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.