LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Hundreds of animals living at a famous Las Vegas sanctuary seem to be caught in the middle of a nasty dispute between humans.
13 Investigates uncovers claims that the care for the animals is now being compromised.
Instead of inside taking care of the 300 plus animals at Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary, most of the former staff and board members are on the outside looking in, raising concerns that the place is going to backslide from one of promise to one of mismanagement and poor animal care.
“The lovely smell of rodent urine when you walked in was nauseating.”
“The electrical in that building that's being done, that was a disaster.”
“Mice, rodents, everywhere, faulty electrical work, everything.”
Those are comments from board members, staff and volunteers alike who are sounding the alarm about conditions at the sanctuary.
“I've worked with animals for 20 years,” said Ailigh Vanderbush, who used to be the executive director, but she quit in protest and frustration.
“My goal in life is to make their lives better and to do everything I can to make that happen,” said Vanderbush. “And I was put in a position where every single decision that was a better decision was questioned whether they agreed with it or not.”
Decisions she says affect the care for animals. Lots of animals.
“There's pigs, some goats, there's llamas, donkeys, ponies, there's ostrich, emu. Then there's turkeys, peafowl chickens,” Vanderbush said.
Along with ducks, geese, tortoises and parrots at the sanctuary.
When Vanderbush started working at Gilcrease last October, she says the problems were obvious.
“I started identifying areas on the property that were a hazard,” Vanderbush said. “Whether it's a health and safety hazard, a fire hazard. I mean, the fire hazards we had were diabolical.”
And a real threat for the sanctuary considering a massive blaze in March 2010 where 150 animals were killed. Fire investigators said the accidental fire started in the corner of a warehouse area where power was connected to the building. Total damage was estimated at $100,000.
Vanderbush points to sloppy electrical work that was still in need of repair at the time she left just a few months ago.
Another problem is one of the large areas for birds in the winter.
“And the number of thousands of dollars we paid to heat that, and they would constantly be tripping breakers just trying to heat it,” Vanderbush said. “When the response I got when I brought that up was, 'the birds never used to have heat, so why does it matter?’"
Kristeen Slagle, a certified vet assistant who was fired, shares Vanderbush's concerns.
“The money's not going to where it should be. The money is not going to make this place better for the Las Vegas community,” said Slagle
The money continued to raise alarm bells for Vanderbush in February when the president of the board of directors, Sandra Salinas, made a request.
“It seemed really out of the blue… deciding that she should be paid to be the president,” said Vanderbush.
A historically volunteer position, as is the case for all of the nonprofit's board members. Vanderbush says as president, Salinas did about 10 hours of work a week.
Darcy: “But she wanted $25,000 for a 10-hour workweek?”
Vanderbush: “yes, ma’am.”
She felt the nonprofit sanctuary's $360,000 annual budget would be better spent on animal care. Vanderbush believes she was targeted to be fired for not agreeing to pay the president.
Salinas refused to explain the request to be paid on-camera. Any information she provided was on the condition it was off-the-record. She then referred 13 Investigates to new Executive Director Amanda Christian, who is also a board member. Christian declined to comment and refused to let us see conditions at the sanctuary.
“I mean, the writing was on the wall,” Vanderbush said. “And so I… wrote a letter of resignation.”
The dispute came to a head at the end of March as coronavirus closures set in.
Lisa Tollefson says she was voted off the board for backing Vanderbush and trying to draw attention to the serious hazards.
“I mean, the buildings just stunk. You walk in and it was like getting blasted in the face,” Tollefson said.
She says Vanderbush was trying to make things better.
“The reality of where this place was and bring it into a place where it was safe and habitable, where the animals were happier, where the people would be happier,” Tollefson said.
Slagle fears the sanctuary is in a downward spiral.
“There is so much mouse deterioration, rodent deterioration that the couple of times where other employees have had to get up on roofs, their feet have gone through the roof,” Slagle said.
Vanderbush says other basic things, like veterinary care, were falling through the cracks too.
“I can tell you there are no records,” Vanderbush said. “The only records that this place has are a handful from the previous director and ones that we have made since I started.”
USDA records seem to back that up. In September 2014 there were no records of veterinary care for some cavy and sheep. Again in April 2015 records show Gilcrease staff was “unable to locate the current vet care acquisition records.”
“There have been mysterious deaths over the years there,” said Vanderbush. “When you ask what happened to this bird, it died. Well, we didn't do necropsies.”
Gilcrease was annexed into Las Vegas in 2012. The city says "None of the animals kept at this sanctuary need a permit from animal control," but they do investigate complaints as they come in.
13 Investigates obtained Animal Control reports showing a response to a complaint in 2012 of an animal "Being killed in backwoods and not fed."
Animal Control noted, "There appears to be a problem with current and ex-employees with management."
Those 13 Investigates spoke to say little has changed.
The next report will be on Tuesday, with more details from insiders and inspections reveal on-going problems with conditions at Gilcrease.
13 Investigates is also learning about what many call a critical lack of care standards and oversight - as the investigation continues.