LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — If your pet goes missing in the City of Las Vegas, Clark County or North Las Vegas, odds are it will end up at The Animal Foundation.
Employees and pet owners alike are reaching out to 13 Investigates saying the shelter is a perilous place for pets.
WATCH THE FULL SERIES: 13 Investigates allegations of pets in peril at The Animal Foundation
We've been looking into allegations of neglect at The Animal Foundation for months. This begins an exclusive multi-part series to expose a shelter in crisis.
A family's shock and heartbreak
Eight-year-old Xy'nae and 11-year-old Zaelaeah had two best friends: pit bulls Alani and Ameer, whom they called "the man of the house."
"I ended up picking him and when we got him, he looked so adorable!" exclaimed Xy'nae.
There's an entire wall of photos in the living room dedicated to the dogs.
MORE: Whistleblowers detail a shelter in crisis at The Animal Foundation
Xy'nae is particularly fond of the picture where "they made a little heart with their paws."
"I know some people don't identify with the love and affection animals give, but both of our dogs have gotten me and my kids through a lot of difficult times," said Tray Thomas. "Even going through COVID, my kids struggled a lot with that. And they would go outside with the dogs and call them 'therapy sessions.'"
On Oct. 11, a fierce windstorm damaged the doghouse in the Thomas family's backyard. It also blew down part of a shared fence while Tray was at work.
Neighbors called Animal Control.
"I've never been in this situation before. And nothing was left on my door in regards to who to contact, where to go, anything of that nature," Tray said.
The next day, she learned Alani and Ameer had been taken to The Animal Foundation.
"I began looking on their website. It does say there to schedule an appointment and also to email," Tray said.
So she emailed and then began calling every day.
"Forty-five-minute hold times just to be sent to a voicemail box that was full, and then it hangs up," Tray recalled. "At no point was I contacted back until the 22nd of October, and that was only in regards to one dog."
The Animal Foundation asked her to email back with a contact number.
"No one called me. No one reached out to me. Nothing. So, on the 30th, me and my kids showed up," she said.
SIMILAR: Animal Foundation CEO announces retirement amid intensifying pressure and criticism of shelter operations
"And I was kind of scared when we first got there, because I didn't know if we were ever going to get them back or where they were," Zaelaeah said.
After waiting nearly an hour, Tray says two employees came out.
"And they kept referring to our female dog. And I'm like, 'I inquired about two dogs, a boy and a girl. Where is my boy at?'"
The answer was crushing.
Ameer had been euthanized on Oct. 15, a full week before The Animal Foundation answered Tray's initial email.
"Taking my kids up there, I had no idea that was the news we were going to get. And it took everything in me to hold my composure, and I was hysterical. My kids were hysterical and asking how and why you would kill their family member," Tray said. "And those are questions I can't answer for my kids, because it all started with a fence falling down."
Paperwork The Animal Foundation gave Tray lists her dogs as strays, but her security cameras show the neighbor and Animal Control at her house the day the dogs were taken.
"You took them from their home! At the time of pick-up, they were on our property. They were in our yard!" said Tray. "How can you document on paper that they were strays, when they were here?"
The Animal Foundation wouldn't talk to 13 Investigates about Tray's dogs. Tray is still searching for answers.
The Animal Foundation listed behavior as the reason for putting Ameer down.
When Tray asked an Animal Control sergeant about that, "she told me that both dogs were displaying aggressive behavior upon pick-up. My question to her was, 'what dog wouldn't?'"
As for why no one at The Animal Foundation got back to her when she first reached out, "all I was told was 'due to short of staff' is their reason for not responding to me, not returning a phone call, not answering," Tray said.
The Animal Foundation sent 13 Investigates a statement saying in part that the shelter:
"... Takes in an average of 25,000 animals each year, and protecting their health and safety is our top priority... Though the nationwide veterinary and labor shortage has impacted our operations... We're taking necessary steps to improve our procedures, and we remain committed to the animals in our care."
Tray didn't see that commitment.
"We have no dog. I was given a paper that said my dog was in a freezer," she said.
