by Judith Fairly – Weatherford is a city at the crossroads. It faces two paths: one leads to a future as a progressive, prosperous community that embraces the challenge of growth from small cattle town to modern city; the other to a small town that has grown out but hasn’t grown up, a town that sweeps problems under the carpet that future generations will have to face.
The City of Weatherford advertises itself as a “family focused community known for valuing historic traditions while planning for the future. It is a safe, livable city with a healthy economy that recognizes the importance of working with citizens and local partners.” That slogan is laudable but it doesn’t reflect reality.
The City does not have a plan to address social issues that drive up crime rates, its economy is based on ownership of its local utilities and the sprawl of generic businesses along the interstate rather than investment in local small businesses and human capital, and it silences citizens who want change rather than partnering with them to come up with solutions that work for the community.
Nowhere is the City’s true face revealed more than at the Weatherford Parker County Animal Shelter, which has been in crisis since the City parted ways with a well-loved local volunteer group, Parker Paws, at the beginning of this year. Parker Paws continues to operate independently with support from the community but the shelter has been foundering. At a recent meeting of the Weatherford/Parker County Animal Shelter Advisory Committee, Dustin Deel, the Interim Director of WCPAS, said that the kill rate at the shelter is 60%. Deel reported to the Committee on progress at the shelter towards reducing disease and streamlining procedures to make it more effective. He said the kill rate has been reduced 4% since last year, but that’s nothing like the 90% live release rate promised a few months ago by Sharon Hayes, the City official in charge of the shelter (who did not attend this meeting).
The City has not replaced the shelter vet; a vet is available once a week to do all spays & neuters and, presumably, to care for sick animals. The week that animals who have been reclaimed by their owners but are waiting for the vet to give them a rabies vaccination, the week that animals who have been adopted and are waiting for a vet to neuter them, the week that young and sick animals with weakened immune systems sit in a cage, is a week that they are exposed to disease, a week they can get “lost” or “accidentally” euthanized — which happens more frequently than it should at our shelter– and a week they are taking up space that means life and death to another animal for lack of room.
There are still no volunteers at the shelter after 10 months. The shelter has no system in place for fostering animals, a method for protecting young animals from disease and for making more room for adoptable animals at the shelter. The shelter’s operating hours have been expanded, but not in a meaningful way — two hours twice a week –that makes it possible for working people to look for lost animals or to have time to adopt a new family member. Every shelter that has lowered its kill rates — and let’s not rely on the euphemism of “euthanization,” which means to put a living being to death in a humane manner to alleviate suffering — has done so by making adoptable animals available to the public through expanded hours of operation, by holding adoption events offsite on a regular basis and by finding creative ways of expanding public awareness of the wonderful animals who, through no fault of their own, are homeless and at the mercy of a shelter that is supposed to care for them.
After Mr. Deel’s report to the Animal Advisory Committee meeting last week and before members of the community were allowed to speak, the City Manager, Jerry Blaisdell left the room. He has made it clear over the past months that he holds himself above public opinion, resulting in attempts by his friends on the City Council to prevent residents from speaking at City Council Meetings. It’s also clear that he maintains an iron grip over the shelter, his shuffling of city personnel into different slots notwithstanding. Nothing will change at the shelter while Mr. Blaisdell is in charge; his background in law enforcement has preordained that the shelter be operated like a prison where the inmates are regarded as problems to dispose of. Instead of recruiting a professional and experienced shelter director, Mr. Blaisdell put in a well-meaning but completely inexperienced City IT employee in the spot on an “interim” basis. Mr. Deel offered the Advisory Committee vague plans and procedures that completely ignored what has worked for other shelters. Russ Braudis, the Chair, observed that “arbitrary goals are not the same as ‘metrics‘ if you don’t have a plan in place.” And Elyse Carter, a Citizen at Large representative, gently inquired about available data for success rates for the shelter’s new punitive fees for lost animals. Mr. Deel admitted he had none currently available. Mr. Deel stated that the shelter is “one of the only animal welfare groups that makes a profit.” Where does that money go when draconian cuts to the shelter budget means that more animals suffer and die there?
Our poor hapless Mayor, Dennis Hooks, recently asked a former shelter volunteer why those of us in the community who care about the welfare of animals keep bothering him and the City Council about problems at the shelter. He told those of us who had been regularly attending City Council meetings about shelter issues that they “get it.” That was before the elections last spring where voter apathy reinstalled the Mayor and incumbent Council members. That was before Heidi Wilder, the City Councilman who loudly proclaims her love for animals slashed the shelter budget presented to the City by Mr. Deel.
This is our opportunity as members of the community to have a voice about our future. The ommunity’s disengagement from the shelter, the loss of donors, the loss of volunteers, and the loss of support by animal welfare organizations like TCAP, which offset the costs of spay/neuter, have created a deficit of financial support to the shelter estimated to range from the mid- to high-five figures. Those losses, which Mr. Deel characterized as “fundraising opportunities,” are a direct result of the City Manager’s tendency to run this town like it’s his personal fiefdom, clinging to archaic ways of doing things, shutting down dissent and putting people in positions at the City who won’t fetter his agenda. The tragedy is that we have the funds, the knowledge, and the people in the community who can challenge the status quo and demand change but we lack the will. And tyrants rule.
To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Please speak up for the animals at the shelter. Email, call, or visit the Mayor’s office, the City Manager’s office, and attend the City Council meetings. Government is not those few City employees and council members; it is “we the People.”