Though Justin Lelesch has been Abilene’s Animal Services director since the end of April, his roughly five-year tenure at the city’s animal shelter makes him a “known quantity,” City Manager Robert Hanna said.
That’s important, as Hanna and others hope his tenure will curb what has been a recent history of rapidly-rotating leadership at the shelter, build better community relations and open the door to an improved facility, partly funded by private dollars.
Counting interim director Michael Bricker, who came to the shelter through an agreement with animal group Best Friends, Abilene’s facility has had three directors in relatively quick succession.
Mirenda Walden was put on administrative leave in November 2018, while the director before Bricker, Tammy Roberts, resigned in March 2020 after being on the job for less than a year.
Lelesch, who stepped into Bricker’s shoes in late April, said his work is a chance to be able to “speak for the voiceless” and to help save the lives of animals in “bad situations, or in a situation that’s not working anymore.”
Hanna said Lelesch had “earned his stripes.”
“(He) has come through the organization and has touched a lot of different functions within Animal Services as an actual doer,” Hanna said. “So he probably approaches things from a very unique perspective, and he has really grown significantly in the past couple of years, especially under the mentorship of Best Friends. I think he’s really earned the opportunity.”
Mayor Anthony Williams said that in his tenure as mayor, the city’s animal shelter has been one aspect with which he hasn’t been satisfied, including the recent lack of leadership stability.
“(We) listened to our neighbors, and they give their appraisal,” he said. “I think we can do better. And I think hopefully, with (Lelesch’s) leadership, we can be doing better and deliver the type of service that is expected from this community.”
Lelesch started working at Abilene’s shelter in June 2016 as a kennel technician.
He spent about nine months in that job, then was promoted to field officer trainee, followed by field supervisor and then director.
Originally from Ohio, he graduated with a degree in animal sciences from Ohio State University.
“I’ve always kind of had a proclivity toward animals,” he said. “My grandmother always collected all the stray cats in the neighborhood and raised them. I was raised around (that). I raised chickens and pigs and cats and dogs and all kinds of pets and stuff growing up. … It’s kind of been just ingrained in who I am.”
He initially planned to be a veterinarian, though he jokes “chemistry kind of weeded that thought process out.”
So he changed his focus to exotic animals, landing a job at the Columbus Zoo after he graduated.
“I primarily worked with camels, dromedary camels in particular,” he said of his three-year stint.
There he met his wife, Jessica, who also worked as a keeper.
She eventually got a full-time job at the Abilene Zoo, which meant Lelesch was on the move, too.
“I basically sold all of my stuff and hopped in the car and drove down here with her, no job lined up or anything,” he said.
Not surprisingly, given his wife’s role as a zookeeper, and his own history, they love spending time at the local zoo, now with their first child, Sam, who will have his first birthday in July.
He admits he’s a dog person, though two dogs, Emerald, a 8-year-old boxer/pit mix and Leroy, a 4-year-old pit mix, recently have been joined by feline friend Calliope.
“There was two kittens that they thought were dying in the bushes,” he said. “I took them home knowing that they were going to need to be bottle fed. (I) got up every two hours. Unfortunately, one of them didn’t make it. But the one that did, when it came time for me to bring it to the shelter to get adopted, my wife broke down and ended up coming up to the shelter to adopt her. So she now lives with us.”
Lelesch’s wife also a therapeutic riding instructor at Camp Able, an equine therapy and rescue program in Buffalo Gap.
“I do volunteer out there pretty frequently,” he said, adding that a horse that came through the animal shelter was donated to the program.
“He doesn’t get utilized for therapy riding, but they are also a horse sanctuary,” he said. “He’s been able to live out the last few years out there. And he does get ridden, but because of his past he’s just not qualified for the therapy side of things.”
In a way, his family’s whole lifestyle revolves around animals, he said.
“We have two dogs and a cat at home, we foster from time to time, and then even our outside-of-our-job activities involve animals,” he said. “So you know, we just were completely involved in the animal welfare industry and strive to make sure that everything that we do is to better the planet and better the residence of it.”
Lelesch said he knows stability is essential to the animal shelter’s success, as is building, or in some cases, rebuilding, the community’s trust.
