LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — "My little girl, Sookie, is 13 years old. And she's a rescue," said North Las Vegas Mayor Pro Tem Richard Cherchio, who was a 'dog man' long before he became a councilman.
What he saw at The Animal Foundation during a 13 investigation shook him.
"And when I saw those animals in the cages looking back at me... if I think about it too much, I start to get teary-eyed."
For Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman, "It's heartbreaking," and infuriating.
"I'm appalled, I'm shocked, and it is my responsibility as an elected official to get answers and to make sure that we take care of those animals at the shelter."
Our investigation exposed a shelter in crisis--overwhelmed, understaffed and unsanitary where employees say animals are needlessly suffering and dying, and concerns are falling on deaf ears.
"You've documented your concerns to management more than once?" Chief Investigator Darcy Spears asked Licensed Veterinary Technician Liz Wade.
"Absolutely, yes," said Wade, who recently quit working at The Animal Foundation. "I have sent pictures of black mold I found in a cat's kennel, roaches, maggots in the chickens outside, fly infestations in the rabbit bungalows, just dirty kennels in general, animals that haven't had food or water in over 24 hours. I have documented all of this, and I have brought it to the attention of my supervisor or the animal care supervisor. I've even brought it to the attention of the COO and the CEO Christine Robinson. And just like everything else at The Animal Foundation, it was swept under the rug."
"We're not going to allow this to continue because that would make us enablers of the problem," said Councilman Cherchio, who took a tour of The Animal Foundation after we started asking questions about it.
"It was horrific. And the thing that stuck with me most was when we went into the room where they keep the euthanized animals. And you could actually smell the bodies in the freezer. And I still have that smell in my nose."
Over the course of our six-month investigation, CEO Christine Robinson announced her retirement, effective at the end of this month.
Chief Operating Officer John Coogan and Dr. JoAnna Jarred, the only remaining full-time veterinarian, also recently quit, as did numerous employees.
"Everybody seems to be jumping ship! So, from the top to the bottom, there is no organizational management whatsoever and we have to do something," said Councilwoman Seaman.
The shelter's marketing director, Daryl Sprague, is currently in charge.
"He's damage control. That's all he's doing," said Cherchio. "He's just damage control. And he's coming up with a reason that everything is happening to them, that they're not part of the problem."
Cherchio believes the problem is of The Animal Foundation's own making, starting with the pay for animal care staff.
"Ten bucks an hour. And that's all they get paid. That's in comparison to what the CEO makes over there of $240,000 plus benefits. I don't know-how, to be quite frank with you, how people can sleep at night knowing that they've allowed, they've enabled in some fashion or another, this thing to grow to the proportion that it is right now."
The Animal Foundation continues to deny all our requests for on-camera interviews.
They sent a statement saying in part, "We especially regret unsatisfactory shelter conditions whenever they occur. Recent, severe staff shortages have resulted in instances where we have not been able to meet the high standards we set for ourselves and which the public should expect."
"I don't buy it," said Seaman. "And I think at this point they've had problems for a long time from what I'm understanding with your report. Why didn't they come to the City? Why didn't they go to North Las Vegas or the County for help?"
"They never said we're in crisis, we're losing people?" asked Darcy Spears.
"Never," said Seaman.
"Why do you think?" Spears asked.
"We're going to get to the bottom of it," Seaman promised.
Cherchio pointed, out, "They get approximately $5 million a year between the three jurisdictions--meaning Las Vegas, Clark County and ourselves, which is taxpayer money--to do the right thing. And it's not an easy job. It's definitely not an easy job. But you need to reach out and communicate with us if you're having a problem. And that's not happening."
Of particular concern to both council members is the lack of oversight.
As we exposed, City Animal Control hadn't done routine inspections of the shelter since 2017 and only started scheduling visits this summer after we began investigating.
"What's wrong with that picture?" Spears asked Seaman.
"Everything. And I've asked for a full investigation and a full audit. And I won't rest until we get one."
The other oversight issue is The Animal Foundation's board of directors.
"The only people on that board appear to be the donors," said Cherchio. "We have no say, no knowledge."
"Who should be part of the board in a situation like this?" Spears asked Seaman.
"The stakeholders! Which is the City of Las Vegas, Clark County, North Las Vegas. They should be on the board."
Both council members are working with their city attorneys to change that, and to hold the shelter accountable for contract violations, although, during our initial investigation, The Animal Foundation claimed: "... We are complying with our contracts..."
"What do you make of their claim that they are in no way violating any provisions of their contract?" Spears asked Cherchio.
"I think they're living on another planet," he said.
North Las Vegas city attorneys have identified numerous violations, including inhumane conditions and sending animals that are not spayed or neutered back out into the community.
"We're not looking to harm The Animal Foundation," said Cherchio. "We just want them to do their job. Simple as that. And if they can't do their job, they need to let us know and get out of the way."
Councilwoman Seaman says the city needs to reevaluate its contract too.
"We're going to see if there's a possibility that we can intervene and help to run the place."
She started the ball rolling at Wednesday's City Council meeting, where she said, "I feel like we may require a third party to do an independent investigation of the operations at The Animal Foundation in addition to our own investigation, and also modifying our agreement with The Animal Foundation to include representation by the city on their board of directors."
The Animal Foundation tells 13 investigates, "The Animal Foundation’s top priority is protecting the health and safety of the animals in our care. We especially regret unsatisfactory shelter conditions whenever they occur. We have already taken strong measures to improve the consistent treatment and care of lost and abandoned animals at the shelter. We are filling open positions, implementing new cleaning protocols, and utilizing our community partners to help treat injured animals as we recruit for more veterinarians.
"We’ve invited a national expert (Dr. Kate Hurley of the U.C. Davis shelter medicine program) back to The Animal Foundation to assess shelter conditions and determine the steps we can take to improve animal care. We welcome her feedback and recommendations. "
"It's about getting really tight on priorities and making sure that the work undertaken by the shelter is aligned with what they can actually handle," said Dr. Hurley, who led an inspection team in 2007 when The Animal Foundation was previously in crisis.
"I want that shelter to be scared of backsliding to 2007. I want them to be permanently scared of backsliding to 2007," Dr. Hurley said.
So, what can you do to help?
The Animal Foundation says, "On average, we take in nearly 500 animals a week, over 2,000 animals a month, and 25,000 animals each year.
"We wish there were fewer lost and abandoned animals in our community. These high intake numbers stretch our resources.
"There are helpful measures we can all take to reduce the number of animals that end up at our shelter. If you find an animal that has obviously wandered away from home in your neighborhood, please try to locate its owner rather than bring them to the shelter. That approach will almost always be the best way to ensure the animal’s quick return to safety. Make sure your pets are tagged and have a registered microchip so they can be quickly returned to you if lost. If you need to give up your pet, please try to re-home the pet first before surrendering the animal to the shelter. Abandoning an injured or sick pet is never a good solution."
We'll be keeping close tabs on the city's investigation as we continue to report on everyone's efforts to improve conditions at The Animal Foundation.