The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Customer Services is “reviewing” the allegations of animal mistreatment at the Charlottesville Albemarle Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, according to Albemarle County Executive Jeff Richardson.
The Board of Supervisors consulted with legal counsel regarding its relationship with the CASPCA in a closed meeting at the board’s Feb. 15 meeting.
The relationship between the county and the shelter – outlined in a memorandum of understanding between the county, the city of Charlottesville and the animal shelter – has the county pay the SPCA for pound services. In fiscal year 2023, the county gave the SPCA $699,122 for those services. Animal control officers at the Albemarle County Police Department also work with the shelter.
Assistant to the County Executive Emily Kilroy told The Daily Progress via email on Friday that the Albemarle County Police Department is “supporting VDACS’s effort.”
Representatives from the city of Charlottesville did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Daily Progress. Workers and volunteers at the local SPCA have estimated the city provides about $300,000 year to the shelter.
During open session, Richardson told county supervisors that the state Department of Agriculture had conducted an inspection of the facility.
The full report from that inspection was requested by The Daily Progress but not delivered before press time.
“We conducted an inspection last week,” Michael Wallace, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, confirmed to The Daily Progress on Friday.
In the meantime, the local SPCA has been conducting a review of its own. Earlier this year, the SPCA’s board of directors hired the international law firm McGuireWoods to investigate claims of animal and worker mistreatment.
Those claims have been lodged by a group of current and former SPCA employees and volunteers which calls itself CASPCA Concerns. The group has said misconduct and mismanagement at the shelter has translated into animal neglect bordering on abuse. The shelter, the group says, is overcapacity and understaffed, with animals often kept in unsafe living conditions and volunteers and employees overworked in order to keep adoption rates high and contributions rolling in.
The group has specifically targeted the SPCA’s CEO Angie Gunter and have called for her removal.
The SPCA’s board has said it stands behind Gunter while the McGuireWoods investigation is ongoing.
McGuireWoods is best known for its work in product liability, class actions and mass torts, health care, technology, white-collar criminal litigation and commercial disputes.
Demonstrators at a Feb. 11 protest told The Daily Progress they doubted McGuireWoods’ investigation would be meaningful.
“It’s going to absolutely be biased,” according to Teddi Schrock, who said she has worked with the Charlottesville SPCA since 1984, serving as a volunteer, helping with rummage sells, working with the “Pets and People” program and once sittings on its board.
“It’ll be biased,” said Hannah Meanor, a former animal care worker at the shelter. Meanor added that she couldn’t understand why a high-powered law firm such as McGuireWoods had been hired by a local animal shelter.
An employee at McGuireWoods referred questions about the investigation to Brian Jackson, a managing partner at the law firm’s Charlottesville office who did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Progress.
The law firm’s website describes Jackson as “known for his success in trying high-exposure jury cases on behalf of energy, transportation and manufacturing companies in various jurisdictions throughout the United States.”
The SPCA board’s vice president, Mike Derdeyn, was an attorney at McGuireWoods’ Charlottesville office from 1998 until 2003, according to his LinkedIn profile.
CASPCA Concerns has said that an investigation cannot be objective as long as Gunter remains active in her role. Current employees and volunteers, they said, would not be able to speak freely with investigators.
“Ms. Gunter’s culture of fear and threats of retribution have prevented people from speaking up honestly to address the real problems for too long,” according to CASPCA Concerns.
The SPCA’s board said in a Feb. 8 statement that the McGuireWoods investigation would take about 90 days.
“The Board will assess the results and recommendations of the independent review and will take appropriate actions and make appropriate policy changes that stem from it,” the board said.
The shelter has been under fire since January, when CASPCA Concerns published a letter directed at the shelter’s board. Photos published in the letter show dogs in pens full of urine and feces, living in crates the group said are stored in the SPCA’s basement and facilities that appear to be unclean, unkempt and dangerous to the animals living there.
Since then, that letter has garnered more than 100 signatures, there have been two protests outside the SPCA’s main offices on Berkmar Drive, the shelter’s animal care manager has resigned and a veteran volunteer dog walker has been dismissed after raising concerns about animal safety.