For years, the Toronto Humane Society bragged of its low euthanasia rate — only 6 percent, compared with other big-city shelters that put down 50 percent or more of the animals they accept.
But that impressive statistic was hiding a dark secret, according to criminal charges laid against its top officials. The "model" animal shelter was actually what one investigator called a "house of horrors" — a place where infections ran rampant, animals lived in filthy conditions, food was scarce and a no-euthanasia policy led to sick animals suffering and dying without adequate medical care.
"It's a pretty good donor grab if you say we only euthanize 6 percent of our animals. The sad part is the amount of animals that died in their cages — long, painful, horrible deaths — to obtain those numbers," said Marcie Laking, who worked for the humane society for five years as a volunteer and a paid employee. "The Toronto Humane Society took euthanasia statistics to very inhumane levels."
Last November, the Toronto Humane Society was raided by police and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and its five top managers were arrested and led away in handcuffs, charged with animal cruelty. None of the allegations have been heard in court as a trial has not yet been scheduled but a lengthy affidavit submitted by the OSPCA details a pattern of alleged abuses, including managers forbidding staff veterinarians from euthanizing animals the vets felt were suffering without hope of recovery.
It's rare for animal shelters to be accused of cruelty, but it's not unheard of. While OSCPA officials were investigating the Toronto Humane Society, the American SPCA intervened in two alleged cruelty cases at animal shelters. At the Clarksdale-Coahoma County Animal Shelter in Mississippi, a facility built to hold 60 dogs was discovered in January to be crammed with 400 animals. At the city-run Memphis Animal Shelter, dogs were discovered starving and three supervisors were indicted in February on animal cruelty charges connected to the deaths of three terriers.
Before you adopt, evaluate the shelterJulie Morris, senior vice president of community outreach for the ASPCA, said that in shelter abuse cases, sometimes the people in charge are apathetic or just plain sadistic, and sometimes they're well-meaning but get overwhelmed. And, as may have happened at the Toronto Humane Society, some shelter directors become so fixated on low euthanasia rates that they overlook real suffering, Morris said.
"Some shelters in their quest to be no-kill either end up hoarding animals or keeping them way too long and not thinking of the quality of life ... they get a little overzealous," said Morris, who is not personally involved in the Toronto case but is familiar with both U.S. cases. "To warehouse animals for years in a small cage so you can say the animal is not euthanized — but the animal is suffering — is insane."
In sworn statements, employees of the Toronto Humane Society recalled dozens of animals who starved or endured painful conditions for lack of resources and described how they were chastised for taking too long if they stopped to clean cages or give dogs fresh water. Perhaps most grisly of all, investigators found a mummified cat in a trap hidden above the ceiling tiles who had been forgotten and apparently starved to death.
Oversight of animal shelters varies from state to state, Morris said: In some places it’s the Department of Agriculture’s responsibility, in others the Department of Health, and often inspections are spotty or non-existent.
When cities and counties are struggling financially, Morris said, “A lot of times, animal control is at the bottom of their list of priorities.”
The Memphis shelter seems to be a straightforward case of animal cruelty through mismanagement and apathy, Morris said. But in Clarksdale, as in Toronto, a no-kill policy seemed to spin out of control.
Don't miss these Health stories
More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.
- Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
- Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
- CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
- What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says
- More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
“That was somebody who wanted to do the right thing and got in over their head, and in the interest of being good to animals ended up being bad to them,” Morris said.
Clarksdale animal-lover Sissy Alderson blew the whistle on the shelter, notifying city authorities, the Humane Society and the ASPCA after she witnessed overcrowding in outside runs. Once she got inside the shelter, conditions were even worse than she had feared.
“You have no earthly idea, the amount of urine, the amount of poop. There was a dog eating a [dead] dog,” Alderson said, her voice trembling as she recalled the scene. Dogs were fighting in cramped kennels, and some of the more submissive dogs were starving because they couldn’t get to their food, she said.
“The suffering, I can’t imagine,” Alderson said. Many of the animals were sick with heartworms, mange, parvo, distemper and other illnesses, she said. “Euthanizing an animal that is sick is not easy, but it is humane. It is the compassionate thing to do.”
The Clarksdale shelter director, who was a volunteer, walked off the job once the shelter was raided. Local authorities decided not to file charges against her, saying the director meant well but was simply overwhelmed. She did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.
Unlike in Toronto, the Clarksdale shelter director never publicized the unofficial no-kill policy, preferring to keep the crowded shelter out of the public spotlight.
