A senior executive at the Halifax Humane Society favored certain breeds of dogs over pit bulls, resulting in aggressive dogs making it to the adoption floor while pit bulls without behavioral issues were more likely to be euthanized, according to former staffers, volunteers, and others with knowledge of shelter operations.
More than a dozen individuals say Christina Sutherin, the shelter's current chief operating officer, was responsible for essentially disassembling the dog behavior team which resulted in additional responsibilities for an already stressed and overworked staff and led to low morale, high turnover, and mental health problems.
Some ex-staffers said if management found out someone had voiced concerns about the goings-on at the shelter, they would be terminated, or told to leave sooner if they'd already put in notice.
Ex-employees and volunteers also say Sutherin used a change in the shelter's insurance policy to remove pit bulls from the adoption floor.
Adam Leath, who joined as chief executive officer in May, said while he can't comment on what happened at the shelter before his arrival, the shelter has no bias against a particular breed and that few dogs have been euthanized since he started.
Sutherin did not respond to the News-Journal's requests for comment.
Vershurn Ford, the shelter's chief outreach and development officer, said via email that it's "not customary for HHS to essentially engage in a counterargument to what appears to be a departure marked by dissatisfaction."
"Furthermore, considering our organization's longstanding presence since the 1930s, our core mission has consistently revolved and remains around advancing the welfare and facilitating adoptions of ALL animals placed in our care," Ford's email read. "Ms. Sutherin aligns her endeavors with this very commitment."
A 'ticking time bomb'
Former employees and volunteers said it didn't take long before it became clear that Sutherin felt differently toward pit bulls.
Liz Graffagnino, one of the shelter's behaviorists at the time, said Sutherin held a meeting with the behavior team shortly after joining Halifax Humane Society last summer and told the team she did not agree with how they made decisions about which dogs go to the adoption floor.
"She said that we had created a ticking time bomb," said Graffagnino, who worked at the shelter for more than a year before putting in her notice last November.
Former staff and volunteers said Sutherin moved more than two dozen dogs, mostly pit bulls, off of the adoption floor despite the behavior team's recommendations that they were ready for adoption.
Graffagnino said anyone following scientific or academic protocols would not have deemed those dogs a threat.
"That was a little bit off-putting, to be honest, because we had all successfully done this for some time," she said.
A pit bull isn't a recognized breed but a broad description of a type of dog. Mixed-breed dogs labeled as pit bulls generally have bulky or muscular bodies and blocky heads. Over the past few decades, they have acquired a bad reputation.
They have a history of being abused for use in dog fighting rings, some of which were broken up in Daytona Beach in recent months, and are known for being strong and determined. They're also known for being affectionate and having a strong desire to please their owners.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in a statement to the News-Journal said all dogs are individuals and should be treated as such and "judged by their actions and not by their DNA or their physical appearance."
Dogs returned for aggressive behavior
Graffagnino said Sutherin told them it didn’t look good for the shelter to have mostly pit bulls. Graffagnino said she replied it's not a choice they get to make.
Former staffers said Sutherin on at least a few occasions went against recommendations of the behavior team if it was a dog she liked, only to see the dogs returned for problems with aggressive behavior.
One example they cited was Caynon, a Dutch Shepherd who was surrendered due to aggression and allowed to stay on the adoption floor.
"We were upset about that because so many dogs were sent backward," said Savanna Palmer, who worked at the shelter for nearly a decade.
Former staff and volunteers said Sutherin at one point brought in a personal friend who worked in animal behavior to work on changing the behavior team to the COO's liking.
They said that friend, Christel Fleming, took a trip to the emergency room after suffering a bite from a dog that Fleming had been advised to not take out without help from another employee.
After that, the team was told they would no longer have weekly meetings with Sutherin about their recommendations; that was now Fleming’s responsibility.
The behaviorists also were told they were now "animal care and enrichment specialists" who would no longer have any input on behavioral euthanasias.
Former staffers also said the shelter began following dog-evaluation guidelines distributed by Fleming that were backed by no peer-reviewed data or best practices.
Fleming responded to some questions from the News-Journal via email.
"Some of your questions will not be answered as I fear you have been given inaccurate information and I will not add fuel to this fire," she wrote. "I will not engage in he said, she said as the focus should always be on animal care quality."
She wrote that she was never given any authority to make euthanasia decisions and was not involved in any.
Fleming wrote that she was brought in to run the Prison Pups N Pals program, "which effectively gave the behavior team more time to focus on the more than 40 dogs assigned to them."
Fleming said she assisted with teaching staff and volunteers "canine body language, defensive handling and enrichment courses," allowing everyone "to be safer when handling dogs, notice body language cues and respond appropriately and bring consistency with behavior modification."
"This did not lead to the 'dissolving of the behavior team' but rather the expansion of it," Fleming said.
She added: "It is so disappointing that others are putting more effort into slander than they are to improving animal welfare."
Insurance rider leads to public outcry
Last October, the shelter's insurer stopped covering acts caused by "aggressive dogs." When the policy rider came out, staff were told dozens of dogs would be euthanized.
