I remember reading some years ago about problems with Birmingham-Jefferson County’s animal control facility, a private for-profit company called BJC Animal Control. At the time, there was an outcry about poor conditions and lack of accountability. And I thought, naive soul that I am, the problems would be addressed. Guess not.
In response to complaints from constituents, on January 21, 2009, Sharon Evans and Jeanette Brabston, both employed by Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Carns’ office, made an unannounced visit to the BJC Animal Control facility. Their account of what they observed was included in a February 3, 2009, press release intended to highlight what they considered to be unacceptable conditions at the facility.
They chronicled and photographed horrors like an injured dog left in its cage surrounded by blood and vomit, windowless holding rooms where the heat and stench were almost unbearable, and exhaust fans and hot water faucets marked “Do Not Use”. Cats and dogs were held in small cages and never taken out for any exercise (or, apparently, affection).
As we were leaving, we saw two signs posted on the wall. One said “Do Not Use Hot Water” and the other said “Do Not Use Exhaust Fans.” Sharon pointed to the “Do Not Use Hot Water” sign and asked Shelley [a BJC Animal Control employee] what that meant—why they did not use hot water. She replied: “We don’t want to burn the dogs,” and laughed. Sharon asked “Don’t you remove the dogs from the pen before cleaning? How would they get burned?” Shelley did not have an answer. She said, “We use bleach and cold water because it’s ‘cost-effective.’” (This is a term that we [heard] multiple times on the tour in answer to questions regarding flea treatments, antibiotics, immunizations, and basic care.)
Birmingham City Councilor Valerie Abbott has been a long-time critic of the BJC contract:
“We have no way of knowing how much of the money [BJC] gets is profit, and how much actually goes to providing animal control,” Abbott told Black & White in March of 2004. “We’ve never had a central audit. We’ve asked for one, and what we got was a budget.” Critics fear that by its nature, a for-profit operation would be tempted to put financial gain ahead of animal welfare.
However, Jefferson County Commissioner Bettye Fine Collins responded to calls for an independent audit thusly:
“If you give a person a contract, I’m not too sure that it’s our role to audit the operation. He’s an independent contractor, and he contracts to us for a service. I don’t really know if it’s a matter to be audited. I would think that the Office of Public Examiners would require us to do that. All I can do is evaluate their performance. How the monies are spent to provide that service would not be mine to judge, I would think.”
It’s that kind of attitude that allowed the Commission to be led down the garden path to the brink of bankruptcy by “independent” lawyers and brokers.
BJC’s joint contract with the city and county expired in September 2007 and has continued on a month-to-month basis awaiting agreement on new terms. This means the job is technically open for bids from other providers, but aside from Abbott and Carns, no one seems interested in soliciting proposals and evaluating other providers.
It’s high time they got interested. Animal control is where your pet could end up if s/he got lost. Call your city councilor (if you’re in Birmingham). Call your county commissioner. Let them know that cruelty and neglect are not acceptable. Not even in the name of profit.
The president of BJC Animal Control disputes some of the Carns staffers’ report, but given the ongoing problems with the facility, cited as early as 2001, I’m afraid his word doesn’t carry much weight with me.