Council to question shelter agency

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Former employees of the nonprofit Companion Animal Alliance have alleged improper conduct at the facility in Baton Rouge. Representatives of the agency will face questioning by the East Baton Rouge Parish Metropolitan Council on Wednesday. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Former employees of the nonprofit Companion Animal Alliance have alleged improper conduct at the facility in Baton Rouge. Representatives of the agency will face questioning by the East Baton Rouge Parish Metropolitan Council on Wednesday.

The leaders of a nonprofit group that took charge of what used to be a publicly run animal shelter 15 months ago will face the East Baton Rouge Parish Metropolitan Council on Wednesday to answer questions about complaints from former employees alleging what they claim is potentially illegal activity.

A group of former employees of the Companion Animal Alliance said they frequently witnessed unlicensed personnel performing medical tasks, such as euthanizing animals and prescribing medicine, in violation of state regulations. Some said they were fired for standing up to Kim Sherlaw, the agency’s third director, about what they perceived to be deteriorating conditions.

But Christel Slaughter, CAA board president, said employees have not knowingly violated any laws or regulations, and defended Sherlaw, saying she has been an effective leader.

“We truly do not believe any instances where anyone has acted improperly or done anything against the law,” Slaughter said. “It’s possible people made mistakes, that protocol wasn’t followed, but it was certainly not our intention.”

The allegations by former CAA staff members were outlined in a letter to the CAA board in September and filed with the Louisiana Board of Veterinary Medicine in October. Dr. Amy Cangelosi said she was dismissed from her position as a part-time veterinarian at the shelter after filing the complaint with the state board, but Slaughter said her termination was not related to the letter.

Current staff members wrote a separate “open letter to the community” dated Nov. 10 in response to the allegations, calling them “completely false.”

The letter, signed by 20 CAA employees, stated: “Their efforts to undermine CAA were, and continue to be, an enormous detriment to our ability to care for the animals and find them loving forever homes.”

Three of the CAA employees whose names appeared on the letter — Derrick Hoenig, Robin Prestridge and Lily Yap — separately contacted The Advocate saying they wanted their names withdrawn from the response letter because they prefer to remain neutral. Seven of those who signed the letter are recent hires, joining the CAA since September.

Dr. Marianne Fairchild, a veterinarian who worked with the shelter for 13 years, said she resigned in October because the CAA has not improved shelter conditions from how it was run under the city-parish’s control.

“If anything, conditions worsened,” Fairchild said. “It’s terribly difficult to see every program you’ve established over the past decade be undone.”

However, others, like Jessica Card, director of the animal welfare organization Yelp!BR, made favorable comments about how the CAA is operating the shelter. Card said her organization typically stays neutral but she felt compelled to speak out in support of the CAA and Sherlaw.

“I have seen great improvements at the shelter,” Card said. “I also know that Kim Sherlaw would never mistreat an animal and the accusations against her are absurd. If CAA loses Kim Sherlaw, the animals of Baton Rouge will suffer greatly.”

But Melanie Scott, an intake supervisor who was with CAA since it started in August 2011 and quit Oct. 29, said animals are already suffering. She said the agency has become so unorganized under Sherlaw that healthy animals were being euthanized too soon and sick animals were left suffering too long.

Debbie Pearson, the former interim director who preceded Sherlaw, said animal protocols were being ignored, leading to disease outbreaks in cats and to dogs seriously injuring one another because they shouldn’t be penned together. Pearson was fired in September.

Since May, Sherlaw’s first full month, 158 cats or dogs have died of something other than euthanasia at the animal shelter, which former employees say is indicative of illnesses spreading among the animals.

In the previous six months, which were primarily under Pearson’s watch, only 46 animals died that way. The information was compiled by The Advocate from “raw and unedited” information that Scott said she pulled from the CAA database.

The data also suggest that the saved animal rate, which accounts for animals adopted, returned to owner or transferred to another city, reached its peak while under Pearson at 63 percent in January.

Since Sherlaw took over, the monthly saved animal rate has been between 34 and 55 percent. CAA claims it’s been able to maintain a monthly save rate of 50 percent.

Slaughter said summer months are breeding months, which is why euthanasia rates have been higher in recent months. She added that even a 40 percent save rate is a significant improvement over what the city-parish was able to accomplish when it was in control of the shelter.

Slaughter notes that since CAA took over operations from the city-parish, hours have been extended, the overall euthanasia rate has decreased, staff has increased and more than $650,000 in private donations have been raised. The organization is also responsible for thousands of dollars of capital improvements in the old facility including kennel repairs, air conditioning units and roof repairs.

Jenny Teed, a veterinary technician, said the employees who are making allegations about the CAA were the ones causing the problems.

“Those were the people in charge of the things they’re complaining about and they’re trying to place blame on the director and whoever else,” Teed said.

The city-parish animal shelter used to be publicly run until the CAA took over because it had concerns with high euthanasia rates. Since then, it has been the subject of two investigations by parish Animal Control including one last month that found “serious structural insufficiencies” and a “lack of qualified supervisors.”

Animal Control Director Hilton Cole said he did not investigate allegations of illegal activity because it’s out of his agency’s purview and he knew the state board was investigating.

But he said he made note of the allegations in the report, because he thought it important for the Metro Council to be aware.

“What my staff and I are observing are structural insufficiencies ... a lack of certified euthanasia technicians, a lack of qualified supervisors in the field,” Cole said. “There’s no doubt that there’s structural problems in the shelter and the reason is that Kim Sherlaw has terminated the experienced employees with institutional knowledge.”

Since September, nine employees either have been fired or resigned. The agency, which maintains about 25 to 30 employees at a time, has had 86 different employees in total over the past 15 months since the CAA took control of the operation from the city-parish.