By Catherine Pritchard
Rachelle Dudgeon had never seen an animal euthanized by "heart stick."
But the Minnesota resident says she's sure that's what she saw being done to a dog at Robeson County's animal shelter in January. And given the way the dog "screamed," Dudgeon says, she's also sure the animal was not sedated at the time, which would be against North Carolina law.
Jeff Bass, the shelter's manager, says Dudgeon is lying. He said the shelter abides by state law.
But since Dudgeon's story started circulating on the Internet early this month, the shelter has come under a firestorm of criticism from animal advocates and under increased scrutiny from state regulators.
Gov. Bev Perdue's Facebook page has been deluged almost daily with calls for action at the shelter and often inflammatory comments by animal advocates near and far.
"Sack the staff at Robesons and get some caring animal lovers to work there instead ... Simple!!!" wrote a woman who lives in England.
Perdue wrote on March 10 that her office had contacted the state Department of Agriculture and the Robeson County sheriff about allegations of cruelty at the shelter.
"I understand the state vet's office within the Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal shelters in this state, has already sent an inspector to Robeson County," she wrote. "I trust they will ensure that state laws are being properly followed by the shelters there."
Lee Hunter, the veterinarian who heads the Animal Welfare Section of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said his inspectors have made several unannounced visits to the shelter this month.
As in the past, problems were found. The biggest was an improper cleaning protocol. Workers were mixing Clorox and Ajax to clean the shelter, and the resulting fumes bothered the inspector as well as the animals. The shelter agreed to use a safer cleaning method, Hunter said.
Hunter said his office has probably received more complaints about the Robeson County shelter than any other in the state, but its operation is "probably about average" for shelters. "All shelters have problems," he said.
He said his office is continuing to investigate the shelter but has found no violations of the state Animal Welfare Act.
Robeson County Manager Ken Windley and county Health Director Bill Smith, whose department oversees the shelter, didn't respond to phone calls from the Observer.
But Bass said he's heard from them.
"My bosses are telling me, 'Listen, you're doing an OK job. Just keep going,' " he said.
Criticism has been lodged for years against the Robeson County animal shelter, which is a clearinghouse for stray and abandoned dogs and cats picked up by animal control officers throughout the large rural and poor county.
In the 1990s, Smith, already the head of the Health Department, deplored the shelter, which then consisted of five dog pens and scattered cages behind a veterinary hospital in Lumberton. In 1999, he said that animals had to be destroyed after a five-day waiting period because there was no space.
In 2001, animal advocates released an undercover videotape that showed shelter workers euthanizing unanesthetized dogs and cats by injecting drug overdoses directly into their hearts - intracardiac injections dubbed "heart sticks." The method is said to be extremely painful if the animal is not sedated.
A local group headed by a persistent shelter critic, Faith Walker of Lumberton, then filed suit against the county over its euthanasia methods.
County officials denied animals were treated inhumanely but agreed to sedate animals before euthanizing them.
In 2002, Bass joined the shelter as its manager. In 2003, the operation moved to new, much larger quarters near the landfill in St. Pauls.
Hundreds of animals are brought there each year. Most are euthanized after the five-day waiting period to make room as more animals are brought in. Last year, Bass said, 1,011 dogs were adopted from the shelter and 2,843 were euthanized. Cats fared worse - 172 were adopted while 1,731 were killed.
"I can't sit on them for long periods of time because there's nowhere to keep them," Bass said.
Critics say the shelter could house many more animals if Bass didn't insist that half the pens be kept empty. He said he has to have somewhere to move the animals while other pens are being cleaned.
When the shelter runs out of space, Bass said, it euthanizes most animals with the intracardiac injections - but not until sedation is administered and has become effective.
Many animal advocates don't believe it. A Facebook posting by one, in January, brought Dudgeon to Robeson County. At a page for a group opposed to North Carolina shelters that euthanize animals with gas - not the case in Robeson County - a woman posted that 150 animals at the Robeson County shelter were "SCHEDULED TO DIE BY HEARSTICK (sic) TUESDAY!"
The woman, who is from Georgia, wrote that she'd heard about the situation from another Facebook poster.
Dudgeon, who belongs to a Minnesota animal rescue group called Puppy Porch, saw the woman's post and drove to Robeson County with her husband to take as many of the animals as she could - about 16 dogs and one cat. At least one other out-of-state rescue group was adopting animals at the shelter then, too.
In the widely circulated statement that Dudgeon posted on the Internet in early March, she said she was in a shelter kennel feeding a skinny mother dog when she heard men talking nearby. She said they stopped at another kennel and used a pole to jab something.
"Then I heard the most horrific screams from an animal that I have ever heard in my whole life," she wrote. "The men sat over the dog and laughed as it screamed in pain for about 1-2 minutes."
In an interview, Dudgeon said she is positive the men were using the heart-stick method to euthanize a dog without anesthesia.
Dudgeon said she then went outside the shelter and heard similar howls, which she believed were made by other dogs being euthanized without anesthesia.
"What I (said) in my statement is very truthful," she said.
Bass said her statement was "just a complete false fabrication from the start." He said that while the first dog was euthanized that day, Dudgeon was not in the shelter at the time and it wasn't done until the dog had been correctly anesthetized.
He said the howls she heard while outside the shelter may have been from the dog when it was collared with a "control stick," before it was anesthetized, and from other dogs who were being moved so kennels could be cleaned.
He said no animal has ever been euthanized by heart-sticking without sedation since he has been with the shelter.
"We do not do that here," he said.
Bass said he has been unfairly vilified by animal advocates, many of whom mention him by name in online postings.
"Please call them to the carpet and ask them to explain themselves, especiall (sic) this jeff blass (sic) person," wrote one on Perdue's Facebook page.
"Bev needs to be the leader she campaigned to be and stop the MURDERING of innocent animails (sic) at the hands of Jeff Bass and others like him," wrote a woman from Louisville, Ky.
Bass said many cite videos as evidence of cruelty at the shelter, but he said they're looking at the video made in 2001, before he was there and before policies were changed.
"They're throwing me under the bus, and I'm a total stranger," he said.
Dudgeon said she also is under fire. "People are harassing me, too," she said. "Don't think that I'm not getting it."
She said she does not condone harassment or mistreatment of Bass or his staff.
Meanwhile, Walker said she is preparing to file another animal-cruelty suit against the county. She said her first suit was dismissed in 2004 because she couldn't prove she had tried to resolve the complaints with local agencies before going to court. She said she won't have that problem this time.
Hunter, the veterinarian heading the state Animal Welfare office, said he knows many are "exceedingly angry" over animal euthanasia.
But, he said, it's an unfortunate necessity for now.
"It's the end product of a pet overpopulation problem," he said. "Until the pet overpopulation problem is solved, there's going to continue to be euthanasia. You can't adopt your way out of this."
That won't stop many animal advocates from trying. In the past few weeks, numerous dogs and some cats have been taken from the Robeson shelter by various animal rescue operations. Most reportedly send the animals up north where there are fewer strays because of spay and neuter programs.
Dannie Royce of Fayetteville, who works with several animal rescue groups, was at the shelter Tuesday with other rescuers. They loaded about 16 dogs, including eight puppies, and three cats into carriers.
Many had been scheduled to be euthanized that day but "Jeff was nice enough" to delay that so the rescuers could come in, Royce said.
She said she'd been to the shelter about six times since moving to Fayetteville three months ago and had never had a bad encounter with Bass or his staff.
"They've always been really nice and accommodating," Royce said. "They all seem to care for the dogs. ...I don't think it's as bad as they say online."
Staff writer Catherine Pritchard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3517.