House of Horrors

Former workers say Summit County is running a torture racket, not an animal shelter.

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When the pound-keeper finally emerged from the Summit County Animal Shelter's "kill room" with a brown, striped pit bull, Sandi Regallis didn't need to see the dog's bloody face to know that it had been fighting. She had already heard the yelps and snarls from behind the metal door.

Still, Regallis, a deputy dog warden, sought confirmation of what her gut said was true: Jim Farrance was at it again. She called for co-workers David Johnson and Deborah Little. All three went to the garage and listened at the kill-room door, she says. Snarls were still audible. Johnson tried the knob, Regallis remembers, but the door was locked from the inside.

They never confronted Farrance or their boss, Glenn James. Regallis says staffers knew that James tolerated the dog-fighting habits of Farrance and another pound-keeper, Steve Fisher, but everyone also knew to keep quiet. "None of us said anything to him," says Regallis. "We were afraid, yes. Well, I know I wanted to keep my job."

Neither Farrance, Johnson, nor Little would comment on the alleged incident, but Regallis, a 12-year employee, says the fighting happened more than once. For reasons she cannot explain, something made Regallis snap a photo of the pit bull's body lying on the kill-room floor. Farrance had apparently euthanized it.

As one of four dog wardens at the shelter, Regallis had the relative luxury of spending most of her days patrolling Summit County -- responding to emergencies, picking up strays. Sometimes she got to be a hero, making police, owners, and lost dogs equally happy. Colleagues say she had a special way with dogs: Recalcitrant, frightened animals would come to her and no one else. It was a good job for an animal enthusiast, especially if she kept the blinders on and didn't get too curious.

But according to former workers, in the years leading up to the day Regallis took her first photo, conditions at the shelter had gone from sketchy to inhumane. Dogs were denied food so they wouldn't produce waste to clean up. Dogs and cats were being euthanized en masse, even when there was plenty of room in the kennel. Some animals were killed even after volunteers had made arrangements to adopt them.

Director Glenn James, head of the shelter for 15 years, was getting meaner, it seemed to Regallis. He had always been a difficult boss. A former shelter administrative worker likens him to a "mean dad," whose mood set the tone for the day. But James's mercurial temper had crossed the line to what Regallis considered cruelty. She decided to start keeping track.

The Cat Ordinance

When the Akron Cat Ordinance was passed in March 2002, work conditions at the shelter grew exponentially worse. The controversial policy allows people with neighborhood cat problems to have traps delivered to their homes. When they catch a free-roaming cat -- or anything else -- animal control arrives to pick it up.

That spring, the shelter was overrun with cats, which were usually quickly killed. But they were coming in faster than could be dealt with.

All animals suffered as a result. Dogs and cats were kept crated in the garage for days at a time. Regallis would see the same animal, day after day, that clearly had received no food or water, much less fresh air or exercise, as required by state law. She knew the animals were basically on Death Row anyway, because the shelter has an abysmal adoption record: About 60 percent of the dogs and 80 percent of the cats that come in are euthanized. Still, she saw no reason for them to suffer first.

Shelter policy dictated that dogs relinquished by their owners be taken to the kill room immediately. Kittens and puppies not yet weaned got the axe, because they are difficult to care for without their mothers to feed them. Any animal with a lot of fleas, diarrhea, runny eyes, or a wild disposition could be killed upon arrival, James decided. Regallis thought it all sad, but she is a pragmatist. She rarely questioned policy.

Yet many involved with the shelter considered James -- who has no formal training beyond a lab-tech course that he took after high school -- unqualified to set these policies or to make veterinary diagnoses. He is a polished and articulate man, with dark hair and a chiseled jaw. It's easy to see why former staffers say they were in awe of him. "He's a great shmoozer!" says Cathy Wood, a one-time shelter volunteer and old high school buddy. (James declined interview requests for this story.)

But Susan Richardson, whose "Kitty" went missing one day in July, is unimpressed. After seeing an animal-control vehicle on her street, Richardson called the Summit County Shelter. There was no answer. Hysterical, she called her daughter, Tammy, who agreed to stop in on her lunch break the next day.

She didn't see her mother's orange cat in the cages. When she asked, she was told a cat resembling Kitty had been euthanized upon arrival -- the day before. The technician said it was a wild tomcat. They had no choice.

But Kitty had been a girl. And though being caught in a trap and then handled with "cat tongs" may have made her act a little wild, she certainly wasn't feral.

