The stray pit-bull puppy was in rough shape. Red mange — parasitic mites that burrow into hair follicles — had begun eating its way up the dog's legs and across its face. The exposed raw skin was barn-colored, and it would have been clear to anyone paying attention that this was one sick puppy. But no one from the Independence Animal Shelter, where the dog was taken on April 11, examined it. Instead, shelter records show, the animal sat in a kennel for two days before workers at the shelter began a course of treatment.
Former employees and volunteers say the case of the mangy puppy wasn't an isolated event. They claim that it typifies mismanagement at the Independence Animal Shelter, and they list other gruesome sights. (A kitten's eyeball burst with backed-up pus, goes one horror story.)
The state backs them up — to an extent. In 0x000Aa routine inspection conducted in June, the 0x000AMissouri Department of Agriculture found 21 0x000Aviolations of state code. The report, by Tracy Houston of the Animal Health Division, lists problems ranging from rusted-through cage doors to major policy failures.
The Independence Health Department, which oversees the shelter, and Aimee Wells, who manages the facility, concede that mistakes have been made. But they also contend that they've been targeted by disgruntled former employees and volunteers for reasons that go beyond a mere passion for vulnerable animals.
Based on shelter reports that The Pitch reviewed from the past three years, the shelter processes an average of slightly fewer than 5,000 animals each year. However disturbing a story about mange may be as an anecdote, that afflicted puppy — as well as other animals that ex-workers say have suffered there — represents a minuscule portion of an animal population that the state acknowledges is mostly safe in Independence. The facts, Wells and the city argue, are on the shelter's side.
The Independence Animal Shelter — the city's destination for strays, abandoned pets and wild animals, and those that are found on residents' property or are hit by cars — is not a happy place. Just ask Larry Jones, the director of the Independence Health Department, which oversees shelter operations.
"It's an old building," he says. On a sweltering recent afternoon, he sums up what everyone associated with the place agrees is true: "It just is depressing. It's dark."
Former employees and volunteers say the shelter isn't just sad but also dangerous. They charge that Jones and Wells have let animals suffer and die unnecessarily. To back up their claims, they have circulated photos and called media outlets with accounts of dogs and cats being forced to spend hot days in soiled cages, and animals suffering from untreated infections.
Several former and current volunteers and employees spoke to The Pitch about the shelter, but few would do so on the record. And the shelter's most vocal critic, interviewed extensively for this story, withdrew her name when told that Wells and Jones, in interviews with The Pitch, refuted her accusations.
Martha (a pseudonym) worked at the shelter for two and a half years before leaving this past spring. She says she quit because she didn't like what she'd witnessed there. She's seeking unemployment benefits, but she says that's not why she blew the whistle. She says she came forward because she wanted to change the state's approach to animal welfare.
In June, she appeared on camera, under her real name, in a story broadcast on WDAF Fox 4. In the station's two-and-a-half-minute news piece, other former workers also complained on camera about the shelter. Fox 4 reporter Monica Evans noted in the segment that she'd found the shelter to be clean, despite claims to the contrary.
But if Missouri's health policies have hurt animals in shelters like the one in Independence, as critics contend, they haven't benefited Jones or Wells, either.
"Do I think it could be improved?" Jones says. "Heck, yes." Wells agrees. In long individual interviews, they go over shelter data and answer questions raised by former shelter workers. Presented with photos that volunteers took, showing small dog cages damp with urine, soiled with feces and lined with ripped-up newspapers, Wells says such conditions are "typical of any shelter." The cages are cleaned in the morning and evening, she says — a schedule that allows plenty of time for a dog to make a mess of its space.
"You got a little cage; they play with the paper, they play with the bedding," she says. "You have to remember, not everybody poops at the same time."
About an hour after making this point, she gives a tour of the shelter and points out a small dog lounging in its cage's shredded paper. The morning cleaning was about three hours ago, she says.
Wells has a harder time answering other allegations, and the most graphic descriptions seem difficult to hear, even for her. One episode recounted by multiple former employees and volunteers dates to 2007, three years after Wells took over the shelter. People working there at the time recalled that when a block of cat cages was pulled away from the wall, several decomposed cat carcasses were discovered trapped between the wall and the cages.
Jones and Wells don't deny that it happened. They say, however, that Wells' leadership allowed the remains to be found at all. It was Wells, they say, who ordered that the cages be replaced.
"She asked for new cages ... because she was afraid that cats could get behind those old cages," Jones says. "And obviously they could."
"It was [shocking and upsetting] for me, too," Wells adds. She blames those deaths on procedures that she says didn't call for daily checks on animals, procedures that were in place before her arrival. Starting in 2006, Wells says, the inventory system became computerized, so that missing animals could be detected.
Because of her streamlined approach to documenting animal intake, and based on the level of decomposition, she's confident that none of those cats died on her watch. "Most of those that were found were just bones, so they'd been there a time," she says. "But I am not a forensic scientist."
Then there's the story of the raccoon. Former employees of the shelter told The Pitch that the animal was brought to the shelter to be euthanized but met a far worse fate: suffocation in a plastic bin while waiting for the needle. Wells admits that it happened but says it was the result of miscommunication between the shelter employee who admitted the raccoon and a custodian, who put a heavy object atop the bin. The employee was disciplined, Wells says. She calls what happened an isolated incident.
