Dying kittens and dirty cages: Workers allege mistreatment at Franklin County Animal Rescue

A cat was up for adoption at the Franklin County Animal Rescue on Sept. 16. More than a dozen current and former staff and volunteers described mismanagement and a penny-pinching mentality they say has repeatedly put at risk the health of cats and dogs at the St. Albans facility. Photo […]

A cat was up for adoption at the Franklin County Animal Rescue on Sept. 16. More than a dozen current and former staff and volunteers described mismanagement and a penny-pinching mentality they say has repeatedly put at risk the health of cats and dogs at the St. Albans facility. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

ST. ALBANS — Brittany Kilburn knew something was wrong with the kitten the moment she saw her.

Holly, a kitten, is shown dying at the Franklin County Animal Rescue in September 2021. Screenshot of video courtesy of Brittany Kilburn

Holly, a 5-week-old tortoiseshell cat, was meowing in distress in a cage at the Franklin County Animal Rescue last September. Kilburn, then the head of animal care for the northwestern Vermont nonprofit, called and messaged the shelter’s manager for help but did not get a response. 

She then contacted Sarah Marak, a local veterinarian, who concluded, based on a video Kilburn sent, that the cat was dying. Marak told Kilburn she could help Holly “pass more peacefully” if the cat was brought to the vet’s office.

Kilburn needed permission from the shelter manager, Rory Merrick, to transport the kitten. Merrick instead instructed Kilburn to let the kitten die at the shelter.

After Kilburn emailed Merrick to let her know Holly had died, Merrick messaged back more than an hour later. 

“You can wrap her in a towel or (a plastic) bag and put her in the freezer,” she wrote in an email. “I’m so sorry.” 

VTDigger spoke to four former employees of the Franklin County Animal Rescue, as well as 11 current or former volunteers, each of whom described mismanagement and a penny-pinching mentality they say has repeatedly put at risk the health and well-being of cats and dogs at the St. Albans facility. 

Contrary to the recommendations of her staff, the shelter’s executive director, Jennifer Dean, denied permission for animals to receive critical care, citing cost concerns, according to at least six of the workers. 

At least eight of the staff and volunteers also described frequently seeing animals’ bowls left without food and water, underfilled litter boxes or cages with urine, feces and vomit splattered around them for extended periods of time.

The allegations have caused months of controversy behind the scenes at the rescue, which bills itself as “the only humane society serving a 692-square-mile area in northwestern Vermont.” 

Staff and volunteers say it’s a case study in why more oversight of shelters is needed.

“When you’re working in the environment of a shelter, animals are going to die. We can’t save them all,” Kilburn said. “But our duty is to try — whether you feel that that animal is going to make it or not.”

The vice chair of the shelter’s board of directors, Eric Ciemniewski, and its treasurer, Sue Carp, denied allegations that the shelter was failing to protect animals, characterizing the concerns of staff members and volunteers as an organized effort to tarnish the rescue operation’s reputation.

The board members said they knew of other shelter staff and volunteers who would dispute the allegations but declined to identify them because, according to Carp, they have signed non-disclosure agreements with the shelter.

Neither Dean nor Merrick agreed to be interviewed.

The Franklin County Animal Rescue in St. Albans. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

‘An agonizing death’

For Lisa Stamatis, who volunteered at the shelter from 2020 to June 2022 and at times worked as many as 50 hours a week, issues at the rescue came to a head this summer with an orange tabby cat named Blue Jay who was less than half a year old. 

The kitten died in July of feline infectious peritonitis — a typically fatal disease caused by certain strains of feline coronavirus. Most cats infected with the virus fight off the infection, but about 10% have a reaction that can develop into feline infectious peritonitis. The disease has no approved cure in the United States.

Stamatis described the situation in a complaint filed earlier this month with Vermont’s Office of Professional Regulation. She stated that Blue Jay’s adopter brought him back to the shelter after growing concerned the kitten had neurological issues. 

During Blue Jay’s stay at the shelter, he was fed expired food and left in a kennel in the dark, at times sitting in his own feces, Stamatis alleged in the complaint. In her observation, the cat’s condition deteriorated during his time back at the rescue.

After declining to take the cat to two veterinarians whose price quotes she deemed too expensive, Dean agreed to let Stamatis pay out of her own pocket to take Blue Jay to another vet with “an interest in neurological issues,” Stamatis wrote in the complaint. 

