When the cries of dogs and cats in agony echo down the halls of the Wexford County Animal Shelter (which is under the management of the Sheriff’s Department), former part-time animal shelter attendant Kathy Rodgers Dennis says that they come from animals who are being euthanized by heart sticking (intracardiac injection) without being sedated first. This kind of euthanasia is an inhumane way to kill an animal who is not comatose or heavily sedated. A needle and syringe containing sodium pentobarbital is passed through the chest wall and layers of muscle into the heart. When an animal is not sedated, it is a very difficult procedure because their body is in motion. It’s not uncommon for the person administering the injection to miss and accidentally puncture the lungs, causing them to fill up with fluid. Instead of what’s supposed to be an immediate euthanasia, the animal suffers greatly before they die. In a shelter environment, there is no reason for this to be done on an otherwise healthy dog. In a clinic setting, it would only be needed when an animal has circulatory problems. Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a veterinarian and professor of veterinary medicine who is considered a euthanasia expert by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has said in her writings, “Intracardiac injections are difficult to administer effectively on a fully conscious animal because in the animal, the lungs and the heart are constantly moving.” When this type of euthanasia is not done accurately, the animal will flop around in a desperate attempt to fight for it’s life, possibly biting those around him and suffering a longer, very painful death of suffocation.
Although the Michigan Dog Law of 1919 does not state that heart sticking is illegal and Jill Fritz, Michigan State Director of the Humane Society of the United States, could not find a specific law against it, the Michigan Department of Agriculture states in their guidelines that heart sticking without sedation is NOT an acceptable form of euthanasia. It says “The Michigan Dept. of Agriculture and Rural Development (MCARD) requires all animal shelters to euthanize animals humanely and accepts the AVMA guidelines on euthanasia.” The AVMA guidelines state, “a route of injection should be chosen that causes the least distress in the animal for which euthanasia must be performed. Intracardiac injection is acceptable only when performed on heavily sedated, anesthetized, or comatose animals.” They further explain that this is due to the difficulty and unpredictability of the animals and not being able to perform the injection accurately on an awake animal.
Most shelters in Michigan euthanize their animals like your own veterinarian would (sedating them first through their veins and then giving them a fatal dose of sodium pentobarbital). It is hard to accurately know how many shelters use the heart sticking method because the shelters are not forthcoming with that information. Using gas chambers to kill animals, another inhumane euthanasia method, is also occurring at Michigan shelters, including Branch, Cass and Van Buren County. Although Berrien County Animal Control claims they no longer use the chambers, the equipment still remains at the shelter.
Pet Friends Magazine has learned from more than one source that Wexford County uses the heart sticking method, and Kathy Rodgers Dennis has both witnessed and participated in it being done without any sedation. Dennis was previously in the military and served as a Supply Sergeant in the Army for six years. After that, she was a Corrections Officer for about 10 years, five of those being with Wexford County (2007-2012). While there, she supervised more than 30 inmates with another officer and worked 40+ hours. She voluntarily left that position to take a lower paying job with less hours to became a part-time Shelter Attendant with the Wexford County Animal Control Department. She stayed at that position from September 11, 2012 until December 31, 2012.
Dennis work 19 hours a week at the shelter. She worked on Mondays, while the two Animal Control Officers spent most of the day on the road; Tuesdays for a half day; Saturdays she was there all day alone running the shelter while the Officers were only called in if there was an emergency; and Sundays she came in for a few hours to clean and feed the animals while the shelter was closed.
Animal Control Officers who currently work at the shelter include: Animal Control Officer Michelle Smith; Animal Control Officer Jessica Williams; and Animal Control Officer Anthony Noaker (off on medical leave and will retire in March).
About taking the job which paid less and had less hours, Dennis said, “I have always had a strong desire to help animals. My house and property in Marion is registered as a large animal rescue. I take in horses and donkeys who would have otherwise gone to slaughter. Getting paid to do something I love (at the animal shelter) was just a bonus. That was my attitude until I saw what really goes on there.”
