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Whistleblowers detail a shelter in crisis at The Animal Foundation

LVMPD has opened an animal cruelty case
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Posted at 2:37 PM, Nov 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-26 16:17:25-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Insider after insider is coming forward to 13 Action News, claiming The Animal Foundation in Las Vegas is putting pets in peril.

The words we keep hearing are "overcrowded, understaffed, and unsanitary."

Keep two things in mind: your tax dollars pay for this, and this is also the likely place your pet will end up if it ever gets lost.

We spoke to 17 current and now-former Animal Foundation employees at almost every level: veterinarians and vet techs, animal care, admissions and intake--workers, managers, and supervisors. They all want to expose what they call a crisis after claiming their concerns kept falling on deaf ears.

WATCH THE FULL SERIES: 13 Investigates allegations of pets in peril at The Animal Foundation

"I didn't want it to come to this," said an emotional Liz Wade, a licensed veterinary technician who quit her job at The Animal Foundation on Nov. 1. "I really enjoyed my job at The Animal Foundation."

"I can't do it anymore there," echoed Dr. Mindi Roberts, DVM, who was, until recently, The Animal Foundation's relief veterinarian.

"Everything that's happened recently has been preventable and not acceptable," added Vanessa Yoakum, former TAF animal care supervisor.

13 Investigates: The Animal Foundation part 3

Whether lost, stray or turned in by their owners, the dogs, cats, and other creatures at The Animal Foundation probably want out. Many workers now feel the same way.

"When I first started there, I was impressed," said Liz Wade. "And by the time I left, I was disgusted and disappointed and heartbroken."

PREVIOUS: Pet owners seeking to reclaim lost pets at The Animal Foundation face heartache, frustration

"Acknowledgment? Yes. Action? No," said Vanessa Yoakam.

The Animal Foundation is the contracted municipal shelter for the city, county and North Las Vegas, taking in an average of 25,000 animals a year.

"We're the highest volume open-intake shelter in the country and it's just... it's too much," said Dr. Roberts, who'd been a relief veterinarian at TAF off and on for 20 years.

"Are you able to be appropriately responsive to the conditions of all the animals in there in need of care?" asked Darcy Spears.

"No. There's too many," Dr. Roberts said.

"These animals depend on us, and as a shelter, we should be providing them with the basic necessities: clean food, clean water, and a clean shelter. And at this point, The Animal Foundation is not even able to provide those three things consistently. And they're not willing to admit that," said Wade.

The employees you've heard from so far were all still working at TAF when we started investigating this past summer. They'd been documenting conditions in photos, internal records and videos that they shared with 13 Investigates.

They all quit in frustration over the past two months, saying they couldn't stand to see the animals suffer anymore and needed to go somewhere they felt they could make a difference.

SIMILAR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS:

"You've documented your concerns to management more than once?" Spears asked Liz Wade.

"Absolutely. Yes. 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," Wade said.

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A photograph of black mold on towel bedding from a cat cage at The Animal Foundation was provided to 13 Investigates.

An animal care manager who resigned in September wrote to leadership about a toxic work environment, lack of training, overwhelming animal death, and overworked staff.

Schedules we obtained show one person was often responsible for cleaning, feeding and caring for about 100 animals a day.

Dr. Roberts was at TAF in 2007 when a team led by the Humane Society of the United States came to Las Vegas to evaluate the shelter the first time it was in crisis.

"Conditions were overcrowded and filthy, resulting in the suffering of thousands of animals, including many who became ill while at the shelter," Dr. Roberts recalls. "It's happening again."

She alerted leaders that things were backsliding.

"I can't abide letting animals die just because they're in the shelter. I tried emailing to let them know that these things are happening and it's not OK," Roberts said.

It didn’t help.

She says under-staffing leads to neglect, recalling the story of one little dog. "Somehow his tail was de-gloved down to the bone. He sat for two days without any pain medication for that."

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Containers of brown water in photographs provided to 13 Investigates.

Licensed veterinary technician Liz Wade reports the same types of things.

"Animals would sit in kennels with broken limbs for days to a week before we could do anything for them," she said.

The medical team also blames understaffing for the shelter's conditions: kennels full of feces, dirty bedding left for days, brown water, escaped animals and a massive outbreak of feline upper respiratory disease.

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Photograph of a dirty cat kennel provided to 13 Investigates.