“I feel like in the past, we’ve not been the most transparent, and that’s led to some issues,” he said. “One of my biggest goals is to make sure that the public knows what we say is what we’re doing, and if they have any questions about why we’re making decisions, then I have an open door.”
He said he wants the relationship between animals services and the community to be one of mutual support.
“It’s not an animal services issue that we’re in, it’s a community issue,” he said. “And without community support, and community help, we’re never going to succeed. That’s something that I think we really need to build on.”
The hope, he said, is turning critics to supporters, something Lelesch said he’s already seen happen.
Some who previously criticized the shelter are now “the most dependable people that I have in my volunteer staff,” he said.
“Utilizing them for the end goal of saving as many lives as we can is the only way that we’re going to ever succeed,” he said.
More:New Abilene animal shelter still on city’s radar
Transparency, Lelesch said, is also vital in the shelter’s interactions with city government.
That means being open about needs and “making sure that we’re communicating with (the) Abilene City Council and city management, so that they know exactly what’s going on.”
Lelesch said he’d been in “constant communication” with city management, for example, about the shelter’s number of adoptions — and the number of animals that are coming in.
During a recent week, he said, 151 animals came into the shelter, both from owner surrenders and field staff.
“That practically fills my entire shelter in one week,” he said. “So if we don’t make drastic changes to our operations and get partnerships with rescue groups and other organizations and partnerships with the community, then we’re going to end up in a situation that no one wants to be a part of, and that is euthanizing animals. We’re trying to do everything we can to eliminate that.”
While there is no shelter that is without euthanasia, Lelesch said that the shelter’s “save rate” is about 91% since October, reflecting a “no kill” approach made a goal for the facility by the Abilene City Council.
“Euthanasia is the ending of suffering, whereas killing is what you do in order to make space,” he said.
The 9% of animals that do have to be put down have behavioral or physical issues, Lelesch said.
“(These are) animals that are so broken that it’s inhumane to try and save them,” he said. “… I don’t want to ever get in a position where I’m saving animals for the numbers rather than saving the animals for the humanity of the animals. And that’s something that I don’t think a lot of people understand.”
The threshold for “no kill” is 90%, he said.
“So for us to be at 91%, that speaks volumes to what we’re doing here,” Lelesch said.
Beyond help for the animals, the approach is good for those who work at the shelter, he said.
“It’s grueling, and it’s taxing both on the mind and the body,” he said of having to euthanize animals for space, something he’s experienced firsthand.
“It’s something that I don’t want my staff to have to go through,” he said. “It’s a very emotional situation, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that we don’t go back to those times.”
On the educational side of the work, “everyone has a different standard of what good care (for an animal) is, and that’s the gap that we have to fill,” Lelesch said.
Teaching the public about humane care is important, he said, and Lelesch wants to bring more resources to the area to help people to get their animals spayed/neutered for low cost, or get them up to date on vaccines.
The goal is to “help people learn and appreciate their animals as part of the family,” he said.
On the punitive side, he said new approaches are needed, such as a possible citation diversion program that sends people to classes instead of giving them a ticket for letting an animal run loose.
“There’s a lot of goals that I have in mind to try and develop this program into something I believe we can be really, really proud of,” he said.
His own relationship with Best Friends has been positive, he said, allowing him to make connections “all over.”
As part of that work, Lelesch is a member of an executive leadership cohort.
“I’ve been connected with leaders in animal shelters all over the Southwest, El Paso and Dallas, and even into Louisiana and Oklahoma (and) Kansas City,” he said.
Those connections are valuable, giving him a chance to bounce ideas off people who “know exactly what you’re going through,” he said.
“It makes the problem seem that much smaller because you’re not in that fight alone anymore,” he said, calling the aid the “biggest advantage that we’ve had from this partnership.”
A new home?
At the core of current need is a new animal shelter, he said, the physical structure of the present facility, built more than 50 years ago, a “huge constraint.”
While the entity’s scope has expanded, its space has become metaphorically smaller, Lelesch said.
“The more things that we’re trying to do, the less space I have to do them,” he said. “We have a vet on staff now, we’ve separated our cat (isolation).”
