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Part 2

The Pound and the Fury

The story of the Richmond Animal Shelter's public problems is a long and convoluted one that began in the fall of 1996 when one employee, David Moschetti, an animal control officer, alleged that euthanasia was being performed improperly and inhumanely with a method known as heart-sticking, in which a syringe with a lethal dose of drug is jabbed directly into the animal's heart. Without prior anesthesia or if the needle misses the heart, the heart-stick method of euthanasia can mean a horrible, prolonged death for animals. Moschetti said conditions at the shelter were deplorable: The facility was filthy and mismanaged. One appalling story took center stage — after seven dogs were supposed to have been euthanized one night in August, two were discovered alive the following morning in the pile of dead dogs.

Moschetti sent a memo outlining his complaints to the shelter administration, the city manager, mayor, City Council members and commonwealth's attorney's office. Days later he was suspended for insubordination and transferred to a desk job at the health department. He resigned in December, saying he was forced to do so.

Shortly thereafter, a group of affluent women came together to volunteer at the shelter. They cleaned cages and played with animals. But, according to Jeanne Bridgforth, one of the founding members of the group, they began to see for themselves serious problems with the facility and the management. Bridgforth says the volunteers' initial efforts to communicate the problems inside the shelter were met with indifference by City Hall. That's when SOS was born. At first the acronym stood for Shame On the Shelter, an indication of the aggressive tack the group would later take. They eventually softened the name to Save Our Shelter, but not the approach. SOS relentlessly pursued City Council members, spoke at Council meetings, filed court injunctions and kept showing up at the pound to adopt out hundreds of animals and document conditions.

The group eventually gained nonprofit status and now works throughout the state on animal shelter issues. The group claims more than 3,000 members with hundreds of active volunteers. It was instrumental in introducing and getting the General Assembly to pass a measure establishing a statewide task force for the improvement of Virginia's public animal shelters. Bridgforth sits on that task force, which meets for the first time June 10.

SOS has been so well-organized and diligent that hardly a single shelter misstep would go unnoticed — and without a corresponding SOS press release. SOS made sure the media knew about every horrifying incident: the three puppies that fell from their upper-tier kennel and down a drainpipe to their death; the mother dog found dead among her live puppies; the carcasses of two dead animals discovered in the back of an animal control truck which sat outside an animal control officer's house for 10 days.

The scrutiny became so intense that a bunker mentality seemed to pervade the shelter. The city installed surveillance cameras in the shelter. Doors to the public-area kennels were locked and patrons could go through them only accompanied by a security guard. Program Manager Deale called the public scrutiny "demoralizing" in a Style Weekly interview in July 1997. "We've come a long way and would like to be recognized for it, "she said.

Indeed, the shelter continued to pass state veterinarian inspections. Even SOS conceded the shelter was cleaner and improvements were being made. A veterinarian, Kim Eaton, was brought on to handle euthanasia. After Moschetti's initial allegations in 1996, the city diverted $120,000 to upgrade the shelter's poor ventilation system, repaint the shelter and make other needed improvements.

But that didn't stop the personal battles being waged. SOS and some employees have painted Deale as a tyrant, who humiliated some employees until they were reduced to tears. Eaton, the veterinarian, said in a July 31, 1997, Richmond Times-Dispatch article that she believed certain dogs were euthanized just to spite her. It was typical of the kind of complaint SOS made often: that animals the group tried to rescue were specifically targeted to be killed in retaliation against SOS.

Employees like Moschetti, Tina Gallagher (now Moschetti's wife), Janet Sherd, Edward Glomb, and more recently John Hundley and Robert Prine all say they were targeted for firing in retaliation for their real or perceived association with SOS or their efforts to blow the whistle on problems in the shelter. (Gallagher, Sherd, Hundley and Prine were fired; Moschetti and Glomb resigned.) All along, city officials have declined to offer details of shelter employees' dismissals, saying they were unable to speak about personnel matters.

City officials acknowledge that the shelter has been a revolving door for employees. "They've had unusually high turnover, no doubt about it," says Mayor Timothy Kaine.

"When you look at the turnover, there's something probably very basic that's not right," Dr. Robert D. Whiting of the state veterinarian's office said in March.

