In recent weeks, a volatile combination of complaints, accusations and rumor swirling in and around social media and community conversation has raised questions about animal care and management at the Oregon Coast Humane Society (OCHS).
For more than 20 years, the organization has been a no-kill animal shelter providing temporary and long-term care for stray, abandoned and neglected cats and dogs. But recently, the nonprofit shelter has come under fire from dismissed volunteers, former board members and dues-paying members of the organization.
Accusations of physical abuse of animals and even killing of animals at OCHS have been circulated through social media platforms and in anonymous letters received at Siuslaw News.
The OCHS-related posts on social media have included disturbing pictures, reportedly taken at the facility, of animals in neglect or as the subjects of abuse.
These accusations come at a time when the shelter has benefitted from several monetary bequeathments over the past few years that have dramatically shifted OCHS’s fiscal narrative from that of a fledgling program to a financially viable organization.
Siuslaw News has spent the past month investigating the claims of neglect and mismanagement by conducting interviews with volunteers and board members (past and present), examining documents and email exchanges, and conducting inspections of the facility in an effort to clarify the validity of each allegation.
Board member and long time volunteer Ed Gervais, spokesperson for OCHS, responded to inquires, as well as individuals involved in voicing concerns regarding what they regard as issues of neglect or mismanagement.
OCHS is essentially member driven, operating with a small paid staff and a large group of volunteers, some of whom say they have brought their concerns to board members.
Many of these volunteers have been involved in animal rights issues for years and primarily assist staff members in feeding, grooming and cleaning up after the animals.
One of the most outspoken of these volunteers is Lisa Pappas, who was recently released from her volunteer position after two years following what she said were questions she raised about animal handling techniques and the management skills of the current facility manager.
“I put in 1,650 volunteer hours and was named Volunteer of the Month, so I’ve put in the time and I can see what’s wrong,” said Pappas. “From day one, I’ve had serious concerns about the care, or rather lack of care, provided for the animals.”
Pappas said she brought her concerns to the attention of Shelter Manager Tanya Garrett, as well as the Animal Welfare Committee and the OCHS Board.
“In virtually every instance, my concerns were ignored and I was threatened if I tried to shine a light on the abuse and mismanagement,” said Pappas.
Gervais said he feels the criticisms leveled against OCHS staff are unfounded and misguided.
“The dogs and cats in our care are cared for every day by dedicated staff and volunteers and procedures are followed to insure their health and safety,” he said.
Pappas disagrees with Gervais’ assessment and said she feels the problems stem from management.
“I have personally witnessed dogs being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and thrown into their kennels. I saw an air horn being used on a dog and dogs left in their own filth, as well as yelling and screaming daily — all of this by the same staff member,” said Pappas.
Gervais said he and other board members have spoken with Pappas and other volunteers who support her concerns about animal care. He said these meetings resulted in disagreements about the acute nature of the concerns and ultimately led to Pappas’ release.
It also led to the resignation of additional volunteers and board members.
A June 29 meeting, during which board members Sandy Davidson and Berne Hill resigned “effective immediately,” was the catalyst for a new round of criticism leveled at the board. The resignations left a four-member board — one member short of what the by-laws required to conduct business.
In her resignation letter, Davidson, who served on the board for a year, cited several reasons for leaving. Among them, incomplete employee files and an overall lack of communication regarding budgeting, personnel and other administrative documentation.
“We should have a process in place where all the information is organized so that anyone can make an intelligent decision based on the facts,” Davidson wrote, adding, “I can no longer justify working under the leadership of people who refuse to follow up on allegations made by volunteers or various members of the community.”
With three of the remaining four directors’ terms set to expire one day later, board President Rob Bare and Vice President Gervais appointed themselves to new terms.
This immediately raised questions of ethics and violations of directory duty loyalty.
The following month, Rick Mills and Kim Russo were appointed to the board, with Russo resigning less than a month later after accusing the board of excluding her “on virtually all issues,” Russo said.
That same evening, in a statement issued to the OCHS Board and obtained by Siuslaw News, Pappas made her concerns clear:
“I want the current shelter manager to be fired, along with the individual whose primary responsibility is caring for the dogs. I also want the entire board to be replaced. All of these individuals, staff and board members have had more than sufficient opportunity to address the abuse and neglect issues at OCHS and all have refused to do so. Board members have become corrupt and I believe they are mismanaging the shelter and the funds of the 501(c)3...”
People also directed questions to the board regarding conflict of issues concerns and perceived failures of inter-personal communication.
In subsequent interviews, most of these volunteers, who wished to remain anonymous, said they believe issues of care are more properly characterized as neglect rather than abuse. They also pointed directly at shelter management, staff and board members as the source of these issues.
Part of the inherent problem for OCHS is the small size of the actual space within the shelter. It is separated into two areas, one for dogs and one for cats. In the cattery, there are cages and bins with climbing and scratching poles tucked in corners and against walls. There are cat stairs and multiple levels of interconnected platforms all occupied by one or more cats.
On the canine side of the structure is a short hallway off the main room with a dozen or so kennels. These cages have a small indoor area and a larger outdoor area — both with cement floors.
The space designated for each individual animal is small.
The lack of adequate space has been a continuing concern for Gervais, who said the board is working on plans that he hopes will provide alternatives to the overcrowding and limited space OCHS deals with each day.
“We would like to reconfigure our kennels to allow the dogs to be able to move around. Unfortunately that is not possible at this time because of the cost,” said Gervais, who also said that a fund drive to enlarge the dog runs would be needed.
The validity of this need is also a point of contention for Pappas and a number of past board members, who say that recent estate donations have already added more than $500,000 in cash to the organization’s coffers — a number that Gervais corroborated.
This has led to crux of disagreement between the current board and those who question its motives.
In short: Why isn’t the money being spent to address the current facility and training issues at the shelter raised by volunteers and others?
“There is a five-year plan in the works. It is important to plan for the future of the shelter and how to continue the valuable support of the community for the shelter,” Gervais said. “There currently is no plan to move the shelter from the existing location, but we have to ask the question of what would happen to OCHS in the event of a natural disaster?”
Specifically, a tsunami.
Given the facility’s location just slightly above the Siuslaw River, executing a full evacuation of staff and animals in advance of rising waters would be highly unlikely.
“It’s something we need to think about,” said Gervais.
In addition to what some have felt are a conflict of interest between current animal welfare and future needs, a series of leadership changes that have received mixed reviews from long-term supporters of OCHS has only added to concerns.
Gervais said there are changes in the works to directly address those concerns, including the creation of an executive director position.
Other changes in the works will include the installation of closed-circuit video of the facility, improved storage for animal food to address contamination from rats, and proper-sized beds for the animals.
Of the 16 volunteers and past board members interviewed, all but two said they did not believe that outright abuse of animals was taking place at the shelter, but that various incidents of neglect were the secondary result of improper administrative structure, organization and management training — signs of a program that has outgrown the parameters of its grassroots beginnings.
For Gervais, his first and foremost priority is making sure the community understands what is actually going on at the shelter and to dispel rumors and accusations of abuse.
“We have many good things we do at the shelter, including the spay and neuter clinic and the bottle drop, which recycles cans and bottles to help pay for food for the animals,” Gervais said. “If OCHS is to be successful, we need the continued support of the community.”