoing: Meloche is considering suing the kennel club for defamation of character, for what he says is an unwarranted personal attack.

The kennel club has done its own research and compiled a significant file detailing Meloche’s work history, which includes a guilty administrative plea in Canada for improper record keeping of a controlled substance, termination from a job in Durham, N.C., for failing to follow the chain of command, and a controversy in Tallahassee, Fla., that centered around his overarching philosophy of animal control.

It’s that philosophy — “zero euthanasia” for adoptable animals — that figured into his hiring in Louisville, to fix what Metro officials acknowledge was a broken MAS system in need of a fresh approach. And while that method may be a nearly universal ideal in the world of animal control, it comes with clear problems, specifically the potential for overcrowding in shelters.

Louisville is poised on the edge of a major change in animal control, and regardless of Meloche’s background and the clamor that seems to have followed him everywhere, the Mayor’s office says he’s the man.

But should such a prior work history be overlooked? The Louisville Kennel Club says no.

Meloche’s career began as a dairy farmer at his family’s Meloche Farm, a 100-head cattle operation. He was 16 years old when his father had an accident, forcing him to quit high school and take over operational duties, accelerating him into adulthood. He spent just over 11 years there, from 1971-82, in the town of Vaudreuil, in Quebec, Canada, before entering Montreal University to study veterinary medicine, according to the résumé he filed when he applied for the Louisville position in March 2005.

He graduated in 1986, and that July took a job running De la Cité Veterinary Hospital, also in Quebec. His résumé lists him as both the director and owner, a position he held until January 1995.

In an interview Tuesday, Meloche said the clinic grew quickly — too quickly for him to keep up, in fact — and that he didn’t have the management skills necessary for maintaining it. According to a complaint filed with the Disciplinary Committee of the Order of Veterinary Physicians of Quebec, a professional organization, between May 1993 and April 1995, Meloche acquired 69 bottles of Winstrol, an anabolic steroid regulated by Canadian government, which also requires strict record-keeping of all sales of the drug. Eventually Meloche was unable to account for sales of 27 bottles, and in December 1995 he pleaded guilty to an administrative charge of failing to keep adequate records for a controlled substance and failure “to write a suitable veterinary prescription.” He was ordered to pay $2,800 in fines, plus the costs of handling the complaint. His veterinary license was not revoked, and he did not apply for renewal when it expired in 2001.

In person, Meloche comes off as charming, with a deep French accent. In the interview, he said the steroid issue arose because of a clerical mistake by an employee, and that he was not acting maliciously.

“It’s a parking ticket,” Meloche said. “It’s a big difference between a parking ticket and being convicted of DUI. Do you agree with that? That’s exactly what (LKC is) trying to do.”

He said he sold the hospital in January 1995 and took a job at College Lionel-Groulx, in Sainte-Therese, Quebec, as a professor of Animal Technology. On his job application for Louisville MAS, he listed his reason for leaving the hospital as “career change.” He was at the college until December 1999, the same year he earned a master’s in business administration from Concordia University, also in Quebec.

At that point there is a 16-month gap in Meloche’s work history. It arose, he said, because he’d begun dating his current wife, a New Yorker. She considered moving to Montreal, but the couple ultimately came to the States. Meloche said he had a difficult time finding a job until March 2001, when he was hired as animal control administrator for the city of Durham, N.C., a job he kept for 10 months before being terminated.

Meloche was fired for writing a letter to Durham County officials criticizing a plan to renovate the animal shelter there; according to a former colleague, he was upset that his organization — animal control and the animal shelter are different entities in Durham — was not receiving the upgrade.

The Durham experience was Meloche’s first in the hyper-charged world of animal politics, and he admits handling it poorly. Kim Willis, who worked 18 years in animal control and chaired the Durham County Animal Control Advisory Committee, where she worked directly with Meloche, said that’s when she first glimpsed what she believes is the controlling side of his personality.

“My working relationship with him was OK,” she said in a phone interview last week. “Part of the problem is that he would get, I don’t want to say a loose cannon, he’d get an idea stuck in his brain and there was no way to shake it out of him. He had a temper; lots of people do. He had difficulty letting things go.”

Willis said Meloche got along well with his staff at animal control, but that he had conflicts with animal shelter staff members — not all his fault — as well as with the Durham Animal Protection Society, which operates the shelter.

Meloche bristled at the suggestion that he has an authoritarian personality, but said he doesn’t back down when he believes he’s right.

At any rate, his personality — the unyielding attachment to his vision for animal control — would continue to be an issue, and his inability to play politics would ultimately cause him to resign his next job.

Meloche became director of the Tallahassee-Leon Community Animal Services Center in February 2002. His hiring — the result of a national search — came at a crucial time for the center, which had become dissatisfied with his predecessor, according to a former colleague. Meloche was touted for his credentials, an MBA and veterinary license, which he’d since earned in the States. His credentials are a sought-after combination in the field.

As director, Meloche answered to an advisory board made up of citizens and various professionals, such as a veterinarian, a Humane Society representative, and other rescue group agents. They met once a month. Right away, the advisory board pressured Meloche for vital statistics from the shelter, according to a former advisory board member and certified animal behaviorist who wished to remain anonymous because of a current job.
The most pressing concern was for a reduction in euthanasia, and Meloche became driven by it to a fault, the former board member said. But the numbers were not falling, even after many months. More radical representatives of rescue groups started showing up at meetings and hounding Meloche, hurling insults and trying to shame and embarrass him.

Meanwhile, the shelter became overcrowded, nearly doubling capacity at one point. The former board member said animals were dying regularly in their cages, the facility was rank with urine and feces, and staff became demoralized.

Sheree Connolly started her job at the center in December 2001, a few months before Meloche’s arrival.

