Tensions are so high between management at Charlottesville’s premier animal shelter and current and former employees that workers have already decided a law firm’s investigation into reported animal neglect and widespread mismanagement will be meaningless.
“It’s going to absolutely be biased,” according to Teddi Schrock, who said she has worked with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 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.
McGuireWoods, which started in Charlottesville but is now an international operation, is best known for its work in product liability, class actions and mass torts, health care, technology, white-collar criminal litigation and commercial disputes.
Stacey Jackson, who said she worked at the SPCA’s front desk for just shy of two years before she was fired for what she considers unfair charges, called the news that the SPCA had hired McGuireWoods a “kick in the gut.”
She said she isn’t expecting any investigation the firm conducts will be impartial.
Schrock, Meanor and Jackson and roughly 40 others gathered on Saturday afternoon outside the local SPCA’s headquarters on Berkmar Drive for the second protest there in a little more than two weeks. The demonstrators have been drawing attention to what they claim are horrendous conditions at the shelter.
Their ire has largely been directed at the organization’s leader Angie Gunter, whom the SPCA’s board continues to back despite the outcry.
Gunter has directed all inquiries to the board, and the board has said it will not comment while the investigation is ongoing.
Now, many current and former employees and volunteers are calling on the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County to launch an investigation of their own.
“I believe they should,” Meanor said. “The city and the county, they have a lot to look after, but this affects so much: It affects health, it affects families, it affects pets.”
The city and the county, Meanor and others said, have more than that at stake. Both governments also support the SPCA financially, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization.
Protesters on Saturday wondered how the SPCA board was financing its work with McGuireWoods and if city or county money was going toward the investigation.
Saturday’s was the second such demonstration the shelter has seen in less than a month and far larger than the dozen or so that turned out for the first on Jan. 27, which convened later in the evening and in much colder temperatures.
The protests have been organized by a group of current and former staff members and volunteers calling itself CASPCA Concerns, which published a letter on Jan. 17 directed at the SPCA’s board alleging misconduct and mismanagement at the shelter. That misconduct and mismanagement have translated into animal neglect bordering on abuse, said protesters on Saturday.
Photos published online 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.
The letter specifically calls out Gunter, who has been in charge since 2017.
“Ms. Gunter’s management style is demeaning, divisive, and punitive. She creates a culture of fear among her staff and volunteers,” the letter reads.
That letter now has 103 signatures from current and former employees and volunteers.
The SPCA’s board has declined to comment since the investigation was announced.
“Because this matter involves personnel issues, we are prohibited from discussing it further until this process is complete,” a statement from the board sent to The Daily Progress reads.
Protesters on Saturday said it’s the response they have come to expect.
“They made themselves pretty inaccessible,” said Jackson.
“We’re not comfortable with the board at this point,” said Sarah Lloyd, who has been volunteering at the shelter since 2019. “The board has not communicated with us at all. We got one email from them at the very beginning. Everything else we hear through the press.”
The local SPCA brought in roughly $3.4 million in contributions and grants in 2020, according to the most recent tax records available to the public.
Protesters on Saturday said that they think that Gunter and the board believe those contributions and grants are directly correlated with the number of adoptions and live releases the SPCA can report.
The SPCA announced earlier this year it had achieved a record number in both in 2022.
Adoptions were arranged for 3,803 pets last year, the highest number in the organization’s history, according to a Jan. 12 post on the group’s Facebook page. The same post said that it achieved new highs in both its canine and feline live release rates, at 99% and 98% last year, respectively. A live release rate, or placement, refers to the number of all pets who are adopted, rescued, transferred to another shelter or returned to their owners after being lost.
Protesters said those record-breaking numbers were accomplished by moving as many animals as possible through the shelter, regardless of their health or age, and despite the shelter’s limited resources, space and staff.
“You could see the numbers game when you were on the clock,” said Meanor.
Overcrowding of animals drove former employee Katie Roache to quit, she said.
Roache estimated the SPCA accepted well over 100 dogs that were transferred to the shelter during the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast over the past year.
“The thing that was the final straw for me was the overtransfer of animals in from Texas that had been exposed to distemper virus,” she said. “We weren’t equipped for that. … The only response I heard from them was that we weren’t working fast enough.”
“We didn’t have enough kennel space,” Meanor said. “We had pets everywhere: in bathrooms, in offices, in the basement.”
Meanor said employees and staff members were deeply concerned the disease was being spread from the transferred dogs to local animals that were being kept in the shelter.
By most accounts on Saturday, the problems at Charlottesville’s SPCA have been going on for as long as five years. There haven’t been protests until now, they said, because they have been afraid – for themselves and the animals.
“We don’t want this to affect the animals in any way,” Roache said. “That’s what they use to keep us from speaking out.”
Lloyd, who continues to volunteer at the shelter and was walking dogs at the SPCA on Saturday morning, said many like her are worried Gunter or the board will retaliate against them for speaking out.
“I volunteer almost every day from two to four hours walking dogs,” she said. “I have an active foster with the SPCA that I’m actually trying to adopt right now. This is the first time I’ve come out because of that. I am still afraid of retaliation.”
But the consensus among protesters on Saturday was enough is enough.
“I’ve seen a lot of animals die here,” Meanor said. “It was hard. We watched a lot of bad things happen.”
Protesters said they still encourage people to support the local SPCA, to give, to volunteer, to adopt and foster.
“I hope people can separate what we’re doing from caring for the animals,” said Roache. “The animals do still need them to come and volunteer and foster and adopt.”