Stenger fires shelter head after misconduct investigation

Pictured above: Animal Shelter Manager Beth Vesco-Mock, right, with her attorney at a Feb. 27 County Council hearing on her management of the St. Louis County Pet Adoption Center.

By Gloria Lloyd
Staff Reporter
news3@callnewspapers.com

County Executive Steve Stenger is firing new county animal shelter Director Beth Vesco-Mock after shelter volunteers accused her of racist comments and neglecting the needs of animals.

Animal advocates have appeared at the County Council for months asking the county to look into Vesco-Mock, who started overseeing the St. Louis County Pet Adoption Center at 10521 Baur Blvd. in Olivette in August after previously serving as director of animal control in Las Cruces, N.M.

Stenger initially defended her, and they took television cameras on a tour of the shelter to boast about the impressive decline in euthanasia statistics under her watch.

But he abruptly changed course in a statement last week in which he said he had started proceedings to fire her after an internal investigation into some of the accusations.

“A number of matters relating to the current management of the shelter were recently brought to my attention,” Stenger said. “Because we cannot tolerate inappropriate conduct or activities, we immediately began an investigation. As a result of our findings, we have initiated termination proceedings for the shelter director and will look for new leadership in this important position.”

Vesco-Mock’s critics included members of the Animal Care and Control Advisory Board, which Stenger instituted when he came to office to oversee the operation of the shelter. Some of the same animal advocates who stood alongside Stenger in a press conference during his first campaign for county executive were Vesco-Mock’s most vocal detractors.

In comments at a series of council meetings and ultimately a Feb. 27 hearing called by the council to consider the accusations against Vesco-Mock, shelter volunteers and supporters accused the new director of driving out a dozen employees of the 40 who were there when she started, making racist comments and neglecting animals, including a breakout of the deadly parvo infection last week.

“Change is difficult,” Vesco-Mock said of why so many employees left soon after she took over.

Vesco-Mock made no bones about her abrasive style, even embracing it. At an animal board meeting in February, she held a pitbull on a leash for most of the meeting to make the point that she would not give up on him even though he was not properly socialized to people.

Before she arrived at the shelter, employees didn’t have to clock in and out. Infections like parvo spread untreated among the 5,000 animals the shelter sees a year, she said, and cats with upper-respiratory symptoms were euthanized upfront rather than treated. Medicine was expired, and animals weren’t spayed and neutered. The shelter only had one staff member to work on weekends, when adoptions should have been busiest.

Steve Stenger

“I worked hard on educating everyone to look at each animal as an individual,” Vesco-Mock said of the culture change she instituted at the shelter.

Other animal advocates stood up for Vesco-Mock, including members of the animal board. They said that Vesco-Mock was a breath of fresh air after the shelter had long been mismanaged, and pointed to the euthanasia rate to prove their point.

Since Vesco-Mock started, the county placed more and more dogs in homes rather than euthanize them. The euthanasia rate fell from 43 percent in October 2016 to 8 percent in October 2017. In January, adoptions from the shelter’s cat room tripled year-on-year from 2017. In all, the shelter has roughly 171 animals at a time.

But although keeping animals alive was the main statistic she had going for her, Vesco-Mock told the council at the hearing that her main priority was “service to humans, then dogs.”

As a publicly-funded animal control facility, the shelter has to function as a place that accepts dogs county residents no longer want, she noted.

And although Vesco-Mock at first seemed to have found success in St. Louis, she hadn’t taken the time to learn the community whose animals she was taking in.

Animal control officers are primarily split between north and south county since those are the county’s two hotspots for lost and stray dogs, she told the council. But that was about all she knew about the county.

“I have no idea what the difference is between north county and south county,” Vesco-Mock said, adding that until recently she thought East St. Louis was part of the city of St. Louis.

Animal advocates disagree whether the animal shelter was in shambles before Vesco-Mock arrived, or whether she caused it. One point of contention surrounds Vesco-Mock’s credentials: She has a doctorate in veterinary medicine and has practiced as a veterinarian, but is not currently licensed as a veterinarian.

That led to county legislation sponsored by 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, that requires the shelter director to be a licensed veterinarian. It was perfected last week with several dissenting votes.

The director said when she arrived, animals weren’t getting uninterrupted sleep at night because the regular feeding schedule fed them dinner right before bedtime, and then the animals could not go out for bathroom breaks overnight.

Employees didn’t know how to handle feral cats, and animal board members said previous leadership would never allow them to bring in cat behaviorists to fix the problem. Vesco-Mock did. Volunteers never stayed with the same animals every day, which would have helped animals build up a rapport with people.

But the critics said Vesco-Mock took it too far with racially-tinged comments that abused  employees.

In frustration, Erby asked Vesco-Mock directly at the hearing, “We have had complaints that you have made some racist statements and that concerns me.”

In an unusual move, Vesco-Mock brought a personal attorney to the hearing, who tapped her on the shoulder after Erby’s question.

Vesco-Mock declined to answer the question directly, but said, “I can guarantee you, ma’am, that diversity has never been an issue in my life.”