Shelter Employees Don’t Have State Certification to Euthanize Pets
The fate of a tiny black four-week-old kitten named Buttons seems to have been doomed from the beginning of her short life. After being abandoned by someone and found in a cooler on the property of the Cherryland Humane Society (CHS) by the outside gate, her fate was soon to be in the hands of the Shelter Supervisor, George Sperlbaum.
According to a Grand Traverse County police report, on Tuesday, August 5th, 2014, Shelter Attendant/Adoption Specialist Rosemarie Yetter says that she noticed a black kitten missing from a kennel and found it laying under a towel, barely moving in the “kitten room.” She picked up the kitten and tried to warm it against her chest. She called out for help to her co-workers, Adoption Specialists Elizabeth Williams and Malinda Cieslik. They took the kitten into the exam room and Cieslik grabbed a pop bottle to fill with hot water and got some towels. Williams got a heating pad and made some formula. When Yetter pulled the kitten away from her chest, Buttons was barely moving. The kitten was put on a towel while Yetter rubbed her to try to warm her up. She checked her eyes and gums. She was breathing. Her chest was moving and Yetter found a heartbeat when she gently squeezed her ribcage. Buttons was fed formula through a syringe and she swallowed it. Yetter put Buttons back on the heating pad to keep her as warm as possible, hoping that the kitten could be saved.
Yetter, a former Pet Nurse Assistant who worked at Banfield and a graduate of an online Veterinary Assistant program, told Cirslick and Williams that she would come back and check on Buttons in about ten minutes.
As the women exited the exam room, Shelter Supervisor George Sperlbaum, and former Radio Shack Manager and CHS dog walker, walked into the room. He had not been involved with the earlier attempts by the Shelter Attendants to save Buttons. A few minutes later, Yetter went to check on Buttons. The kitten was no longer on the exam table. Only a towel was there. Yetter explained in the police report how when an animal is euthanized, she likes to wrap it in a blanket and gently put the pet in the freezer to give compassion to the entire process. When she opened the freezer that day, she noticed that Buttons was just in the bag with no blanket. She put the bag on the top of the freezer and the bag MOVED!
Yetter ripped open the bag to find that Buttons still had a heartbeat! The kitten was gasping for air – inhaling and exhaling. Buttons was breathing! Yetter put Buttons on a blanket and went crying into the cat room where Williams was and took her back into the room with the kitten to have her check for a pulse. Williams said in the police report that she looked at the kitten and it was still breathing. She said is was labored breathing but that Buttons was alive. She saw the kitten’s chest moving and she could hear air coming out of her mouth. Williams attended Lake Superior State University and graduated with a degree in Wildlife Management. She also did an internship with the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery and worked at a zoo.
Yetter went to look for Sperlbaum and found him with Executive Director Mike Cherry. Yetter told Sperlbaum that he needed to go with her immediately and yelled at him to properly euthanize the kitten and left the room. After going back to the exam room to clean it after they opened for the day, Yetter noticed that inside the garbage there was only one syringe with evidence of euthanasia fluid. Yetter explained that finding only one syringe meant that Sperlbaum did not sedate the kitten first before euthanizing. Sperlbaum documented in his statement that the kitten received an intracardiac injection (a straight to the heart type of euthanasia as opposed to doing an I.V. method). It is protocol with CHS and also a law with the State of Michigan to tranquilize an animal before euthanizing them so they don’t suffer.
Animal Control Officer Ed Hickey came into the animal shelter about an hour later and Yetter discussed the incident with him and asked him what she should do as she was afraid of losing her job. He urged her to report the incident. Hickey then reported the incident to Environmental Health/Animal Control Director Tom Buss who discussed it with Health Officer/Director Wendy Trute. Deciding that the issue needed to be followed up on, they turned it over to the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Dept. When being questioned about this incident, Mike Cherry reported to Tom Buss that CHS had a similar occurrence with a dog who did not die after euthanasia a few years ago.
When Hickey was in the animal shelter that day, he had brought a cat into the shelter who he thought had been hit by a car. Yetter did an examination and told Sperlbaum about new cat who was brought in. Sperlbaum asked Yetter to go the exam room and he said there needed to be two people in there while performing euthanasia especially since he “fucked up” the first one. After the cat was sedated and given the euthanasia fluid, Yetter reminded Sperlbaum that he needed to make sure the cat had passed as he had not listened for a heartbeat with the stethoscope or checked its gums or eyes. Yetter checked the cat to make sure it was dead, placed the cat in a towel and in a bag and put it in the freezer.
