Cash and critters: Broward’s animal shelter operates on millions less than shelters in counties next door

FORT LAUDERDALE: Scores of cats and dogs that get lost or dumped on the street wind up peering wistfully out of a cage at a place of last resort: A taxpayer-funded animal shelter.

And in South Florida, the amount of taxpayer money dedicated to county-run shelters varies wildly. Staffing also varies, as does the number of animals taken in by each shelter.

Take a look at these numbers:

Broward’s Animal Care and Adoption Center takes in about 8,600 cats and dogs a year.

Miami-Dade County’s Animal Services division takes in far more pets: More than 30,000 cats and dogs each year. And Palm Beach County’s Animal Care and Control division takes in around 10,000 homeless cats and dogs a year. Staffers also tend to more than 1,100 livestock, wildlife, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters and other pocket pets.

Broward’s shelter took in more than 13,000 cats and dogs in 2020, before Director Emily Wood came aboard in January 2021.

Those numbers have since plummeted, partly due to a new shelter philosophy that urges good Samaritans to leave lost and stray animals where they’ve found them so the pets can be retrieved by owners or perhaps taken in by a new family.

“A shelter is not a home,” Wood told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in a recent interview. “If we can help an animal stay in their home or find a new home without coming here, it’s better for the animal and the families involved and it’s less of a tax burden for the taxpayer.”

Making do with less money

Broward’s Animal Care and Adoption division makes do with the least money of all in the tri-county area: $8 million a year for a county with 2 million residents.

In Miami-Dade, home to 2.75 million residents, the county’s Animal Services division has a $34 million budget — more than four times Broward’s. In Palm Beach County, home to 1.5 million residents, the Animal Care and Control division has a $14 million budget, nearly twice the money allocated in Broward.

“We get a little over $4 per capita for animal services here, which is low for the ($10 per capita) national average,” Wood said. “It’s over $9 per capita in Palm Beach County and over $12 per capita in Miami-Dade County.”

Broward’s shelter also has fewer people tending to the animals.

Staffing levels at Broward’s pet shelter are now at 107, not nearly as high as neighboring counties. Miami-Dade’s animal division has more than 280 employees. Palm Beach County has 118.

“Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County staffing are higher than ours,” Wood said. “But we make it work. We’ve been looking at how different our staffing and budget is from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County. While I’m grateful for more staff to handle our intake here, over time I hope we can use outreach staff and field services staff to support animals where they are and solve problems before they (worsen and) an animal is separated from their family.”

Wario snoozes in his kennel at Broward Animal Care and Adoption Center in Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 3, 2023. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Wario snoozes in his kennel at Broward Animal Care and Adoption Center in Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 3. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Audit exposes list of woes

Before Wood’s arrival in early 2021, Broward’s animal shelter had only 80 employees. The shelter has since gone on a hiring spree, partly to keep up with intake and partly to ensure the shelter can now be open seven days a week, just like its counterparts in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

But Broward Commissioner Steve Geller dismissed the idea of comparing counties and how much they spend on animal care.

“Let’s say we’re spending 2% of our budget on animal care. (It’s actually under 1%.) We could triple that and people would still want more,” he said. “Having said that, could we increase their money dramatically? Absolutely. But we’d have to either increase taxes or take it out of another pot.”

Broward built a new $16.5 million animal shelter that opened in November 2016. The shelter, at 2400 SW 42nd St. in Fort Lauderdale, was built to hold 335 animals — 171 cats and 164 dogs. At 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, it had 250 pets — 149 dogs and 101 cats, according to the shelter’s online dashboard.

Broward’s pet shelter, formerly closed on Mondays, switched to a daily schedule in January.

Broward commissioners insisted on the change last fall, nearly two years after a county audit said the shelter should be open seven days a week.

The scathing audit, released in December 2020, exposed a long list of woes and made 150 recommendations to make things better for the staff and the animals at Broward County’s shelter.

Among the criticisms: Animals were left in the dark for up to 18 hours; cat cages were too small and some dog cages had no bedding; the shelter, understaffed by 35%, needed 36 more employees; and the shelter, closed on Mondays, needed to be open seven days a week.

Out of 150 recommendations made by County Auditor Bob Melton in 2020, the shelter had fulfilled 84, partially embraced 38 and failed to meet 26, according to an audit review done a year ago. Two no longer applied.

Several fixes were put in place: Timers were installed on light switches so animals wouldn’t be kept in the dark for hours. Staff now comes in earlier to clean. Larger kennels now have beds, though kennels for smaller dogs do not.

But a recent audit review by Melton shows there’s still room for improvement. Out of 72 recommendations reviewed by Melton, the shelter embraced 24, partially implemented 37 and failed to meet 11.

Among the problems that still need fixing:

• Areas outside the shelter flood when it rains, making them inaccessible for walks, play groups and other animal enrichment activities.

• More volunteers need to be recruited to help meet the shelter’s needs.

• Data entry on the treatment and kennel screens, used to identify who administered a controlled substance, must be consistently and accurately input, monitored and reviewed.

• Management should continue to work with rescue groups in order to increase rescue activity.

