LEWISTON — A former employee of the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society set off a social media firestorm this week by claiming the shelter has doubled the number of dogs it deems so aggressive they must be killed.
Amanda Kimball, one of three animal care team leaders at the shelter until she was fired recently, said euthanizing dogs used to be a last resort. But under new management, she said, “any animal with behavior issues” is likely to wind up dead.
It is an assertion the shelter vehemently denies. Its leaders said Thursday the shelter’s policy has “been the same forever,” and the number of dogs euthanized is not increasing.
“There’s a lot of thought and consideration that goes into that decision” about any potentially aggressive dog, said Brandon Castner, the shelter’s operations manager for the past month.
But his predecessor for the previous decade, Zachary Black, said it “seems a little startling to me” that staff members and volunteers have been reaching out to him nearly every day to complain about what they see as a shifting direction at the shelter.
“We really need to have some transparency,” Black said.
In a Facebook post that has been shared more than 1,200 times, Kimball wrote: “Did you bring your pet in recently? Was it food aggressive or wary of strangers? It’s probably been euthanized. Milo, Betsy, Cookie, Gilbert, Bella. They had behavior issues that could have been rehabilitated with a little patience and training.”
Steven Dostie, longtime executive director of the shelter, said the reality is that neither policies nor the outcomes of dogs assessments has changed in recent weeks.
Since Jan. 1, he said, the shelter has euthanized 34 dogs considered too aggressive to let anyone adopt them. In a typical year, Dostie said, there are usually about 100 dogs that fall into that category, a fraction of the approximately 2,000 dogs that pass through the shelter’s doors annually.
Kimball said she saw an immediate change after the shelter’s former operations manager, Zachary Black, left for a new job in mid-March.
She said 10 dogs were euthanized within two or three weeks of Black’s departure, compared to two or three a month earlier.
“That’s like way more than was done before,” she said.
She said a few dogs with which the staff had been working to bring them to the point they could be adopted were among those killed.
In one case, Kimball said, three dogs were taken away at the same time, dying in front of one another.
“It’s not humane,” she said.
Dostie said the shelter’s policy is straightforward: It only euthanizes dogs that are too dangerous to allow someone to adopt. It also euthanizes dogs in such poor health that they cannot realistically be treated, he said, but that is a different situation.
Castner said dogs are evaluated individually to determine if they pose threats. He said there are tests and methods to discern how dogs approach people, one another, food, toys and more. They are put through the paces to see how they respond, he said.
By watching what dogs do — from body language to growling — it is possible to assess with some confidence those animals that pose risks that prevent their being adopted.
Dostie said if an animal is too dangerous, it is euthanized.
“Our commitment to place safe animals in the community is a huge priority for us,” he said. “We don’t want to place dangerous animals into homes.”
There is no bright line that clearly delineates which dogs pose too great a danger.
Kimball said some dogs are clearly too far gone to save, remembering one that would not even let somebody touch him. Many others have an issue or two that can be addressed by staff and volunteers who help retrain the animals and ensure their proper placement, she said.
Kimball said she thinks the shelter’s alleged shift in deciding the dogs that pose too much risk is related to a March 19 incident when a shelter dog taken out for a walk — and improperly taken inside a home — killed a family’s Yorkie and injured two people.
The shelter did not want to risk more bad publicity, she said.
Black, who took a new job in another city, said he “poured heart and soul into saving as many pets as possible” during his 10 years at the Lewiston shelter.
He said he felt a responsibility to work with pets to give them a chance.
“We didn’t adopt out every dog,” Black said, but many with food aggression or an inability to be around others could go on to have a happy life with the right family.
Dostie said there are times when the number of dogs that cannot be rehabilitated runs high and other times when it is lower. In general, he said, the shelter has “a very, very low” rate for euthanizing dangerous dogs.
He said it is always difficult to make the decision that a particular dog is not safe.
“It’s the hardest thing,” Castner said.
There are nights, he added, when he “may go home crying” because of the choices the job requires.
“It’s very, very emotional and tough,” Dostie said.
Kimball said she posted her online plea for help for the shelter’s dogs in hope that the community would pay attention. She said she wants to see change.
She said she never thought her post would reach so many people.
“It’s crazy,” Kimball said.
Black said the shelter’s board of directors “needs to step in here” and evaluate what is going on.
“We really need to have some transparency,” Black said, adding that board members in the past have been asked to get involved in certain issues at the shelter without success.
“We’re knocking at a door that never gets answered,” he said.