In May, Adele, a 6-month-old pit bull, was found alone in an alley, barely able to walk, likely from being hit by a car. A passerby brought her to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), where she was found to have two broken femurs. She was sent to one of BARCS’s veterinary-hospital partners and is now undergoing a series of orthopedic surgeries. Adele is in casts now, but there’s hope she’ll walk again—and be adopted.
But just a decade ago, Adele would have been euthanized without a moment’s hesitation. Prior to 2005, 98 percent of the animals received by what was then the city-run Bureau of Animal Control were euthanized. They were animals like Adele or Sophia, who arrived at the shelter with bite marks on her face and missing her lower jaw, and Petunia, a puppy who was burned. Today, though, there are myriad dogs with physical and psychological wounds from dog-fighting rings and pets that need a leg or eye removed, but they’re patched up and go on to be healthy, adoptable animals.
So how did the shelter go from being a death mill to actually trying to save abandoned pets? In large part, the animals and their new adoptive owners have Jennifer Brause to thank for that.
“When I first saw the shelter, I was horrified,” says Brause, 40, a one-time marine mammal trainer at the National Aquarium, who, 10 years ago, somewhat unwittingly became BARCS’s founder and executive director. A marine sciences major who’d also been a veterinary tech, she loved the aquarium but felt called to work with animals in need.
The need was great. As the city’s only open-admission shelter, BARCS, under the terms of its charter, may not turn away any animal, including those picked up by Animal Control or seized by law enforcement. That makes BARCS the largest intake shelter in the state, taking in more than 12,000 animals a year. Yet in 2004, when the city ran it, only 90 animals were adopted.
“Nobody had a chance to survive,” Brause recalls. “If it was an owner surrender, the animal was euthanized immediately upon intake and strays were put down at the end of their legal, five-day hold period, regardless of age or health.”
When public sentiment pushed for a better system, the city converted operations to the nonprofit BARCS in summer of 2005. The shelter gets a $1 million grant from Baltimore and pays $1 rent for its building on Stockholm Street, near the stadiums, which also houses the city health department’s Office of Animal Control (which now focuses on enforcement only). Today, though challenges remain, the BARCS euthanization rate has dropped to 23 percent. Brause, however, remembers vividly that life at BARCS was once far more grim. “The floors were wet all the time and they were peeling,” she recalls. “One trough went from cage to cage so animals sat in others’ pee and poop, and the roaches were like a horror show.”
Initially, Brause was brought on board to begin making changes until the nonprofit status came through. “We made up the title of director of animal welfare programs, since I started off with creating a volunteer program and working on other programs such as adoption and rescue,” she recalls.
That first year of transitioning to a nonprofit was not easy. At the end of it, Brause gave her notice.
"BARCS only houses cats and dogs, but it gets all kinds of animals."
“I was running into a lot of stumbling blocks, and I wasn’t going to be part of what was still going on here,” she explains. “It was against my soul.”
Brause still gets tears in her eyes remembering how animals were euthanized indiscriminately in a room with other dead animals and tossed onto a pile to be taken away at the end of the day. Some of her employees seemed to be working against her, euthanizing animals they knew Brause was trying to save.
But instead of accepting her resignation, the city made her the acting executive director in 2006, giving her authority to do what was necessary to move the shelter forward as a nonprofit. That included cleaning house: Ten employees were cut from the staff and Brause initiated programs essential to BARCS’s survival, particularly its 500-strong volunteer force.
“I started a volunteer program because, clearly, they didn’t have enough staff here,” she says. “There were only 10 employees, so when you’re talking about 12,000 animals annually, it’s almost an impossible job to keep up.”
She got rid of subjective hold periods after which animals would automatically be euthanized, and a medical fund was created to pay for vaccines and spay/neuter operations, as well as specialized operations like removing embedded collars, a common problem with neglected dogs. She started doing off-site adoption events, which got easier last year when BARCS got its first mobile adoption van.