In the time that she was there, Dennis’ duties included supervising trustees (from the county jail), community service people and volunteers. She also did the intake of stray dogs/cats and owner surrenders. She tracked the chemicals used in the euthanasia process (officers would tell her what to type into the form about each animal). She also posted the animals on Petfinder.com. When she started there, the animal shelter had an “official” Facebook page but they never put any of the found or adoptable animals on that site nor would they allow her access to do so. So she got together with some of the rescue people and created the “Animals Up for adoption at Wexford County” page posting available animals and also strays in hopes of finding owners. Dennis says, “The response from the public was wonderful and the shelter’s adoption rates increased.
It was on the very first day of her job that Dennis was forced to participate in a euthanasia by heart sticking animals without sedation. She said it was a slow and painful thing to watch and that she never saw them sedate the animal first except for when the animal was so aggressive that they had to shoot it with a dart gun while it was in the kennel and then they would administer the heart stick.
Dennis accepted her duties of assisting with the heart sticking without sedation because she wasn’t aware that it was a procedure that they weren’t supposed to be doing. She was never certified for euthanasia as required by the State of Michigan and never trained by a veterinarian. Animal Control Officer Michelle Smith, who Dennis says considers herself to be the “shelter manager” instructed her that if she was ever asked about the procedure, to tell people that they sedated the animal first. According to Dennis, she says that Officer Smith is the one who decides which animals live and die.
Dennis says that she did at least one heart sticking without sedation alone and participated in numerous other ones, either by doing the procedure or holding down the animal for one of the three Animal Control Officers doing the procedure. Additionally, she says that the trustees were also used to hold down the animals when needed. The Animal Control Officers did heart sticking on cats too, sometimes when they were still in their live traps.
Dennis was told to be careful and only log the chemicals used under Smith’s name since Dennis and the other Animal Control Officers were not certified. So the euthanasias were logged to reflect that Smith was the one doing them. When Pet Friends Magazine asked Sheriff Gary Finstrom about the euthanasia certification of his Animal Control Officers, he said, “Current Officer Michelle Smith and former employee Officer Robin Rowe are and have been certified in euthanasia and Officer Smith performs the euthanasia.” He does admit, however, that other former employees have performed euthanasia in emergency situations.
According to the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture, for a shelter to be able to possess and use sodium pentobarbital, the main type of barbiturate used by shelters to euthanize animals, the shelter must obtain a DEA controlled substance registration and a Michigan controlled drug license. For that to happen, a shelter must submit documentation of ALL employees of the shelter that have been trained to administer euthasia with sodium pentobarbital.
When Sheriff Finstrom, who is currently serving his fourth term as Sheriff, was asked by Pet Friends Magazine if the shelter had done ANY heart sticking in the past, he said, “There is no knowledge of this practice being done in the last 12 years.” He said that the answers to my questions were based on input and information given to him from the Senior Animal Control Officer for Wexford County, although he didn’t name who that officer is. When asked if the shelter does heart sticking without prior sedation he said no and that the Animal Control Officers are aware that it is a violation. Furthermore, when talking with a Grand Traverse County Animal Control Officer, Pet Friends was informed that the Michigan Department of Agriculture (which oversees kennels and shelters) has sent out printed literature in the past to Animal Control Officers notifying them that they have to use sedation when doing intracardiac injections.
When describing the officers who serve under him, Sheriff Finstrom said, “Both Wexford County Animal Control Officers are state licensed and one of the Officers is nationally licensed. Kathy Rodgers Dennis was a part-time Animal Control Shelter Attendant that worked for three months. She was never trained as an euthanasia handler nor was she involved in euthanasia.”
In a separate investigation, TV 7&4’s Melissa Smith started looking into shelter activities recently after being contacted by Kathy Rodgers Dennis. Melissa contacted the Sheriff by phone and he initially confirmed to her that they did heart sticking without sedation by calling it a “one step process.” However, when he was contacted the next day by another reporter who wanted to get him on camera, he denied ever making the initial statement.
In addition to the heart sticking, Dennis was very dismayed by other things going on at the shelter that put the animals welfare and lives in jeopardy. She said that dogs were killed even when the shelter wasn’t full. She went on to say that dogs often got killed before their stray hold had expired, meaning that many owners were unable to claim their family pets before they were killed. Under Michigan law, animal shelters have to hold on to an animal without identification for four days (not counting holidays or weekends). Animals with identification such as a tag, license, tattoo or microchip have to be held for seven days. A “day” is a 24 hour period and doesn’t include the first day of acquisition.
