Chronicling five years of dysfunction at Louisville Metro Animal Services
On a recent tour of Louisville Metro Animal Services’ Manslick Road shelter, agency spokeswoman Jackie Gulbe shows me something I never thought I’d see. Against the loading dock’s far concrete wall — past an obstacle course of haphazardly strewn animal cages, water hoses and a large walk-in freezer — is a hulking, story-tall metal box of buttons and wires and rust that has been part of this aging building since its construction in 1966. Discolored, charred exhaust surfaces reveal years of heavy use, and the fact that it looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned in ages adds to the machine’s overall creepiness.
“That’s the incinerator,” says Gulbe.
“Oh my god … Is it still broken?” I ask.
She sighs. “Yes.”
“So that means you’re still taking animals to the landfill?” I say, pointing to the freezer.
Gulbe nods. “Yes, but only because we don’t have any other means to dispose of them.”
Since it was first reported last year by LEO Weekly, the gruesome practice of freezing euthanized animals and transporting them en masse to local landfills has become standard procedure for the beleaguered city shelter, which has for some time now served as a poster child for mismanagement and corruption in the River City.
Although Gulbe says a new incinerator will be operational by September, the fact that MAS has been incinerator-less for nearly five years is, unfortunately, par for the course in the context of everything else that has transpired here over the same time frame: allegations of sexual harassment, managerial intimidation, illicit sex and drug use on city property, unconstitutional searches of pet owners’ homes, misappropriation of city property, the overcrowding and mistreatment of animals — it reads like the jacket notes of a John Grisham novel, except that in this case, none of it is fiction, and there’s no satisfying, neatly packaged ending.
In 2005, two years after city and county governments merged, Louisville Metro needed a new head dogcatcher. The former director of what was then called Animal Control, Eric Blow, resigned in part due to his conflicting views regarding the new direction the rechristened Metro Animal Services would take in the post-merger world.
“I felt like I was being led down the garden path,” recounts Blow. “It got to a point where I felt that I should go and let somebody else take charge.”
Later that summer, Mayor Jerry Abramson announced his administration had selected a replacement candidate after conducting a nationwide search: Dr. Gilles Meloche, a charming 49-year-old Québécois veterinarian fresh from a shelter-managing gig in Florida.
“Dr. Meloche is the person to lead Metro Animal Services to a new day,” the mayor said in an official press release from June 29, 2005. “He has a history of improving the agencies he’s worked with and making them more efficient and responsive to the community.”
But it soon became clear there was a darker side to Meloche’s professional past.
As reported by LEO Weekly in August 2006: Shortly after Meloche took the helm of the Tallahassee-Leon Community Animal Services Center in February 2002, the shelter’s population doubled, and a former board member there said animals were dying regularly in their cages, the facility was rank with urine and feces, and staff had become demoralized.
By the time this was reported, however, Meloche already was fully entrenched in his role as head of Louisville Metro Animal Services, a post he would hold until unceremoniously resigning amid a storm of controversy in the fall of 2009. Despite ample evidence of impropriety and mismanagement, Mayor Jerry Abramson maintained his support for Meloche through it all.
Around the time Meloche was hired in 2005, MAS employees were saddled with a new computer-based inventory tracking system dubbed “Chameleon,” which Gulbe describes as “the Cadillac of kennel software.” Although an improvement on the previous, city-designed inventory software, Chameleon’s innumerable bells and whistles posed a steep learning curve for most employees, which led to many animals not being entered into the system at all. Additionally, the fancy program granted Meloche access to every computer and piece of information — a control failure that would be addressed in a city audit two years later.
Then, in November 2005, a 14-month-old baby and a 60-year-old man were attacked and killed by loose pit bulls in Louisville, prompting a public outcry over what was perceived as a lack of legal resources to combat the city’s population of dangerous, free-roving dogs and their irresponsible owners. That Louisville already had an ordinance dealing specifically with potentially dangerous dogs was apparently irrelevant, as Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, sponsored new legislation to deal with the threat anyway.
Among the many voices Hamilton brought to the legislative drafting table was Pamela Rogers, Kentucky legislative research coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States. Rogers wrote a July 5, 2006, letter to Metro Council imploring them to base the new ordinance on the Humane Society’s “Model Dangerous Dog Legislation,” which grants the director of local animal control services (i.e., Meloche and, by extension, his animal control officers) the authority to determine whether a dog is dangerous, thereby supplanting the will of a court with the will of a French-Quebec autocrat.
