Wexford County Commissioners Impotent to Improve Animal Shelter Policies & Conditions for Animals

After two weeks of meetings and consulting with their legal counsel, the Wexford County Commissioners told their county residents that they have very few options to make any changes to what goes on at the Animal Shelter, that the Sheriff makes all decisions regarding policies and staffing, and at the end of the meeting they laughingly gave residents the phone number of the City of Cadillac to take the issue up with them since the shelter building and property is owned by them. The City currently leases the shelter property to the county for $1 a year.

It was quite apparent that the Board of Commissioners solution to the whole problem is to have another outside organization, a non-profit group, step forward with a proposal to run a shelter in their county as an independent shelter. Disappointed county residents didn’t like the fact that any county investigation would have to be done by the Sheriff’s Department and that the County Commissioners seemed to be relieved that they’ve been able to pass the buck.

Since Pet Friends Magazine broke the story two weeks ago about accusations of inhumane euthanasia and other issues concerning the Wexford Animal Shelter, community support to get at the truth and to help the animals has been overwhelming. The story has generated over 16,000 views and was shared all over Facebook. The story was also picked up by the local TV stations and in the Cadillac News. People started to pay attention to how their government is being run and took an interest in the Animal Control Department’s policies and procedures.

The story motivated a grassroots group to be started on Facebook and there were meetings of animal lovers about how to move forward to make things better for the animals in Cadillac. They learned about state laws regarding animal shelters and the language and information needed to recall the Sheriff. A petition was also started to make the Wexford County Animal Shelter a no-kill facility. 

The county invited Wexford residents to a public meeting to talk about the allegations against the shelter on Thursday, January 31st. The room was overflowing and down the hallway with concerned animal lovers and taxpayers. Many people had their own stories to tell about their experiences with the shelter, including two former Trustees who verified that heart sticking had been done without sedation and that stray holds weren’t being adhered to.

Kathy Dennis Smith, an ex-employee of the shelter who has filed a complaint about the shelter with Michigan Department of Agriculture, told her story to the commissioners about witnessing heart sticking without euthanasia. She asked them to focus their investigation on that that issue as well as stray holds not being adhered to. She asked for a new director to be appointed to the shelter and an overhaul of the system.

Sheriff Finstrom also spoke briefly to the commissioners, stating that this was one of the most emotional issues he’s ever been involved in. He said that no animal control officer, past or present, enjoys having to euthanize animals and that there is nothing to be gained for an Animal Control Officer to not follow the guidelines. He stated that effective immediately, a local veterinarian who contacted them, Dr. Meyer, will be supervising the euthanasias and that he (Finstrom) would abide by the decisions that the Board of Commissioners make. It was pointed out to the Sheriff that only three deposits were made into the shelter’s account in 2012 . Finstrom questioned why the Treasurer or Administrator didn’t relay that information to him but Commissioner Howie reminded Finstrom that it was HIS policy to adhere to, not the policy of the Treasurer or Administrator. After this exchange, Finstrom walked away from the podium and went back into the hallway. Since the shelter receives adoption monies and other fees, the Board of Commissioners needs to look into this issue and has the authority to do so.

Another speaker at the meeting was Tami Cosgray, whose son’s Great Dane, Cole, was shot and killed by an animal control officer in 2010. You can read the story of Cole’s death here.

Luke Scanlon talked about past experiences with the shelter which included turning a nice dog into the shelter and being told “tomorrow kill day” and that if he left the dog there, it would be killed. When he asked about hold periods for the dogs, the person at the shelter mumbled, “not here.” His second interaction with the shelter included calling the shelter about their microchip reader. The person who answered the phone said that they had it somewhere but that the batteries were dead and that no one in the county can afford to microchip their animals anyway. Luke’s wife, Heidi, volunteered to bring batteries to the shelter. She was told not to bother because they don’t have time and it’s not policy to check for a microchip. Heidi brought them in anyway.

Rachel Shook, a former Trustee at the animal shelter, spoke about about she witnessed about 100 animals being killed using heart sticking and only saw two who were sedated beforehand. She also spoke about a terrified Beagle being dragged down the hallway to be killed and how it’s head was shoved under a freezer by the Animal Control Officer. It didn’t die quickly, so it appeared to Shook that it’s lungs were probably punctured. The Beagle was still alive in the room when the next animal was brought in to be killed. Shook also witnessed dogs being killed immediately and not being held for the time that the State mandates and heard an ACO lie to the family of a missing Pit Bull about the dog not being at the shelter.

