County shelter under fire for leaving stray dogs on streets

FORT LAUDERDALE — On a rainy day along Interstate 95, a woman rescues a stray dog and is left fuming when the Broward County animal shelter resists taking in the homeless animal. Another dog is denied entry after being rescued from drowning in a canal. And in one Fort Lauderdale […]

FORT LAUDERDALE — On a rainy day along Interstate 95, a woman rescues a stray dog and is left fuming when the Broward County animal shelter resists taking in the homeless animal.

Another dog is denied entry after being rescued from drowning in a canal. And in one Fort Lauderdale backyard, dogs starve to death despite repeated visits from a county animal care investigator who fails to take them away.

All three scenarios have played out under the tenure of Emily Wood, the latest director of Broward Animal Care and Adoption, the county’s tax-supported pet shelter. In just 18 months on the job, Wood has run into troubles similar to those that cost her predecessors their positions, riling the animal rescue community, frustrating cities and police forces across Broward County, and stirring tensions among her own staff.

Under Wood’s leadership, critics say, the shelter has been turning away dogs that should be taken in, leaving many roaming the streets. One way she’s doing that, they say, is with her three-day wait rule on strays, a policy that went into effect a year ago. The only dogs allowed immediate entry to the shelter are the sick, injured or dangerous.

For years, both police and good Samaritans have been dropping off animals at the county animal shelter without having to wait three days. Cities throughout Broward, blindsided by the new policy, say they don’t have the space or staff to house stray dogs that police pick up off the streets or rescue.

“She is slowly eroding the county’s value as a shelter of last resort,” said Wendy Schugar-Martin, a former shelter volunteer from Hollywood. “There are no more last resorts. When people get turned away at the Broward shelter, the dogs end up in the woods, in the Everglades, on street corners. They have forgotten that they are public services. They have forgotten they serve the community.”

While Wood claims this approach is a better way of reuniting animals with their owners, activists say there’s another motive: It’s all meant to make it look like the shelter has a booming adoption rate and a low-kill rate. If the shelter takes in fewer animals, fewer of them get euthanized, making it seem the shelter is closer to a no-kill goal set in place 10 years ago.

Critics also claim her policies are keeping animals that desperately need rescuing out of the shelter, allowing horrific cases of neglect to persist.

Activists point to one case where the shelter failed to confiscate four staving dogs in Fort Lauderdale whose lives were in danger — two would end up dying of starvation, with one animal’s waist no wider than its spinal column.

Stray and starving dogs are not the only bones of contention surrounding Wood. Her second-in-command filed a formal complaint on May 31 claiming Wood referred to her as a “bull dyke.”

Broward County officials had high hopes for Wood, expecting her to reform a troubled agency tarnished by years of scandal and front-page headlines. Others hired to lead the shelter have had short tenures and mixed results in the face of relentless public criticism. Critics say Wood is headed in the same direction.

“Their job is to keep homeless animals off the streets,” said Hallandale Beach Commissioner Michele Lazarow, a prominent animal advocate. “They are turning away their primary purpose. You can’t do that. You can’t tell the cities to save their own animals. We’ve had fights. I told her, ‘Don’t unpack. You’re not staying.’”

Wood, though, works for Broward County and has the support of her supervisors, receiving a glowing review in her first year on the job that praised her honesty and compassion.

Wood says her policy is truly meant to help the dogs find their way home — or perhaps find a new home in the neighborhood. According to Wood, it’s all part of the new world of sheltering, where the community is called on to help rehome abandoned animals. The experiment is being tried by crowded shelters dealing with a growing surplus of homeless dogs and cats across the nation.

“A shelter is the last place a dog wants to be,” Wood told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “A shelter should only be used as a last resort. The national average for return-to-owner rates from shelters is about 17%. But if animals are held in their community, it’s closer to 80%. I cannot confiscate every animal and put them in a shelter and call that humane.”