In essence, the legislation, and the tragic deaths that precipitated it, became Louisville’s equivalent of the Bush Administration’s use of Sept. 11 as a pretext to pass the Patriot Act: From this, animal control officers were allowed to push the boundaries of their authority as Metro peace officers in the name of keeping people safe from terrorist dogs and cats.
On Dec. 19, 2006, Metro Council voted 16-9 and birthed the Metro Animal Care and Control Ordinance — better known as simply the dog ordinance — into law. Within a couple of months, the Democratic majority caucus issued a press release touting its early success: “In the first two months of (2006), only 4,853 licenses had been issued. This year, the number is 10,011. The comparable revenues between the two years: In 2006, only $45,515 had been collected for licenses. In 2007, the number is at $104,628.”
What those numbers didn’t reveal was that the ordinance reduced animals to mere property, which could be confiscated with ease, and permitted MAS to levy heavy fines and bonds by holding pets at great cost before the owner’s case goes to trial, thereby forcing citizens to pay large fees before they’ve had a chance to contest them in court. Furthermore, the ordinance gave broad powers to animal control officers, and so in April 2007, Meloche hired former Sarasota County Police Detective Wayne Zelinsky — effectively Meloche’s second-in-command — to oversee what would become a very active (and controversial) wing of animal services.
“I had no idea at the time that animal services was so political,” Zelinsky, now interim director, tells LEO Weekly. “You know, I knew there was a new ordinance, but I didn’t know that Louisville was one of the first communities to have such a comprehensive, progressive ordinance. When you have something like that, you’re going to have growing pains. To me, if a law is passed, you would hope that that’s what the community wants.”
As the former assistant director of MAS, Zelinsky was responsible for implementing the “comprehensive, progressive ordinance,” and, as per Meloche’s direction, the former police detective did so with aplomb — the only problem being that the ordinance had, within two years, flooded the Louisville Kennel Club, a nonprofit canine rights advocacy group, with countless complaints. The Kennel Club filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s dog ordinance, a suit that ultimately proved successful, resulting in changes to the law.
During a recent interview with LEO Weekly at the Manslick Road shelter, Zelinsky is charming and soft-spoken. After speaking at some length about the constitutional implications of his searches and seizures, he shows me a piece of paper.
“Basically, there are 13 exceptions to a search warrant,” he says. “Reasons why you can basically go around the Fourth Amendment.”
“Umm … ” I say. “And where does that power come from?”
“It’s what they teach cops,” he says.
The Mayor’s Office dubbed Gilles Meloche a “change agent” barely a year after giving him the job. For his cooperation on the dog ordinance, Meloche also received praise from the Humane Society.
Meanwhile, Meloche was busy refashioning the agency as he saw fit, an undertaking that included alienating and forcing out longtime employees, many of whom had legitimate concerns with the direction the agency was taking.
“There was chronic overcrowding, too much aggression in the kennels,” recalls Eric Garrett, a former kennel attendant at MAS who says he was forced out after criticizing the new director and transferred to Metro Public Works. “The workforce was getting demoralized. The best people were leaving, and the worst ones wound up staying.”
As one of a dozen or so employees purged within Meloche’s first year, Garrett also was one of the most vocal. He lamented as early as January 2006, in an open letter to Meloche and Metro Council, that the shelter’s new direction would have negative consequences on staff and the animals in their care.
“For people trying to do good work in the kennels,” Garrett wrote, “the work has become so immense and is accompanied by despair. You can beat up on the kennel staff only so much if you take into account how we arrived at the current state of affairs …”
Shortly after writing that letter, Garrett was transferred.
By this time, the effects of overcrowding had begun to present themselves, echoing Meloche’s stint in Tallahassee.
According to Garrett’s letter, along with the testimonies of former employees and a tour I took last year while posing as a volunteer, dogs and cats were becoming more aggressive due to competition for limited food and space, leading to stress and thereby increasing rates of disease. In addition, standards of cleanliness and care plummeted, and cages that were designed to house only one animal routinely held three or four. As a result, employees became overwhelmed.
Then came a new, sordid chapter in the dysfunction of the agency.
In response to the increased flow of strays and confiscated pets into the shelter, MAS began contracting with Dismas Charities, a nonprofit that operates a halfway house for criminal offenders, to help alleviate their growing workload. What started out as one worker provided on a trial basis in late 2005 evolved into a regular program, and by 2007, Dismas was providing the shelter with up to seven workers a day, five days a week, for eight-hour shifts, wherein their primary jobs consisted of general maintenance and cleaning up after animals. This allowed the full-time employees to focus primarily on adoptions.
By stuffing the shelter beyond reasonable capacity, ordering animal control officers to confiscate as many pets and fine as many people as possible, and by placing the grunt work of cage cleaning upon the shoulders of Dismas workers, Meloche had achieved a semblance of great success within two years.
