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If you didn't believe the Richmond Animal Shelter could shed its troubled past and improve its operation, just ask its harshest critics.

Getting Fixed

Jeanne Bridgforth enters the Richmond Animal Shelter on a Tuesday afternoon and is greeted with warm smiles and hellos. The president of Save Our Shelters and members of other humane groups chat with shelter staff as they get ready to walk through the kennels to choose animals for rescue.

Without the subtext, this is a mundane picture. But when you factor in the contentious battle SOS has waged with the city over the shelter for the past three years, this sight is more than extraordinary. It's downright surreal.

Bridgforth has been kicked out of this lobby by Richmond police. SOS members and shelter staff have staged shouting matches here. Bridgforth warned citizens against dropping off animals here.

Now she is here all smiles and compliments.

How did this happen?

Just six months ago, the shelter was mired in the same problems it has faced since 1996 when a whistleblowing employee revealed deplorable animal welfare conditions in the shelter and inhumane euthanasia practices. Things came to a head last March when five shelter employees told Style Weekly that animals were being underfed, improperly medicated and still inhumanely euthanized.

The city, under the new leadership of City Manager Calvin Jamison, responded to the story with two separate investigations: one by the city auditor's office and one by the Humane Society of the United States. The program manager, Selina Deale, who was the target of some of SOS's harshest criticism and who is a defendant in a defamation lawsuit filed by one of its members, was removed from her post.

The city quickly began instituting some of the changes recommended in the still unreleased HSUS report: changing hours open to the public to allow for more cleaning, staff training, protocols for proper feeding, repairs to heating and ventilation systems and expanded hours for humane societies.

But these changes may be only the beginning. City Councilman John Conrad will propose at next week's Council meeting the establishment of an Animal Control Board, which would supervise and control the shelter, and would consist of the director of public health and six private citizens, likely to be appointed from among the area's humane organizations. Conrad intends also to propose mandatory spaying and neutering before animals can leave the shelter. Though it is required by state law, the city requires only that those adopting animals send back vouchers once the animal is sterilized.

Photo by Stephen SalpukasKaren Karvelis (background) of Virginians for Animal Rescue is all smiles as Jones shows off a female puppy in need of a home.But Conrad's animal crusade doesn't stop there. He intends to investigate other avenues of improvement, including turning the shelter into a non-euthanizing facility to qualify for some of the millions of dollars in grant money — including the $200 million Duffield Family Foundation fund — available nationally to such shelters.

Conrad even attended a vigil Aug. 21 held by PetFix Coalition. He says his philosophy hasn't changed on the issue but that he has "embraced it more enthusiastically because I've learned it's a more important public policy issue than I first thought."

He blames previous city management for the mess that the animal shelter issue became. "The city was at fault for not doing the things Dr. Jamison is doing now. It's classic mismanagement by the city," the 1st District Councilman says. He adds that citizens "correctly" asked how the city could manage other city functions if it couldn't handle the animal shelter properly.

It may sound simple, but all Jamison says was needed to improve the shelter was a responsive administration that took the problem of 18,000 homeless animals in the city seriously. "People want you to listen to them. They don't care what you know until they know that you care. I'm not saying in the future we won't have issues, [or that] the problems are cured, but it's how we respond to them. My approach was we are going to attack this head on."

Bridgforth, too, credits Jamison with the 180-degree change in shelter operation. She says she and her group are now looking forward to partnering with the city to reinforce the positive changes. Still, Bridgforth remains cautious. Conrad and Jamison are leaving the door open for privatization of the shelter, a move SOS would oppose. For now though, Bridgforth seems optimistic: "I'm in shellshock that it's a pleasant place to visit, and that there's a good relationship with the city. It's like you're pinching yourself," she says.

Employees seem happy, too. Animal Control Officer Alvin Jones seems relaxed and enthusiastic, as he escorts the group including Bridgforth, her sister Jennie Knapp, Karen Karvelis of Virginians for Animal Rescue, Barb Dawson of Angel Dogs and Donna Pinnix of PetFix Coalition down the hallways lined with yellow paw-print decals on the floor. "It's a more pleasant place to be right now," says Jones, who has worked at the shelter for two years, through some of the worst times. "It's a dramatic change. Mr. Chapman is open, honest and fair."

Mr. Chapman is Thomas Chapman, the acting program manager. A former health department coordinator of the Athletes for Fitness program, he was tapped by the city to stabilize operations at the shelter and make some needed changes. "I don't have the history," says Chapman, a soft-spoken man with a shaved head and a round, friendly face. "I just see things to be done, the standard. We're going to be clean. We're going to be humane." He's currently trying to decide between two retriever puppies to bring home, Boomer or Zoomer.

"It's like a fresh start," Jones says.

The critics agree.

Photo by Stephen SalpukasShannon Dickey, 5, (left) and Austin Smith, 6, pick up their new dog, Misty, a terrier mix, from the city pound. Pinnix's return is her first in two years. Though she is not convinced the problems are solved, she says the shelter seems to be on the right track: "The last time I was here it was so unfriendly and hostile, the staff was so ugly to me, I decided my time was served better elsewhere. The staff has changed, and I think the city has taken notice and is going to make the shelter the shelter it should be — more user-friendly and more animal-friendly."

Chapman points out that checklists hang in each room now, and employees are required to sign off on completed tasks including feeding, cleaning and medicating. A new food inventory system is in place to ensure enough food is ordered. Kennel masters now use weight charts to ensure animals are fed proper amounts.

Four lower-tier kennels have been designated puppy kennels and have been fitted with special metal barriers to keep puppies from slipping through the bars of the cages and down the drain, as happened in July 1997.

As for euthanasia, the city has rehired veterinarian Kim Eaton, who worked previously for the city but left under acrimonious circumstances. The city is now working out a contract with her, and Chapman says the department is going to put out bids for a permanent on-site veterinarian.

A walk-through of the shelter reveals that there has been much improvement. Cat and kitten cages are clean, their stainless steel water bowls filled and shiny. Most animals seem alert and playful, eager for attention.

"The animals look healthier, the place smells better. It's cleaner," Pinnix observes.

Bridgforth and Karvelis scribble page after page of notes about the animals they consider for rescue. They press their hands to the cages and talk to the dogs. Dawson digs into a box of Richfood dog bones and plucks one out for a skittish Dalmatian and then passes out bones down the line of kennels.

Bridgforth squats down to a corner kennel to check on a white pit bull. Its ears have been chewed off. A deep gash appears to be healing atop its head. The dog is obviously a fighting dog, yet it licks Bridgforth's waiting hand and bounces from side to side in the kennel. Bridgforth is well aware of the chronic problem of dog fighting and has vowed that her group is ready to take on the issue with all the zeal it used in its campaign to improve the animal shelter. Stroking the dog through the bars of the cage, she glances up and declares, "This is our next

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