Gone to the dogs

Louisville Metro Animal Services and Director Gilles Meloche face a barrage of criticism about how they do business

Oct 28, 2009 at 5:00 am

Last Wednesday, during what should have been a routine Government Accountability and Oversight Committee hearing at City Hall, the latest chapter in the convoluted saga(s) emanating from Louisville Metro Animal Services unfolded in such spectacular fashion that the sound of collective eyebrow-raising could be heard from blocks away. When it was over, television crews were still setting up their tripods at the chamber’s narthex when LMAS director Dr. Gilles Meloche — who announced Tuesday he will resign Dec. 31 — gave a few terse interviews and proceeded to get the fuck out of dodge, leaving many unanswered questions in his wake.

The GAO hearing’s intent was to review an investigation conducted by Metro Auditor Mike Norman into the business relationship between LMAS and the now-defunct Animal Adoption Agency of Middletown. According to the report, Meloche entered into a three-month “trial case” with AAA president Michelle Hensel with the intent of increasing citywide animal adoption rates — and cash returns — despite neither LMAS nor AAA having the authority to form such a relationship in the first place (only the Mayor’s Office, with theoretical Metro Council approval, can do so).

Norman’s investigation also found LMAS failed to properly obtain commercial drivers’ licenses for so-called “S.P.O.T.” mobile clinic operators (putting the city at great liability risk), suffers from rampant inventory mismanagement and adoption revenue data inconsistencies, and has generally failed to maintain accurate adoption records even though they’ve got a fancy-sounding computer system, dubbed “Chameleon,” which is apparently more trouble than it’s worth. And all of this despite the deplorable conditions at current public animal shelters, a fact that Meloche was quick to justify by reminding the committee that a new shelter will be completed “in either December or January,” most likely because the current ones are that bad and, thus, the reason for building a new one — Kafkaesque logic at its worst; the more Meloche talked, the more my head hurt.

Yet the element of Norman’s report that surprised Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, committee chairman, and Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, was the part in which it appeared LMAS and AAA had intentionally misplaced and/or destroyed adoption records and reported incomes. Considering the content of those documents — animal identification numbers, intake dates, etc. — exist in large part to tabulate revenue streams for the shelter, it stands to reason that their “misplacement” means the disappearance of tens of thousands of dollars in Metro Government property.

The Mayor’s Office is also passing the buck, for the moment, to the Kentucky Board of Veterinary Examiners, pending its own opinion on these matters. By now, you’re probably well aware that Meloche is being sued for sexual harassment, and that he may have tortured kittens by euthanizing them without anesthetic. In addition, this week he will face the first in a series of civil rights lawsuits filed against him and several animal control officers accusing them of unconstitutional searches and seizures of pets, courtesy of LMAS’ catastrophic enforcement of Louisville’s dog ordinance.

And while rabid pit bulls always play well on the 6 o’ clock news, the truly disgusting stuff lies in bureaucratic minutia that, when taken as a whole, confirms the worst of the audit report’s findings and paints LMAS as a kind of Lennie from “Of Mice And Men”: good-intentioned, yet ultimately bad for animals and people.

According to a former LMAS animal care employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by Meloche[1], it is entirely within the director’s power to destroy any data via the shelter’s appropriately titled “Chameleon” computer network. The software is built so that the chief administrator (Meloche) has access to every file, e-mail and hard-drive, a power that the source confirmed was abused many times.

Then there’s the practice of keeping up to 75 dead or euthanized animals stacked on wire racks in a walk-in freezer while living, non-frozen animals at the Manslick Road shelter have been without heat since the Aug. 4 flood. And about those iced dogs and cats: They’re dumped into the city’s landfills at a rate of 10,000 every year, even though animal services received $100,000 to replace a broken crematorium years ago, a project that was never completed.

Or, consider the disconnect between LMAS’ animal control efforts and its animal care employees, where the consequences of Meloche’s focus on adoption and an unrealistic adherence to a “zero euthanasia” policy have yielded an overcrowded, disease-ridden shelter whose conditions inhibit the frequency of adoption, making a kind of Gordian knot that neither the mayor nor Metro Council can cut through. (Especially troubling is the use of adoption rates as a metric for job performance, which plays well in the media but does little to reflect the reality of the situation.)

With most employees rounding up strays, more tasks are stacked on overworked LMAS care staff and volunteers, the latter category being largely composed of Dismas Charities recruits, e.g. minor criminal offenders paid pennies on the dollar and looking to reduce their sentences. The result? Inadequately trained workers tasked with increasing responsibilities as animals die in increasing numbers, placing great emotional stress on employees: One volunteer I spoke with broke down in tears when she told me that they receive 60-70 cats every day, and that only 40 percent of them wind up being adopted/avoiding the ice box.

As a public agency, LMAS acts like a corporation: The measures it heavily invests in — the seizure and selling of pets, intense license policing — yield a higher return on the dollar compared with other activities like spaying/neutering, public outreach for low-income pet owners, or building a crematorium. This also means the vast majority of non third-party animal rescue services (aside from AAA) wind up being treated like competitors; because their motives are to reduce the amount of product (stray animals), they are alienated from the process. So in a sense, Meloche’s recent request for even more funding shouldn’t be that surprising, because to invest in the shelters — and, thus, the ethics of rescue groups — would be too costly in the long run.

True to fashion, Meloche did not comment for this story. According to the source I spoke with, the outgoing director “is sincere, but deluded.” It rang a bell, because after last week’s hearing, I had a chance to ask Meloche about the upcoming criminal and civil suits against him.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he told me with a smile, which sounded about right.

[1] And who was, in this source’s own words, “his biggest fan, in the beginning.”

Visit fatlip.leoweekly.com to read about Jonathan Meador’s recent tour of a city-run animal shelter