In reality, several longtime employees and volunteers have said an increasing number of animals began dying in their cages due to a combination of overcrowding, improper ventilation and a resulting increase in communicable disease.
Last year, I took a clandestine tour of the facility. The following is a description of what I saw, as chronicled in an Oct. 29, 2009, LEO Weekly piece:
One of the rooms — quarantined due to an outbreak of ringworm — featured a space heater; the only heating apparatus of its kind in the entire building, whose central heat has been offline since (you guessed it) the Aug. 4 flood. The cells are chilly and teeming with felines, a few of which appear to be sick — runny nose, languishing posture, etc. — but the atmosphere is won over by how adorable they are.
We move on into another cat-specific room, except this one is different: Off-limits to the public, this large concrete-walled room houses cages upon cages of sick and dying cats, packed in many instances six to a cage.
One of the volunteers is weeping.
“It’s just awful,” she says. “This place is so messed up…”
She tells us they had just finished transporting about 60 cats to be euthanized in the veterinary technician’s trailer, and that it was way more crowded just a few hours ago… After drying her eyes she squirts a few pumps of Purell into her palms and gets back to work.
And there’s a lot of work to be done. So much, in fact, that not much of anything really gets done: There’s a white cat with a missing eye, its socket gaping, unsewn and mucousy; dying cats lie prostrate and growling in boxes of their own filth; a psychotic kitten is pawing through the wire-mesh, meowing incessantly; another is curled into a fetal position and shivering with obvious pain. Just in this particular area, the best these volunteers can do is keep things from getting too dirty and ferry animals to be euthanized.
As the illusion of Meloche’s success began to more closely resemble failure, staff and volunteers became increasingly demoralized. Workers and animals alike were caught in a crossfire between the director and anyone who “got on his bad side,” a phrase that occurs frequently in the voluminous documents obtained by LEO Weekly, records that include e-mail correspondence, Louisville Metro Human Resources interviews, and testimonies from former and current employees.
With the advantage of hindsight — not to mention the aforementioned documentation — it appears things at Metro Animal Services began seriously unraveling in August 2007 when the Metro Office of Internal Audit issued the first of two damning reports criticizing the agency.
That audit essentially undermined all the work done by the director and the successful new dog ordinance because, as it turned out, “MAS staff with routine (Chameleon) system access have the ability to change information in the system without oversight,” meaning the books could very easily be cooked. The audit also detailed several faults with the agency’s accounting principles, chief among them the practice of allowing whoever was in charge of the kitty the ability to manipulate actual revenue totals.
It also was at this time that relations between Dismas Charities workers and Metro Animal Services employees became less than professional.
“That place has more drama involved than any place, any job I’ve seen or had, ever,” says Jason Gunnoe, a former MAS employee who was trained by Eric Garrett and who started working at the shelter a week before Meloche.
“It will corrupt you,” he says.
The 29-year-old says that at one point, Dismas was sending over female workers, but that it “was a debacle. They were messed with by the male Dismas workers so badly that we had to stop it.”
On multiple occasions, Gunnoe says he caught Dismas workers fornicating with Metro employees, including one instance involving an impromptu love shack constructed out of donated boxes of cat food, a makeshift red lamp and a radio.
“He had arranged (the boxes) in a walled-off area with a couch and a heat lamp,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Gunnoe also says the workers sometimes abused the animals, kicking them and jerking them by their leashes.
In an interview with LEO Weekly, both Gulbe and Zelinsky confirm that Dismas workers have, in fact, engaged in improper sexual relationships with city employees and volunteers on city property.
“Yeah, we’ve had some problems with relationships,” Zelinsky says. “I mean, it was never tolerated, but it happened.”
This admission contradicts claims made by Dismas Charities spokesman Bob Yates, who told LEO for a June 23, 2010, story, “There’s no complaint filed with Dismas. We’ve received no complaints. We will, however, look into it, because this is absolutely inexcusable contact.”
But Zelinsky says, “They know it happened, and they want to make sure that we do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
In fact, the impropriety had gotten so out of hand that Zelinsky wrote an e-mail to Dismas on June 2, 2009, revising a list of “Dos and Don’ts” for the program. Among the items on that list is rule No. 14: “No MAS employee or volunteer shall engage in any inappropriate touching or communicating with a Dismas worker on either one’s part.”
Meanwhile, it seems the animals supposedly at the heart of the organization became secondary.
Since Meloche’s departure, Zelinsky says monitoring of the Dismas program has increased, and that while he would prefer they not continue the program, a lack of funding makes Dismas indispensable.