The shelter qualifies as a no-kill facility based on its live release rate of 90% or above, which it has maintained since January 2020, according to its website. Euthanasia was performed 424 times in 2020, but reserved for were terminally ill, injured beyond saving, or "judged to be behaviorally unstable and thus, unadoptable without placing people and other animals in harm’s way."
Graffagnino contacted Nancy Lohman, one of the nonprofit's at-large board members, and an emergency board meeting was held Nov. 4.
As a result, shelter leaders, including Sutherin, placed a hold on nearly 50 dogs, mostly pit bulls, and volunteers were no longer allowed to take them outside, according to former staffers, volunteers and others with knowledge of shelter operations.
"Now they all of a sudden are too dangerous to be put out for adoption or for volunteers to walk, but yet we're supposed to walk them with no training whatsoever on how to handle a supposedly dangerous-deemed dog," said Nicole Martinelli, who worked in animal care.
Martinelli said she was fired on April 7, exactly one year after she was hired.
The opinion of those who'd worked on the behavior team was that only about one-fifth of the dogs that were placed on hold because of the insurance rider were unadoptable.
In a meeting on Nov. 23 with volunteers and others who were involved in the shelter's work, Pam Clayton, then chief executive officer at the shelter, said the insurance company would not make any language changes to the rider, which would not allow them "to look at the circumstances" around a bite.
She also said everyone involved with the shelter, including board members, was upset about the policy, and no one was looking for a reason to kill any of the dogs.
What is an aggressive dog?
When the "aggressive dog exclusion" rider was added to the shelter’s insurance policy last October, management said it would mean the euthanasia of dogs with a history of biting or a known propensity for aggressive behavior.
After public outcry over the insurance rider, some of the dogs that'd had holds placed on them were adopted and others were taken in by local rescue organizations.
Ten of the dogs that had previously been recommended by the behavior team as ready for adoption were euthanized after the insurance exclusion went into effect, and at least a few of them did not have any bite histories or known aggressive behavior, according to interviews and documents provided to The News-Journal.
Melvin D. Stack, president of the shelter's board of directors, said in a phone interview said that he doesn't have knowledge of dogs that didn't have bite histories or known aggressive behavior being euthanized because of the rider.
The rider said, in essence, that the insurance company would not be liable for any bodily injury or property damage that was tied to an "aggressive" dog at the shelter.
"Aggressive dog" was defined as a dog that has inflicted a "severe injury" on a human being or animal, among other definitions. The rider defined "severe injury" as "any physical injury that results in death, bleeding, muscle tears or disfiguring lacerations or requires multiple sutures or corrective or cosmetic surgery."
Former staff were told a policy without such a rider could be three times more expensive.
"It's not just the cost and the insurance, but we have a responsibility to the community itself," Stack said. "We don't want to adopt out an animal that might be dangerous."
Stack said the euthanasia decisions are made by a group, and if someone did hold a bias toward pit bulls, it should be offset by the others involved.
Concerns raised, B-CU professor ignored
During the Nov. 23 meeting, animal behavior specialist Jessica Owens pointed out that, since the behavior team was basically incapacitated, dogs weren't being evaluated in a consistent manner or according to peer-reviewed science, and people with no expertise in animal behavior were being expected to make observations that could contribute to whether a dog lived or died.
Graffagnino and Owens, to whom Halifax Humane Society would refer some behavior cases, put together their own thoroughly researched proposal on how the shelter could best assess behavior and make objectively informed euthanasia and policy decisions.
Owens, who has three decades of experience working in psychology research and whose work has been shared during multiple conferences and in peer-reviewed publications, said management essentially ignored the proposal.
On Dec. 7, a couple of dozen people, several of whom volunteered at Halifax Humane Society, showed up at the Ocean Center to protest the euthanasias at the nonprofit’s annual FurBall Gala.
Some former staffers shared their concerns with board members but said they were largely dismissed or ignored.
Concerns raised by Elizabeth Congdon, an assistant professor of biology at Bethune-Cookman University, also were not well received.
Congdon had a memorandum of understanding with the Halifax Humane Society wherein her students, with their professor or Owens present, were able to work with dogs at the shelter to study animal enrichment, such as how playing with multi-sensory toys affects a dog's behavior.
The professor said she relied on the recommendations of the behavior team regarding which dogs the students could work with, and when the behavior team was no longer in place, she and Owens shared their concerns with Stack, who shared the letter with then-CEO Clayton.
Congdon said Clayton canceled the MOU without much explanation shortly thereafter.
Clayton did not respond to questions from the News-Journal.
Multiple former staffers and volunteers described the shelter, prior to Leath joining, as being in survival mode.
"Their rules and regulations pop up on a whim, when it suits them and fits their needs," said Martinelli who added that she could never get a straight response on what exactly her responsibilities were, part of which she attributed to employee turnover.
Since Sutherin joined Halifax Humane Society, more than a dozen employees quit or were fired, according to interviews.
