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Stenger promises thorough search for new animal shelter director

The St. Louis County pet adoption center in Olivette. March 22, 2018
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County pet adoption center in Olivette.

UPDATED March 28 with lawsuit:  St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger says he is committed to an “exhaustive search” to find a new director for the county’s animal shelter.

Stenger fired former director Beth Vesco-Mock earlier this month because of what he says was “inappropriate behavior.”

“Racist or discriminatory behavior is not going to be tolerated by this administration,’’ Stenger said in an interview. He declined to be specific, but referred to a hearing that the council held last month on problems facing the shelter.

Some of the people testifying had cited alleged comments made by Vesco-Mock, who had been the shelter director only since last fall. Stenger said his staff began an investigation after the hearing, which resulted in the decision to fire Vesco-Mock.

Her temporary replacement is Lee Jackson, who has worked at the shelter for years, Stenger said.

Vesco-Mock’s lawyer, Edwin C. Ernst, IV, emphasized Friday that she currently is on a “pre-termination unpaid suspension’’ and not yet officially fired. The director and her lawyer have until 5 p.m. today to formally respond to the administration’s 27 allegations of wrongdoing.

Among other things, Ernst said that some of Vesco-Mock’s comments to employees have been misrepresented and that there was no racist intent.

Ernst accused Stenger of making inflammatory public statements that make clear  “the fix is in’’ to fire Vesco-Mock, without due process.

On Wednesday, Ernst announced that Vesco-Mock has filed suit accusing the St. Louis County government of sex discrimination. The lawyer says that she would not have been fired if she were a man.

Stenger says vet skills not mandatory

Stenger disagrees with County Councilwoman Hazel Erby’s call for the next shelter director to be a veterinarian. The County Council has given first-round approval to her bill creating such a requirement. A final vote could come as soon as next week.

Erby - who's also critical of Vesco-Mock - believes the vet requirement could improve care for the thousands of dogs and cats that end up at the shelter each year. “We have a problem at the animal control center that’s obvious, and we need to do something about it,” she said.

Erby pointed to a recent outbreak of parvovirus, which killed two dogs at the shelter. The disease is common in shelters, but St. Louis County Public Health Director Faisal Khan told the council at its last meeting that the deadly virus hadn’t been a problem at the county’s shelter in years.

Stenger noted that the shelter currently has contracts with several veterinarians to provide animal care. “Having a vet lead the shelter doesn’t really address what I see as a management issue,” he said.

“We really need someone who’s a great manager, who can interact well with service groups,” Stenger said. “Who can interact well with our nonprofit community; who can interact well with volunteers.”

In short, he added, “We really need someone who is both an animal lover and a ‘people person.’”

Vesco-Mock defends actions

Ernst, Vesco-Mock's lawyer, contends that she is the victim of  a "coordinated effort by animal rights activists to bring her down" by misrepresenting her performance.

The former director denies making some of the racist comments that were ascribed to her at the hearing. Ernst said that Vesco-Mock did use the word "gangbang'' in a comment months ago to shelter employees, but that it was being mischaracterized. 

"She has said to groups of employees who were standing around, 'Guys, we can't have any gangbanging in the hall here,'" but Ernst said it was not intended as a racist comment. He added that she had been speaking to white and black employees at the time.

Ernst said the former director also wasn't getting proper credit for her work to reduce the euthanasia rate at the shelter.

Shelter handling fewer animals

Despite the current shakeup, Stenger pointed to statistics since he took office in 2015 that he says show marked improvement at the shelter in recent years. He had made the shelter’s conditions one of his campaign issues in 2014.

“We have excellent employees committed to animal care, and that has not changed,’’ he said.

In 2014, the shelter handled 6,321 dogs and cats – and 44 percent were euthanized. Just over half were reunited with owners or adopted.

Said Stenger: “The focus at that time wasn’t on adoption, but on animal control.”

By 2017, the number of animals cared for at the shelter had dropped to 4,725 for the year. Stenger said he didn’t know why there was a decline but speculated that credit could go to more responsible pet owners or a higher rate of animals being spayed.

He was more focused on the fact that less than a quarter of the animals were euthanized last year, and 65 percent were sent to existing or new homes. Last December, the release rate was well over 90 percent, the county executive said. He acknowledged that Vesco-Mock deserved some of the credit, but said her inappropriate actions could not be overlooked.

Stenger emphasized that he’s an animal lover. He has two dogs and until recently had a third, who had been rescued by police from a puppy mill. Stenger said his aim is to do as much as possible to make the county’s operation close to a “no kill’’ shelter.

“It’s the one thing that keeps me up at night,” Stenger said. “I just don’t like to think that we are euthanizing animals.”

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter:@jmannies

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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