It takes time and effort to determine something as nuanced as temperament; discovering a cat's gender is a rather simple matter. "How can they . . . be trusted, when they can't even tell what sex it is?" asks Susan Richardson.

Whistleblower busted

Regallis is far from an animal-rights activist. She describes herself as a woman who liked her job, worked hard, and got stellar job-performance reviews -- until she got on James's bad side. Other county workers back her up. The only staff member with a Humane Society background, her presence lent the place an air of professionalism. The Humane Society of Akron tends to attract the cream of the crop of the local animal-welfare community. So James would "talk her up" all the time, they say. Until he caught her with the camera.

It was over a cat. Regallis pulled into the garage one day to see a small gray cat, clearly miserable, sitting in a pool of urine. It would soon be euthanized, she knew, but in the meantime it was living in what must be cat hell.

"I'm a dog warden," she says, "so I couldn't do anything for it." But Regallis did do something. She got her camera out and took a photograph. She didn't know what to do with the picture; she just felt a familiar pull to take action against what she saw as a perversion of the shelter's mission.

But someone saw her with the camera. She was called into James's office and the icy interrogation began: Who did she plan on showing the photo to? he asked. Had she taken any others?

Regallis didn't think it a good time to bring up the photo of the kill-room dog. She also declined to mention "Fluffy," the ironically named, unofficial shelter mascot. Farrance had kept it housed in the kennel for about two years, she says.

Whenever a warden brought in a dog that seemed particularly game, Regallis knew that if it weren't pitted against Fluffy in a kill-room fight, there was a good chance that it would be "rolled" against another tough dog.

James frightened Regallis that afternoon in his office. He didn't go into one of his legendary screaming rages; he was controlled and deliberate. We are not here to work against each other, he told her. Are you a part of the team or not? She says she tried to placate him, pretending to be contrite.

But James didn't buy it. After that day, he went on a campaign to force her out, she says. She went from being his No. 1 dog warden to blacklisted. "They was out to get Sandi," says Eddie Costin, who spent two years under James before requesting a transfer. "She was good with people and with the animals."

In July, James confronted Regallis with an accumulation of minor policy infractions. He claimed to have seen her driving her shelter vehicle with a passenger riding shotgun. He claimed that she was still eating lunch when she said she was out patrolling. He said she had once used her personal vehicle to answer an emergency call.

Even if these allegations were true -- she disputes all but the last one-- they didn't seem like anything that would merit the termination of a 12-year career. But Regallis was given a choice: Resign, or be fired. She resigned, but she maintains that James set her up in order to force her out.

"Everyone knows you don't cross James," says another former employee.

Like several ex-shelter staff, the former worker would speak only after being guaranteed anonymity. She still works for the county and fears retribution. And she says she still suffers from having worked at the shelter under James. Dealing with the anguish of people who came to look for their lost pets -- while witnessing the same animals piled up in the kill room -- was part of that stress. The other part was due to what she considers James's abusive management style. She is now recovering from a stroke, and she believes that her condition is directly related to her experience at the shelter. There was a general atmosphere of testosterone-driven callousness that grew increasingly cruel, she says.

The Heart Stick

Cathy Wood was never an official shelter worker, but as a high school friend of James's and the owner of a pet-taxi business -- she transports dogs to vet appointments if their owners are working, for example -- she often found herself hanging around the pound.

At first, she would drop by the shelter just to chat or to get lunch with James. Then she heard dogs howling in pain in the kill room. Clearly, they were being killed inhumanely, she believed.

According to Doug Fakkema, a euthanasia-technician trainer for American Humane, an anticruelty organization, the most common method of euthanasia is to sedate the dog or cat first and then give it a shot of sodium pentobarbital in the leg.

But judging from the sounds witnesses heard coming from behind the kill-room door, that was not the usual procedure under James. Ex-shelter workers say they kill animals the old-fashioned way: a lethal injection delivered by a three-foot pole syringe straight into the animal's chest -- without sedation. When the animal "stops twitching," says one former worker, they know it's dead.

"We do it by injection," says Jim Farrance, a heavyset man with a shorn blond head. "Just like the vets do it."

There may be a vet somewhere who euthanizes that way, but most would call the method cruel, says Jed Mignano, an investigator for the Humane Society in Toledo. They would also call it illegal.

