NOTE: Amanda Liston provided the information and opinions attributed to her in the following post while she was Carolina Care Bullies president. I have since learned that she resigned from the rescue a few days before the post was published.
The next time someone says “Nobody wants to kill animals” to defend the killing of shelter pets, remember Coco. Robin Meadows, a volunteer for Carolina Care Bullies rescue, expended a lot of effort trying to save Coco from the very first day the dog landed in the Guilford County pound, a pet-killing facility where almost half the animals ended up dead in 2011 ¹. Despite days of effort by Meadows and other CCB rescuers, the staff of the Guilford County pound killed Coco anyway.
Coco was a friendly, young pit bull belonging to a boy who lived near Meadows’ sister. On Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, the boy arrived home from school to discover that his stepfather had surrendered Coco to animal control. The boy told Meadows, who knew Coco had a wonderful disposition and got along well with her dog Skyleigh (adopted from Carolina Care Bullies). Knowing that Coco was definitely adoptable and that at best she could give Coco a forever home herself, Meadows called the Guilford County pound that very day to ask what she needed to do to get Coco out of there. (The Guilford County pound refuses to adopt dogs they identify as pit bulls directly to the public, so rescue pulls are generally the only ways such dogs get out of that pound alive.)
Meadows gave pound staff a detailed description of Coco and told them where and when she had been taken by animal control. “At first they told me they weren’t sure what dog I was talking about and they would have to see if they had her,” she said. Then they told her she could pull Coco if she brought along the owner who had surrendered her and paid about $60 in reclaim fees. Meadows posted the situation to the CCB forum, and another volunteer offered to put up the money for the fees. On Thursday Meadows went to speak to Coco’s former owner, who agreed to meet her at the pound Friday afternoon. She said she called the pound three times on Thursday to make sure that she was making the correct arrangements to save Coco.
The former owner stood Meadows up late Friday afternoon, shortly before the pound closed. Frustrated, she turned for help to CCB president Amanda Liston. Pound staff told Meadows that in order to pull Coco under CCB, Liston would have to speak directly to pound director Marsha Williams on the following Monday.
Liston called the pound Monday morning. “The shelter manager told us that she was expecting our call,” Liston said “She also informed us that she would in no way release the dog to Robin, that myself and [CCB vice president] Terry [King] would have to pick up the dog personally. We explained that Robin was a local Greensboro volunteer that wanted to foster-to-adopt the dog, and that we lived 45 minutes away, there was no reason for us to come from Hillsborough to pick up a dog.”
Liston said that Meadows is a trusted CCB volunteer and is just as much a part of the organization as anyone else. “CCB is not one or two people, we are a large network of volunteers, and myself and the vice president can not be expected to do every rescue errand. However, we would have been glad to if that was the last resort,” she said.
“Half a day later, our Vice President Terry King received a voicemail that the dog in question was euthanized early that morning because of inability to identify the dog based on no owner information.” Liston said. “They played games and stalled us over an entire weekend, telling us we couldn’t get permission to release the dog until Monday—well after they planned to euthanize the dog,” Liston said. “They said they tried to identify the dog and were unable to do so—but they didn’t need to—Robin could point out the dog and provide all the owner surrender information for them.”
Meadows was devastated. “She survived the weekend just to have them kill her the day I was going to pick her up.”
“Five minutes of Guilford County’s time would have confirmed that allowing Robin to pull the dog was a far better alternative than euthanasia for Coco,” Liston said.
“I find it impossible to believe that they were unable to identify this one dog with the level of Robin’s description in addition to the information she was able to provide about the owner, ” Liston said. “The only foreseeable way this could have occurred is if they throw every pit bull that comes into the shelter in a large, multi-dog holding pen with no ID, and I know that to not be true.”
A public records request for Coco’s records was sent to Guilford County pound director Marsha Williams and the county attorney, who forwarded it to Guilford County Animal Control. Animal control responded promptly with their paperwork on Coco, showing where, when and how she was surrendered by her owner and picked up.