"It's very dangerous," said Dr. Roberts.

"I had one cat that had come in perfectly healthy — she was OK'd by the veterinarian to go to adoptions — and while she sat on the shelter side, not in adoptions, she ended up getting so sick that she was literally dying when the staff brought her to me to look at her," Roberts added. "And I had to euthanize her. The number of animals that we're having to euthanize... It's more than normal... And just having them suffer, dying in their kennel, in their litter box, that's not right...not right."

In at least one case, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police took notice and opened an animal cruelty investigation, which remains ongoing.

"That is something that was kept very hush, hush," said Wade.

She's talking about what happened to a dog named Martin who was left outside in the summer heat.

Former employee Nicole Staples was there that day.

"They clean out the kennels and, apparently, no one checked on this animal, and he died a bloody mess because he was cooking outside and trying to get back in, clawing, basically fighting for his life to get back inside," Staples said.

A few days later, "it happened again to a dog named Bandit," Staples said.

"Why were those bungalows not checked before everyone left for the evening? We did those dogs a huge disservice. They died from our lack of care," Wade said.

And there's more.

13 Investigates: The Animal Foundation part 4

"We did have a husky puppy that was thrown in the trash," Wade said." It was accidental. It happened when an attendant was cleaning a kennel."

"She got tasked with this whole section to clean by herself and she was going so fast," added Staples.

"The employee is hearing-impaired," said Wade, "and she couldn't hear the puppy screaming from the trash can."

"And it ended up dying," said Staples.

Vanessa Yoakam added, "I'm the one that found the puppy, so that was rough."

"I have documented all of this," said Wade. "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 CEO Christine Robinson. And just like everything else at The Animal Foundation, it was swept under the rug. I've been working with animals for 10 years, and to see some of the conditions that I saw while working at TAF was just absolutely heartbreaking."

13 INVESTIGATES | More investigative stories by the 13 Investigates team

"These animals are supposed to come here to be sheltered, to be safe. And they are dying and getting very sick from neglect," said Staples. "I would call it cruelty because nobody's doing anything about it."

Amid the most recent outcry, CEO Christine Robinson, who was being paid a $240,000 salary, announced her retirement, effective at the end of this year.

Her second-in-command, COO John Coogan, abruptly resigned on Nov. 1.

"That says to me that everyone can see there is a huge problem and even the higher-ups are unable to fix it. And so instead of staying and trying, they are jumping ship like everyone else," said Wade.

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In addition to Robinson and Coogan, Dr. Joanna Jarred, the shelter's only remaining full-time veterinarian, said she's out as of Nov. 30.

13 Investigates obtained the e-mail Dr. Jarred sent to Animal Control. She wrote:

"This is Dr. Jarred, Chief Veterinarian at The Animal Foundation. I wanted to reach out to you because my top priority has and always will be the animals in my care. It's the only reason I have stayed this long. My last day will be November 30th.

"As you may know, I am the only full-time veterinarian here, and when I leave there will be no veterinarian aside from relief surgeons on a part-time basis. The quality of care will inevitably decline drastically. There are currently no applications for full-time veterinarians, and seeing as we have been unable to fill any open positions since April, I do not see this changing before December.

"I don't pretend to understand the ins and outs of the contracts we have with the various animal control departments. What I do know is that we are ethically obligated to be transparent about the care we can realistically provide. Something that I and other members of the organization do not appear to agree on.

"I would very much appreciate your discretion while I finish my time here, but please share it with anyone if it, in the long run, helps get the animals to where they need to be."

TAF leadership refused our request for an on-camera interview and instead sent a statement from Chris Robinson that was nearly verbatim from a Facebook video the shelter posted on Oct. 25:

“The Animal Foundation takes in an average of 25,000 animals each year, and protecting their health and safety is our top priority. The city and county frequently inspect our operations to ensure that we are living up to that commitment. Though the nationwide veterinary and labor shortage has impacted our operations, we are complying with our contracts as we work to fill many open positions. We’re taking necessary steps to improve our procedures, and we remain committed to the animals in our care.”

When we began investigating in June, the city provided records showing their last official inspection was in 2017. After our records request, they began scheduling monthly visits.