“She asked me, ‘What is wrong with the shelter?’” Alderson said, recalling a conversation with the former director. “She honestly saw nothing wrong … it wasn’t rational.”
A micro-manager with an iron fist
In Toronto, the OSPCA raid and charges at the Toronto Humane Society were prompted by an investigation published last year by The Globe and Mail newspaper, which aired allegations of mismanagement and sick animals suffering. Five top shelter officials were arrested, but the allegations centered around president Tim Trow.
The affidavit in support of a search warrant, which includes statements from 45 former and current employees, describes Trow as a micro-manager who ruled with an iron fist and screamed and cursed at anyone who questioned his orders. Several witnesses recounted an incident involving a pit bull, Bandit, who came to the Toronto Humane Society after biting a child in 2003 and became Trow’s personal pet. Two Toronto Humane Society workers reported being bitten by Bandit; on another occasion, Bandit bit a mother cat who was protecting her kittens, and Trow allegedly refused to allow treatment for the badly injured cat for over an hour.
The affidavit alleges that Upper Respiratory Infection, or URI, spread rampantly among the cat population because of poor sanitation and indiscriminate mixing of ill and healthy cats. Cats with untreated URIs suffered with sores on their tongues and eyes. Veterinarians describe being forced to ask to euthanize severely ill animals, and being refused by non-veterinarians in management.
"When animals are sick and dying, be it from infectious disease or any other cause, Tim Trow and his supervisors refuse to allow the veterinarians to humanely euthanize the animals. The animals are left to suffer to death in their cages in order that Tim Trow can maintain his artificially low euthanasia statistics which he uses for marketing purposes," alleges the sworn statement of OSPCA investigator Kevin Strooband. "Regardless of a veterinarian’s opinion, Mr. Trow has issued orders that no animal may be euthanized without the permission of a non-medically trained supervisor. Animals are found dead and in agonizing pain in their cages every morning in the THS facility."
1,000 animals crammed into a space for 600
Brian Shiller, an attorney for the OSPCA, said the mummified cat in the ceiling was found on the second day of OSPCA’s search of the Toronto Humane Society facility. Apparently, he said, someone set a live trap to catch a feral cat that had escaped — and then forgot about it, leaving the captured cat to starve to death. The overwhelming problem in the shelter, Shiller said, was the sheer number of animals: more than 1,000 in a space designed to hold no more than 600.
Adopting an abused dog? What to know"It really did become a hoarder culture," Shiller said.
Trow, the focus of many of the allegations, has resigned from the Toronto Humane Society's board of directors. The OSPCA and the humane society are currently battling in court over financial control and composition of the board of directors; a judge has appointed an independent monitor to review the charity's finances. Trow's lawyer, Andras Schreck, said Trow intends to plead not guilty and will "vigorously defend himself against the charges." If convicted, Trow and the four other senior officials arrested face a maximum of five years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Schreck declined to respond in-depth to the charges against his client, but said the search conducted by the OSPCA was "questionable," and suggested the accusations may have been motivated by the history of competition and bad blood between the Toronto Humane Society and the OSPCA.
"They've always competed for the same donor dollars," Schreck said.
'A bad picture for all animal shelters'
Since the November raid, the OSPCA has been operating the Toronto Humane Society and recently re-opened it for adoptions. Accusations of abuse at a shelter can cut both ways for animal welfare groups in general, Morris said. People who complained about the shelter tend to be grateful for the intervention; but tales of abusive shelters can turn other people off from adopting shelter pets or supporting their local shelter.
"For people in that community, they're thrilled, they're so glad someone finally came to the rescue," Morris said. "But it paints a bad picture for all animal shelters... people need to know that all animal shelters are different."
The number of animals at the Toronto Humane Society has been reduced from over 1,000 to fewer than 500; Shiller said that 60 sick or wounded animals were euthanized, and the rest were adopted out or sent to other shelters with more space. Many former employees have returned to the Toronto Humane Society to volunteer since the OSPCA raid. Laking, who was fired after clashing with the former management, said she's thrilled to see the animals in new hands.
"The whole time I was there was just I got a very clear sense that nobody in a management position cared about the animals," Laking said. "It was always about looking good for the public. People lost perspective of what they were supposed to be doing, unfortunately."
Rebecca Dube is a freelance journalist based in New York who has written for The Globe and Mail, The Associated Press and USA Today. She blogs about pets at http://paws.ly.
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints