Tuesday, 03 December 2019 21:36

Commissioners hear allegations of misconduct at Richmond County Animal Shelter

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Kristi Newton-Maines, a former volunteer at the Richmond County Animal Shelter, address county commissioners Tuesday night with allegations of misconduct and abuse she said she witnessed. Kristi Newton-Maines, a former volunteer at the Richmond County Animal Shelter, address county commissioners Tuesday night with allegations of misconduct and abuse she said she witnessed. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — A former animal shelter volunteer gave the Richmond County Board of Commissioners an emotional breakdown of alleged misconduct and abuse before calling for the termination of the shelter’s director.

Kristi Newton-Maines, who said she was a volunteer at the Richmond County Animal Shelter for nearly a year, handed each commissioner a packet with photos to illustrate her descriptions during Tuesday’s open forum period.

“I got to know the animals so that I could contact rescues and so that I could get them out in a safe place so that they wouldn’t be euthanized,” she said.

Newton-Maines was supported by a host of animal lovers, most of whom wore red.

“The people here tonight love their animals dearly, as I’m sure you do, too,” she said. “One mishap and ours could end up in the shelter while we are looking for them.”

Referencing a recent report from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Veterinary Division, Newton-Maines said the director, Bonnie Wilde, broke the law by euthanizing 10 animals before the mandatory 72-hour hold period had expired.

Newton-Maines then directed the commissioners to a photo in the packet of Jade, “whose 72 hours never started before she was killed.”

“Her kennel paper states no injuries,” Newton-Maines said. “Jade’s family was waiting on her when the shelter opened.

“For a second I want you to think about your pet, about them being held down by strangers, wondering if you were coming to get them,” she said. “That’s terrifying isn’t it?”

Newton-Maines continued to reference the state report, which showed the shelter failed to provide veterinary care to wounded dogs who were brought into the shelter.

At least two of those, Newton-Maines said she took them to the vet after the wounds festered for several days.

She then gave several allegations of abuse by staff members she said she witnessed, including the beating of a cat.

The alarm for the 5-minute time limit beeped and Chairman Kenneth Robinette asked her to wrap it up, to which someone in the audience blurted out, “Let her finish.”

After detailing the euthanization of two other animals, Newton-Maines then said Wilde and several staff “need to be removed immediately.”

“Breaking the laws and neglecting and abusing animals has nothing to do with the budget, so let’s not make it about that,” she said. “It has everything to do with compassion for others and being a decent human being.”

In closing, she asked that the commissioners take time to look through their packets and contact her with any questions.

Newton-Maines was the only person signed up for public comment.

The county’s open forum policy prohibits speaking on items that are on the agenda and require speakers to sign up with the board’s clerk the Friday before the meeting.

The shelter was initially fined $2,000 following the state investigation, however, those fines were reduced to $500, County Manager Bryan Land said last month.

During his monthly report, Land said that the flooring project at the shelter, another one of the issues pointed out in the state investigation, was completed last week.

He said it’s been about six years since the floors were resurfaced and the project cost $36,855 — which was not budgeted.

“I want our citizens to be assured we are running a first-class shelter operation,” Land said, which elicited a few laughs from the audience. “In addition to the numerous positive comments we received from the state inspector’s report, I am extremely pleased with our adoption outcome stats,” — to which someone in the audience said, “Thank the Humane Society.”

Land said the county has almost quadrupled the numbers in the past six years from around 200 in 2013 — when the county took control of the shelter from the Humane Society of Richmond County — to an average of 800 in the last two years.

He added that the euthanasia percentages of been cut by almost 80 percent, from 1,400 to around 300 per year, including a 31 percent decrease within the past 12 months.

“This speaks volumes of the outstanding jobs that our staff and outside adoption agencies have done for our shelter through great partnerships,” Land said.

He went on to say the shelter operations can be “extremely challenging.”

“We are fully invested in operating our local shelter as best we can, in the best interest of all the animals in our care and in compliance with all regulations,” Land said. 

He added than the shelter takes in all animals, many that have never received any veterinary care and arrive with little or no information.

“We just accept them and hope to give them a chance,” he said. “Unfortunately, the best of care will not save all, and that is a daily fact in running a public shelter. A snapshot in time may capture this heartbreak, but it is extremely unfair to judge a shelter on a few cases alone.”

By law, the county is only required to house animals for 72 hours unless they meet certain circumstances including criminal and protective holds and if they are microchipped, Land continued. 

The majority of animals in the shelter are held up to seven times that long, he said, adding that county policy only allows for a maximum 30-day hold.

Land said the shelter has been inspected by the state 14 times in five years, the most recent in September following 52 allegations from anonymous complaints — which were made by Newton-Maines.

“The overwhelming majority of the allegations were proven unfounded and found unsubstantiated by the facts,” Land said.

However, civil court documents show the investigations were centered on the N.C. Animal Welfare Act, which many of the allegations did not pertain to.

Land said all the infractions from the report have been “repaired, replaced or taken care of.”

He added that he and the commissioners have “personally” taken a proactive stance on funding for the shelter, including budgeting more than $500,000 annually for operations. 

The shelter’s budget, he continued, exceeds that of several other county departments, including Veterans Services, Parks and Recreation, the Board of Elections and Economic Development.

Of the total budget, $358,000 goes toward the shelter and the remaining goes toward three full-time Animal Control deputies with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.

“There will never be enough funding, and the level of funding has to be balanced with the other needs of our citizens,” he said. “There will never be enough volunteers. The daily grind of caring for our shelter animals can be overwhelming. And most unfortunately, there will never be enough homes with loving owners.”

Following Land’s full report, Commissioner Tavares Bostic asked what the county could do to create a better relationship between the shelter and the organizations and individuals who try to find homes for the animals housed there.

“I think what we’ve got is still some personality conflicts and it’s going to take some considerable time to heal some of the wounds and some of the threats that we’ve seen thrown around back and forth,” Land said. “Time heals, definitely, and I hope we can get beyond that.”

He added that the county is going “above and beyond” compared to many neighboring counties.

Bostic said repairing relationships and creating realistic solutions are important goals moving forward.