Since 1978, the so-called "heart stick" can lawfully be used only after an animal is sedated. Discomfort creeps into Regallis's voice when she speaks of it. They rarely used anesthesia, she says. "It was terrible to hear, but . . . that's how they taught us."

Euthanasia training only became mandatory in Ohio in 1996. When James and Regallis were beginning their careers, they -- like everyone else -- learned their craft from higher-ups. When the certification requirement came about, Regallis and other shelter workers sat through the 16 hours of training. But James considered it a nuisance, says Regallis. Staffers were encouraged to think of the classes as a joke, she says. Particularly the sensitivity-training part.

After hearing what she describes as horrible noises coming from the kill room, Wood got permission to accompany the doomed animals whenever she happened to be around. She knew that as long as she was back there, the pound-keeper would take the time to sedate. "There would be dead and dying dogs lying on the floor . . . I tried to do what I could," she says.

Before James caught Regallis with the camera, Wood says, her old high school friend ignored her paw-holding. But when Wood joined the citizens' group that has since launched its own investigation of the shelter, James banned her from the premises.

Gerald Miedema, the veterinarian in charge of the shelter's drug inventory, believes James to be a lawful, ethical director. It's his understanding that the shelter properly sedates animals before they're killed.

But if Mignano were investigating the shelter, he would raise certain points: If they are killing as many dogs and cats as their logs indicate, where do they get the time to sedate? It takes about 20 minutes for a small animal to go under. Since only one or two staff members are usually on the premises at a time, it would be impossible to euthanize 15 to 40 dogs and cats a day, as well as answer the phones, assist the public, evaluate new animals, clean the kennels, and feed the animals.

Mass Kill

If James allowed Wood to show sympathy for his charges by going into the kill room, he did not provide employees the same latitude. A former staffer says that when he comes to work with a smile, there is a collective sigh -- it will be a tolerable morning. But when he's in a foul mood, the pound-keepers and wardens work in fear. His screaming rages, icy reprimands, and "mass kill" orders are legendary, she says.

The stress even got to the hardened guys. Anthony Moore -- who, according to one co-worker, often declared, "I like killing 'em!" in reference to his euthanasia duties -- had begun holding onto healthy kittens for longer than James allowed.

Felines not immediately destroyed were kept in cages near the reception desk, generally for three days. But sometimes workers didn't want to kill them and hoped they might be adopted if given another day. Without telling James, they got into the habit of holding certain animals for an extra day or two.

Then James found out. On August 20, Steve Fisher was among those who received a formal warning notice from James. It stated that the pound-keeper had violated policy by "failing to euthanize cats when scheduled." Further neglect would result in more severe discipline.

Linda Gilliland, a cat rescuer, says she told James that she planned to adopt and find homes for several of the cats, but that day, James issued a mass-kill order. Every cat, regardless of when it had been brought in, was euthanized. "It's not that [the workers] want to kill like that," said Gilliland. "But they're terrified of [James]."

Three days later, Patricia Shaw, an efficient and soft-spoken woman with a soft spot for kittens, came to the shelter. She wanted to know which cats were scheduled to be euthanized and when, because she intended to help get them adopted. Jim Farrance was working that day. He had no obvious problem with women like Shaw and Gilliland. He knew a bunch of local women had formed an adoption/rescue group called Friends of Pets.

James, on the other hand, couldn't stand the sight of the smiling African American woman. He called Shaw and people like her "humaniacs." For one thing, Shaw had written a letter to the Akron Beacon Journal about the shelter, concentrating on the fact that the city has no spay/neuter program. James is said to have viewed the letter as a personal affront.

Shaw spent Friday and Saturday at the shelter, trying to figure out which cats she could find homes for and which cases were most urgent. Farrance got on the phone with James to verify that, barring adoption, a number of cats were scheduled for death on Monday at close. Shaw said that she would take four mothers and their litters -- a total of about 36 cats. She would pay the reduced "execution day" rate of $10 each. They had an agreement, but Shaw detected something strange in Farrance's voice and manner as he spoke to his boss.

Shaw was on the telephone all weekend, searching for homes for the kittens. Jill Judge, another rescuer who planned to foster a litter, arranged to meet her at the shelter. Judge brought her two young children with her. But when they assembled at 10 a.m. Monday morning, every cage in the cattery was empty.

Jim Farrance stood at the front desk, looking sheepish. Yes, he told her, he had killed all the cats, but not because he wanted to; Glenn James had ordered it. It was the second mass-kill order in six days.