That vet prescribed medication for Blue Jay, but Dean never administered it, claiming she wanted to save it for other animals, Stamatis alleged.

Stamatis’ greatest concern, however, was that Dean allegedly told her to tell Blue Jay’s adopter that exams hadn’t unearthed neurological issues — though no such exams were administered — and that the cat was merely “special.” 

Blue Jay’s initial adopter went on to give him up and Stamatis adopted the cat herself. About a week later, Blue Jay died after being rushed to a veterinary hospital. 

“Dean’s negligence and actions caused Blue Jay a prolonged life of pain and misery,” Stamatis wrote in the complaint. “If she focused on animal wellbeing instead of cost (and) negative publicity, (feline infectious peritonitis) would have been diagnosed earlier and Blue Jay humanely euthanized before he died an agonizing death.”

Carp, the board’s treasurer, was aware of the situation with Blue Jay but disputed Stamatis’ characterization, saying that she did not believe that Dean had acted improperly. Neither she nor Ciemniewski, her fellow board member, were aware that a complaint had been filed with the state, they said. 

Lauren Hibbert, director of the Office of Professional Regulation, said she could not comment on Stamatis’ complaint or even confirm whether it had been filed. In general, Hibbert said, she’d only be able to comment on a case if investigators decided to prosecute it.

Stamatis provided a copy of her complaint to VTDigger and an email from the state office confirming it had been filed. 

Including Blue Jay, at least five kittens that passed through the shelter have died from feline infectious peritonitis, according to Kilburn. She and at least five other staff or volunteers said the shelter has not readily disclosed information to adopters about the presence of the virus among cats.

Emily Bellmore, who began fostering a kitten named Pepita from the shelter in July, said she later found out the cat had feline infectious peritonitis after taking it to a vet. She said she has sought more information on the disease from the shelter to little avail. 

“I just felt not supported,” Bellmore said. “It’s a little animal that needs help, and they’re just not really helping.” 

Ciemniewski, the board’s vice chair, said the shelter is not greatly concerned about feline infectious peritonitis right now because the disease is rare and not very contagious. He said in a Sept. 16 interview staff had started handing out fliers about the disease to new adopters about a month prior.

Carp said “there may be a rare occasion” when animals brought into the shelter are not seen by a vet before getting adopted out. But in general, she said, “the animals that are coming in here need care, and we provide that care.”

Stamatis’ complaint centers on the allegation that Dean has diagnosed health issues with animals and prescribed them medication without a veterinary license — something at least three other former employees or volunteers also said that they witnessed. 

Stamatis alleged she was at times directed by Dean to drive to foster families’ homes to deliver one of three medications “stockpiled” at the shelter for sick cats, but at no point prior to her delivering those medications were the animals assessed in person by a vet. 

Linda Waite-Simpson, executive director of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association, said she helped Stamatis draft the complaint. She said her knowledge of the situation was secondary, but what she’s heard is concerning.

“Veterinarians go to school for a long time … and other folks just shouldn’t be trying to do that work without the proper training,” Waite-Simpson, a former state representative, said in an interview. “It’s just dangerous.” 

Pressed about the assertions that Dean has acted as a veterinarian, Carp said she did not agree with how past incidents had been characterized. Ciemniewski said that, to his knowledge, Dean had not diagnosed animals or chosen treatment for them on her own without consulting a vet.

“I wouldn’t believe she would go there. She knows she’s not a vet,” he said. 

‘Just filthy’

Particularly in parts of the shelter inaccessible to the public, at least eight staff and volunteers described seeing what one called “disgustingly filthy” conditions for animals. 

Kilburn and at least seven others described seeing feces, urine and vomit spread across cages; water bowls tipped over; or litter boxes for cats that were inadequately filled.

“The kennels aren’t kept as clean as they should be. The litter boxes aren’t changed like they should be. They’re messy,” said Linda Jacobs, who has volunteered at the shelter for more than two decades. “Bowls aren’t being kept filled with water and dry food.”

Jeff Ohler, another former volunteer at the shelter, described seeing empty water bowls “over and over again,” estimating animals could go without water for at least 12 hours. 

“I have seen cats that were sick with diarrhea that were just filthy,” Ohler said. “It’s hard when you’re in a small space with an animal that’s sick like that. But it’s just not good conditions.”