SOS and shelter tensions escalated in February of 1998, when SOS member Eileen McAfee filed an $800,000 defamation suit in Henrico County against the city of Richmond, Selina Deale, and deputy director of administration in the department of public health Anthony J. Romanello. According to court documents, McAfee alleged that memos between Deale and Romanello, which were circulated among shelter staff, painted McAfee as a racist. The suit also alleged that Romanello forwarded a letter he wrote to McAfee accusing her of "prejudicial and inappropriate statements" to Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Gordon Hickey, who forwarded it to reporter Bill McKelway. The statement was printed verbatim in a Sept. 5 Times-Dispatch story. The suit was later transferred to the Richmond Circuit Court and nonsuited, or withdrawn by the attorney while reserving the right to refile.

Last fall, McAfee filed a suit in federal court against Deale and Romanello, alleging that because she exercised her First Amendment rights, she was retaliated against in the form of defamation and by being banned from the shelter.

After a relatively quiet few months, five unnamed employees of the Richmond Animal Shelter reignited the flames of controversy with their claims in Style of mismanagement and inhumane treatment of animals. The city responded swiftly calling for an internal investigation and hiring the national HSUS to conduct an evaluation of the shelter. Deale has been removed from her post for the duration of the investigation, but remains with the health department, according to a city spokeswoman. In April, John Hundley and Robert Prine, two of the employees who made the claims, were fired.

Last week, there were two major developments: HSUS conducted its three-day evaluation of the shelter and on Friday, a hearing took place in federal court to determine if Selina Deale lied under oath, influenced others to lie under oath, obstructed justice and intimidated witnesses (see sidebar p.15).

In defending Deale and Romanello in the suit, not only does the city have its own city attorney's office on the case but it has hired two private law firms as well. Three invoices obtained by Style Weekly show that the city paid Shuford Rubin & Gibney and McGuire Woods Battle & Boothe a total of $16,545 in November and December of 1998. (Style Weekly filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the complete figures from the time the lawsuit was filed in March of 1998. The city attorney's office responded saying it was taking a seven-day extension to the standard five-day period granted under the Act. The information was not available by Style's press time. The city also denied Style access to the shelter to take pictures in public areas of the public facility, citing the pending lawsuit.)

That's money Kaine would rather spend in the shelter or for other city needs, but it is money he says the city is not spending voluntarily. "What's the alternative?" Kaine asks. "Should we not defend? Should we hang our employees out to dry?"

Former employee Prine thinks there may have been an alternative all along: "Tim Kaine says he's tired of hearing about this," he says. "Well, do it right the first time and you won't have to hear about this." Shelter critics argue that if problems had been fixed when they first surfaced in 1996, the city probably would not be in the middle of an expensive lawsuit now.

"They didn't take aim at the problem, but at the messenger," Bridgforth says of the city's response to the shelter problem.

Through it all, shelter watchers say, there have been lingering questions: Why has the city allowed one of its smaller divisions, run on a $800,000 annual budget, to continually embarrass the city? Why can't — or won't — the city fix this?

One answer both the city and the shelter's critics seem to agree on is that animal control is simply not important enough to command the attention of city officials who are grappling with weighty issues such as crime, education and economic development. Indeed, when David Moschetti leveled those first allegations in 1996, Richmond's claim to fame was its high homicide rate. The murders of several elderly women — the so-called Golden Years murders — remained unsolved. Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Patricia Conn and the Richmond School Board were engaged in a nonstop tug-of-war of egos and power plays. National attention was focused on Richmond over the Arthur Ashe monument controversy.

Bridgforth and her twin sister, Jennie Knapp, used the animal shelter issue as a springboard to run for City Council, but lost. The animal shelter with all its woes, no matter how severe, simply was not an issue the constituency or City Council cared a great deal about. "I think some of it is that we feel under such intense pressure from citizens to fix things that ... Council has never fully invested themselves in fixing this because demands have been higher to fix things in other areas," says Kaine.

But pushing the animal shelter aside could backfire, says one local expert in city government. "As small an issue as it is, it could be damaging to [the city manager's] administration," says Nelson Wikstrom, chair and professor of the department of political science and public administration at Virginia Commonwealth University. Wikstrom says he has seen other city administrations suffer tremendous damage because of what were considered small issues. "It would seem that just from a political and managerial perspective, [the city manager] and his staff need to get to the roots of this problem."

