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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Shawni Larrabee, director of Salt Lake County Animal Services, says she never backs away from a challenge.

Wanted: a director to lead an unhappy, overworked staff recovering from a recent round of layoffs.

It's not exactly an enticing job listing.

But it's exactly the job Shawni Larrabee applied for, without truly knowing the deep-rooted problems at the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter.

Larrabee didn't get her hands on a scathing report about lagging morale, "chronic organization dysfunction" and high employee turnover at the shelter until after she was hired.

"It's a daunting report, but I still would have taken the job," had she read it ahead of time, Larrabee said. "I just would have asked a lot more questions."

The May 2008 report from Management Partners Inc. said, "The division is not a healthy place to work and has been that way for years." And, the report said, fixing it will be quite the challenge.

Morale plummeted in March when three employees were laid off in a move to cut the budget and decrease the cost of services to cities that contract with the county for animal services.

Then the former division director was asked to resign after the report cited the need to bring "a new leadership style and approach" to fix the systemic problems at the shelter. Since then, the shelter's veterinarian quit.

Larrabee is determined to turn things around at the beleaguered Salt Lake County Animal Shelter.

"I've never been one to back away from a challenge," Larrabee said.

She comes to the county Animal Services Division straight from Franklin Templeton Bank & Trust. Yes, a bank, not a workplace that somehow involved animals.

It was Larrabee's management skills that sold Public Works director Linda Hamilton to hire her over the 95 other applicants.

"I've got people down here already who know what to do with the animals, but I didn't have anyone to handle the people," Hamilton said.

Give Larrabee some credit, though. She does know her animals.

The Bluffdale resident has a horse, three dogs, two cats and a parrot named J.J. at the home she shares with three children and her husband, Jeff.

"Mixing your work life and your passion together is pretty amazing and pretty rare," Larrabee said.

Things are already on the up and up at the animal shelter. The former interim director, Nilsa Carter, slapped a no-tolerance policy on gossip and rumors and opened her door to start a dialogue of teamwork and respect at the office.

Larrabee said she plans to build upon the work that Carter started.

"I didn't recognize the place described in the report when I walked in the door," Larrabee said.

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