Williams, however, did not respond until a second request was sent, when she refused to comply. “I have spoken to the board of Directors and the United Animal Coalition attorney and they have advised me to inform you that The United Animal Coalition that operates the shelter is a private organization and therefore does not fall under your public records statute any information you requested for Coco that falls under that statute can be provided by animal control and the county attorney’s office whom you cc’d on your previous email and this one,” she said.
Williams and UAC seem to have no problem collecting more than $1 million of taxpayer money from the county to operate a de facto government agency “for the mutual benefit of the Parties and for the citizens of GUILFORD COUNTY” in a building and on property owned by Guilford County. But when it comes time to be publicly accountable for what they do with the community’s shelter pets, they want to hide behind non-profit status and claim they don’t have to tell anyone what goes on in their pound.
According to the NC Attorney General’s office, whether a non-profit operating a government service is subject to public records disclosure is “a matter of legal opinion.” There exists legal precedent of courts upholding that municipalities can not hide records from the public by contracting with a non-profit.
In fact, the contract between Guilford County and UAC is very similar to a scenario that UNC Professor of Law and Government Frayda Bluestein sets forth as an example of when a non-profit WOULD probably be subject to transparency laws. She describes a scenario in which a city contracts with a non-profit group that promotes arts:
If not for this contract, city employees would carry out this function. The city appoints three of the five members of the nonprofit board. The city owns the property the nonprofit uses for its offices, and leases it to the nonprofit for nominal consideration. The nonprofit receives most of its funding from the city. Is the nonprofit organization subject to the transparency laws? The answer is probably: yes.
The UAC leases its building and land from Guilford County for $1 per year. The Guilford County board of commissioners has the right to appoint a county commissioner to serve as a fully participating member of the UAC board of directors. The UAC receives most of its funding from the county. In addition, the UAC must obtain written approval from the county manager before it is allowed to change any fees, hours of operation, policies or procedures affecting the public.
The claim of exemption from public records laws by Williams and the UAC is pretty much begging for a legal opinion.² Essentially, Williams and UAC are claiming the right to kill their community’s pets completely in secret. Meanwhile, the Guilford County taxpayers are footing the bill.
Consider the implications: Suppose you live right on the county line between Guilford and Alamance. One day, your dog bolts through the door and takes off. If he heads east, gets picked up by Alamance County animal control and taken to the pound in Burlington, you would have every right to find out exactly what happened to him if he died in kennel or was killed there. But if he were to head west, get picked up by Guilford County animal control and end up in the Guilford county pound, his fate could remain a complete mystery to you. Marsha Williams and her staff claim that you would have no right to find out what happened to your beloved family pet during his last days or hours in their facility.
Despite replying to the public records request by claiming she doesn’t have to send any records, Williams did send one record: a photo of part of a document she says was all her pound received from animal control with Coco:
Williams says that because the form from animal control identified Coco as a stray, no one at GCAS could figure out which dog Meadows and CCB were trying to save until after pound staff had killed her.
“The lack of proper information did not allow the shelter staff to locate Coco in time to transfer her to CCB,” Williams said. Were they in such a hurry to kill Coco that they couldn’t be bothered to take a few minutes to see if maybe the small female pit bull pup marked “stray” who came in from Cotswold Ave. on the morning of Feb. 6 could possibly have been the same small female pit bull pup brought in from Cotswold Ave. on the morning of Feb. 6 that Robin Meadows so desperately wanted to save?
As director of that pound, Williams has the power to decide NOT to kill pets, at the very least for long enough to sort out which dog a rescuer wants to save. It’s not as if there is an unstoppable killing machine conveyor belt that pets are put on as soon as they enter the pound (as much as Guilford’s kill rate makes it seem as if there could be). Williams runs that pound and can decide which pets live, which pets die, and how much time they are given before she or her staff inject them full of death syrup.
Williams and her staff kill more than 6,000 dogs and cats per year. Assuming 260 business days in a year, that means they kill, on average, more than 23 pets per day. Perhaps, given the sheer magnitude of killing they do there, no one at the Guilford County pound saw the point of taking any extra time to kill one fewer healthy and adoptable pet.
