LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — A long-time favorite for locals who love animals has been mired in a dispute among humans that's raised questions about animal care.
13 Investigates is uncovering loopholes in oversight that leave animal welfare in a blind spot.
“I emptied that building of some of the most disgusting things I've probably ever touched,” said Ailigh Vanderbush, who was the executive director at Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary.
Recently, she quit out of frustration and protest.
Former employees and volunteers also say they were pushed out for backing her attempts to change things for the better.
Vanderbush says the 300 plus animals are at risk.
“I'm sure some of the injuries that have happened in the past have literally probably been mice chewing at bird feet,” Vanderbush said.
She and other former insiders told 13 Investigates that leadership on the board of directors kept them from bringing the place up-to-date and fixing problems.
“I would notice an animal not eating,” said Kristeen Slagle, a former staffer. "It's not 'don't worry about it. It's a fat bird' or 'she's just always been like that.’”
While a USDA inspection from October of last year shows, “No non-compliant items identified,” inspections did confirm problems going back to 2015 and 2016, including a goat pen that “contained dirty, brownish-colored water” and “excessive amounts of feces on top of straw bedding.”
The USDA also found animals “in need of nail/hoof care.”
But Vanderbush says not all animals are protected. Loopholes in oversight create an ongoing, underlying problem.
“Birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish have nobody,” she said.
And, although Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary is a licensed exhibitor with the USDA, government-required standards are extremely minimal.
“To ensure that animals are receiving a very basic level of care that sometimes just includes, you know, minimal space requirements, food, access to food and water,” said Dan Ashe, of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
He also says the quality of life can be overlooked with government oversight focused only on basic needs.
“A lot of times that means it's barely passable,” Ashe said. “And usually in the animal care business, if I'm just saying, ‘well, what I'm doing here is legal,’ then that's just a kind way of saying, 'it's barely passable.’”
The AZA accredits animal facilities that adhere to a higher standard. Gilcrease is not AZA-accredited.
“Our standards look at animal health and wellness,” Ashe said. “Veterinary care, animal care generally. They look at your work in conservation, research, education, guest service. They look at your governance structure, your finance.”
13 Investigates reached out to state agencies that deal with animals.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife says it doesn’t have any records of investigations at Gilcrease and the only required permit is for Bambi, a mule deer.
They point to a Nevada law (NAC 503.140) showing a variety of species--more than 50 animals--which appear to fall through the cracks of regulation.
The animals range from small creatures like hamsters and gerbils, aquarium fish, and canaries to the other end of the size spectrum. Yaks, zebras, camels and even elephants “may be possessed” without a permit or license from the state of Nevada.
The list also includes many of the animals at Gilcrease such as emus, parrots, llamas, ducks, and geese.
13 Investigates asked the Nevada Department of Agriculture about sanctuaries. Representatives said, ”We do not license, inspect or otherwise monitor those kinds of facilities.”
But the department says under Nevada law “… we do have jurisdiction and authority to investigate claims of abuse or neglect on any animal facility, whether private or sanctuary. We work with other state or local authorities (depending on the types of animals) when suspected neglect or abuse is reported to our department.”
“I think just because a facility is called a sanctuary, doesn't insulate it from the same kind of problems that we might see in what we would call a roadside zoo or animal attraction,” Ashe said.
The city of Las Vegas says, “None of the animals kept at this sanctuary need a permit from animal control.”
But authorities have followed up on complaints.
13 Investigates obtained animal control reports for Gilcrease going back to 2013 when officers responded to a report of a dead emu and two dead goats. They were told, “… the deceased goats were found in the morning and…. buried on the property next door.”
The emu died after it was attacked by two other emus. It was also buried on the property next door. Animal control documents also showed Gilcrease guests, including a child, have been bitten by a goat and pony.
Advocates say it’s past time to close the loopholes.
“We don’t have any laws, that’s what’s wrong,” said Linda Faso. “Every year we go to the legislature, present a bill, it’s very well done. We can’t get it out of committee.”
The former Gilcrease insiders fear animals will continue to suffer until the law is changed.
“USDA conditions are a place to start," Vanderbush said. “It's not what you should achieve to be.”
And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided the following statement:
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not regulate the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary. The sanctuary does not accept wildlife under the Service’s jurisdiction. Any migratory birds at the facility are there, from time-to-time, because of the water on the property."
"The Service works under the authority of the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and other laws and regulations associated with wildlife and habitat conservation. The Service does not license zoos or other such facilities."
USDA provided the following statement:
"APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] takes the welfare of animals very seriously. In addition to conducting unannounced compliance inspections of licensed and registered facilities, APHIS personnel also perform inspections in response to legitimate concerns and complaints received from the public. During these inspections, APHIS works to ensure that any noncompliances that are identified are corrected immediately or sets a date by which they must be corrected. Then APHIS follows up to ensure corrections have been made."
"Our investigative process for individuals and/or businesses found out of compliance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) may lead to an enforcement action. If deficiencies remain uncorrected at subsequent inspections, APHIS considers legal action. Repeat non-compliances and serious incidents may warrant enforcement actions such as letters of warning, monetary penalties, license suspensions and revocations. Additional information on APHIS’ Investigative and Enforcement Process can be found here [aphis.usda.gov]."
The board president of Gilcrease Sanctuary declined to comment and they refused to take 13 Investigates on a tour of the facility, so 13 Action News can't show how the animals are doing.