Questions about cruelty to animals and misconduct at the Franklin County Dog Shelter and Adoption Center have prompted a formal investigation into the actions of some at the shelter, including the shelter's director and veterinarian. The investigation was announced at a meeting of the Franklin County commissioners this morning, but began prior to the meeting, where two opponents of shelter practices called for an investigation.
Reports of animal abuse and misconduct at the Franklin County Dog Shelter and Adoption Center have led to a formal investigation into complaints that the shelter veterinarian has unnecessarily killed shelter dogs.
Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown announced the investigation yesterday after a dozen people attended the commissioners’ meeting to express concern with shelter practices. The investigation began in mid-March.
“Because the comments shared here today potentially involve issues of personnel, I will not go further in my comments than to say that the county administration and the commissioners’ department of human resources are conducting a formal investigation,” Brown said.
The complaints, from multiple shelter employees, allege that Dr. Vincent Morton, the shelter veterinarian, provoked dogs to aggression to mark them for euthanasia. The employees say he has mishandled animals from when he started at the shelter in 2012 until late last year.
One complaint submitted in August 2013 says Morton would “purposefully be rough with them almost like he was trying to get them to growl or bite.”
Another complaint says Morton made fun of one employee for being gay and another for being Mexican. “Dr. Morton is very rough on the dogs and is rude to the employees and belittles them,” the complaint states.
Reached at the shelter, Morton said he would call a reporter back yesterday. Shelter director Joe Rock, whose management of the shelter also is under investigation, referred questions to the commissioners.
“I hope they do an investigation,” Rock said. “Everything will be clear about what’s been going on and what is going on.”
The investigation comes after restaurateur Elizabeth Lessner, founder of the Columbus Food League and a pit-bull rescue advocate; Susan Geier, a volunteer at the shelter from 2008 until last year; and others began requesting public records, including complaints that volunteers and shelter staff members made against Morton.
“While the outside of our brand-new shelter is beautiful, some of the ugly practices inside are detracting from the shelter’s mission,” Lessner told commissioners at their meeting yesterday.
The shelter was completed in 2011 at a cost of $18 million. The shelter’s budget for this year is $2.9 million, with 38 employees.
Besides raising alarm over shelter conduct, Lessner said she wants to see the county establish clear policies that govern when a dog should be euthanized or sent to the adoption floor.
“Because we know that the veterinarian is intimidating the dogs, doing weird stuff to them, we don’t know what the criteria are for dogs to pass the behavior test,” Lessner told The Dispatch.
The shelter euthanized fewer dogs in 2013 than in 2012: The number dropped from 4,739 to 4,080, county spokeswoman Hanna Greer said.
In an email, the shelter’s assistant director, Deborah Finelli, explained how the shelter evaluates dogs: “To be selected for adoption, all dogs 6 months and older must pass a behavior assessment, which evaluates the dog’s ability to be safely handled, reaction to people and other dogs and any situations that might provoke aggressive behavior,” she wrote.
“No dog that is perceived to be a threat to the safety of other dogs or humans will be permitted to be sent to rescue and/or foster, or placed on the adoption floor.”
The shelter is no stranger to controversy.
In 2008, the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine warned county commissioners that the shelter was passing off sick and vicious dogs for adoption.
Overcrowding, mismanagement and disease “crippled” the shelter then, leading to an investigation and the eventual removal of its director and assistant director. That’s when Rock became assistant director of the shelter.
Will Drabold is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau.