St. Louis County's New Animal Control Director Left Controversy in New Mexico

click to enlarge St. Louis County's New Animal Control Director Left Controversy in New Mexico
St. Louis County seems to suit Beth Vesco-Mock. Hired in September 2017, the director of county's department of Animal Control & Care recently appeared in a feel-good Fox-2 spot alongside her boss, County Executive Steve Stenger, where together they touted the lowered euthanasia rate at the county's adoption center — a success that was credited to Vesco-Mock's leadership and her efforts to bring a "cultural shift" to the shelter.

By comparison, the conditions Vesco-Mock presided over as director of the Animal Service Center of the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico, which she held for nearly a decade, also drew TV coverage. But not the good kind.

"It is absolutely the worst shelter I have ever seen in my career," Frank Bryce, president of the Humane Society of Southern New Mexico, tells the RFT. Bryce and Vesco-Mock clashed frequently over her handling of the shelter, particularly the problems related to a building that he says had an intended capacity of 200 — yet received more than 800 animals per month.

"I call it hoarding," Bryce says.

Bryce concedes that the high intake numbers can be traced to the community around the shelter — after all, the people who live nearby are the ones returning or abandoning the animals. But he faults Vesco-Mock for not finding solutions. In fact, he blames her for making things worse.

"If you’re running the worst shelter in the state, it would certainly appear that the responsibility falls on the director, the staff and the board that's supervising the whole operation," he says.

Controversies exploded in Vesco-Mock's final year running the New Mexico shelter. In April, a local TV station, KFOX14, ran a story publicizing a cache of photos it said had been supplied by a former shelter employee; the photos showed cages covered in filth and dogs living amid their own waste. One photo, according to the report, "shows a dead dog, with a leg ripped off by its kennel mates."

Vesco-Mock confronted negative stories head-on. She led a TV news crew on a tour of the shelter, which appeared in far better condition than the photos suggested. Vesco-Mock explained that the photos were "very old," and she said that the shelter had instituted new protocols to address animals fighting.

But just two weeks later, Vecso-Mock's name was back in the news. This time, the local ABC affiliate confronted her with claims that she had allowed a drug company to administer an experimental diarrhea medication to some of the shelter's dogs in 2013 and 2014. Vecso-Mock confirmed it. In return for providing the dogs as test subjects, the shelter had received $1,200 per dog treated, the station reported. Vesco-Mock insisted that no animals were harmed by the experimental usage.

Despite the bad press, Vesco-Mock enjoyed the support of the shelter's board, which defended her leadership while still bemoaning the overcrowding and high intake numbers. But a month packed with negative news spilled into the proceedings of an April board meeting, which was interrupted multiple times by audience members. During the portion of the meeting reserved for public comments, minutes show, a woman claiming to be a former shelter employee accused Vesco-Mock of being "a racist, bigoted pig" who drove staff away.

Then, in July, Vesco-Mock announced her resignation. Two months later, she arrived in St. Louis.

Her new bosses are aware of the past controversies and toxicity she left behind in New Mexico. Although St. Louis County declined to make Vesco-Mock available for an interview, her supervisor, Director of Operations Glenn Powers, defended her hiring, saying the county is "lucky to have her." Powers went so far as to say that her hiring was based "in great part on her outstanding record of lowering euthanasia rates and increasing adoption rates in New Mexico."

Powers' statement also touched on a previous controversy: In 2015, Vesco-Mock was criminally charged by Doña Ana County on three misdemeanor counts in connection to the shelter's handling of two dogs suspected of killing livestock. The charges, filed by Doña Ana County's animal cruelty supervisor, accused her staff of refusing to release one of the dog's microchip information to a county animal control officer. According to reports at the time, Vesco-Mock was also charged with resisting, evading or obstructing an officer.

However, in July 2015, the charges were abruptly dismissed mid-trial. Vesco-Mock later sued the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office for "malicious abuse of process and defamation of character." The parties eventually settled for $90,000.

In his statement, Powers noted that the accusations that Vesco-Mock faced in 2015 "had been proven false in a court of law."

Along with Powers, the St. Louis County Animal Care and Control Board has thrown its support behind its new director. In an email, the board's vice chair, Ellen Lawrence, praised Vesco-Mock for presiding over a significant decline in the shelter's reliance on euthanasia. According to data she provided to RFT, the shelter's euthanasia rate dropped from 43 percent in October 2016 to 8 percent in December 2017.

After the RFT reached out to the county with questions about Vesco-Mock's history in New Mexico, this reporter and his editor both received numerous unsolicited emails pushing back against the yet-unpublished story — and Vesco-Mock's critics in New Mexico.

The executive director of the Doña Ana County Humane Society Inc. was particularly critical of Bryce.

“I helped organize a couple of big fund-raisers for Frank's organization, the Humane Society of Southern New Mexico, before realizing what his goal was: to take over the municipal shelter and discredit the person who got the job over him,” wrote Kathy Lawitz. “He lost the bid to Dr. Beth Vesco-Mock, and has been on a quest for revenge ever since.”

She added, "The fact that he is sending this information so far after the fact, and in such great detail, speaks volumes about his character. He might be better served to figure out how to raise money for his own organization in ways besides picking up cans on the side of the road; maybe put the heavy artillery away for a while and seek some sort of income and set up a long-term strategy for his group other than pursuing personal vendettas."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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