Where is Ditty?
The Thomas family's experience is not an isolated incident.
"Ditty is a rescue cat that we rescued six years ago," said Brigette Nave. "The moment that we brought him home, he was already at home. It was like he was meant to be with us. He's my kid. It's not just a cat to me and my family."
One October night while unloading groceries, Brigette propped open the door between the house and the garage. Ditty saw a chance to explore and took it.
"We saw him on the camera after we noticed he was gone, and he had snuck out," Brigette said.
She canvassed the neighborhood, putting up fliers and posting on social media.
"We're a mess. I can't sleep very good. I'm always getting up to go look out the windows, check the cameras. I break down a lot," she said.
After repeatedly checking The Animal Foundation's website to see if, by chance, Ditty had been picked up by Animal Control, "I saw a picture of what I thought looked exactly like him, same weight described, everything. I tried calling. I left a voicemail. I then emailed immediately."
She kept calling while driving down to the shelter.
"Nobody answered. When I got down there, there was only one person working," Brigette said.
The shelter had just opened for the day.
"He goes into the back and he's back there for 30 minutes, comes back, and says the cat's being prepped for surgery right now to be fixed," Nave said. "And I said, 'My cat's already fixed.' Then he goes, 'Well, the cat's a girl so, it's not yours.'"
She left, but says something didn't feel right. She went back inside and spoke to a different employee.
"She told me that she would go back and take a picture of the cat," Nave said.
Then, Nave says they came back and said there would be "no pictures" because of surgery preparations. They reiterated the cat was female, despite what Nave saw on the website.
"It did say it was a male cat the very first time that I looked at it. After I had gone in there to talk to them — I had been constantly checking the website and I still do — all of a sudden, it was 'unknown.' There was no sex at all anymore."
Fearing a mix-up, she sent her husband back later that afternoon.
"He went down there at 3 p.m., wasn't seen until 5:45 p.m. They told him that the cat was being prepped on the table for surgery! And I knew right then and there that they had been lying to me the whole time," Nave said.
When she went back a third time, she says they showed her a completely different cat than the one on the website.
She recorded the interaction on her cell phone. The employee can be heard saying, "It's the same cat, ma'am. We don't switch cats."
Each animal brought into the shelter is given a unique identification number. Brigette shared the screenshot with no gender listed — the first one she saw on the website under the ID number she believed to be Ditty. A second one, with the same ID number and a different picture, says it's a neutered male, even though they'd been telling her the cat with that ID number was female all along.
Whistleblowers speak out
"What kinds of mistakes are you seeing on those intake cards?" Darcy Spears asked Dr. Mindi Roberts, DVM.
"Age is a common one. And whether they're spayed or not — that can sometimes be hard to determine," said Roberts, who recently quit her job in frustration.
"I can't do it any more there," she said.
She was The Animal Foundation's relief veterinarian. 13 Investigates spoke to many current and newly-former staffers who say mistakes at the shelter are common.
"And sometimes some of those cases get missed. They shouldn't get missed. But due to lack of staffing and just overall poor management, we do what we can with what we have," said licensed veterinary technician Liz Wade, who quit her job at The Animal Foundation at the beginning of November.
"They're very understaffed, I guess, but that doesn't give them the right to not do their jobs, either," Brigette said. "If they're losing information or miscommunicating, that's not OK. These are people's animals, and they love them."
As for Ditty, "We just want him back," she said. "He's our baby. We miss him so much. And I'm not just going to back down. I'm not going to let them get away with this."
The Nave family never gave up hope and never stopped searching for Ditty.
Three weeks after Brigette spoke with 13 Investigates, she got an email from The Animal Foundation saying they sometimes return cats to the area where they were found.
A few days later, a woman reached out after seeing Brigette's post on Nextdoor, saying Ditty recently popped and she had been feeding him. Ditty is finally back home.
The two former employees-turned-whistleblowers in this story are just the tip of the iceberg.
Tune in on Tuesday for more in this saga and stay tuned to 13 Action News all week for continuing coverage.