Originally, the isolation wing for cats and dogs was “one and the same,” he said.
But that’s not conducive to cats getting healthier because “they’re stressed out being right there by barking dogs all the time,” Lelesch said.
“So we’ve separated those,” he said. “But in order to do that we had to get an outbuilding that’s not attached to the physical building. We’ve got our vet working out of a very small space. We’re looking at trying to get our own radiograph machine. That’s going to take up space.”
In addition, there are new programs the shelter has implemented or wants to implement, he said.
“We now have a community cat program,” he said. “And just the logistics of trying to figure out where to stick all these new people is also an issue.”
Other problems, he said, include air conditioning systems, which are currently not conducive for managing animal health because they don’t circulate healthy air through the kennels.
“So spread of disease that is airborne is much more prevalent than what it would be in a nicer shelter,” he said.
The Abilene City Council examined a $9 million shelter plan in February 2020.
More:Abilene City Council sees concepts for new animal shelter
More recently, at the council’s retreat in March, ideas on how to shave costs from the design were floated, along with potential interest in seeking community support to help pay for the facility.
Right now, a proposal is to build the new shelter near the Abilene Zoo and the Abilene Youth Sports Authority’s Dodge Jones Youth Sports Center.
Williams said that when the current shelter was built, there were “different expectations.”
“There have been conversations from citizens in Abilene who may want to contribute financially to an animal shelter,” he said. “There have been no determinations, and it’s all preliminary in regard to those conversations. But l always appreciate a collaboration with the private sector.”
How much the public might want to contribute, Williams said, could help define the shelter’s total scope and design.
Hanna said that he, too, believes a new facility is needed, and called the plan to work with the private sector for matching funds is wise.
“I’m working right now with the architect to identify ways to reduce the cost of the building, and he’s kind of put some preliminary numbers together,” he said. “We’re also talking to a group of citizens that are interested in spearheading the private fund solicitation efforts.”
If there can be a 50-50 split on the costs, Hanna said, “that will be a win-win.”
Not just a price tag
To Lelesch, the effort is about getting the public to see what the building represents, rather than just seeing a price tag.
“I think the veterinary side of it is the most essential,” he said. “… The biggest thing that I do not want to do is lose kennel space. I already have enough trouble with managing the population that comes in as it is. If I lost kennels, that’s going to make that much more difficult.”
Ideally, kennel space needs to increase roughly 25%, he said, though capacity is really only limited by the number of volunteers who can help with the work.
“When you look at shelters that have been built around the state, $9 million is not really that much of an ask, especially when you look at what we would be getting out of it,” he said. “We have a building that’s ‘working.’ But this new facility would have a vet clinic that was set up (and) sterilized the way that a vet clinic should be so that we can provide better care for animals.”
Other amenities, such as a room that could be use for both public and staff meetings and a lobby that could be designed to be a “focal point for events” could make the structure multipurpose and valuable to many, he said.
The physical location of the proposed shelter also might play into its success, Lelesch said.
Lelesch is good friends with Jesse Pottebaum, the Abilene Zoo’s director.
“We’ve already bounced ideas off each other for ways that we can synchronize some of our business models and support each other’s missions,” he said.
Even the facility’s potential proximity to the AYSA’s building could be significant, he said, possibility generating foot traffic for the shelter which could lead to more adoptions and ways to get the community involved.
“If those people are in between games and they want something to do, they could come over to the shelter and play with kittens or walk some dogs or even adopt some animals,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense for the facility to be there and to synchronize into the rest of the city’s missions.”
Hanna said that he sees the shelter’s relationship with Best Friends under Lelesch “maturing,” focusing on “mentoring, tips, advice and counseling as needed.”
“I think that’s going to help us have a an animal control function that is more in line with animal welfare and good outcomes to the animals than perhaps we’ve seen in the past,” he said.
The key, he said, will be not “backsliding,” but maintaining what has been learned, while continuing to adjust in the minds of the community the place a shelter occupies.
“There are still people in our community that feel like the animal shelter is not a place to go get an animal, that somehow the animals (are) defective,” Hanna said. “They’re not. They’re some of the best pets a person could hope for.”
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.