Dennis said that many animals were killed without being admitted into the system at all as well as not being held for the amount of days required by law. When Sheriff Finstrom was asked about this, he said that the shelter follows state mandates.
Some of the animals that Dennis claims who are killed without being documented or kept through their stray hold include ones that are found to be pregnant or are considered the “wrong breed”. When Dennis asked Animal Control Officer Michelle Smith why the county had an issue with Pit Bulls, she was told that someone in the past had adopted one from a shelter and the dog later turned on that person so it was Officer Smith’s policy not to put up Pit Bulls for adoption. If a Pit Bull comes in that Officer Smith felt was worth of giving a chance to live, she would call a rescue group to do a temperament test. If the dog passed the test and the rescue group had room, they were given the dog. Otherwise, it was euthanized. When I asked Sheriff Finstrom about the county’s “Pit Policy” he said, “It is the policy of the Wexford County Animal Shelter to not adopt Pit Bulls. If a Pit Bull can pass a temperament test, then a rescue organization is used. Also no aggressive animals are adopted.”
Dennis recounted other disturbing events while she was at the shelter including a story about a senior Husky whose story was made public on the Facebook site that she had started for the animals. The dog’s owner died and 7&4 did a story about the dog to help get him adopted. But before the dog could be adopted, he was euthanized. When 7&4’s Melissa Smith contacted the shelter to find out what happened, Officer Michelle Smith denied knowing about the media story and told her that the animal was killed because it was sick and aggressive. However, according to Dennis, the only issue that the dog had was a bulging eye and Dennis said that the dog ate just fine and was very friendly during her short stay at the shelter. There were many times like this when Dennis was forced to lie to callers about the fates of the dogs at the shelter.
Another animal that Dennis remembers is the Manchester Terrier who had been running loose in Cadillac in a busy area by McDonalds and Goodwill. The dog was wearing a collar but no one could catch him. Many people called dispatch and the Sheriff for weeks asking why they were spending their tax money on an animal control when no one was making an attempt to save the dog before he was hit by a car. Finally, the Animal Control Officers showed up and were able to dart the dog with a gun and capture him. The dog was wearing a collar, but according to Dennis, he was brought directly to the shelter and killed. No attempt to find the owner was made. Dennis was instructed to tell the public that he went to a rescue down in Lansing but that was not true.
Dennis gave other examples of animals who were sick and needed medical attention. She offered to pay for medical help for the animals several times but was denied. One of them was this cute Pit Bull who had Mange. Dennis offered to pay for skin scraping to see if it could be treated but she was told no and the dog was killed.
There was also an emaciated Coon Hound puppy in dire need of medical attention. Dennis offered to take the puppy to the vet herself and pay the bill out of pocket. This, as with other times, was refused. The dog had an infection and Dennis asked if the shelter could help him. Even though the puppy had no muscle where the shot needed to go into, they stuck him with a Penicillin shot anyway and he screamed in pain. He was put in a kennel with hard food like the other dogs. Dennis realized he wouldn’t live in these conditions and contacted a friend who brought her special soft food for the puppy. Dennis fed him that food for several days in small amounts.
On the days that she worked, she carried him to the front as he was not strong enough to walk. She was left a note asking her not to bring the puppy out of his cage anymore. She made a bed for him and put a heater on him. Against all odds, he survived and was adopted. Dennis put his story on Facebook. Many people fell in love with him and some people came in just to visit him while he recovered. Luckily, this little puppy made it out alive and was adopted but it was an individual’s effort as opposed to the shelter taking the lead in keeping a dog healthy and adoptable.
It was in October of 2012 when Dennis did a ride-along with a Michigan Dept. of Agriculture veterinarian to get some further training. She learned that the heart sticking was a violation of the shelters license with the state. With that knowledge, along with dealing with the stress of seeing so many animals killed and seeing things happen that she knew were wrong, Dennis decided to handle the issue internally and went to the administration, which included the Lieutenant and Undersheriff. While she was told initially that there would be an investigation, what actually happened was that her hours were cut in half to only working Saturdays and Sundays for eight hours cleaning cages and feeding the animals (these were the same duties as the trustees). She was forbidden to post any animals for adoption and from using the computer at all. Her keys to the kill room were taken away and her working environment became so hostile that she was forced to quit. Because she was no longer able to work with rescue groups or help the animals get out of the shelter, she knew her only option was to resign after two weeks of her duties and hours being changed. When Pet Friends Magazine asked Sheriff Finstrom why Dennis had a change in her hours and duties and if there were any complaints in her file about the quality of her work, the Sheriff said, “she did not have a hostile working environment.” He continued, “It is not appropriate to publicly discuss any work quality or quantity, actions taken, complaints or pending disciplinary actions.”
After leaving the shelter, Dennis took the advice of the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture veterinarian and filed a formal complaint against the shelter with the state regarding the illegal/inhumane euthanasia of the the animals and not following state guidelines on stray holds. Pet Friends Magazine was told by several sources that their investigation is ongoing.
Because these animals are being forcibly subjected to pain by not being sedated, is it possible that the Officers doing the procedures are committing felonies? The Dog Law of 1919 states that a person cannot knowingly kill, torture, mutilate, maim or disfigure an animal. It seems very evident that heart sticking without sedation is obviously a form of torture for the animals. The law states a person cannot “commit a reckless act knowing or having reason to know that the act will cause an animal to be killed, tortured, mutilated, maimed or disfigured. A person who violates this if guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment and fines.” Furthermore, it states that it is the duty of a Sheriff or Public Officer to arrest and prosecute all persons who violate the provisions of these laws. If such officers have such knowledge or reasonable notice of such violations but don’t act upon them, they are found to be neglect of their duty and can be found guilty of a misdemeanor. A person who was considered to be a heart sticking “specialist” was arrested in Kentucky in 2011 for violating their state’s euthanasia guidelines which are very similar to Michigan’s. The link to that story is here.
The Wexford County Animal Shelter is a member of the Michigan Association of Animal Control Officers (MAACO). This is another agency that needs to look into the allegations being made against the Wexford County Animal Shelter. There are sure to be standards of policy and practices that are involved in being a member of this organization.
For what reason did Kathy Rodgers Dennis file a formal complaint with the state and contact several media outlets about the shelter? Her answer is that she wants to see changes at the shelter. She wants to see the stray animals held for the amount of time that they are supposed to be held so that their owners can find them. She wants the Animal Control Officers to put more effort put into giving the animals the medical attention they need. She wants the Animal Control Officers to save more lives instead of using them as pawns or considering them a nuisance. She wants the shelter to stop torturing the animals by doing intracardiac injections without sedation.
The cries of the animals killed during heart sticking still haunt her. Dennis says, “I know that not every animal will find a home and some have to be destroyed, but this (what the Wexford shelter is doing) is wrong in every way. It is why the state sets the guidelines for how to do it which are not being followed at this shelter. On the rare occasion the heat stick was successful, the dog or cat would lie down and basicly suffocate to death. It was by no means instant or peaceful. When we missed the heart, the dog or cat would scream, whine, lose control of its bowels and try to run from us but would just end up flailing around the room until it finally died. It breaks my heart especially the dogs who would still be wagging their tails at you while you’re killing them.”
So why is the shelter allegedly involved in so many bad policies that result in the suffering and death of the animals at the shelter? Is it bad management from the Sheriff’s Department and a lack of oversight over the Animal Control Officers? Is it an overall disregard for the animals welfare or their comfort on their dying day?? Are things being done to save time and money? It’s hard to say what’s at the root of these problems or how long they have been going on. These recent allegations only bring more speculation and concern about the Animal Control Department and the Sheriff’s Department and how that relationship operates.
This is not the first time the Wexford County Animal Control has been involved in a controversy, although it wasn’t something being done by anyone at the shelter. Back in February of 2012, the Sheriff’s Department was found to have misappropriated approximately $41,000 of the Animal Control money into other areas of the department.
If Kathy Rodgers Dennis’ claims are true, the county needs to get their act together and start serving the animals and taxpayers in Wexford County in a more respectful manner, as well as abiding by state law. The County Commissioners should be getting in on the act as well by passing a motion to ban ALL heart sticking at the shelter as a matter of general policy. If you agree, you can email the commissioners at their contact information below:
District 1 – Robert Colvin
District 2 – Leslie Housler
District 3 – Robert Hilty
District 4 – Mark Howie
District 5 – Gideon Mitchell
District 6 – Alan Devereaux
District 7 – Gary Taylor
District 8 – John Fuscone
District 9 – Bill Goodwill