Volunteers fault actions of Humane Society of Pinellas

CLEARWATER — In September, dogs in the adoption kennels at the Humane Society of Pinellas started to disappear.

Volunteers who worked with the dogs got worried. They began asking, "Where are the animals?"

They learned that Bandit, Bubba Lou, Rikki, Bodey, Mercedes, Violet and other dogs they loved had been euthanized.

The 63-year-old shelter on State Road 590 in Clearwater had long promoted itself as a "no kill" haven where adoptable animals could stay until they got a new home. Volunteers say they were drawn to the shelter by its image and its dedication to serving the community's needs.

However, the arrival of new management has brought unwelcome changes, they say.

"When people surrender dogs there, they are led to believe they're going to be there till they're adopted — that they're going to get their second chance," said Lori Ammons, 51, who volunteered there for four years. " … Bubba Lou and all of them, they didn't get that chance."

At least five of the approximately 40 volunteers who worked with the dogs are outraged that shelter management ordered the dogs euthanized with little input from shelter staff and no input from them. Four have resigned, claiming the shelter:

• Killed dogs with treatable health conditions and behavior issues that could be corrected.

• Accepted hundreds of dogs from outside the Tampa Bay area while rejecting dogs from the local community the nonprofit shelter was created to serve.

And former employee Mike Eagle reports the Humane Society ignored state law by accepting animals from out of state without health certificates.

Shelter officials insist the euthanasias were proper. And while acknowledging they accepted 100 animals without health certificates, they suggest the complaining volunteers are just uncomfortable with change.

That's not the issue, say the volunteers.

"Now it's not the same shelter," said Ammons, whose husband also resigned. "I think we're losing sight of taking care of our community."

• • •

This isn't the first controversy to roil the Humane Society.

Within the last six years: Longtime executive director Rick Chaboudy left abruptly, saying he was forced out. A couple sued the shelter to regain custody of dogs they lost during Hurricane Katrina. And after a rash of euthanasias in 2006, volunteers quit and called for the resignation of then-director Barbara Snow. She didn't leave, but the shelter conceded euthanasia procedures had been violated.

In April 2011, the shelter board hired new executive director Sarah Brown, who previously worked for an animal rescue group and New York City shelters. In September, the shelter hired Katerina Williamson, formerly of the SPCA Suncoast in New Port Richey, as director of medical care.

Soon after, volunteers began noticing that dogs they had worked with were gone.

Bandit, a German shepherd mix, was one of the first to disappear. His ears were badly infected, and though Eagle, employed as an animal caretaker, had offered to nurse Bandit at home, he says Williamson told him ear infections were too expensive to treat. Bandit was euthanized in late September.

Ammons learned about Bandit and shot off an email to the shelter's volunteer manager, asking about Bubba Lou and Rikki, also missing from the adoption kennels. The answer she received was "PTS" — put to sleep.

Shelter officials called a meeting and explained why dogs were put down: One showed aggressive behavior around his food, three others were deemed aggressive, another's mental health had declined.

When contacted by the Tampa Bay Times, shelter officials defended the euthanasias, saying Bandit grew aggressive after his ears worsened and at least three others had bitten or tried to bite people.

"We don't take euthanasia lightly at all," Brown said. "It's not something we want to do, but we want to do what's most humane for the animals."

She said the euthanasia rate for dogs has fallen, from 7 percent in 2010 to 3 percent in 2011.

Ammons finds it odd that, within a few weeks, so many dogs that were in the adoption kennels for months were ruled unadoptable. So does former volunteer Kathy Perry.

"All of a sudden there's a new medical director and all of these dogs that could be adopted were put to sleep," said Perry, 48.

Williamson did not return several calls for comment. Brown said Williamson did not make those euthanasia decisions. She said Abigail Kamleiter, then director of operations, was in charge of euthanasia decisions for behavior issues and she consulted with an outside veterinarian and a behavior technician. The shelter's part-time veterinarian was consulted on health-related euthanasias.

In October, shelter officials responded to volunteers' complaints by forming a committee of six staffers to make animal welfare decisions. They insist there have been no changes to the agency's euthanasia policy.

But the Times found changes to the policy posted online. Since late 2006 the shelter's euthanasia policy had included the words "No-Kill." In recent months, the words were removed from the posted policy.