In a five-page letter to Jones dated April 22, 2008, the shelter's former volunteer coordinator, Susan Bass, who quit her position in December 2010, complained about Wells' personality and management skills.
"Aimee seems to need validation, and spends a lot of city hours building monuments to herself in my opinion," she wrote. According to Bass' letter, unsanitary conditions for animals persisted at the shelter, and employees altered dogs' birth records in order to get the animals out for adoption before they were 8 weeks old, the the earliest age for adoption under the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Perhaps the letter's most damning charge: "Freezer is allowed to become 3 foot deep in dead animals on a continuing basis." According to Bass, "Aimee seemed reluctant to task men to load the crematory or take initiative to keep it low when she is in charge of kennel area. Dead deer left outside in wheel barrel for days decomposing when crematory is empty."
Bass, who is testifying on Martha's behalf in an upcoming unemployment hearing, also claimed in the letter, "Aimee often gives hugs to or touches employees in an inappropriate manner."
Wells denies those accusations. She says the complaint about deceased animals waiting to be incinerated might stem from a misunderstanding of how carcasses are disposed of. The incinerator is used for road kill, shelter animals, and pets euthanized by approximately 10 veterinarians, she says, and it burns for five to six hours each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Sometimes, she says, high turnover at the shelter or veterinary practices results in an increased number of bodies, causing the freezer to fill up.
Jones, sounding exasperated at the complaints that the shelter has drawn, says of the critics' claims, "It's like saying we have an epidemic of measles because we have one case." He goes on: "I think the law of averages says we're going to have something go wrong every once in while. But I don't think it's an inhumane building. I don't think that our people are treating animals inhumanely. I don't think there's anybody down there right now that would do that intentionally, by any means."
If the shelter were a no-kill facility, Jones says, he and Wells might be catching less flack.
"Many shelters have been able to go to no-kill shelters. And if they've gone to no-kill, they're not facing this because they don't have to make decisions about whether an animal is going to die or not. If they haven't [enacted a no-euthanasia policy], they're facing this. And most of us are seeing that we're facing more of it because it's part of a movement to make sure we become no-kill."
Animal shelters that euthanize animals, he explains, are accustomed to complaint salvos from animal lovers. "We deal with that on an almost daily basis," Jones says. "They care for animals. They're the same as humans to them."
The Missouri Department of Agriculture's June inspection report cites a number of violations.
"In the room referred to as Homeward Bound (previously referred to as Dog Room A), there is a large hole in the wall that is approximately 4 inches in diameter near the floor. This type of gaping hole prevents proper cleaning and sanitizing. It can trap dirt, waste, and debris, making it a breeding ground for bacteria and pathogens," the department's Tracy Houston writes in the inspection document.
Another sanitation concern: "In the kitchen, due to the leaning kitchen cabinet, the sink also leans. This causes water to pool next to the sink's fixtures. I observed a small pool of standing water and cat feces next to the faucet."
Houston notes the failure to treat the mange-stricken pit bull. "A 5-month-old Pit Bull puppy (ID # 12861337) was taken into this facility's care on 4/11/2011. Photos show that large areas of this puppy's body had no hair and exposed raw skin. These bare and raw areas covered most of his legs and feet, his face and muzzle, and his neck. There were also raw and bare wound-like areas on his back. Licensee did not provide this puppy with veterinary care until 4/13/2011."
The report continues: "This facility's policy and practices for evaluating sick and/or suffering animals in their care must be reevaluated and changed immediately. Severe cases of illness and suffering must be attended to by a veterinarian in a far more timely manner that reflects the severity of the illness or injury."
Wells agrees that the pit bull was mishandled. But, she says, given the shelter's volume, one known case of a dog going without care for two days is bad but not terrible. Jones and Wells both say they're frustrated by the latter half of that citation. They claim that Houston didn't examine the shelter's policies for assessing animals' medical needs.
"The inspector, when I asked them if they wanted to see our current policies and procedures, did not want to see them," Wells says. "So she's recommending a rewrite of policies and procedures that she never saw. She said she did not need to see them."
Jones says the city is planning to appeal that violation. A spokeswoman for the agriculture department says it hasn't received an appeal yet.
While acknowledging a few missteps, Jones regards Wells as a reformer.
"There was a time before Aimee came where you walked into that shelter and the odor would almost knock you down," he says. He points to programs that Wells has instituted, including microchipping each animal that comes through the shelter, as proof that she has turned the facility around, not driven it into disrepair.
And despite Houston's most recent inspection report, the Missouri Department of Agriculture notes that it would be wasteful to compel the city to make costly repairs. The shelter is scheduled to move into a new building next spring. The facility will have modern amenities that the existing shelter lacks, including central air conditioning.
The department's June inspection report concludes: "Addressing these issues will serve to ensure that this facility moves into it's [sic] new building with improved policies and procedures in place that ensure the health, safety, and proper husbandry of the animals in the facility's care."
It's hard not to read that as a signal to Wells and her staff: Hold the current place together with duct tape and chewing gum if you have to, and fix policy before moving into the new shelter.
Jones sounds confident about the shelter's future and the satisfaction of those who work in it.
"I think we're doing a darn good job," he says. "I think by this time next year, it will be even better."