“I don’t want to rely heavily on that program,” he says. “Because if they decide to stop the program tomorrow, frankly, we’re too dependent on it. We get eight people a day, seven days a week, sometimes eight hours a day. You do the math.”
In August 2007, Meloche hired two new employees: Dawn Simpson, who took over as animal care manager, and Dr. Kendall Clay, a veterinarian who was to provide contract work on an hourly basis. Within a year, both women would accuse Meloche of sexual harassment, and both have since filed lawsuits against Meloche, Zelinsky and Metro government, alleging harassment and retaliation. The content of their cases, while still subject to the ruling of a judge, perhaps does more to describe the atmosphere of hostility than any other instance of civic indecency described thus far.
In a letter to Zelinsky dated July 30, 2008, Simpson first put her formal complaint in writing, detailing an incident earlier that month in which she claims Meloche told her, “I always spend so much time looking at your brain I never noticed you had such beautiful legs.” A week earlier, Simpson claims Meloche hugged her and kissed her on the neck.
“At first,” Simpson wrote, “I chalked (Meloche’s) offensive behavior up to cultural differences based on his French-Canadian background. However, his disrespectful behavior makes me feel that he does not view me as an educated, experienced asset to his team and that he doesn’t take my work or input as seriously as my male counterparts.”
In response, Zelinsky allegedly laughed it off by saying, “Our fearless leader doesn’t understand the concept of personal space,” according to documents in Simpson’s lawsuit. She also claims Zelinsky told her she was just “over-analyzing” things and that within a month of filing her complaint, Zelinsky — at the behest of Meloche — gave Simpson her first write-up during her employment at MAS.
Around the same time, Meloche allegedly was trying to put the moves on Clay as well, according to court documents: Plying her with an invitation to dinner at Proof restaurant, he allegedly told her Simpson would be meeting them to discuss business. When Clay arrived, it was just Meloche, who sat by himself and allegedly began drinking heavily and asking personal questions. The following day at work, Clay learned Simpson had no knowledge of the rendezvous.
A few days later, on July 19, 2008, Meloche brought Clay a coffee while she was on duty at the agency’s mobile spay-and-neuter surgery trailer. The director asked Clay if she liked the coffee, she responded that she usually drinks cappuccino, whereupon Meloche reportedly “began to run his tongue around the rim of the cup in a sexually suggestive manner.”
The next day, he allegedly sent Clay the following text messages: “I want to lick your toes and work my way up,” and, “You look so darned cute on the bus today, I wanted to grab you and hold you and kiss you.”
From this point onward, reports of a hostile work environment and accusations of retaliation multiplied.
That sentiment of hostility is even echoed by current MAS spokeswoman Jackie Gulbe, whose deposition to Metro Human Resources — one of many prompted by an internal investigation due to Simpson’s formal complaint — corroborates allegations of retaliation made by Simpson and Clay, and sheds light on the dysfunctional nature of the agency.
When asked by the H.R. interviewer if she wanted to file a complaint of her own, Gulbe declined. “I honestly don’t think I could handle the stress of knowing, of worrying,” she said. “Because I’ve seen him in action going after other people … sometimes it’s direct. Sometimes it’s a sneaky way … I mean I feel like I’m going out on a limb, you know? And part of it, too, is if anything happens and he is a, you know, if he goes nutso-crazy and I lose my job … I have nothing to fall back on. This job is everything.”
Gulbe also told human resources that Zelinsky tried extricating himself from the tension as much as possible, and that working for Meloche was extremely taxing.
“You’re in this … maze running around,” she said. “(Meloche) is telling you to go this way, and then he’s like no, no, no … the other way. I mean, that’s what I feel like.”
During the human resources interview, Gulbe described how she and her colleagues were expected to perform tasks far outside their job descriptions due to inadequate staffing: “We don’t have enough people, you know. For example, Belinda (Catman, former business manager) is dealing with LG&E … Dawn is dealing with light bulbs and, and lighting issues … Let’s see, Wayne (Zelinsky), I think, ended up getting the assignment to remove the concrete slab out by the front driveway. I’m in charge of the new dishwasher project … why would I, the community relations person, be in charge of getting a dishwasher installed? Can you explain that one to me?”
The human resources documents also reveal that at the time, Clay declined to put her complaint in writing out of a similar fear of retribution.
In addition, in an e-mail to human resources on Dec. 24, 2008, Clay explains she had ceased voicing her support for Simpson’s sexual harassment claim because “Dr. Meloche was parading veterinarians around animal services that he was hiring … As anyone would be, I was concerned about losing my job, especially since he was aware of the case presented against him by Ms. Simpson. My declaration to not participate further was directly related to the intentional attempt to intimidate me by Dr. Meloche and I informed you of this at the time of the call.”