What does the fact that Williams sent a record she believes vindicates her and her staff imply about the records she is withholding? Her refusal to release Coco’s records might reasonably lead folks to wonder what is there that she does not want to reveal. Was there more to the runaround Meadows and Liston were given than just disorganization or disinterest on the part of Williams and her staff?
“Were they hoping we would give up before we discovered that the dog was already euthanized?” Liston said. She believes the claim that Coco could not be identified “in time” was an excuse given “when there was nothing else they could say to deter us from rescuing the dog.”
“The dog didn’t have to be euthanized. And had any other shelter manager in the state been in that place, at least the ones we have had experience with, that dog would have lived,” Liston said.“I want the public to know that Guilford is not the amazing shelter that they are often hailed as. They treat pit bulls as criminals, they treat those that want to rescue them as suspicious, and would rather kill these dogs than give them a chance at a new life.
“The glaring difference between this shelter and others I have worked with, no matter how small-staffed or how large their intake is, is that other shelters can easily identify dogs based on even a mediocre description,” Liston said. The larger facilities such as Orange County Animal Services or Wake County Animal Center will mark kennel cards “rescue hold” or “rescue interest” as soon as CCB calls, she said. “Its uncomplicated. We call, they send a volunteer to mark their kennel card, if they can’t do it themselves.”
“Guilford has made clear to us in the past we are not to try to advertise dogs in their shelter that need homes,” Liston said. “I’m confused about this, as they advertise them on their own FB page, so I don’t know why we cannot. We have also asked them to email us photos of pit bulls at their shelter and we will try to find foster homes. Unsurprisingly, we have never received a single photograph or even personality description of any dog in their shelter. Despite the non-response on their end, we were expected to provide a list of past adopters, references, adoption policies and a copy of our application, all of which we worked hard to compile and provide to them.” Liston said CCB never heard from Guilford again after supplying that information.
“As we have grown, understandably we have had many volunteers want us to help pit bulls in their shelter,” Liston said. “I try to explain what happened, and they insist the shelter manager tells them ‘We would love to work with CCB!’ It’s true, the shelter manager does repeat this, over and over to compassionate pit bull lovers and visitors to their Facebook page. But, it is 100% untrue. They go out of their way to make sure no pit bull leaves their shelter, unless it is in secret, unless we somehow magically find a foster without advertising for one, unless we agree to take a dog we’ve never met or seen.”
Liston said Williams has claimed policies dictated by the Guilford County Commissioners are the reason it’s difficult to extract pit bulls from that pound. “I know this to also be false, as other counties with similar ‘no public pit bull adoption’ policies have no trouble allowing rescues to share photos, meet dogs, secure foster homes and use their volunteer-base to pick up dogs for their foster homes,” Liston said.
Liston said she suspects a personal prejudice against pit bulls may possibly be what makes it so hard to save them from the Guilford pound. “Why else would one person guarantee the death of so many dogs that have other options?”
Folks who wish to discuss the Guilford County pound or its pit bull policy with the Guilford County Commissioners may find their contact information here. A sample letter regarding anti-pit bull policies can be found here.
A NOTE REGARDING THE COMMENTING POLICY ON THIS POST: Because free and open discourse is only possible when there is full access to information, all comments defending the UAC/GCAS etc. will be held in moderation until such time as Williams and the UAC release Coco’s records. If they never release them, the comments will never be published. Anyone bothered or inconvenienced by this policy may contact Marsha Williams.
²In NC, this will most likely require a lawsuit. Animal advocate Holly Nielsen filed suit last year against the Johnston County SPCA, which received funds from the town of Clayton, over the same issue. The case never went to court because the JCSPCA board voted to dissolve itself immediately after the suit was filed. If you are interested in helping bankroll or helping find pro-bono or contingency legal representation for a potentially precedent-setting lawsuit against The United Animal Coalition, please email me. Back