A little more than a week after the CEO of Charlottesville’s embattled animal shelter was put on administrative leave, the independent review that led to that decision has been released to the public.
The Charlottesville Albemarle Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been advised to immediately stabilize its human resources department by appointing an interim HR director, assess personnel policies, review its employee and volunteer handbook and create a streamlined process for employee and volunteer grievances, according to an executive summary of the review by international law firm McGuireWoods.
“As part of the process, McGuireWoods reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed dozens of current and former employees and volunteers,” the summary reads. “We determined that an unfavorable work environment existed at CASPCA resulting in significant and unsustainable high rates of employee and volunteer turnover in recent years. We further determined that the workplace environment negatively impacted shelter operations, particularly with respect to maintaining adequate staffing levels and retention of employees with specialized knowledge and experience in animal care.”
Though the local SPCA said the review led to placing CEO Angie Gunter on leave, Gunter’s name does not appear in the one-page executive summary that has been made public.
Jenn Corbey, president of the SPCA’s board of directors, told The Daily Progress on Tuesday that the shelter is already working to implement the recommendations McGuireWoods has made.
Last week, she said, Darcy Furr started as the organization’s HR director and interim chief in Gunter’s absence.
“Our sole focus now is implementing those recommendations and moving this shelter forward in a productive way,” said Corbey. “We’re going to undertake a number of responsive actions to address issues identified during the review.”
McGuireWoods also had recommendations specifically aimed at the shelter’s board and management: enhancing management training for current and new managers, conducting an operational review, improving the board’s governance training with new directors with experience in specialized animal care or human resources and increasing engagement with shelter managers and leaders.
“Our objective has always been the humane treatment of animals,” Corbey said. “We went to treat our staff and volunteers with respect and compassion. We want to care for our animals. We know, as a board, we could have done a better job in recent years, so it’s something that we’re going to accomplish and move toward equipping ourselves with stronger training. We’re going to implement the recommendations made and continue to move forward.”
The independent review of the local SPCA began on Feb. 8 after allegations of human and animal mistreatment began to mount earlier in the year.
Current and former employees and volunteers at the shelter banded together in a group called CASPCA Concerns and sent a letter, which has since garnered more than 100 signatures, detailing what signatories describe as misconduct and mismanagement at the shelter that has translated into animal neglect bordering on abuse. The shelter, the group said, is overcapacity and understaffed, with animals often kept in unsafe living conditions and their carers overworked in order to keep adoption rates high and contributions rolling in.
The letter called out Gunter by name and included photos of dogs in pens full of urine and feces, animals living in crates the group said are stored in the shelter’s basement and facilities that appear to be unclean, unkempt and dangerous to the animals living there.
The allegations spurred protests online, in the streets and at City Hall meetings.
After the release of McGuireWoods’ executive summary, that group says it feels partially vindicated, but it still wants answers. Namely, will Gunter return?
“We were pleased that the report found what most of the letters sent from former employees and current and former volunteers had detailed,” CASPCA Concerns told The Daily Progress. “We are concerned that a decision has not been made to dismiss Angie Gunter even after the report found an ‘unfavorable work environment existed at CASPCA resulting in significant and unsustainable high rates of employee and volunteer turnover in recent years.’”
The group also raised concerns over Buckley Warden, the Richmond-based attorney of the Thompson McMullan law firm who the SPCA’s board hired in addition to McGuireWoods. Warden has been used to fire volunteers and has sent the CASPCA Concerns group a cease-and-desist letter.
Warden wrote a letter to the group dated March 17 claiming that members had made “continued allegations of mistreatment persist despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” referring to an investigation by the Virginia Department of Agriculture. While that investigation reported no evidence of animal abuse or neglect, it did find that multiple documents at the shelter were missing information required by state law.
“The CASPCA Board of Directors has extensive work to do in order to gain back community and donor trust, and their actions moving forward will pave the way for the future of the shelter,” CASPCA Concerns said.