Several months later, Meloche chose not to renew Clay’s contract, hiring two new vets to take her place. After Metro Human Resources only substantiated one out of the five complaints brought by Simpson, the animal care manager resigned. Both women now are awaiting resolution of their respective lawsuits — Simpson in Jefferson Circuit Court, Clay in U.S. District Court.
In addition to alleging sexual harassment, Clay claims she was replaced by two lower-ranking veterinarians after Meloche rigged the job-bidding process, thereby undercutting her services with cheaper vets, and that Zelinsky cited the damage caused by the August 2009 flash flood as rationale for a supposed lack of hiring funds.
But perhaps the most damning evidence brought by Clay’s case accuses both Meloche and Zelinsky of breaking the law by providing prescription animal medications to the now-defunct, Middletown-based Animal Adoption Agency, whose director is not a licensed veterinarian. The adoption agency had teamed with MAS to reduce overcrowding at the Manslick Road shelter and increase the number of adoptions in a mutually beneficial relationship.
In March 2009, Animal Adoption Agency Director Michelle Hensel reportedly asked Clay to provide her with antibiotics for her adoption service. Clay declined, explaining she could not legally dispense the meds because Clay hadn’t examined the animals and Hensel isn’t a veterinarian. The documents say that within five minutes of Hensel being turned down, Meloche “came into the veterinary tech area at MAS and gathered up sulfa drugs, needles, syringes, de-wormers and injectable Baytril, an antibiotic.” Court documents claim Zelinsky had made an identical request, which Clay refused.
Clay’s suit further alleges a mess of other awful things: that Meloche personally engaged in illegal euthanasia of non-anesthetized kittens by stabbing them in their hearts with a hypodermic needle; that conditions at MAS are inhumane and overcrowded; and that Meloche would hide the sickliest animals whenever Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16 — who wrote much of the original post-merger dog law — would send inspection teams to the shelter.
As the cases brought by both Simpson and Case gained traction in court, so did the previously mentioned lawsuit brought by the Louisville Kennel Club, which challenged the constitutionality of the city’s dog ordinance.
In October 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Simpson III ruled in the Kennel Club’s favor by striking down several key provisions of the ordinance. The judge’s rewording of the ordinance specifically prohibits MAS from automatically holding confiscated animals before the owner’s trial in addition to placing an injunction on the agency’s ability to levy seizure bonds.
The nastiness at Metro Animal Services eventually became too rotten to contain, particularly once the Metro Office of Internal Audit released yet another damning report last summer. This second scathing audit, in conjunction with the lawsuits, became a public relations nightmare for the city, and Meloche’s days were effectively numbered.
In October, he officially offered the mayor his resignation.
Mayor Abramson responded by heaping praise on the outgoing director: “For more than four years, Dr. Meloche has been a strong change agent who has helped professionalize our animal services operation and significantly increase the percentage of adopted animals. I appreciate his dedication and service to our community, and I wish him much success.”
It’s a baffling sentiment that, to this day, Abramson has refused to revise.
In the past seven months since Meloche’s official departure, Gulbe and Zelinsky have tried to claw MAS out of the nightmarish municipal pit dug by their ex-boss.
“If you read (the H.R. documents), then yeah, you’re no dummy,” says Gulbe. “(Meloche) was very… I’m trying to think how to say this… he pretty much knew how he wanted things done, and that was the way it was gonna be done. There wasn’t a lot of room for being real creative or inventive because he pretty much had this vision.”
To be fair, Zelinsky and Gulbe have made some progress — particularly decreasing the number of pet confiscations and reorganizing the kennels — but the conditions won’t improve much at the current rate of funding or without some breakthrough in managerial wizardry. Both assure me a new adoption center that’s under construction will alleviate some of the overcrowding and stress on both animals and staff.
But Gulbe acknowledges they’re still nowhere close to where they need to be in terms of care, manpower and facilities, and with a staff of 56 and a reliance upon grants and free, unskilled labor, perhaps the fact that the place appears as though it isn’t getting any worse is an improvement.
Before concluding my recent tour of the Manslick Road shelter at the close of our interview, Gulbe unexpectedly lets me view the “killing room.” Inside, there are dead animals stuffed into black garbage bags scattered on the floor. Hanging out of one of them is a dead Pomeranian. The glassy-eyed veterinary technician who administered the lethal shot apologizes.
“I’m sorry,” she says, “But we don’t have a better way."