Sperlbaum says in the police report that he had originally found the kitten (Buttons) in the exam room, cold to the touch, so he left to get a second hot water bottle for its stomach. When he returned to the exam room, Sperlbaum said the cat had “expired” – with no heartbeat or ocular reaction. However, he says that he sedated and euthanized the “expired” cat. After verifying the cat was dead again with a stethoscope as well as checking for ocular reaction, Sperlbaum says he put Buttons in the freezer. Later when Williams told him the kitten was alive and gasping for air, Sperlbaum says he went to the exam room again and that the kitten’s tongue was blue and its mouth was open. Even though Sperlbaum says he didn’t witness any air being expressed and had confirmed the cat being dead twice before, he euthanized it again.
Upon further investigation, while checking on the status of the euthanasia certification of the staff at CHS, Pet Friends Magazine sent a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act request) to the State of Michigan to get all available euthanasia records pertaining to CHS. The Dept. of Licensing and Regulator Affairs responded by saying that they had no records confirming that Rosemarie Yetter or George Sperlbalm are certified to perform euthanasias or do sedations. The Michigan Department of Community Health has set training requirements that must be satisfied before an employee of an animal shelter can euthanize or tranquilize an animal. Even if those qualifications were met with Dr. Burke at the animal shelter, the State has no documentation of this and no approval of the program followed for the staff.
Sperlbalm was contacted about this article and did not respond for comment. Executive Director Mike Cherry and Board President Dr. David Burke were contacted several times by Pet Friends Magazine to answer questions about this incident but chose instead to issue the following statement from Dr. Burke, “It was brought to the attention of the Cherryland Humane Society that, after the necessary decision was made to euthanize an animal, that the procedure may not have been properly performed. Grand Traverse County Animal Control learned of the incident from someone and turned it over to the Grand Traverse County Sheriff department for investigation to determine whether there was any wrongdoing on the part of Cherryland Humane Society of any of its employees. Cherryland Humane Society cooperated fully with Grand Traverse County Sheriff Department in its investigation. Grand Traverse County Sheriff Department determined that there was no wrongdoing on the part of Cherryland Humane Society or any of its employees. The procedure was done by a trained employee, who was authorized by the State of Michigan to perform such procedures, and was done according to accepted standards.”
At the end of the police investigation, Deputy Civil Counsel Chris Forsyth at the Grand Traverse Prosecutor’s Office chose not to prosecute the case, saying he didn’t believe that there was enough information or any proof that would show that Sperlbaum intentionally harmed the animal. Forsyth stated that even if the kitten had been placed in the freezer alive, there would be no way of showing intent by Sperlbaum. Forsyth stated that this incident should be documented and that there would be no need to send it to the Prosecutor’s Office as they would not be issuing charges in this case.
However, according to the animal cruelty laws in Michigan, the state statute does not require intent for someone to be charged with animal cruelty. Under the Michigan Penal Code 750.50 it says that “an owner, possessor or person having charge or custody of an animal shall not do any of the following” and listed in the law is “negligently allow any animal, including one who is aged, diseased, maimed, hopelessly sick, disabled or nonambulatory to suffer unnecessary neglect, torture or pain.” Not sedating a cat before euthanization and putting a cat in a freezer who is still alive would fall under this statute.
Furthermore, the police report shows that there was no investigation into the drugs themselves. There is no evidence that the investigator looked at the drug logs at the shelter. These logs, as required by the State of Michigan, could have been compared with the drugs that were left in the bottles to see if the amounts matched up.
As of the publishing of this article, Sperlbaum is still employed at CHS and no internal investigation has been confirmed to have taken place. The policy manual of CHS states that an employee will be terminated if inhumane euthanasia is performed and if CHS euthanasia protocol is not followed. It also says that Executive Director Mike Cherry is responsible for the hiring and firing of the workers at the animal shelter.
And so the question remains. Will there be any justice for Buttons? Or will her case be abandoned as she was in the beginning of her short life?
For those who want to read the entire police report and the statements, please click here: CHS POLICE REPORT