City Hall announced today that it would not renew or extend its animal-shelter contract with Halfway Home Pet Adoptions due to "operational concerns." The announcement comes as Halfway Home and its head -- Dr. Wayne Steckelberg -- are under investigation by the Missouri Veterinary Medical Board for alleged abuse and neglect.
The investigation began after a former Halfway Home employee filed a complaint with the state alleging a pattern of shoddy medical treatment resulting in the death, illness and mutilation of several animals.
The complaint cites a dozen individual cases in which animals died
in their kennels from easily treatable medical problems; were pulled
out of the shelter with untreated or diagnosed medical problems by
outside rescue groups; and, in the case of one three-month old kitten, was accidentally castrated while being prepped for surgery, then
swapped out with an identical kitten for the unsuspecting adoptive
Kansas City privatized the city's shelter operations in 2009, awarding a five-year contract to Steckelberg. The city's contract with Halfway Home Pet Adoptions will expire on April 30.
Councilwoman Cindy Circo, who represents the 5th District, where the shelter is located, said Steckelberg was unwilling to work with the city during the investigation.
"Some very serious allegations have been made, and we have to take them
seriously," Circo told The Pitch. "As with any complaint, it may come back clean, but with any employee we would do the same thing, where
we put them on administrative leave. We don't want to prejudge someone, so
you find another spot for them to work in until they can be cleared. There has to
be a process, whether you like it or not."
Circo added that an interim manager would be found for the shelter until a permanent replacement could be found. "There will likely be a new (contract) written with some things adjusted. We'll likely want to expand the spay and neuter aspect of the program."
An Animal Advisory Committee meeting will be held tonight at 5:30 p.m. on the 22nd floor of City Hall to discuss the changes.
In an interview with The Pitch shortly before the city's decision was announced, Steckelberg admitted that city officials had asked him to remove himself from the day-to-day shelter operations while the complaint was being investigated. He refused, he said, because doing so would endanger the animals.
"I made it plain to the city I am not leaving this facility," he said. "I am needed here. I don't want the adoptions to fall off, and I don't want euthanasia to increase. I spent two years on this project, and I've done absolutely nothing wrong. The city wants me to continue, but they're being manipulated by rich people from Johnson County and one individual I won't name who wants to get control of this shelter.
"They're scared of these people," he continued. "It's a political maneuver. We've got councilmen up for election; we've got an e-tax on the ballot. They don't want any bad publicity. They think it'll appease these people if I'm not around."
Steckelberg denied any neglect or cruelty toward animals under his care, claiming instead that under his leadership, Halfway Home had actually saved thousands of animals.
"When the city was running things, they were probably euthanizing 6,500, maybe 7,000 animals a year. That's maybe 500 a month. In January, we did maybe 45," he said. "We did that by getting involved with rescue groups from 20 to 30 states, getting people from all over the country to contact us. When an animal is adopted out of here, they get exceptional care. But we're working out of a 40-year-old facility with no ventilation, and you need a whole different structure than what we have, but we do the best we can with it."
The complaint was filed by Sam Gooch, who started working at Halfway Home as an adoption counselor in June 2010 and left in January. She said she saw problems from the start, beginning with the staff ignoring requests for medical attention that she would file for animals.
"You'd put in a card asking for a dog to be treated, and a day or two later, there was nothing on the card addressing it," she said. "So I'd go to find out, 'Is this dog being treated?' There were no records in the system; there was no way to check that. So that was the initial problem."
The final straw came when she saw a dog being euthanized without proper sedation after the employee had been told not to euthanize any more dogs, she said. She filed her complaint in January, shortly after her resignation.
Yesterday, tensions between Steckelberg's staff and volunteers at the shelter over animal treatment became so heated that police are now investigating an assault charge. Bonnie Witt, who was at the shelter as a volunteer to walk the dogs, claims that Halfway Home staff assaulted her yesterday afternoon because of her connection to several e-mails that questioned the quality of veterinary care at the facility.
According to a report filed with the Kansas City Police Department, Witt contacted police claiming that she and another unnamed victim were at Halfway Home at 1:30 p.m. when they were attacked by five members of the staff; they were pushed, grabbed and kicked by the staff, they claimed. "I observed no signs of injuries to either victims," the investigating officer wrote.
Steckelberg claims that, in fact, it was Witt who attacked his staff.
"We didn't call the police, heck no," he says. "She's absolutely not going to be allowed back. She's given us so many problems, every day complaining about this and that. 'Why aren't you treating this animal?' I've got a staff of five, and all we do is treat animals. They're all part of this group that wants me out, so the more things they can find and complain about and take pictures of to e-mail around ... it becomes a fever for them."
Steckelberg added that because of the claims of animal abuse, as well as altercations between staff and volunteers, he had planned to implement new rules to restrict who will be allowed access to the animals.
"We trusted some people and volunteers that can't be trusted, and the volunteers got completely out of hand," he told The Pitch two hours before the contract's termination was announced. "We've got a new volunteer coordinator now, different rules and regulations. They've got to work for us now, not against us."
Download the full text of the complaint, Steckelberg's response, and a response to Steckelberg's response.