Brown said she cut them because they implied other local shelters are "kill" shelters. Humane Society board chairman Stephen Bunch said, "It was just wording on the website."

But volunteers said the deletion speaks volumes.

"That is so telling of everything we've been saying," said former volunteer Monika Hladik, 29.

• • •

The euthanasias tapered off after the volunteers spoke up. But they noticed another shift in procedures: The facility started bringing in hundreds of younger and small-breed dogs from shelters outside Tampa Bay.

Volunteers were told the shelter had become a warehouse for older and "pit-type" dogs and the agency wanted more variety to increase visitors to the shelter.

The volunteers also noticed that the shelter, which traditionally took in many aging and large dogs given up by local residents, seemed to take fewer — or at least few made it into the adoption kennels.

In the past, the number of animals from local residents dwarfed those accepted from other shelters. Now, shelter records confirm, it's the opposite.

From September 2011 through Feb. 23 — the period when volunteers said things started to change — the shelter accepted 664 dogs and cats from other shelters, including 256 from Alabama and 61 from other Tampa Bay shelters. Only 163 were accepted from local residents.

During the same period a year earlier, the Humane Society accepted 53 dogs and cats from other shelters. None came from out of state and about half came from other Tampa Bay facilities. The shelter accepted 325 from local residents.

Brown said serving the community is the shelter's priority, but if fewer people choose to surrender their pets, "then we're certainly going to look other places so we have animals in our kennel."

Brown said the shelter would never refuse animals because of age alone, but Kristine Maltby of Spring Hill said when she tried to give the shelter her 7-year-old Labrador-pit bull mix, a woman called back "to say they have too many dogs that are senior dogs," Maltby said.

If that happened, Brown said, "someone misspoke on behalf of the organization."

• • •

Eagle feared the flood of animals from other places was exposing shelter dogs to serious illnesses like the parvovirus.

Brown denied that, saying, "We would never take any animal that's parvo positive into the shelter through a transfer."

The Humane Society's part-time veterinarian, Kevin Conrad, said some serious illnesses, including parvovirus, have occurred, but that isn't unusual in a shelter setting with hundreds of animals coming in.

In late October, Eagle wrote the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that the shelter was accepting unhealthy animals from out of state without required health certificates.

Florida requires health certificates for most animals entering the state. The certificates, completed by a veterinarian in the state where animals are from, help ensure they have been vaccinated and show no signs of infectious diseases.

Sam Lamb, a veterinarian manager for the agriculture department's Bureau of Animal Disease Control, wrote Eagle that a violation could result in a fine or second-degree misdemeanor charge.

Lamb sent the complaint to Will Davis, interim director of Pinellas County Animal Services. Davis and Lamb said neither of their agencies has jurisdiction to enforce the certificate requirement. Davis said he thinks the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office does, but neither man called in local law enforcement.

Humane Society officials said they accepted one Alabama transfer of 70 dogs and 30 cats without health certificates, but oddly, they said that transfer was on Nov. 29 — more than a month after Eagle lodged his complaint.

Brown said it happened because the Humane Society of Escambia County in Alabama was racing to close its shelter. She said she didn't know the certificates were missing until after the animals arrived, and they were quarantined right away.

Bunch, the board chairman, said Brown told him about the certificate requirement on Dec. 5, the same day she got a copy of Eagle's complaint from the county. The shelter instituted a policy requiring certificates the next day, he said.

Eagle was fired in February. He said he was falsely accused of leaving a dog out of its kennel overnight. He thinks he lost his job because of the complaint.

Brown wouldn't elaborate, but said that was not the reason.

• • •

The volunteers who resigned represent a minority, shelter leaders said.

"The majority are pleased with the changes and, in my opinion, the morale has never been better," Bunch said.

The Times interviewed 10 volunteers and former employees who all expressed similar concerns. Two workers declined to go on the record because the shelter made them sign confidentiality agreements.

The former volunteers said they don't want to hurt the Humane Society. They spoke out because the animals cannot.

"It was for the ones that didn't have a voice," Ammons said, "the ones I felt the shelter failed."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155.

Volunteers fault actions of Humane Society of Pinellas 03/31/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 1, 2012 10:20am]

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