"Usually on those days it's an all-hands-on-deck cleaning situation," said Wade. "They'll send out an email, 'make sure your stations are cleaned, make sure this is deep-cleaned, make sure this is done.' And then you're always like, 'oh, somebody must be coming to the shelter today.'"

"So, it's not an unannounced inspection? They know it's coming?" asked Darcy Spears.

"To my knowledge, yes," said Wade.

In fact, 13 Investigates obtained emails between city and county leaders and The Animal Foundation where they discuss scheduling a site visit. That came after another series of emails between Animal Control officials confirming "quite a few complaints" about conditions and operations at The Animal Foundation.

"I don't think that they're fully aware of the depth of it," said Wade.

The city said it would have Animal Control investigate the employees' allegations.

The county sent the following statement:

"We agree that there have been some issues at TAF. It is our understanding that like many businesses and organizations across the country, TAF is struggling to maintain adequate staffing levels. There is also a nationwide shortage of veterinarians, which we are feeling the effects of here too. We believe the staffing challenges have caused or exacerbated some of the issues you are hearing about, but that does not lessen their importance. We have expressed our concerns to TAF leadership, and they are working to address them."

"We're having to cut corners," said former animal care supervisor Vanessa Yoakum.

She and others reached out to their higher-ups to urge improvements, but Yoakum says some fixes have caused more problems.

"It's heartbreaking," she said, citing one example when the enrichment team was reassigned to help feed and clean.

"Which means playgroup stopped," she said. "Which means the socialization stopped. And there has been so many... I can say at least five dogs in the last two to three months that had to get put down because no one was able to socialize with them."

Wade believes, in a shelter, animal care and welfare is everyone's responsibility at all times.

"The satisfaction you get from helping homeless animals that don't have anybody is a feeling that you can't describe," Wade said. "And then you go from this overwhelming feeling of, 'Wow, I'm doing so much good for the community,' to 'Am I helping these animals or am I hurting them because of the conditions of the shelter?' And by the time I left, I was 100 percent convinced we were just hurting these animals and we were not helping them at all."

Last year, The Animal Foundation heavily promoted achieving its "Mission Possible 2020: Saving the life of every healthy and treatable animal."

Nicole Staples called that "a myth because that's their way of using the wording to their benefit. They want to have this perception that they're doing this great thing."

Dr. Roberts says animals who came in healthy and treatable became unhealthy and untreatable:

"With the dogs, I think it's just more the overcrowding. A lot of them are getting behavioral issues because they stay in the kennels too long."

Euthanizing animals for "medical or behavioral" reasons enabled The Animal Foundation to meet its goal of "Saving the life of every healthy and treatable animal."

"We have available cats that are sitting, available dogs. They're not being transferred over when their time is up. And it's a lack of space," said Dr. Roberts.

The final straw for her came with one realization: "Spaying and neutering are not getting done for all the adoptions that are going out."

Government contracts say the shelter must "spay or neuter every cat or dog they transfer or adopt unless health conditions preclude."

The insiders we spoke to say it's past time for local leaders and the shelter to re-evaluate their agreements.

"Having the contract with the city and the county and North Las Vegas — is that no longer a viable or sustainable business model?" Spears asked Liz Wade.

"No, it's not viable. Not for The Animal Foundation at this time, because they're in over their heads with the number of animals that they're taking in," Wade said.

"When you're large, the fluctuations of a normal shelter quickly get magnified," said Dr. Kate Hurley, DVM.

Dr. Hurley runs the Koret Shelter Medicine program at the University of California, Davis. She led the team that inspected The Animal Foundation in 2007 and was recently asked to come back, evaluate and consult once again.

In addition, she's putting together an online boot camp to help TAF and other large shelters across the U.S.

"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," Hurley said.

That could mean scaling back.

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"It's time to renegotiate that contract," said Hurley. "Even if it means you'll compensate us less this year because we are able to do less."

And getting back to focusing on the key clients — the animals — if it's not too late.

"At the beginning of this crisis, it was still maybe salvageable," said Wade. "But at this point, I do think that The Animal Foundation should be shut down."

The private non-profit Animal Foundation gets about $4.8 million taxpayer dollars a year. Our local government contracts require them to "provide humane and reasonably appropriate care and shelter."

As our stories unfolded, City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman met with the city manager and staff to ask for a full investigation and audit.

We'll speak to her and other local leaders in the coming weeks as we continue to update this story.

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