Wood mentioned several national groups that recommend the three-day waiting period: American Pets Alive, National Animal Control Association, Association for Animal Welfare Advancement and UC Davis Koret School of Shelter Medicine.

In addition to the 72-hour wait on taking in strays, Wood also implemented a policy that requires pet owners to wait 30 days to surrender pets. Critics say this only adds to the problem.

The intake numbers at Broward County’s shelter have shown a steep 50% decline, dropping from 14,056 in 2017 to 7,098 last year, according to Wood’s latest numbers.

Twenty years ago, the county shelter took in nearly 20,000 dogs and cats, far more than today’s count. Miami-Dade Animal Services still takes in about 30,000 dogs and cats each year, regardless of age, breed, medical condition or temperament.

In the meantime, the Humane Society of Broward County has seen its intake numbers rise dramatically. This year alone, the privately run shelter has taken in 541 stray dogs compared to 381 for the same time period last year.

The county spent $16.5 million building a new shelter that opened in late 2016 at 2400 SW 42nd St., just west of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The shelter was built to hold 335 animals, but had only around 220 when two Sun Sentinel reporters stopped by in July to interview Wood.

“They are telling people who call about a lost dog to just leave it on the street,” said Ana Campos, an animal advocate from Fort Lauderdale. “It’s their game to keep numbers down. It seems their goal is to lock the front door. This is what our taxes are going for.”

Wood scoffed at the notion that her motive has anything to do with making it look like the shelter is closing in on its no-kill goal.

“To say we would chase a number, that’s really just not how we operate,” Wood said. “Intake is really the last resort. If we can work with a person to keep the animal in their home or get them right back to their home, we prefer to do that than have the animal come here.”

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

The shelter’s kill rate was 61% in 2012, when the county commission set the no-kill goal. By 2015, the shelter was still euthanizing more than half of the pets it took in, or 52%.

Wood says the shelter’s save rate is now 85%, but activists say they don’t trust her numbers.

Wood is certainly not the first shelter director to find herself scrutinized by a suspicious public. Directors held up to the microscope have come and gone over the years, with activists applauding their exit.

Thomas Adair resigned under a cloud of controversy in 2017 after being caught altering documents to make it look as if people surrendering their pets to the shelter wanted them euthanized when in fact they wanted them made available for adoption.

Lauralei Combs was the next to land the job, but lasted only two years, resigning in March 2020 amid a flurry of complaints and criticism from animal activists.

An audit completed just before Wood’s arrival exposed a long list of woes, including the fact that animals were being kept in the dark and left unattended for up to 18 hours, potentially harming their medical and psychological health. Wood’s supervisors at the county’s Resilient Environment Department say she has made headway in fixing those problems.

Despite support from above, Wood has come under fire from within her own ranks.

Lauren Bluestone, the shelter’s assistant director, filed a formal complaint against Wood on May 31, accusing her of using the term “bull dyke” to describe her to two shelter employees.

“It started after my acceptance of the job but prior to my start date, Emily referred to me as a ‘bull dyke’ to two different subordinates when describing me,” Bluestone wrote in a complaint filed with the Broward County Professional Standards/Human Rights Section, the division charged with investigating claims of discrimination or harassment.

“This type of wording should have never been said to anyone in the workplace as it is offensive and could set a tone prior to my arrival to other members of the staff,” Bluestone wrote. “That is a stereotype that can also have very negative connotations which set a perception up from the start. She has continued with harsh criticism which has not been delivered in a professional manner, which may be a direct result from this stereotype.”

The claim is now under investigation and Bluestone has been temporarily assigned to a different manager, said Lauren Turner, attorney for Bluestone.

Wood denies using the term.

“I absolutely did not say that,” she told the Sun Sentinel.

Jeff Halsey, her on-site supervisor, quickly vouched for Wood.

“I’ve worked here for almost two years now,” he said. “I’ve worked with Emily since she’s been here. I have seen nothing to suggest she would ever approach using language like that. That is absolutely not her.”