Palmer, a longtime, exemplary employee per performance reviews, was terminated not long after raising concerns with other managers about Sutherin being breed biased and treating employees, herself included, passive-aggressively.
Palmer said management also accused her of changing information about a dog in PetPoint, where employees were expected to maintain updated notes on the dogs with whom they interacted.
In her email to board members, Palmer said she was "never shown paperwork nor verbally told that they had changed policy."
"I was terminated for doing something that prior managers will vouch were my expected responsibilities," Palmer wrote.
Matt Hinman, who was hired last September as an animal care worker, said he watched the workload increase significantly for himself and his coworkers once the behavior team was gone.
Hinman said he and his coworkers told management they weren't trained for or prepared to take on what the behavior team had been responsible for.
"The most we had gotten was webinars and stuff, which would be nice homework, but not three hours in the middle of our workday while dogs are still locked in their kennels because we haven’t been able to finish cleaning," Hinman said.
"I don't really think they cared if we could handle it," said Hinman. "When you take away the people who can provide that sort of care, then it just starts to spiral and the dogs are the ones that suffer."
Hinman, who said he still gets emotional and loses sleep over what he experienced working at the shelter, said he doesn't believe management ever considered the concerns raised by staff.
"They spend the least amount of time with [the dogs] and yet make the biggest decisions" regarding their fates, said Hinman. He said he was fired in March for insubordination after leaving a staff meeting to finish cleaning and tending to the dogs.
Several other former staffers expressed the same sentiments as Hinman regarding the workload, lack of training, management’s lack of familiarity with the dogs, and poor mental health.
Puppies put down
Lindy Knapp joined the shelter last October and put in her notice in May. Knapp, who worked as a vet assistant, echoed the concerns others raised about Sutherin.
She pointed to a group of puppies Sutherin brought down from north Florida around February that had to be euthanized due to canine parvovirus, which has a high mortality rate if not caught early and treated.
"When you don't have enough room for the animals you have, you don't go and get more animals," Knapp said.
Shauna Sewell, who worked in vet services for nearly two years before quitting in March, said having to euthanize sick puppies because of poor decisions by management was a traumatic experience.
"I'll remember that for the rest of my life," Sewell said.
Former staffers said when Sutherin again brought in puppies that wound up being ill, then-head veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Green resigned in March.
On April 1, Daytona Beach police received an anonymous tip about the shelter "neglecting the animals due to a high volume of staff quitting their jobs at once" after Green's resignation.
After a walkthrough of the shelter, the officer said she had concerns about the dirtiness of the adoption kennel area and vet services.
Knapp said her last day was to be June 1; however, after she expressed concerns to human resources and Sutherin about Sutherin failing to follow proper procedures while euthanizing a sick kitten, Knapp said management told her May 17 was her last day.
In response to a list of questions from the News-Journal, Michael R. Leonard, the board's vice president, and Nancy Lohman, the at-large board member, did not directly address the questions but expressed confidence in the shelter's direction.
"What I can say is that I have had the pleasure and privilege to serve on the board for nearly 20 years, and I can honestly say that I have never felt more positive about where we are as an organization and what our future holds," Leonard said via email Tuesday, Aug. 29.
Lohman said she was delighted to have Leath at the shelter's helm as CEO.
"With his breadth of experience, expertise, dedication to animal welfare and passion for both pets and people, we are fortunate to have him lead the Halifax Humane Society," Lohman said via email.
New CEO takes over
Leath said since joining the shelter, few euthanasias have occurred, and an aggressive dog coming in doesn't have an automatic death sentence because of the insurance rider.
He also said he has not seen staff exhibit breed bias, but if he did, it would be an issue.
"[Breed] means nothing to whether or not that pet will do well in a private home," Leath said.
He also said euthanasia is not happening to the extent that some in the community believe.
"We can't arrive at any decision quickly here, because we're dealing with animal lives," Leath said.
Upon his arrival, Leath said he took note of the shelter's infrastructure challenges — the building was constructed in the 60s — and spent the first three weeks meeting one-on-one with every employee.
Leath said an architect with Bacon Group Inc. is working on a redesign of parts of the shelter so that it can better function.
About a month into his tenure, the shelter had to temporarily suspend services due to an outbreak of canine pneumovirus. This also led to the shelter opening an adoption space in the Volusia Mall, which Leath hopes is a permanent fixture.
He also said he's been working to fill positions and focus resources and programming to benefit the animals in their care and resources that help keep pets in their homes, such as pet services that are more affordable and accessible.
Leath hopes the new Lee C. & Patricia Culler Center for Pet Resources will help address the latter of those efforts.
On Aug. 14, the boarding and grooming center became the Center for Pet Resources where pet owners will be able to get vaccines, microchips, and other health services for their pets.
"[Animals] deserve us to be intentional and to be purposeful around understanding what their individual needs are," Leath said. "Cramming more into a building does not mean that you're providing better welfare, and it doesn't mean that you're able to find more positive outcomes, which is why we'd be better off investing in resources in the community."
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Pit bull bias at Daytona shelter alleged by past staffers