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Ex-employees say culture of secrecy, mistreatment still exists at shelter after Guilford Co. takeover

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The feeling of shock and surprise gripped Traci Souza, Megan Watkins and six other long-time employees of the Guilford County Animal Shelter after county human resources told them they were to be let go this week.

“Working with those animals, trying to save them, I mean it was just utter devastation to me,” said Souza, who played a big role in the shelter’s rescue operation.

“It was as if they were just throwing us away,” said Watkins, one of the shelter’s “vet techs.” Both had been working at the shelter full time for four years.

A group of four ex-employees met at Watkins’ home in Greensboro Thursday, their tenure ranging from four years to 13.

The consensus among the group: the culture hasn’t changed since Guilford County took over management of the shelter, after allegations of animal cruelty and criminal charges involving the shelter’s previous operator, United Animal Coalition.

All eight employees fired were part of the United Animal Coalition, but had been cleared by investigators of any wrongdoing. Three employees are still working who were a part of UAC when it operated the shelter.

“I would say it’s the same game, different players. I mean there's still a massive control,” Watkins said. “‘Don't talk to these people, don't do that, don't get on the internet.’”

While all four employees said they were never threatened to be fired for talking about conditions, they mentioned a meeting with county managers, citing county privacy policies for employees.

“We're the people who stand up and say this is not right, this is wrong and we question management and I feel like we're being punished for it,” Souza said.

These allegations were disputed by the shelter’s new manager.

“I think we do a lot to be transparent,” said Animal Services Director Drew Brinkley. “We publish statistics for sheltering activities weekly.”

With the recent firings, only 13 people work at the shelter, which is less than half of what would be considered full staff, according to human resources. The department says there are 29 total positions.

“I feel for those people that are left there too,” Watkins said. “How are they going to medicate all those animals, how are they going to give them the one on one attention that they need?”

Brinkley says volunteers and contracted workers will handle basic care as they recruit new workers. The shelter has a contract with Malachi House in Greensboro.

The county has put up a response to clarify euthanization protocols saying, “the Guilford County Animal Shelter does not, nor has it ever, while under County Management, euthanized animals due to space concerns or limitations. Rather, the euthanization of animals is a difficult decision made by our administrative, veterinary and medical professionals based on many different factors including: health, extreme behavioral issues, and animals that present a danger or have been deemed dangerous to the public.”

Brinkley spoke to the quality of management saying, “One of these members is a veterinarian so she certainly has a strong background in behavior and medicine.”

But Watkins, Souza and other ex-employees disagree the county’s policy matches with reality, saying the administration will often mislabel animals for euthanization, or will fail to humanely put down animals.

“They're either high energy, scared, nervous, you know they don't know why they're here, and those are the first ones that get euthanized because of that red sign,” Souza said.

Watkins and Souza say they spend more time with the animals on a daily basis and believe the shelter running at roughly two-thirds operations capacity plays a role in the culture they’ve observed.

FOX8 reporter Alex Rose asked Watkins, “If you noticed the culture hasn’t changed between the UAC management and the county taking over, why wait until now to come forward?”

“Now that we have no association with the shelter, we can now come forward, but before it was be quiet so we can continue to help these animals,” Watkins answered. “Regardless of anything - go out and adopt. Save those animals, get them out of there!”

FOX8 requested data for animals adopted, euthanized, and dying in the shelter over the past three years to get a better understanding of if the new management is impacting these numbers.

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Ex-employees point to 2015 as a year they saw a lot of disease sweep through the animal population. The data does not suggest new management taking over from summer of 2015 has made an impact, both euthanized animals and adoptions are down.

Depending on the time of year, ex-employees say the shelter’s intake facility sees anywhere between 40 and more than 100 animals come through their doors daily.

The Guilford County Animal Shelter remains one of the largest, if not the largest, animal shelter in the state.

The county has set aside money for an expansion of the shelter. Brinkley or county officials wouldn’t comment on why these eight employees were fired, citing their priority remains with the well-bring of the shelter and the animals it houses.