Who’s to blame for continued abuse in state animal shelters?

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Our two-month investigation continues into abuse at Virginia’s animal shelters. Some of the people entrusted to care for the cats and dogs have been busted for doing the opposite.

Late last year, a woman named Becki Wilson tipped off authorities about what was going on inside the Russell County Animal Shelter. “I saw so much that I’d love to be able to block from my mind,” a teary Wilson explains, “I want to speak for the animals. Somebody has to step up.” Wilson used to work

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“I saw so much that I’d love to be able to block from my mind,” a teary Wilson explains, “I want to speak for the animals. Somebody has to step up.” Wilson used to work in the shelter and says she witnessed heartbreaking abuse.

8News obtained a copy of the state shelter inspector’s investigation of the Russell County pound. The documents outline what the inspector calls “animal cruelty.”

“I want to speak for the animals. Somebody has to step up.”

She discovered an emaciated dog who was unable to stand, lying in its own waste. There was another dog with a seriously injured leg who couldn’t put weight on it. Both had to be put down after they were denied veterinary care.

According to the inspector, both dogs were deprived veterinary care and adequate shelter. One was denied adequate food and water.

The inspector also noted evidence of “torture and inhumane treatment” of skunks by placing them in PVC tubes for the “purpose of suffocation.”

According to her findings, the inspector also discovered that an animal control officer who was not certified to euthanize was putting animals down anyway.

“He would take the needle from my hand and he would say no piece of paper is keeping me from euthanizing,” explains Wilson.

A letter sent from the State Veterinarian’s office to the Russell County Administrator states that some of what happened in the shelter violates Virginia law.

And the inspector who uncovered the abuse acknowledges she reported it to law enforcement. Shelter inspector Sherry Helsel says she notified Virginia State Police, a special prosecutor in neighboring Buchanan County and even the Virginia Attorney General’s office. No criminal charges were ever filed.

Instead, the state vet slapped Russell County with a civil penalty or fine. The county paid $500 for each violation of denying care to the dogs and $500 for each violation of uncertified euthanasia.

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So did the Animal Control Officers do their job in that case? That’s what we asked State Veterinarian Dr. Charles Broaddus.

“In this case, they did not,” responded Dr. Broaddus, “And that’s why we assessed a civil penalty on Russell County. They did not seek adequate veterinary care for those animals in the time period that they should have.”

He says that while the state shelter inspector can investigate a shelter that’s breaking the law, his office has no power to enforce the law. Broaddus insists it’s up to police and prosecutors to bring animal abusers to justice.

Adds Dr. Broaddus, “I think the locality really has to be the one to make sure they have good animal control officers that are doing the right job for the citizens of the people in that county. I think they have to hold them accountable for that and I think most of us expect that they would do so.”

But critics contend that’s just not happening. Dozens of shelters have faced civil penalties since 2010.

“I think the locality really has to be the one to make sure they have good animal control officers that are doing the right job for the citizens of the people in that county.”

“These are fines for crimes, crimes that you and I would be charged with and probably convicted of,” explains animal advocate Eileen McAfee. She has been investigating shelter abuse for nearly two decades. McAfee argues there is a double standard of justice when it comes to taxpayer-funded shelters.

“If you’re a government employee in our shelters, you’re treated differently, insists McAfee, “You’re given a pass. You’re not held accountable for the cruelty you’re committing and on top of that, you don’t even have to pay the fine, your locality will pay the fine for you.”

We asked the State Veterinarian if there might a change within his agency that could make the system more fail safe.

“It’s a tough question,” Dr. Broaddus replied, “We do the very best we can with what we have, the funding that we receive and the positions we have to do that.”

That’s not enough says the woman who sparked the Russell County investigation.

“I’m going to keep telling the truth,” insists Becki Wilson, “I can lay down at night knowing I told the truth. I’m sorry I have nightmares, but I am going to continue until something changes to be able to speak out for these animals, that they no longer have to be abused.”

Over the past two decades, dozens of shelters have been fined for critical violations, but only a few animal control officers have ever faced criminal charges.

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