Critics say Wood’s apparent reluctance to take dogs into the shelter can sacrifice opportunities to stop animal abuse, leaving neglected or mistreated pets on their own. They point to a tragic incident of starvation that led to the death of two dogs in Fort Lauderdale.

What began as a dog-bite complaint widened into an investigation of neglect and mistreatment of four dogs. The shelter investigator made repeated visits through late 2020 and most of 2021, but eventually reported compliance by the owner, noting that the dogs were being given shelter and that improper tethers involving short heavy chains were gone.

“Closing call as complied, as I have already verified on a prior visit that there are two dog houses present in the back of the home that are not visible from the front fence,” the investigator wrote in a report dated Nov. 24, 2021. “Both Empress and Soldier appeared to be a little thin, but their condition has not changed from the first time I saw them.”

About two weeks later, a neighbor called the Fort Lauderdale police to report a starving dog that wandered into her yard.

A police report laid bare the horrific details: “Empress was emaciated, her ribs, spinal cord and pelvic bone were highly prominent with each bone clearly distinguishable. There was no visible layer of body fat on her and substantial loss of muscle mass. Empress’ right front leg was broken, rendering her unable to straighten that leg.”

With the police present, the neighbor “fed Empress a whole pack of hot dogs, approx. 5 slices of bread, a serving of pork chops, plus some cat food. Empress ate eagerly and was extremely excited for food and attention.”

What the police found in the dog owner’s yard was far worse. The corpse of Lucci, a pit bull mix who had died that day, “was extremely emaciated, with her waist area being essentially the width of only her spinal cord covered in skin. All of her bones were clearly visible under the skin.”

Another starved dog was found buried in the yard. Broward Animal Care finally confiscated the two surviving dogs. The owner was arrested on an unrelated warrant and later charged with four felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty.

Meredith Bruder, a longtime shelter volunteer and founder of the non-profit group Pets’ Broward, learned of the incident and fired off an angry email in March to County Auditor Bob Melton.

“These dogs were quite CLEARLY already being starved when [the animal control officer] was there just days before,” she wrote. “The officer closes out the complaint without ever even seeing the yard, the dogs or the owner on the last day. He has NO proof that she complied with any of the multiple citations that she was given.

“The reason why is quite simple, the Director severely restricts the shelter’s intake, no matter how desperate these pets are so that her intake numbers stay down! It is a numbers game, Bob. The adoption statistics at [the shelter] are WAY DOWN. So to keep her kill numbers down and ‘pretty’ for the commission, she takes in less pets. Less pets in means less pets need out and therefore less get killed.”

In response, Wood says her staff worked hard to improve the dogs’ living conditions, making repeated visits to the house and issuing citations to the owner. But Wood claims the dogs’ physical conditions and circumstances hadn’t been bad enough for the county to take them away.

“If we had chosen to confiscate, a judge would likely have ordered us to give the dogs back, based on the evidence at the time,” she said in an email.

“We certainly did not choose not to impound these animals in October or November due to lack of willingness to intake,” she wrote. “We responded to the scene many times; had we seen an ordinance violation that would have supported confiscation, we would have done so.”

It’s difficult to confiscate animals, she noted. In the end, the county could do so only because the owner signed surrender paperwork.

A year ago, two Davie cops saved a dog from drowning in a canal.

The next day, Davie Animal Control Officer Karen Borsoni took the dog to the shelter, but Wood reminded her of the 72-hour wait policy, telling her it was the town’s responsibility to provide holding kennels and staff for stray animals.

“When I asked if the officers should have left the dog to drown in the canal last night, she stated it was a choice they made and yes, they should have left it if they did not have other accommodations prior to response,” Borsoni complained in an email to her supervisor. “I’m still in shock from her statement that the dog should have been left in the canal. I have no words.”

Wood denies making the statement, saying she was focused on finding the owner. The shelter ended up taking the dog in that day, Wood says. After scanning the dog for a microchip, shelter workers called the owner. Within half an hour, he was at the shelter to pick up his dog.

Bertha Henry, the county administrator at the time, wrote a letter defending Wood after activists complained.

“Ms. Wood considered it a rhetorical question and did not respond and continued to reinforce the importance of finding the owner,” Henry wrote. “She emphatically denies she told the [animal control officer] to ‘leave it in the canal.’”

The shelter’s waiting period set the stage for yet another conflict after Hallandale Beach Commissioner Anabelle Lima-Taub rescued a dog she spotted wandering along Interstate 95 one rainy Sunday afternoon.

Shelter workers refused to take in the dog, leaving Lima-Taub fuming outside with a drenched animal in her back seat. Finally, she identified herself as a city commissioner and threatened to call the county administrator’s office the next morning.

“I said, ‘Listen, this is my tax dollars. Tax dollars from Broward County residents pay for this shelter, you have to take this dog,’” she recalled.

That did the trick.

Wood says the shelter ended up taking in the dog not because Lima-Taub pulled rank but because the dog had been spotted running along a highway and he couldn’t very well be taken back to I-95.

Invited by Wood to tour the shelter, Lima-Taub grilled her about her new policy. She recalls Wood telling her the data shows dogs have a better chance of finding their way home if left where they are found.

“That’s ridiculous because if he’s lost he’s going to be roaming around,” Lima-Taub said. “He’s not in his neighborhood. They get hit by a car, so they’re walking around with broken limbs, heartworms, disease. They’re starving. They really, really suffer on the street.”

Bruder, one of the shelter’s dismissed volunteers, claims Wood and her management of the shelter is even worse than that of her predecessor.

“We all thought it couldn’t get any worse than Lauralei,” Bruder said. “And then Emily came. She has alienated the public, the volunteers, the rescue groups, the transports,” Bruder said. “I worry about the animals. I can’t sit still and keep my mouth shut, because the animals are paying the price.”

Bruder has been forced to argue from the outside. She was banned from volunteering at the shelter in April 2021 after being told she wasn’t a good dog walker. She believes the real reason was because she was critical of Wood.

Two years before Wood was hired, Schugar-Martin was told she could no longer volunteer at the shelter. She says she got the news the day after posting comments on social media critical of shelter management.

Schugar-Martin filed a federal lawsuit against the county last year, claiming she was dismissed in retaliation for criticizing management about “inhumane conditions” at the shelter. The county settled the lawsuit this year for $25,000, but Wood soon made it clear Schugar-Martin could no longer pull dogs from the shelter for her rescue group.

“Within days of settling the lawsuit, I became persona non grata,” Schugar-Martin said. “This is just their way of keeping people out who draw attention to problems in the shelter.”

Wood admits to having critics, but casts them as an “insular” group of malcontents eager to find fault and assign blame.

“It is a hard job, but I don’t think there’s a job in this building that is not,” Wood said.

Nathan Winograd, a national expert on no-kill shelters, says some shelter directors make the mistake of not embracing volunteers and rescuers as partners in helping them achieve their no-kill goal.

“A shelter’s biggest friends are rescue groups and volunteers,” said Winograd, director of the No Kill Advocacy Center in California. “Shelters are in the business of saving lives and like any business, successful shelters should embrace their most dedicated and loyal customers.”

Shelter volunteer Lori Jacoby, an animal activist from Davie, has sympathy for Wood but thinks she can do better.

“She has a no-win job,’ Jacoby said. “I think she’s doing the best she can. But you need help from the community [to run a shelter]. You don’t turn people off. And that’s what she’s doing. I want to help because if they run her off, I don’t know who else they have in mind. It could always get worse. I feel for her. It’s a tough job.”

In Wood’s first year on the job in Broward County, supervisor Leonard Vialpando gave her high marks for professionalism, honesty and “the compassion necessary when addressing often emotional subject matter.”