“We all thought he was going to be the breath of fresh air we were looking for,” she said in a phone interview Monday. “Gradually it became a nightmare.”

She and two co-workers wrote an anonymous letter to Tallahassee officials in October 2002, citing four instances where animals were improperly treated under Meloche’s care. One case mentioned in the letter dealt with a husky-mix puppy with a bad leg, which Meloche decided to treat himself. He took the animal home that night, but it died of aspirin toxicity. It received too many painkillers.

Connolly said the three were informed that, unless someone was willing to claim authorship of the letter, nothing would be done. Connolly said she admitted writing the letter and was fired shortly thereafter. She sued the city as a whistleblower, she said, and ultimately settled out of court.

“His thing was to get our euthanasia numbers down, and of course everyone wants to do that, but his method was to let the animals suffer and die,” said Connolly, who now teaches in Florida public schools.

Meloche didn’t respond directly to Connolly’s charges, but reiterated that his method is not to allow animal suffering but to try and halt animal killing, even by humane euthanasia. “In Tallahassee,” he said, “I did a fantastic job.”

Jane Parsons, another former advisory board member, characterized the situation with Meloche this way: “The problem we had in Tallahassee was primarily that Dr. Meloche had not had any experience really in the public sector, so he didn’t really — it was a bad fit, because when you’re running a program with taxpayer dollars, your No. 1 obligation is to satisfy the public problem, and the public problem — it would be the same reason Louisville would’ve hired him — is to solve the overpopulation problem. Dr. Meloche was anxious to do zero euthanasia before we were ready. Instead of preparing a plan so it would work, he sort of jumped to the bottom line before we were ready. Not that it wasn’t an admirable goal; just unrealistic.”

Meloche resigned in October 2004. He said the reason was politics: too many people getting in the way of his vision. He lacked support from city government, support he has in Louisville. He grew frustrated.

“I’m very passionate about what I’m doing,” Meloche said. “I strongly, strongly believe in what I’m doing. I’m a good fighter. That I will stand for. When I believe in something, I will push as much as I can, because I think it’s my job.”

In July 2005, a Humane Society of the United States audit of the Tallahassee facility revealed that overcrowding had led to inhumane living conditions for the animals. Part of the audit was conducted while Meloche was still working in Tallahassee, and it attributed the overcrowding to Meloche’s euthanasia policy.

Meloche’s vision quest, then, is both why he’s in Louisville and why some people here want him gone. He has the political support in Louisville that he’s never had before: the Abramson administration, the Kentucky Humane Society and the Shamrock Foundation, among others, are willing to give him time, money and the benefit of the doubt to change things. Abramson has pledged to build a new shelter facility; this year’s Metro budget allotted $100,000 to train and hire new employees.

But questions linger. Chad Carlton, a spokesman for Mayor Abramson — who appointed Meloche last year after a national search — said the city conducted a thorough background check and officials were aware of Meloche’s past. Calling him a “change agent” and the victim of a campaign to impeach his credibility, Carlton said none of it shakes the Mayor’s confidence in Meloche.

What remains to be seen is whether Louisville MAS will follow the pattern that Meloche’s background seems to establish. Overcrowding is being talked about openly as a problem here. In an Aug. 21 Metro Council committee meeting, Councilman Kelly Downard referred to a surprise visit he made to MAS where there were some 400 dogs on hand. The capacity is 300. One explanation is that the Humane Society last year increased its fee to accept animals, which caused the intake at MAS to rise some 35 percent within a couple months. Another is that Meloche refuses to euthanize animals, instead letting them sit in cages for 40 days or more in some cases.

Some insiders say those who don’t agree with Meloche’s philosophy are being weeded out. Take Robert Risinger, a 28-year MAS worker who was fired by Meloche in February for euthanizing a cat he said was suffering badly, but without getting permission to do so. That came after at least two months of back-and-forth e-mails between the two, with Risinger complaining repeatedly about deteriorating conditions for the animals at the shelter.

On Feb. 2 of this year, Risinger wrote: “THIS WILL BE MY LAST E-MAIL TO YOU ABOUT THE KENNELS I GIVE UP YOU WIN ALL MY CONCERNS ARE FALLING ON DEAF EARS. I WILL COME IN DO MY JOB AND DRAG DEAD DOGS OUT IF NEED BE OR NOT LOCK THEM IN IF WE ARE OVER CROWDED. I WILL NO LONGER TRY TO FIGURE OUT THE MESSES EVERYONE ELSE LEAVES.”

Exactly one week later, and two days after Risinger — a kennel specialist at the time who had the authority to euthanize animals before a heart attack several years ago prompted him to request a demotion — put the cat down, Meloche called him into the office. He fired Risinger on the spot, making him sign a paper saying he would never return to the premises, according to Risinger.

“I really think, after looking at the situation, I was just causing too much trouble with my e-mails and trying to bring attention to the situation out there,” Risinger said in a phone interview Monday. He is now retired.

Meloche said there were and still are a select few at MAS who simply resist change. “This shelter was a kill shelter,” he said. “Period.”

So what’s this all have to do with the dangerous dog ordinance? For one thing, Meloche helped write it, and he is set to assume additional discretionary powers in enforcing it.
Donna Herzig, vice president of the Louisville Kennel Club, said they got a tip in March from a Florida colleague that they should look into Meloche’s background. She said the group’s investigation initially had nothing to do with the dog ordinance, but she believes his background does matter in that context.

Pam Rogers, Kentucky program coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States, supports Meloche and the dog ordinance. She said she’s gotten along well with Meloche, with whom she worked regularly to develop the ordinance.
“I like him. I find him easy to work with. He’s receptive, he calls you back. I find him pretty easy to get along with.”

The dog ordinance, now in its eighth draft, is still being debated in the Council’s Government Administration committee.