Another trustee who wasn’t prepared to speak, decided to step up and talked about when he worked at the shelter as a Trustee in 1995 for about four months. Although he wasn’t trained, he was asked to help euthanize animals. A former employee of the shelter told him to grab the front and back legs of the animal and not to allow them to scratch or kick. He recently found out that people who euthanize animals at shelters are supposed to have training and certification. He said that he had done what he thought he had to do. He stated that the animals weren’t sedated first. He remembered a specific incident when they euthanized a cat and missed its heart. They had to do it a second time.

Melissa Sluiter, a spokesperson for a group of citizens who organized a grassroots group to look into shelter activities, asked for an immediate investigation into the shelter, alternative supervision and operation during the investigation and a change in the operation and funding of the shelter.

Supporters of the shelter seemed to be a small group of people which included rescuers who took animals from the shelter but didn’t see or participate in euthanasia policies as well as members of the Wonderland Humane Society. They are a separate entity from the shelter but are confusingly listed on the Shelter’s Petfinder website as if are one unit. The Wonderland Humane Society doesn’t actually have a building of it’s own. The mission on the website says that they exist to prevent cruelty to animals and they provide financial assistance for people who want to spay or neuter their pet. However, when looking at their tax forms from 2011, it shows that they currently have a fund balance of $145,271, yet only spent $17,123 on spay/neuter in that year and another $4148 on other expenses. You can see their tax form here: wonderland tax records 2011

32-year animal rescuer Carol Moomey of the Wonderland Humane Society defended Animal Control Officer Michelle Smith and said that she never saw heart sticking or anything that she was uncomfortable with. She said that she gets nervous around Michelle and that she is like a God to her.

Carol’s sister, Kris Corwin, also defended the shelter and the Animal Control Officers. Corwin, the treasurer of the Wonderland Humane Society for the past 12 years, volunteered with the Wexford Shelter and is also a fired employee. She said the animals got “fabulous” treatment. She said she assisted in hundreds of euthanasias and they were always very humane with a “stick in the rear” for a little sedation. She said she has a respect and “love” for the Animal Control Officers and the dogs “for the most part were happy, happy, happy.” She doesn’t believe that Dennis was forced to do anything on her first day of work and that no one was ever forced to help out with euthanasia because it’s volunteer.

Diane Hora, another Wonderland Humane Society member, talked about an incident where she was at the shelter assisting with an adoption day. A pregnant dog was brought in after being thrown from a car around Christmas time. She called a TV station and they did a story on the dog. There was a big response from the public. However, she was pulled aside by an Officer at the shelter who told her not to do it again. He told her it was much easier to put the animals down than it is to deal with the influx of public who come to their doors. He told her that she didn’t do them any favors.

Other speakers told about how when they had called animal control to take care of an animal issue, it wasn’t taken care of in a timely or humane manner. Stories emerged of years of problems with the Animal Control Department and animals who had suffered or had been killed as a result. Residents asked for the Commissioners to find out what was going on at the shelter. Commissioner Mark Howie said that they need to act quickly to ensure humane treatment at the shelter and that there should be an independent investigation to get to the truth.

Another commissioner confirmed that the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture and the Licensing Board (LARA) are both conducting an investigation into the shelter. One of the Commissioners made a motion to suspend operations and to transfer all animals to a no kill shelter, however Commissioner Howie said that most shelters were full at the time and it was questioned whether they had the authority to make any decisions since the shelter is run by ordinance by the Sheriff who is an elected official. They asked whether a motion by the board can override a county ordinance. They decided to meet with legal counsel about their options.

You can watch most of the meeting here.

A second meeting was held on Wednesday, February 6th to further discuss options concerning the Animal Shelter. There were several speakers including Melissa Sluiter who spoke again about the concerns her group had about the shelter and what they expect the commissioners to do including checking into the use of their controlled drugs and other areas their investigation should focus on. She asked that the shelter abide by state rules including certification of those administering euthanasia and mandated hold times.

Luke Scanlon resubmitted Dennis’ question from the last meeting as a Wexford County resident and asked some further questions on the legalities of the shelter’s licensing to use controlled substances. When Pet Friends went online to the LARA website, it was found that Wexford County Animal Control’s license for socium pentobarbital was issued in 1991 and expires on June 30, 2013. Their information states that their have never been any open formal complaints or disciplinary action against the license. Scanlon’s concerns were to make sure the shelter is abiding by all licensing and controlled substance mandates and he also brought up budget concerns.