One person who accepts foster kittens from the Franklin County Animal Rescue said they decided to foster a litter recently because they were being kept in “filth” the shelter. The person asked VTDigger not to publish their name because they feared shelter management would stop allowing them to take in and care for cats.

“There was a lot of feces in the cage that they were stepping in,” the person said. “It was in their food as well, and the water dish.” 

According to slides of a board presentation provided to VTDigger, the shelter housed an average of about 58 animals a month in the first half of 2022.

Conditions were notably pristine when the board members took a reporter on a tour of the shelter on Sept. 16. Within minutes, they pointed to clean cages and full water dishes. In general, the facility — despite some wear and tear — appeared in good condition. 

Directly off the lobby is an intake room, where cats that come in from the public are kept. Through another door is the “catwalk,” where people can see cats that are up for adoption.

Running down another hallway is the “dogwalk,” where dogs are kept — though most of the cages in the room are currently being used for storage that board members said is hard to come by in the shelter’s building.

Kittens are kept in several cages in another room. One room contains a standing white freezer — not unlike what would be in a garage to store food — where animals that die at the shelter are typically placed before being sent to a cremation service.

Ciemniewski said he goes to the shelter once a week, and in his experience, unsanitary or unsafe conditions at the shelter are an exception, not the norm. When a reporter said one former employee had provided photos showing feces, urine and vomit in cages, he chuckled and said, “if the person had time to take a picture of it, they should have taken the time to clean it up, frankly.” 

Several former volunteers said these unsanitary conditions could persist into the afternoon some days because there weren’t enough people on hand to get the cleaning and other animal care work done.

Kilburn, who worked at the shelter from August 2021 to May 2022, and other staff members attributed the lack of staff to recent high turnover at the shelter related to a stressful and unforgiving workplace environment. Kilburn estimated at least 10 volunteers who worked at the shelter alongside her have since left, including some of those who spoke to VTDigger.

“They had golden people helping them out, and reaching to better the place and trying to just help in any way that they could,” she said. “And they were treated like garbage.” 

Carp acknowledged that the shelter has seen turnover in its roster this year, though she attributed it to the influence of a group of “like-minded and socially interacting” people.

She declined to speak specifically about the number of current employees, citing a desire to keep them “anonymous,” but said the shelter currently has a budget for “five or six” part-time employees.

Cats that are up for adoption at the Franklin County Animal Rescue can be viewed in the shelter’s “catwalk.” Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

‘Dangerous propensities’

The animal rescue is also facing allegations of negligence in an ongoing lawsuit filed in May 2021. The case centers around a dog named Remi, a large mixed-breed dog who was adopted from the shelter in late 2020 and who then mauled a 9-year-old girl the following February, leaving her with an injured arm and paralysis in her face.

The lawsuit, filed by the girl’s family against the shelter and the couple that adopted Remi, argues that the shelter failed to fully disclose the dog’s “true dangerous temperament,” resulting in the couple “adopting a dog with dangerous propensities that might bite a child.” 

Attorneys for the girl’s family also contend that the shelter should have euthanized Remi rather than adopt him out and that the shelter is liable for damages, arguing it technically still owned Remi, per the adoption contract.

The girl was a guest in the house where the dog was living at the time. Her family launched an online fundraiser to pay for medical costs following the incident. 

The shelter’s attorneys have argued that the shelter is not liable because it did not retain ownership of Remi after the adoption.

Jorgi LeClair, who worked as an animal care assistant at the shelter at the time of the incident, said shelter management made her work with Remi for basic behavioral training even though she had repeatedly told them she felt unsafe around him. 

In LeClair’s assessment, Remi was nervous around people and showed aggression, at times trying to pull her into his kennel. She and Stamatis said they were concerned the people who adopted Remi weren’t an appropriate match because they had a child of their own.

“I told them that I didn’t think it was a good fit for a family with children because, you know, he was nervous — and nervous dogs tend to bite,” LeClair said. 

An advertisement for Remi posted on the rescue’s Facebook page in 2020 states that the dog “is a very sweet and happy boy,” but is “nervous around small children.”  

LeClair and Stamatis said they believed Dean wanted Remi to be adopted as quickly as possible, alleging that led her to place him in an unsafe household.

William Counos, an attorney representing the girl and her family, declined to comment on the case when reached by VTDigger. 

Carp said she had little knowledge of the lawsuit against the shelter and declined to comment on it.