Some county commissioners argue the shelter is no longer in dire straits.

‘Trying to get this right’

Broward Commissioner Mark Bogen compared Wood to the director who came before her and said Wood is better by far.

It was Bogen who demanded an audit of the shelter after a surprise visit by an out-of-state expert turned up dirty cages, hot kennels and other problems four years ago, when Laurelei Combs was in charge.

“I will sometimes hear of a complaint, but it’s 90% reduced from what it used to be,” Bogen said. “I went there about four weeks ago and there was no feces or urine on the floor. It didn’t smell horrible. I believe our current director is doing a good job. Can things be done better? Always. But it’s a learning experience.”

Commissioner Michael Udine also defended Wood and the job she’s doing.

“Emily obviously has her supporters and her detractors,” Udine said. “But the shelter continues to push forward. And there’s multiple sides to every story.”

Udine pointed to the shelter’s recent new hires.

“I know we put additional dollars into the shelter,” he said. “We hired new people. I think we’re making continuous improvements in the shelter. There’s always going to be issues based on the number of cats and dogs that come in. And there’s economic issues. But the county spent a lot of time and money and (staff) hours to try to get this right.”

Staff member Susan Wohl shares a bench with Lulu at Broward Animal Care and Adoption Center in Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 3, 2023. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Staff member Susan Wohl shares a bench with Lulu at Broward Animal Care and Adoption Center in Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 3. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Geller also praised Wood for turning the shelter around.

“Am I nominating Emily Wood for animal shelter director of the year nationally? No,” he said. “But I have gone by the shelter and done my due diligence, spoken with people and made unannounced visits. And to my untrained eye, it seems to be running fine.”

But Wood, like several directors before her, has come under intense criticism from animal activists.

Broward County’s troubled animal shelter has gotten so many complaints over the years, Mayor Lamar Fisher questioned last year whether it was time to turn it over to the private sector.

“This shelter has been plagued with continual issues,” he said at the time. “Do we still want to continue to be barraged by complaints and issues?”

Fisher was on vacation and unavailable to comment.

‘I want to get her out’

Animal advocate Michele Lazarow, a Hallandale Beach commissioner and longtime critic of the shelter, has told commissioners she thinks Wood should be fired.

Within months of taking the reins as director, Wood outraged critics with a three-day wait policy on strays that animal activists say forced local police departments and good Samaritans to either house them or ignore them. The only dogs allowed immediate entry to the shelter were the sick, injured or dangerous.

Lazarow was among one of the most vocal critics — and still is.

“I want to get her out,” Lazarow told the Sun Sentinel. “I want to get a competent, caring, compassionate shelter director who understands Broward County and the needs of the community, the human and animal community. And I’m not going to stop until we get that.”

Another goal looms large on the horizon.

In April 2012, Broward commissioners adopted a goal of becoming a “no kill” community, meaning an animal is euthanized only because it is suffering or too dangerous to be adopted.

Most no-kill shelters aim for a save rate of 90% or higher.

Miami-Dade’s save rate was 92.5% last year. Palm Beach County’s was 86.6%.

The year Broward approved its no-kill goal, the shelter had a save rate of 39%. By 2015, the shelter was still euthanizing more than half the pets it took in, or 52%.

Wood says the shelter’s save rate was 86% in 2022, but activists say they don’t trust the numbers.

“We don’t know what the kill rate is,” Lazarow said. “We don’t know if the numbers are real or not. Until we get the right director, I don’t want to even have that conversation.”

From left: Quincy, Ammie and June snuggle together in their kennel at Broward Animal Care and Adoption Center in Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 3, 2023. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
From left: Quincy, Ammie and June snuggle together in their kennel at Broward Animal Care and Adoption Center in Fort Lauderdale on Aug. 3. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Always a prickly topic

Geller acknowledged that Broward’s animal shelter is one of the prickliest topics the commission hears about from the public and the media too.

“We spend more time dealing with complaints about the animal shelter than probably any other single issue we hear about,” he said. “I think it’s to a large degree because there are unrealistic expectations about what the county can do.

“They want every dog adopted the next day. None of the nine commissioners can be an expert on every area of what the county does. I’m not an expert on animal control. So we have hired someone who is. It is not my job to micromanage the shelter. I am not an expert, and I never will be an expert on this.”

Geller gives kudos to Wood for taking the job in the first place.

“A lot of people don’t want to come to Broward because we have a reputation of chewing them up and spitting them out,” he said of the county’s long line of beleaguered pet shelter directors. “Fairly or unfairly, Broward has developed a reputation: The day you go there, you will be attacked. A lot of people just don’t want to do it.”

Wood says she understands that her role comes under the magnifying glass at times. And she’s OK with that.

“Part of the reason I took this job is because things were so polarized between staff and members of the community,” she said. “In general, the people I’ve talked to who have been unhappy with the way things are, but who have been willing to come in and see the shelter and talk to staff and share their ideas and hear mine, I don’t hear from them much. Or they become volunteers. We generally get good feedback from the people using our services. And even when it’s not good, we listen. I want to hear that feedback. I want to do better, and I think everyone who works here does too.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.