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One year after a veterinarian accused the Cowlitz County Humane Society of animal neglect, the new executive director says the agency is improving the facilities and moving animals out of the shelter more quickly.

In Charmaine Nawrocki’s first eight months, the shelter has invested about $3,000 in building improvements, created a relationship with nearby humane societies to transfer animals that aren’t getting adopted, hired five more employees and two part-time veterinarians, and quadrupled its volunteer pool to 50.

Nawrocki, who replaced fired executive director Keenan Harvey in April, said she’s had a “mixed bag of reviews” since she started but said the overall public response has been positive. Among shelter critics’ lingering concerns: Nawrocki, 32, needs more training and the shelter board of directors needs new blood.

The shelter has faced public scrutiny since January when former contract veterinarian Aaron Gilbertsen alleged filthy conditions and animal neglect, including an incident in which a badly injured cat was ignored in a pet carrier for 13 hours before it died.

Gilbertsen’s email, which was sent to Longview City Council members and the Cowlitz County commissioners, sparked public attention and prompted the cities of Longview and Kelso to pay for an independent review of the shelter. (The cities and county contract with the Humane Society for animal control services.)

Gilbertsen told The Daily News last week that he hasn’t returned to the shelter since he resigned in January.

The $1,500 audit, conducted by Benton-Franklin Humane Society Executive Director Autumn White, found that the shelter was overcrowded and understaffed. It recommended transferring some of the 160 animals there at the time to other shelters sooner and letting volunteers have more interaction with animals.

Nawrocki said she has created a “memorandum of understanding” with Southwest Washington and West Columbia Gorge humane societies to transfer animals that are not getting adopted.

“Dogs don’t know what county they live in, so we should be able to work together,” she said last week.

Moving animals to a new shelter cuts down on their stay in one place, gives them another chance at adoption and decreases their exposure to diseases, Nawrocki said. The average length of stay in Cowlitz shelter has dropped under her leadership from 45 days to about 40 days. She said she wants to continue to decrease that number.

The humane society in October transferred about 60 cats to the Oregon Humane Society to open up space in the Longview shelter. At the time, the shelter had 150 cats and kittens.

Nawrocki said the biggest challenge she’s faced so far is the number of animals the shelter gets. As an “open admissions shelter,” the humane society has to accept every animal that comes through its doors, regardless of breed or species.

So far this year, the shelter adopted out 970 animals and returned 550 to owners. Nawrocki said the shelter has taken in 1,700 cats this year — it accepted 600 kittens in the summer alone.

There were about 16 dogs and 145 cats at the shelter during a TDN tour of the facilities the week before Christmas. Another 100 cats were in foster care. (Nawrocki said people who find kittens should wait and see if the mom shows up. Kittens that have been separated could have a weakened immune system when they are exposed to a lot of other animals in a shelter.)

In the past few months, the humane society has also received chickens, roosters, rabbits, goats, llamas, a pig and a peacock.

Rebecca Rodriguez, a La Center animal welfare activist who has been critical of the shelter, said last week that Nawrocki is on the right track with shelter coalitions and efforts to spay and neuter feral cats. But she said she’d like to see Nawrocki get more training.

“What we had hoped for when there was this new transition with a new director was that they would get her some training. Since she doesn’t have experience in this arena, send her to workshops where she can gather some skills. That didn’t seem to happen,” Rodriguez said.

Nawrocki, 32, has a degree in biology and animal studies and worked full-time as a veterinary assistant at the Summit Veterinary Referral Center in Tacoma, but this is her first time as a shelter director.

She said she has attended two different seminars on generational leadership and another on animal welfare advancement since she started.

“I think there is always room for improvement, including myself,” she said. “Trainings for me and the staff are definitely in the future.”

Rodriguez hasn’t been to the shelter since April and said she couldn’t comment on its facilities or practices, but she said she’d like more financial transparency from the board of directors.

“(Nawrocki) is on the right track with the coalition with West Columbia and Southwest (humane societies),” Rodriguez said. “Those two organizations are established and have professional relationships and government contracts. They know how this works. If Cowlitz County is ready and willing to follow suit and draw from all their experience, then Cowlitz wins. The whole county, shelter ... everyone wins. If they don’t want to improve and make changes, then it’s business as usual.”

In October, Rodriguez and others held a protest in downtown Longview, toting signs asking how the board spends its money and displaying photos of animals in dirty conditions. Nawrocki said she heard about the protest but didn’t hear from the group what its concerns were.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of communication from them to me, so I don’t know really what the main issue is unless they’re focusing on what happened a year ago” she said. “I always tell our employees and volunteers ... to communicate with people. If there is an issue, don’t hesitate to bring it up (and) don’t hesitate to talk to us.”

Shelter board president Cindy Nordstrom did not return calls for comment for this story.

Since April, the shelter has installed three handwashing stations and extended a wall between the stray ward and the kitten medical areas to decrease the noise and stress for ill cats.

“It’s been a challenge, but that’s what I’m here for: to make changes,” said Nawrocki, who denied rumors that she was stepping down as executive director.

To keep up with the work load, the shelter has 24 employees that are a mix of full- and part-time.

Nawrocki credited volunteer leader Josiah Schimmel with quadrupling the number of volunteers through effective coordination, participation in adoption events and social media interactions.

The shelter previously prohibited volunteers from handling animals in the stray ward, where animals have to stay for three days before they become property of the humane society. Previous directors said this was for the volunteers’ safety, but the audit found that it was an “overreaction” and recommended using volunteers more.

Volunteers are now allowed in the stray ward after they have received proper training to help bathe or walk the animals twice a day, Nawrocki said. The agency is still working on a training tier where employees and volunteers can gain more skills and responsibility.

“We do get dogs that are terrified, so we want to make sure both the volunteers and the dogs are safe,” she said.

The agency also re-established a monthly spay and neuter clinic for low-income families, Nawrocki said. It also renegotiated three-year animal contracts with the cities and county, and the board is working on a new strategic plan, with help from Southwest Humane Society.

While the shelter is no longer financially responsible for animals after adoption, Nawrocki said she’d like the shelter to continue to be a resource for the new pet owners.

With an operating budget of nearly $1 million, Nawrocki also said she wants make the shelter financially sustainable without needing to depend on large bequests.

Nawrocki said she plans to commission future audits, but none is scheduled.

“Everything is a work in progress. We can always learn new things. This so far has been wonderfully positive. I think we’ve done a lot of changes (but) things are still in progress.”

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