CUMRU — Leaders of the Animal Rescue League of Berks County are promising to improve communication.
Alexis Pagoulatos, who took over as executive director of the nonprofit organization a little more than three months ago, said during a community forum Saturday afternoon, Oct. 26, that she hopes to build back trust within the organization as well as with the community following comments made on Facebook regarding her decision to part ways with a longtime volunteer over a heartbreaking and unfortunate incident.
"Knowing that we have a long history in the community and that we have gone through a number of leadership changes in the last several years, this organization has come incredibly far in a very short amount of time with a very steep learning curve," she told about 50 people gathered at the shelter. "It is important that you trust our hearts and intentions when it comes to our decisions."
Pagoulatos said she is appreciative of volunteers who devote their time, money and hearts to the overall mission of animal welfare. But, she cautioned, listening and communicating with one another is the best way to ensure that they are all working toward the same goal.
"At the end of the day, this is about the animals," she said.
The issue was laid out at the forum.
It all began with a very sick dog.
The dog, known as Cardi at the facility, arrived to the shelter in July dealing with serious health problems. Despite constant medical examinations, multiple surgeries and treatment plans recommended by a team of veterinarians, Cardi continued to suffer from fecal incontinence without a clear reason for what was causing the condition.
Over the past few weeks, her condition deteriorated to the point where she was defecating constantly and passing significant amounts of blood. She began to lose weight quickly. Her kennel walls and floor needed to be scrubbed and disinfected multiple times a day to ensure she could rest in sanitary conditions.
Acting on the advice of resident veterinarian Kimberly Rife, administrators decided to limit Cardi to walks with staff members so they could be sure she didn't ingest anything outdoors since she was placed on a strict diet — the last effort to find a remedy.
Longtime volunteer Cathy Mueller believed that it would do Cardi good to get fresh air, so Mueller asked if she could take Cardi for a walk, despite a sign on the kennel informing anyone that only staffers could walk the ill dog.
Mueller took Cardi out for a short stroll and that didn't sit well with administrators. It was unclear if someone gave Mueller permission.
Pagoulatos said administrators felt that Mueller had endangered the dog and Mueller was told Monday, Oct. 21, she would no longer be welcome at the shelter. She also pointed out that Mueller had previously been warned about her conduct.
Mueller responded with a lengthy Facebook post Tuesday, Oct. 22, outlining her frustrations with the ARL in general as well as some of the new policies Pagoulatos has implemented since taking over the top post.
"Staff have no answers, nobody takes ownership, information doesn't get passed on," Mueller wrote in the post. "… These aren't new problems. I had tried to stop going to ARL many times but felt guilty for the dogs and went back. We volunteers are the ones in the room as a dog is euthanized. Alexis wants to stop that also. Just keep everything behind closed doors."
That post has been shared more than 1,000 times — prompting the ARL to organize the forum to assure their volunteers and donors that the incident is under control.
Mueller attended the forum and briefly spoke, reiterating her points from the Facebook post, then left the forum.
Cardi was euthanized on Friday, Oct. 25.
"We could have waited to do this humane euthanasia until this drama passed, but that wouldn't have been in the best interest of the dog we love so much," Pagoulatos and marketing director Jennifer Breton wrote on Facebook. "That would have been for us to selfishly keep her with us so we didn't have people like this questioning our intentions. We chose to put this sweet and greatly loved dog first, like we do every day."
The incident may have been the catalyst for the forum, but volunteers who showed up to speak with Pagoulatos and several members of the board of directors voiced concerns that the incident was a sign of deeper issues that have plagued the organization for years.
Kelly Armour, a Cumru Township resident who said she left the organization a few years ago, told Pagoulatos that historically there has been a communication issue.
"There has been a communication problem between the staff, between the volunteers," she said. "And when concerns were brought to the administration in the past, they fell on deaf ears. When concerns were brought to the board, they fell on deaf ears."
Armour said those in charge have created a culture where volunteers feel as if they are often not heard.
Vicky Hoffman, an Exeter Township resident who said she stopped volunteering about two years ago after disagreements with the way the shelter was being managed, told Pagoulatos she believes Mueller had good intentions and should not be asked to leave. But she also cautioned those at the meeting to refrain from criticizing the shelter on social media.
"If this place ever closes, it will be replaced by a shelter that stacks the cats and dogs in cages," she said. "It's going to be horrific and I don't want to see that. Our main concern here should be for the animals."
Beth Nazarik, an Exeter Township resident and current volunteer, pointed out that getting answers about animals with special needs can be difficult to find when all you want is to help.
"We put our souls into this — we should have all the information listed on the outside of the kennels," she said. "I just want to focus on where we go from here."
'Give us a chance'
Pagoulatos, who was taking notes at the forum, said she supported many of the suggestions that were made and acknowledged that the organization has to make serious changes. And, she asked those in attendance to give her some time to make those changes.
She said the organization will be transformed from the bottom to the top over the next several years so that everyone from the veterinarians to the volunteers to the community is educated about the policies and procedures.
She welcomed feedback from the all of those stakeholders and promised there would be more forums and more opportunities to have a voice in the process.
But she cautioned that it will likely be a long process.
"This is going to take us years — that is the reality," she said. "I just ask that people give us a chance. I know everyone wants us to fix everything overnight, but it genuinely takes an incredible amount of time and focus to get from point A to point Z."