Vialpando, the county’s environmental director, noted she had walked into a difficult situation in taking over a division with a history of controversy. Despite that, she’s managed to forge a more positive and collegial working atmosphere, he says.

“The Animal Care Division has had public perception concerns within Broward County prior to Emily’s arrival,” he wrote. “By navigating this controversy, addressing real needs and increasing communication to minimize those needs that are perceptual, Emily has begun to decrease the unnecessary level of agita surrounding her Division.”

(Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

County Commissioner Mark Bogen says he’s hearing good things about Wood from her supervisors.

“From what I know, she’s doing a good job,” Bogen said. “The animal cruelty problems that were happening in the shelter are no longer happening. You’d walk around and see filth and feces [prior to Wood’s arrival]. You don’t see that now.”

Bogen said he was unaware of Wood’s new policy on strays that seems to be causing tension throughout the county.

“If her policy is creating something that people would consider inhumane, then I want to know about it,” he said. “If there are things that are wrong, I’d like to know about it. Because we’ll make changes. But I think we’re doing a much better job now than we did under [the last director].”

Wood, unfazed by the criticism, has no intention of reversing that policy.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office has contacted Wood several times to share its concerns about the policy, said agency spokeswoman Gerdy St. Louis.

“When BSO holds strays on behalf of [the shelter], our staff is diverted from their assigned responsibilities,” she said. “With assistance from our partnering cities, BSO has opened kennels in several of our districts to mitigate the number of animals left with no place to go. Our deputies consistently go above and beyond to take care of these animals by ensuring they are fed, walked and cared for until their owners are located or until they have met the 72-hour hold request.”

City officials have also objected to the policy.

“In the past, stray and other animals that end up in public care could be immediately turned over to the county shelter if the owner was unidentified or unable to provide care,” Pompano Beach City Manager Greg Harrison, president of the Broward County City Managers’ Association, wrote in a letter to Wood dated March 28. “Our understanding is that cities, including their law enforcement entity, will [be forced to] hold animals for several days before being taken in by the county, even in emergencies. Most cities in Broward County do not have the capacity and resources to hold and properly care for animals over an extended period of time.”

Wood told the Sun Sentinel she’d gotten calls from some people whose names were listed at the bottom of the letter saying they had no problem with the policy. She declined to name them, saying the calls had been made in confidence.

As shelter director, Wood oversees a $7.8 million budget, 82 full-time employees and hundreds of homeless, lost or injured dogs and cats.

A native of San Francisco, Wood took over as director on Jan. 25, 2021. Soon after, she bought a home in Wilton Manors, where she lives with her pet, a 9-year-old rabbit named Mary Lou.

Wood, 41, started out making $150,000 but now earns $156,000 thanks to a 4% raise she got in October.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in math and physics from the University of California at Berkeley and a master’s in environmental sustainability from Scotland’s University of Edinburgh.

Wood has served as director of animal services for Yolo County in California; director of placement and customer care at the Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA; admissions and adoption coordinator for Contra Costa County Animal Services and client care manager for the San Francisco SPCA.

At the shelter, Wood strolled through the kennels one hot day in July, tossing treats to dog after dog, many of them pit bulls.

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On-site supervisor Halsey watched while Wood worked her magic on the dogs.

A reporter asked what makes Wood different from all the directors who came before her.

He took a long pause, then said: “She is more people-driven — organically, naturally, authentically. She relates to people and what they are going through and tries her best to respond professionally. That’s what is unique about her. We hope she’s here a long time.”

Wood, for one, says she isn’t going anywhere.

“This organization needs stability,” she said. “It needs somebody to stay here longer than a couple years to set a tone and to give staff the autonomy and freedom to do their job. So I plan on being here a minute.”

David Fleshler can be reached at [email protected] and 954-356-4535. Follow him on Twitter @DavidFleshler.

Susannah Bryan can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

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