At least five staff and volunteers said they believe the incident with Remi is part of a broader pattern of the shelter failing to inform staff and members of the public about known or potential issues with its animals.

“Things could have been prevented that weren’t because they’re so desperate to make room in the shelter or get animals adopted out,” said Bobbiejo Benoit, who left her part-time job as the shelter’s volunteer coordinator in May. “That’s not safe for the public nor the animals.”

Kilburn said she and other staff members tried to discuss many of their concerns about workplace culture at a meeting with the shelter’s board of directors in March but were quickly “shut down.” She left the meeting with the sense that Betsy Liley, the board chair, was not interested in taking any action in response to her and her colleagues’ concerns, Kilburn said. Liley did not respond to multiple interview requests. 

Ciemniewski attended the meeting remotely and said he wasn’t able to follow the discussion well enough to remember it. Carp has only been on the Franklin County Animal Rescue’s board for about a month, she said.

Ohler said the lack of action after that meeting was a large part of what led him to quit. 

“Absolutely nothing happened,” he said. “In fact, it got worse.”

A cat that is up for adoption rests in its cage at the Franklin County Animal Rescue on Sept. 16. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

‘Where is the communication?’

Kilburn, a stay-at-home mom who has managed horse farms in the past, said she first got involved at the shelter as a volunteer with her kids for something to do during the pandemic. In August 2021, she was asked to take on the paid animal care role.

Within a month of becoming a staff member, Kilburn said she began to notice issues with workplace culture and grew concerned about the treatment of animals. 

She and other staff members often struggled to get responses from Dean or Merrick when those two weren’t at the shelter, Kilburn said, even in cases when an animal’s well-being was at stake. 

Dean works a full-time job on top of her part-time job at the shelter, Carp said, but the board doesn’t consider that a problem.

Merrick is no longer the shelter manager but still works there part-time, according to Carp and Ciemniewski.

Kilburn pointed to a situation with a dog named Jane, who she said came to the shelter in May, bleeding from her vulva, and urinating and drinking water excessively. 

A local veterinarian determined that the dog needed immediate medical attention in a clinic. Kilburn tried repeatedly to get in touch with Dean but did not get a response during her workday. She said that hours passed before Dean called on Stamatis to take Jane to an animal hospital late at night for surgery. 

The following morning, Liley — the board chair — emailed Dean and Kilburn saying that Kilburn had not communicated Jane’s need to be taken to a vet in a timely manner, screenshots provided to VTDigger show. The situation led Kilburn, who had already given notice that she was resigning, to leave her job effective that day.

“Where is the communication?” Kilburn wrote in an email to Dean and Liley the day of the vet’s visit. “This takes a village not just one person. I cannot continue to do my job properly without the appropriate information.” 

A key issue, Kilburn and many of the employees and volunteers said, is that Dean limited what other people could do at the shelter without her permission — such as taking animals to the vet — preventing them from making critical decisions. 

Those workers also alleged that Dean withheld information they felt was vital to doing their jobs, such as access to parts of the building or to the shelter’s software for keeping track of animals and adoptions. 

The lawn outside the Franklin County Animal Rescue in St. Albans. Photo by Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

Money troubles?

Stamatis said Dean repeatedly told her medical intervention was not allowed for animals because the costs were more than what the shelter could afford. Several other staff and volunteers, including Ohler, corroborated that they had heard this from Dean.

“We’d say things like, this cat has a problem, you need to get it to the vet, or, this cat definitely has mouth issues and we really need to get them in for dental,” Ohler said. “And we would get, ‘well that’s not really in the budget right now.’”

He added: “My first thought when I heard that was, ‘then why the hell are you a shelter?’ This is your first priority, is to take care of the animals.” 

The shelter is no stranger to financial challenges, and was shuttered for the better part of 2017 to avoid filing for bankruptcy, Seven Days reported at the time. The board gave a week’s notice to its employees before shutting the facility down, a decision that “rattled the community,” according to the newspaper.

Tensions came to a head at a public meeting hosted by the shelter at a hotel in April 2017, Seven Days reported. Many community members complained about a lack of transparency; some alleged fraud and misconduct, which board members denied.

The shelter reopened in October 2017, the Saint Albans Messenger reported at the time. The following summer, a story in the newspaper declared the rescue to be “thriving.”