The Commissioners asked their legal counsel, Rich McNulty, to take the podium to answer questions about the Board’s authority to make changes to current policies of the Animal Control Department. The attorney pointed out that because the Sheriff is an elected official, he is a Constitutional Officer and has the broad authority to run his department without interference from the Board. He can develop rules and regulations subject to board approval, hire staff, etc. Other than budgetary decisions, the Sheriff is in charge of the Animal Shelter and the Board of Commissioners has no authority to order him to do anything. In addition, the Board does not have the authority to investigate shelter employees. That also falls under the authority of the Sheriff as long as he is operating under state statues.

“Your options today are virtually none,” McNulty told the board, although he did say that the Board of Commissioners could remove the Shelter from the Sheriff’s control if a third party proposed to run the shelter themselves as an independent shelter and not a county shelter. It would be a lengthy process as they would have to negotiate with the city if they wanted to lease the building and they would need to sign a contract with the County regarding the housing of Animal Control cats and dogs.

Any non-profit organization wanting to run an Animal Shelter in Wexford County would have to get a shelter license through the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture. The County would also have to deal with collective bargaining agreements with current shelter employees. Even though it might be a long and difficult process, the Commissioners were very open to this option and mentioned it several times during the meeting.

The Commissioners pointed out that the Animal Control ordinance can not be amended immediately. There are notice requirements, a 30 day statutory requirement, a publication requirement and a possible referendum. McNutty said if another agency comes forward with an option to run the shelter, the Board would have more options in dealing with the Shelter but for now they have none. It’s the Sheriff’s shelter right now.

The Board of Commissioners asked the Administrator to explore the possibility of handing off the Shelter to another entity and said they will ask the Sheriff to comply with all ordinances. Commissioner Howie encouraged public to find a way to take on the animal shelter function and encourage Sheriff’s Dept. look into input provided at the last two meetings.

Commissioner Deveraux said he supported Sheriff Finstrom and called him “Gary” several times. Deveraux said that he always stepped up to the plate to change things and that he was sure that he’s taken a lot of the things said at the meetings into consideration and believes things will change. Deveraux said that Gary does a great job.

Another Commissioner said that with everything being open about the shelter, the Sheriff will abide by the rules and policies and they (Commissioners) will make sure things are working well.

At the end of the meeting, one of Commissioners said that they’d be more than happy to turn it over to the City of Cadillac if they want to step up to the plate and there were some chuckles at the table when they gave out the information about the date and time of the next City Commissioner’s meeting.

So for now, the fate animals at the Wexford County Animal Shelter and how they are treated on a daily basis are completely in the hands of Sheriff Finstrom and his adherence to his own Animal Control ordinances and the laws of the State.



3 thoughts on “Wexford County Commissioners Impotent to Improve Animal Shelter Policies & Conditions for Animals

  1. cindy smith February 10, 2013 at 2:50 pm Reply

    Bunch of crap like always. Saying he can do what he wants (finstom) is insane. This is not the good ole days of the ok corral for gods sake, he has to answer to someone. And he can’t have animal abuse and stealing money for the shelter, that is illegal. If count,city, and state don’t want to do something about it then take it to the feds. We will have to find out who to go to in the federal dept. And go from there. This is obviously the good ole boys club starting from our county and it goes to lansing.

  2. Cyndi Urbancic February 10, 2013 at 5:16 pm Reply

    There is no way in hell this Sheriff can legally call all the shots here. One it does not sound like he is adhering to the Dept. of Ag. rules anyhow. this is illegal. the “sheriff” is breaking the law plain and simple. Make the Dept. of Ag do their job here and apply some pressue. The Commissioners laughing this off is incredible. I only wish I lived in this county, they need the citizens to Stand up here, never forget for a second all of these people work for YOU, the animal lover, not the other way around.

  3. Bari CD (@bari_cd) February 11, 2013 at 8:09 am Reply

    We have a sheriff in Wexford County condoning the inhumane treatment of animals and another sheriff in Benzie who says he won’t enforce any gun laws. Doesn’t anybody decent want to be a sheriff in Northern Michigan? Pitiful.

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