Updated 3:15 p.m., Nov. 19: The contracted provider of animal services for Los Altos and Los Altos Hills intends to sever ties with the Palo Alto shelter through which local services are offered.

Pets In Need (PIN), headquartered in Redwood City, and the city of Palo Alto signed a five-year, $3.4 million contract in 2019 to govern operations at Palo Alto’s East Bayshore Road shelter. Its provisions allow either party to terminate the agreement without cause after giving a one-year written notice. Citing the city’s alleged failure to complete needed repairs at the shelter, PIN executive director Al Mollica provided that notice in a Nov. 15 letter sent to Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada. Just days later, PIN announced Mollica’s intention to resign.

“PIN’s board and Al are currently working out details including the exact date of his departure,” according to a statement from the nonprofit organization. “The board will be meeting over the next few days to determine an interim management structure, plans for the recruitment of a new executive director, and other important transitional items.”

Last week’s abrupt announcements were made amid the Palo Alto Police Department’s ongoing investigation of three PINs employees suspected of contributing to the heatstroke deaths of seven puppies. Mollica did not mention the investigation in his letter to Shikada, but the organization’s board of directors briefly addressed it in a statement emailed to the Town Crier Nov. 15. The newspaper routinely partners with PIN to feature a “Pet of the Week” profile of an adoptable dog, cat or rabbit.

“The events of Aug. 2nd are tragic, and we have been working to cooperate with the criminal investigation, to support our employees through this process, and to carry out an internal review process, but events since then have only exacerbated a long-standing difficult working relationship with the City,” according to the statement.

A PIN attorney’s May 11, 2021, letter to Shikada and a city attorney urged kennel repairs to ensure the safety of PIN staff and animals and suggested civil litigation as a potential remedy if the problems are not addressed.

Misdemeanor charges

Pets In Need is a “no-kill” organization, and its employees routinely travel to shelters in other parts of the state that do permit euthanization to collect animals that are more likely to secure adoption in the Bay Area. On Aug. 2, PIN staff members Patricia Santana Valencia, Margaret C. Evans and Ingrid Anne Hartmann drove a transport van to the Central Valley to retrieve as many as 28 animals, including a litter of seven pit bull/Labrador retriever puppies, according to a Palo Alto Police Department press release. Temperatures in that region that day rose to between 90 and 100 degrees, and the women discovered the puppies were unresponsive when the van returned to the Palo Alto shelter. They sought emergency medical help from veterinary staff members, but the puppies could not be revived.

On Oct. 25, a judge signed arrest warrants for Valencia, Evans and Hartmann, and officers detained and cited the three women on charges of animal cruelty and neglect, two misdemeanors, the following day.

Whether the animals transported in the van had adequate access to air conditioning is a matter of contention among police, PIN executives and PIN staff. Following issuance of the citations, Mollica refuted police reports stating they did not have access to A/C, but a group of staff members penned an Aug. 9 letter to the organization’s board of directors supporting the police department’s narrative. The letter was later forwarded to the Palo Alto City Council.

The letter alleges the three women failed to follow PIN protocols. Their actions include using a vehicle with poor air circulation because it was more spacious than an alternative one, and it could accommodate a second passenger, an unusual circumstance. Also, despite the puppies’ unhealthy appearance, the women accepted them from their originating shelter without a medical director’s authorization.

None of the transported animals were provided with water or breaks outside their kennels, and the puppies were confined to a cramped kennel shrouded in a towel meant to “protect the other animals from potential disease,” the letter stated. Instead, the towel prevented proper ventilation.

“These seven puppies died horrible, painful, slow deaths,” the letter continued. “There was no air, no room to move, and no way to escape. They had to witness their siblings suffer and die before they themselves finally succumbed.”

The employees’ letter claims Mollica failed to hold staff accountable and that he has provided investigators with limited information meant to suggest the puppies died from worms or vaccine reactions.

Next steps

Built in 1972, Palo Alto’s East Bayshore Road animal shelter required a slew of updates, including remodeling and expansion, when PIN took over operations. The statement posted on PIN’s website last week alleges the city has failed to “fulfill its promise and to meet timelines for construction and renovation projects” and that kennels are empty because they “remain unsafe and unsuitable for housing dogs.”

Meghan Horrigan-Taylor, a spokesperson for the city of Palo Alto, shared the city’s response: “Our partnership with Pets In Need has been an important one, providing sheltering services for our community and the cities of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Given our nearly three-year partnership, the City is disappointed to receive today’s announcement by Pets In Need of their intent to terminate our agreement in the next twelve months, particularly under current circumstances. The City will evaluate options and determine next steps in order to provide a smooth transition.”

PIN has operated in the Bay Area for more than 55 years, and Charity Navigator awarded the nonprofit a perfect, four-star rating for 2019, the most recent year for which IRS data is available. PIN’s Charity Navigator score of 93.7 out of 100 is based on the average of its financial responsibility score (94.51) and its accountability and transparency score (93).

Despite the recent turmoil, PIN’s operations in Redwood City will continue unaltered, according to a statement posted on the organization’s website.

To read the documents associated with the city of Palo Alto-PIN contract, visit petsinneed.org. The PIN staff letter about the animal cruelty allegations is available at cityofpaloalto.org.