A group of about 25 volunteers from the Friends of Madera Animal Shelter (FMAS) gathered recently before the Madera County Board of Supervisors to receive a proclamation from Chairman Brett Frazier, thanking them for their more than 17 years of dedicated community service.
The group had recently been taken by surprise, however, to learn that one of their founding members, the current director of Madera County Animal Services, Kirsten Gross, would be retiring at the end of December.
Gross declined to comment on her retirement, saying only that she plans to continue with helping homeless animals through other rescue and adoption efforts.
FMAS president Velvet Rhoads haltingly spoke to the Board of Supervisors before accepting the proclamation on behalf of FMAS.
“We accept this proclamation with a heavy heart today,” Rhoads said. “I was here a month ago asking for (information and) a conversation with you men, because we knew there was something (going on) with the animal shelter. And now that the word is out, that our (FMAS) board member Kirsten Gross is out — no longer our shelter director ... and we were not involved in that conversation? It’s very disheartening. And a puzzling coincidence that we are now receiving a proclamation, just two weeks after learning ... our fearless leader (Gross) is no longer going to be there. It’s just unbelievable,” Rhoads said as she struggled with emotion.
“Do you know she spearheaded the (founding of the FMAS) group in 2002, because she knew she was unable to save enough lives or to provide humane treatment of unwanted animals (at the existing shelter) in Madera? That’s why she founded the FMAS group,” Rhoads said.
Volunteers said Gross was the force that kept together the network of the many FMAS volunteers and oversaw the other animal rescue activities, and had been the inspiration of the many dedicated volunteers over the years.
The shelter provides local shot clinics, animal rescue and relocation efforts and help many thousands of local residents obtain low-cost spay and neuter services for their animals.
The group reportedly raised and spent close to $5 million dollars for low-cost spay and neuter and other services for Madera city and county residents in the last decade.
Gross, in conjunction with the FMAS volunteer group, has increased the “save rate” at the shelter from single digits when she first took the position, to a live-release rate well over 80 percent in her 18-year-long tenure at the animal shelter, reflecting the large number of local animals that are no longer being destroyed through euthanasia. The animal shelter statistics reflect receiving between 7,000 to 8,000 animals each year from 2008 to 2012.
Two Madera County Grand Jury reports found that the animal shelter facility was outdated, in disrepair, undersized and underfunded by half, and recommended a new shelter facility be built as far back as 2013. None of those recommendations was implemented.
Rhoads went on to say Gross developed the group’s foster home network, providing for home care for sick or injured animals, and doubled the shelter animal capacity out of need. Gross is also known for her nonstop, proactive approach and doing whatever it takes to help or save an animal in need, including fostering untold numbers of animals herself, at her home.
“She would do whatever it takes to get animals into a safe, clean environment, to where we could turn around and rehome all these unwanted animals. She has never stopped. And now ... we don’t know where we are at.” Rhoads said.
Supervisor Brett Frazier said he was working to improve communications with the group and claimed he was unaware of events involving the animal shelter in the last month. “Kirsten’s resignation was also a shock for me, and for all of our board ...” Frazier said.
Rhoads contradicted and stopped Frazier when she said “I think we all know that is not true. We all know she is very passionate about the work she does. Maybe that is your understanding of it, Brett, but that is ... not a truth. I tried to reach out to you and the board and explain our side of it, and our partnership. And I have not yet gotten an email back from anyone else on the board. I had also asked to sit down with (County Administrative Officer) Eric Fleming, whom I had also asked to meet with.” Rhoads said.
Rhoads went on to say she and FMAS planned to try and continue working to help Madera animals in the future, in spite of the uncertainties.
Other volunteers were not so understanding and called what they said was a move to sideline Gross outrageous disregard for what the many dedicated residents and volunteers had worked to build in the last 18 years, and said that this decision would be the legacy of this board of supervisors and would be remembered during future elections.
Another resident, Ron Montoya, shook his head in disbelief and suggested the supervisors were hypocrites for showing themselves posing with dog photos emblazoned with FMAS logos, a volunteer group that could now potentially fall apart or might not have a future with the animal shelter.
Montoya also suggested residents speak out against the pending changes and held up a sign with his own proclamation — “Paws off our animal shelter.”
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Reporter DJ Becker has covered animal issues at the Madera County Animal Shelter for the last 16 years and has been a volunteer with the group FMAS for 15 years, fostering and caring for sick and injured animals, along with organizing shot clinics and other local outreach efforts.