Jacobs, the decades-long volunteer, said she observed that workplace culture at the shelter “started getting bad” once Dean first became executive director in the fall of 2019. 

The board members interviewed this month by VTDigger said the shelter spent about twice as much money on medical costs in the 2022 fiscal year as it had budgeted — roughly $41,000 versus $21,000, according to board slides shared with VTDigger. They pointed to that as evidence that it was willing to spend what was needed. 

That also came as the shelter brought in more money in the previous fiscal year than it was anticipating, the slides show. The shelter budgeted for about $186,400, but brought in more than $267,000. 

Carp said that about 60% of the shelter’s revenue comes from contributions, while about 40% comes from adoption fees for animals. 

In the 2021 calendar year, she said, the shelter recorded 17 cats dying. She said in that same time, and continuing through 2022 so far, the shelter has had an average rate of rehoming animals it takes in — known as its “live release rate” — of more than 95%.

“You don’t have the metrics and the kind of performance of live release that we have if you’re ignoring animals — if they are living in squalor, not being fed, not being watered, being mistreated by a fake veterinarian,” Ciemniewski said. “That doesn’t happen.” 

‘A social problem’

Waite-Simpson, the head of the veterinary association, said she advised Stamatis to file a professional complaint against Dean personally, because a complaint about the shelter as a whole was likely to go nowhere under Vermont’s current laws. 

“The state does not have the authority to shut that facility down,” she said. “They just don’t.”

Stamatis and Kilburn said they believe that their experiences working and volunteering at the Franklin County Animal Rescue, and those of others, show a need for better regulation of animal shelters in Vermont. 

The state currently has no system in place for regulating these facilities, according to Jessica Danyow, executive director of Homeward Bound, a humane society in Middlebury. She’s one of a contingent of people who have advocated for greater oversight of such facilities in recent years. 

State law grants authority to investigate animal welfare complaints to state-designated “humane officers,” said Kristin Haas, Vermont’s state veterinarian. Those can be law enforcement officers such as sheriffs and their deputies, or humane society employees and animal control officers who receive a certain amount of training. 

In August, state officials said game wardens would take the lead on animal cruelty investigations, following the release of Gov. Phil Scott’s public safety plan aimed at realigning Vermont’s resources amid a thinning of police forces.

Kilburn and Stamatis contacted the St. Albans Police Department late last month to report concerns over the spread of feline infectious peritonitis at the Franklin County Animal Rescue, as well as “concerns of animal neglect and abuse,” according to a police report that Carp provided to VTDigger. 

An officer wrote in the report that he visited the shelter and was shown all of the cats in the building, where he saw that they had water and food. 

“Their cages seemed clean and all had litter boxes in them,” the officer wrote. “I did not find any proof of wrongdoing or abuse/neglect happening.”

The question of shelter oversight has been studied by state officials, and studied again, for years — a frustration for animal welfare advocates, Waite-Simpson said. The most recent such study, commissioned by the Legislature and due out next January, examines the feasibility of a new state body dedicated to overseeing shelters. 

Danyow described the current regulatory framework as a “patchwork.” Since the people investigating complaints of wrongdoing aren’t always the ones most familiar with animal welfare, Waite-Simpson added, complainants may lose confidence that their allegations are being taken seriously. 

“It’s different in every county and town practically,” Danyow said. “There’s really a strong need for the state to acknowledge that it’s a social problem that needs resources.” 

Waite-Simpson said she supports increasing oversight of shelters but isn’t certain that a dedicated state body would have enough work to do, given that in her experience nearly every shelter is doing right by the animals it keeps. 

The Franklin County board members were not keen on the idea of greater oversight of shelters. Ciemniewski said he couldn’t see what a new state authority would be able to do better than those at the shelter on a regular basis themselves.

“The heckler in the Muppets hall talking down at us doesn’t help,” he said, referring to the Legislature. 

Still, former staff and volunteers at the shelter see a need for more sets of eyes. 

“The whole thing has been so heart-wrenching,” Kilburn said. “It causes so much anger inside of me — the fact that nobody’s doing anything about this.”

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Tags: animal cruelty, animal neglect, animal shelters, animal welfare, animals, Brittany Kilburn, Eric Ciemniewski, Franklin County Animal Rescue, Jennifer Dean, Lisa Stamatis, pets, Rory Merrick, Sarah Marak, St. Albans, Sue Carp

Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.