James "did it to teach us a lesson," says Shaw. "He did it to show that he has the power of life and death -- not people like me."

It happened again on October 10. Shaw says she went to the shelter to pick up a litter of kittens she had arranged to adopt. But when she arrived, the kittens had all been killed. As Shaw was returning to her car, Cheryl Haymond, another worker, told her that a new group of kittens had just come in. Would she take those? Shaw said she would.

Then pound-keeper Steve Fisher stormed after her. Shaw told him to stay away from her. Instead, the former boxer drew close and screamed into her face. "Those kittens we were going to give you, -- forget it, they're history!" he yelled. The shelter then killed the newly arrived cats as well.

Unfortunately for Fisher, Shaw recorded the entire incident on tape.

License to kill

J. Jeffrey Holland, an attorney who has devoted his career to animal-welfare issues, says any focus on James is misdirected. What matters is that senseless mass-kill orders, as well as other offenses that allegedly occurred, are in direct violation of state cruelty laws. On the second offense, deliberate animal cruelty is a felony.

But because every shelter in the state is free to operate as it wishes, it's difficult to enforce the laws. Directors operate unilaterally and without supervision. Whether a shelter views itself as a lost and found /adoption service or a euthanasia machine depends largely on management.

The lack of oversight also extends to record-keeping, as witnessed by irregularities in the Summit shelter's euthanasia logs.

Polly Sack, a Cleveland corporate lawyer, ordered box after box of shelter records for more than a year. Activists Dianne Christman-Resch and Patricia Shaw also acquired records. Last month, it occurred to Resch to compare documents the county provided Sack with the records she later received. She discovered that some entries had been changed with white-out and others had been added. Altering records involving a controlled drug is a felony.

Use of sodium pentobarbital is controlled by Ohio Pharmacy Board. It investigates allegations of improper use -- e.g., injections into the heart without anesthesia or unjustified mass killing. The agency is aware of the accusations against the shelter, says executive director Bill Winsley. But with a possible investigation pending, he won't discuss the matter.

Citizens for Humane Animal Practices (CHAP), an Akron community group, presented its allegations to Summit County Executive James McCarthy last month. The group has collected evidence for more than a year. Besides animal cruelty, member have found what appears to be signs of mishandling money.

With the shelter run as a cash-only business, people pay to collect and drop off unwanted animals. But it seems that this money isn't always recorded on the books. On August 2, for example, Patricia Shaw rescued seven cats and kittens, paying the "execution rate" of $10 each. There is no sign of the transaction in shelter records. Also, an examination of the receipt books from January 1 through August 15 of this year shows that about 25 percent of each month's receipt slips are missing, Shaw says.

CHAP forwarded its findings to state Auditor Betty Montgomery, but her office did not respond to interview requests.

McCarthy is annoyed with all the fuss. When first interviewed last week, he characterized the complainants as "disgruntled ex-workers" and activists whose real concern lies in the fact that animals are euthanized at all.

Shelter workers "do a service for the community . . . a service demanded by the community," he said. "No one likes the idea of killing little puppies and kittens and ducks and what have you, but if people got their pets neutered, this wouldn't be an issue."

McCarthy also said that the county has completed an investigation of the cruelty allegations and found them all to be false. If ex-workers really believe that dog-fighting is happening at the shelter, they should take that information straight to the prosecutor's office, he said. His sentiments rested with workers, he said, who, in addition to performing a difficult job, were now being subjected to a harassment campaign.

"Pat Shaw and friends were unsuccessful in fighting the Cat Ordinance, so they've launched this personal attack against my workers," he railed. "I'm mad about it! No one is sympathetic to these government employees. Dogs can be vicious! If they choose to fight, it doesn't mean there was deliberate intent!"

But a day later, McCarthy called back, this time more subdued. After speaking with Scene, he made inquiries and discovered that some of the allegations may have merit, he said. "Apparently there really is a Fluffy down there. A real mean-ass little dog."

Though his office will now investigate the dog-fighting allegations, he maintains that workers are using the heart stick properly.

Even if someone does take action, it's likely to be too late for Sandi Regallis. She doesn't believe that the regime or conditions at the shelter will ever change. And she no longer works with dogs. These days she's applying for delivery and cleaning jobs. "The county doesn't care what happens to me or those animals," she says.

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