This kind of issue, he says, "could symbolize the lack of governmental control over the various functions of the city. Fixing the animal shelter, Wikstrom says, is in the city manager's "political self-interest. ... Otherwise, it becomes a festering wound."

Kaine says City Manager Calvin Jamison is not about to let that happen. He says Jamison is taking the shelter situation more seriously than his recent predecessors, as evidenced by his swift call for an investigation of the shelter and his removal of Deale during the investigation. Kaine says Jamison's actions will take the city through some "painful self-scrutiny" but will result in good, workable recommendations for solving the shelter's problems long-term.

The report, due out after the HSUS completes its report, is likely to make some recommendations for solving the shelter's problems. According to sources familiar with the report, it will confirm that the shelter did not purchase enough food to adequately feed the animals housed over the two-month period investigators studied. It will say that veterinary care for animals who become sick in the shelter is inconsistent and that training and management at the shelter are poor. It confirms that euthanasia was performed with live animals in the room and with dead animals in the room, each a violation of state code.

It will not confirm that a stethoscope was not used to verify death after euthanasia or that a live animal was seen on a truck loaded with dead animals, as was alleged by employees in the Style article. However, in a letter dated March 25 to Kaine and Jamison from the employees who spoke to Style, the incident is repeated: "On 2/15/99 Callahan put a German Shepherd on the truck for dead to go to the dump. Three people saw it was still breathing. When we told him about it he brought another syringe out to the truck and heart-stuck it. ..."

Kaine would not go into detail about the report, which he has seen, except to say, "It ain't a whitewash."

Since the five employees made their claims in March, both Prine, 28, and Hundley, 34, have been fired from the shelter. They say the day the shelter learned of an impending story, "the witch hunt had begun," Hundley says. Both men say they were suspected immediately.

Hundley had already been "grounded" — taken off the streets because of a March 5 fender bender with another animal-control truck. He received the letter recommending his termination on March 18, two days after the Style story ran. As a probationary employee, he had no right of appeal. He was placed on administrative leave with pay until the final disposition from human resources. On April 6, Hundley says he talked to a health department official to ask what was going on with his suspension and his pay. He was informed that his termination was effective the day of the letter.

Prine says he started getting "written up" on a regular basis after it came to light that he had spoken with Eileen McAfee in February and had given her information that might be helpful in her lawsuit. He says he was eventually fired for clerical errors in paperwork. His last day was April 16.

Hundley and Prine have new jobs now. Making $2 less an hour at his job at Target, Hundley takes home nearly $200 less per paycheck than he did working for the shelter. Still, Hundley says he has no regrets about how he handled things.

It was frustrating, he says, "trying to help your city be a better city but being blocked at every avenue, that you have to go to a newspaper to say what you want to say."

Hundley says he had "nothing to gain," but much to lose. He says he knew he was risking his job when he talked to Style. "I had an idea that it could come to that." But he says he couldn't stand to see his fellow employees coming to work with a "can-do" attitude and being chastised and humiliated. "If you feel there is something wrong you should be able to say there is something wrong and not be chastised for it, not fired for it," he says.

Prine has found a new job making more money as a corrections officer. He says he almost didn't get the job because of the situation with the shelter. "It was real scary. ... You get fired from one place and try to convince the other place to hire you," Prine says. "The thing that got me the job was my honesty."

Both men say they'd like to see an animal control division that reaches out more to the community. Both say they were scolded for their efforts in that direction — Hundley when he escorted a little girl home who'd been chased onto a car by a dog, and Prine when he waded out into the James River to save a dog as the river was rising. "Things you would expect your animal control officer to do, they frowned upon. It was hard to tell what their true mission was," Prine says.

Despite all that's transpired, Hundley still maintains optimism that the city will set things right. "I would like to believe [city officials] are people who will listen and get to the bottom of a situation, and I would like them to prove me right," he says.

Prine's attitude is bit more wait-and-see.

When asked if he is proud of how he's handled things he replies, "Uh-huh. And I'd do it again. I'm in this until the end."

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