Jennifer Brause paused for a beat as she gripped the handle of the door leading into the non-descript, metal building housing the Baltimore city animal shelter.
She had just left the job she loved as a marine mammal trainer at the National Aquarium to sign on as a consultant for the city shelter that sits in the shadow of the M&T Bank Stadium — home to the Baltimore Ravens. Five years of volunteer work at a high-volume animal clinic and attendance at several animal welfare conferences convinced her she could best use her professional skills at the poorly funded municipal facility. In November 2004, she made the switch.
“When I got here I thought I knew what I was getting into and I was excited and determined,” said Brause. “I really didn’t know the depth of what was actually happening until I got here.”
When she first stepped through the door of the shelter that annually handles about 12,000 animals, she was filled with visions of partnering with the staff to reduce the staggering 98 percent euthanasia rate. It didn’t take long to realize others did not share her vision.
“It was just the place to dump animals. And owners were lied to. They were told their surrendered animals would be placed, but they were euthanized immediately upon intake,” she told PEOPLE. “If it was a stray animal, it was euthanized right after the hold period, which was five days. Staff would clean cages with the animals still in them. So they were sprayed down with bleach and their feet would have wounds and were bleeding. There wasn’t any effort made at all. There was just suffering.”
Brause watched in horror as a staff member kicked a six-month old dog and broke its leg. She stood horrified as another staff member dragged a lame, elderly golden retriever to the euthanasia room that was filled with dead animals piled on top of each other, across from live, caged animals awaiting their death sentences. Roaches and vermin were so rampant that staff had to wait for them to disperse before they could reach the animals.
“That first year was probably one of the hardest years of my life,” said Brause as tears welled in her eyes. “I cried a lot. I threw up. I am going to cry now just thinking about it, going so far back into it. It was horrible. I don’t even have words for it.”
After a year, she gave her notice. Her supporters lobbied the city to speed the process in converting the center into a non-profit shelter that would work with animal control. She refused their offer of an executive directorship. Her supporters again pleaded for her return.
“When they came back to me again I said ‘I’ll give it a shot, but if this doesn’t improve, I am not doing it anymore. I am not going to be part of this.’ “
Each day brought fresh challenges at the newly christened Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS).
The volunteers she recruited were prevented by union rules from any interaction with animals. Staff actively thwarted her outreach attempts to rescue groups, forbidding the groups entry to the facility, euthanizing the rescued animals before Brause could intervene.
“That was sick. Just sick,” she said. “There were some really good people that were here and some people that were here that should not have been … People often say shelters are so sad and this was. Very sad.”
Brause credits the former commissioner of public health for championing her work, removing obstacles and securing funding. At last, she started to make progress.
Long-time BARCs supporter, board member and veterinarian Brent Whitaker, Brause’s former supervisor at the National Aquarium, marvels at the metamorphosis.
“She has made this a more caring Baltimore, a more humane Baltimore,” said Whitaker, senior vice president of animal science and rescue at the aquarium. “We have a long way to go, but we are doing better and better. These animals are a large part of Baltimore and a large part of improving the public health here.”
The Brause effect? A staff of about 65, including three full-time veterinarians, about 500 volunteers, and a euthanasia rate that dipped to about 15 percent from its previous 98 percent rate. Brause is determined to continue the improvements.
“It’s a new day there,” said Jean Sommers, who was among the first volunteers when Brause began. “It is the happiest place in the world? No, but it’s the happiest place the animals can be right now. They aren’t on the street. They are well cared for. And Jen keeps working hard, improving things, getting the word out.”
As she walks through the clinic filled with cages of dogs, cats and other animals rescued from the streets or surrendered for adoption, she speaks briefly to several of them. She tells the story of one woman who surrendered her dog because he didn’t match her furniture. Others have arrived at BARCS because their owners were taken to assisted living facilities or were neglectful.
“These animals have so much love to give,” she said.
She surveys the cages and smiles.
“It’s still very emotional. You are crying for those people who have to surrender their animals. You are crying for the animals that come in abused and neglected. And you’re crying because you are so happy to see an animal adopted by a wonderful family. It is an emotional roller coaster. I wish I had words for it,” she adds. “I can only say how grateful I am for all the staff, volunteers and supporters who have worked so hard. We make progress every year.”