Brause, who lives in Timonium with her husband, two young sons, two cats and one dog, describes BARCS as being like an emergency room where animals are always coming in, usually 35 a day (that can spike to 80 to 90 in the summer), while others need to move out (the shelter only has 250 cages). When something big happens, like Animal Control’s recent raid of a dog-fighting ring that brought 86 dogs to the shelter—animals that must be kept as evidence—there’s obvious overcrowding. To keep euthanization rates low, BARCS uses foster homes and partners with about 100 rescues, shelters, and pet stores in the region to help manage the overflow.
In 2008, BARCS joined the Maryland SPCA, Baltimore Humane Society, and Baltimore City Animal Control in the Baltimore Animal Welfare Alliance. Aileen Gabbey, former executive director at MSPCA, a nonprofit appointment-based shelter in Hampden, says they’ve collaborated with BARCS on everything from events to grants, but the heart of their partnership is animal transport. BARCS sends roughly 1,000 animals to the MSPCA annually. Gabbey, who had been at the MSPCA for 18 years, has known Brause for more than a decade.
“Getting everything off the ground was hard work, but she had a lot of energy and the willingness to tough it out and make it better,” says Gabbey. “[Brause] goes to work every day thinking, ‘How can we save more lives?’ and that’s the mindset you need in this line of work.”
Elmo and Zoe, two kittens rescued from the street by a restaurateur in Mt. Vernon, got their second chance in 2012 when Amanda Krosney adopted the bonded pair. The Brooklyn Park resident says she was amazed that when Elmo proved to be sick, BARCS took him into foster care for weeks until he was well enough to be reunited with his sister and owner.
“The people are so friendly and they were so willing to take Elmo back and patch him up,” she says. “I would have kept him anyway, but they said, ‘We want you to have a great experience and we’re going to get him better for you.’”
As a nonprofit, BARCS can fundraise for the money it desperately needs. Its $2.9 million operating budget and staff of 57 are roughly half what it needs for operational efficiency, says Brause. (Donations to MSPCA, which adopts more than 3,500 animals a year, allow a $4 million budget.) But even if BARCS got what it needed—employees, industrial washer-dryers, more and better cages—there’s nowhere to put them. It has literally run out of room. Dog intake and the cat spay/neuter program are run in trailers in the parking lot. Every closet in the building has been converted to an office, so hallways are lined with neat rows of rubber tubs filled with toys, pet food, and supplies.
"[Brause] goes to work every day thinking, ‘How can we save more lives?'"
Last year, City Councilman Robert W. Curran called for $18 million to build a new shelter, but Brause says no plans are imminent.
In the meantime, BARCS has enacted programs to stop intake before it happens. Through a grant from PetSmart Charities and Best Friends Animal Society, BARCS traps, spays/neuters, and returns about 3,500 feral cats.
But some obstacles remain: Pit bulls and pit-bull mixes are prolific among the surrendered, seized, or abandoned animals they take in, and BARCS is using public education to try to cope with those numbers. “We take our pit-bull type dogs [and all other dogs] to offsite events and educate people as they come over to our adoption booth and see their wagging tails,” says Brause.
Despite its challenges, the job certainly isn’t dull. Although it only houses cats and dogs, BARCS gets all kinds of animals, from ponies, pigs, and possums to alligators and a litter of chinchillas—even four emus. In those cases, it works with rescue partners that include zoos, aquariums, and wildlife sanctuaries.
“When this opportunity came up, I was skeptical. The shelter had so many problems and they seemed so insurmountable,” says Brause. “But as soon as I started to do it, I knew it was right.”
Exhibit A of the group’s success: BARCS went from those 90 adoptions in 2004 to 8,663 in 2013. Despite its shoestring budget and beat-up building, BARCS is a little like the cats and dogs it tends to: It has no shortage of heart.
“It’s a tough job because we see the happiest of happy, wonderful stories like when families send us photos of happy dogs with them on their boat,” Brause says. “On the other end, you get situations where, even if it’s the right thing to euthanize an old or sick animal, it’s still sad. But every year, the number of lives saved is going up.”
Hundreds of critically ill or injured animals turn up at BARCS needing emergency treatment. The Franky Fund for Emergency Care, which is dependent on public donations, pays for treatment that is offered to BARCS’s animals at a lower cost by its veterinary partners. Without the fund, the most severely neglected, abused, and disabled pets would not survive.
For information on how to donate to the cause, go to baltimoreanimalshelter.org.