MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Calling allegations in the case "completely ludicrous," Berkeley County's sheriff said there's been progress to improve conditions at a county animal shelter that is coming under scrutiny after an animal welfare group filed a court action centered on the treatment of cats and dogs there.
The animal welfare group, Bethesda-based Alley Cat Allies Inc., alleges in a Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia case that various animals at Berkeley County Animal Control at 700 S. Queen St. went days without necessary medical treatment. And the group alleges the actions are a pattern at the facility.
The nonprofit organization filed a petition for a writ of mandamus against Berkeley County Animal Control on Nov. 24. The petition seeks to compel the animal control group to comply with state law which states it's a crime to withhold necessary medical care to an animal, according to the filing.
The filing by Alley Cat Allies details a dog at Berkeley Animal Control with a bulging, enlarged eye; a cat with a "grossly thickened" tongue and fever; a dog bleeding from a ruptured hernia and another dog with a broken leg.
Berkeley County Sheriff Nathan Harmon said he has been closely involved in overseeing operations at the shelter and said improvements have been made in processes and conditions at the facility. Berkeley County Animal Control is a division of the sheriff's office.
Harmon said this week that allegations in the Alley Cat Allies case about the periods of time that animals went without care are "significantly embellished" and "completely ludicrous." Harmon, who said he and county officials reviewed each animal situation highlighted by the group, said he's starting to suspect that the organization's actions are part of some effort to gain increased donations.
"I'm beside myself in that these folks have not contacted me" about their complaints, Harmon said.
In an emailed response Friday to Harmon's comment, the president and founder of Alley Cat Allies remained steadfast in her group's allegations.
“Our investigation has uncovered undeniable evidence of animal cruelty inside the Berkeley County Animal Control shelter, which is why we are seeking the writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. Berkeley County Animal Control’s failure to follow the law is causing extreme animal abuse and suffering. This is a case of the animal rescuer becoming the abuser," Alley Cat Allies president Becky Robinson said in the statement.
What is Alley Cat Allies?
Alley Cat Allies works to improve the lives of cats through innovative programs, according to its website. Among its efforts is establishing low-cost spay and neuter programs in communities.
The group said in its filing it owns land in Berkeley and Jefferson counties and is a West Virginia taxpayer. The group recently purchased 17 acres in eastern Berkeley County so it can further its work, Robinson said in an online video interview earlier this week.
The dog with a bulging eye was a miniature pinscher. It had glaucoma, ocular inflammation and a corneal ulcer, according to the petition. It was in the shelter for eight days without necessary treatment before it was adopted Sept. 2, the petition states.
The dog was taken to Veterinary Referral Associates in Bethesda, Md. Records from the veterinary service are included in the petition. The paperwork said the dog, which appeared to be in pain, had a "superficial corneal defect" and a wound that might have occurred in an attack by another dog.
The dog's eyes were flushed and the animal was put on various medications. A diagnosis of the animal showed "non visual" complications in both eyes, a "severe ocular disturbance" in the right eye, bronchitis and a possible collapsing trachea, according to the veterinary report.
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The cat with the enlarged tongue had pharyngeal swelling, fever and diarrhea, the petition said. The animal was unable to drink, was vomiting and was at the shelter for 10 days without necessary medical treatment, according to the petition.
The cat, which was also thin and had fleas, was taken to CARE Veterinary Center in Frederick, Md. There, the animal was reported to have a fever of 104.2 degrees and a "diffusely thickened tongue." Because of the cat's condition, staff recommended it be euthanized, which was agreed to by parties involved.
The petition said the dog with the hernia was bleeding so badly in the county shelter that it had to be removed from holding areas numerous times a day so they could be cleaned. The dog was there for about 15 days without treatment, the petition states.
The dog with a broken leg was there for multiple days without treatment and some cats in the shelter had closed eyes covered with sticky, pus-like discharge, according to the petition.
Harmon said he didn't know if the animal's conditions existed before they came to the shelter.
Robinson said her organization looked into conditions at the shelter through an undercover investigation. Robinson said she believes the dog with the hernia was euthanized. The dog with the broken leg was turned over to a rescue group and four cats with the eye conditions were turned over to Alley Cat Allies so they could be taken to emergency veterinarians, Robinson said.
What is the court case about?
The petition said Berkeley County Animal Control is the county governmental body entrusted with the duty of preventing the perpetuation of animal cruelty. It's a crime to withhold medical treatment from animals needing care, it said.
"These laws apply just as much to Berkeley County Animal Control as to any member of the general public whose violations are investigated by Berkeley County Animal Control, especially since it is the public office created to uphold them," the petition states.
It states the shelter routinely withholds necessary medical treatment from animals "and in doing so, commits a separate act of animal cruelty each time."
Robinson emphasized Wednesday that she believes the shelter's treatment of animals is a pattern.
"This is a culture allowed in that agency," she said.
Alley Cat Allies said its petition is the best remedy for shelter issues.
Alley Cat Allies is requesting oral arguments in the case because it "involves issues of fundamental public importance." It's also asking the court to be awarded costs for attorney fees.
A response to the petition from Berkeley County Animal Control must be filed with the supreme court by Dec. 31, court spokeswoman Jennifer Bundy said Wednesday. Then the court will decide how it wants to proceed, such as whether it will allow oral arguments, she said.
What do county officials say?
Berkeley County Animal Control referred questions about the case to the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff Harmon said past issues at the shelter, including some he voiced concerns about, involve adequate cooling in hot weather months. He said the county installed some air conditioning units there to improve the situation.
Harmon said there are procedures in how animals are processed at the shelter and he doesn't see any problems regarding animal care.
"It's definitely adequate by any standard," said Harmon, adding that staff there are "definitely not veterinarians."
Harmon said he is familiar with the cat with the swollen tongue and said some of the issues identified by Alley Cat Allies have been looked into.
Staff at the shelter perform a number of duties, Harmon said, including taking in stray animals and those running at-large. They also enforce county laws, like nuisance complaints including barking dogs, he said.
Staff can assess animals for medical treatment to determine if they perhaps need to go to an emergency facility, Harmon said. The sheriff said he changed procedures to allow staff to have more flexibility in dealing with such situations quickly.
Veterinarians also come to the shelter on a regular basis to help with procedures, including euthanizing animals, Harmon said.
Harmon said shelter staff are not medically certified, but are trained in "more of a field perspective," such as being able to tell whether an animal's injuries may have resulted from cruelty.
Attorney Anthony Delligatti, who represents the Berkeley County Council, declined to comment on the case.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Mail: Berkeley County animal shelter accused of withholding animal care