Like a sleeping dog

More trouble at Louisville Metro Animal Services

After 28 years of working with animals, Bob Risinger thought he had seen it all. But when the veteran Louisville Metro Animal Services employee responded to a report of an overturned cattle truck back in 2005, his decades of experience wouldn’t be enough to prepare him for what happened next.

“We helped corral the loose cattle,” says Risinger, 52. “We proceeded to load them (onto a truck) and take them back to our shelter. We had no way of treating these animals,” which wound up being placed in the Manslick Road shelter’s outdoor corral.

Risinger claims his boss, former Director Gilles Meloche, who resigned last October amid a firestorm of controversies, ordered him to use a scalpel to cut up one of the cows that had died and “load it into the incinerator, piece by piece.”

“I started working on the carcass,” continues Risinger, “and its gut busted on me, and I did my business of throwing up. It was awful. I told (Meloche) I couldn’t do that. I just couldn’t do that.”

A few months after the cattle incident, Risinger was fired for euthanizing a feral cat without seeking proper authorization. He says the animal “had been banging its face against its cage so hard that there was blood everywhere,” and he wanted to put the creature out of its obvious misery.

But Risinger suspects the true motivation behind his firing has more to do with his criticism of Meloche and the new direction the shelter was taking.

“(Meloche) had pretty much the whole community snowed at the time I was fired,” says Risinger. “In recent years, everyone has seen what was done. If you rocked the boat, you were gone.”

Former kennel attendant Eric Garrett says what they did to Risinger was wrong, “But they did that to a lot of people.”

Garrett, a city employee who recently filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Louisville Metro Government, says he was involuntarily transferred from LMAS to Public Works. Although the city cited “insubordination” as the reason behind the transfer, he believes the move had more to do with letters he sent to city officials.

Between January and April 2006, Garrett wrote numerous memos to Meloche and Metro Council detailing concerns about overcrowding and the new director’s emphasis on adoption rather than management of the city’s strays.

In a Jan. 16, 2006, letter titled “To the Masters of Disaster,” Garrett expressed his frustration toward LMAS management thusly: “You turn your backs on these animals. You don’t experience their personalities as they live or suffer or go to die. You don’t have to kill them. Appeals for you to soberly assess and deal with our incapacity to support these animals are met by indifference, incompetence and occasionally the farcical pretense of superiority.”

By June 2006, Garrett had been ousted along with a host of other outspoken employees, many of whom received cease-and-desist letters from Meloche’s lawyer, Laurence Zielke, who claimed the criticism of his client was defamatory.

“It was pretty ridiculous,” recalls Garrett. “Oddly, I never got one, but I heard that a lot of people were getting them after they were let go. It was an insult.”

Although Garrett did not want to be transferred — for allegedly being rude to a colleague — he agreed because, “It was a way for me to keep my job,” he says. “Those grievances were unfairly concocted, and it looks like it was due to my writings.”

But Garrett and Risinger weren’t the only boat-rockers: Under the condition of anonymity, two other former LMAS employees — including a high-ranking staff member — provided LEO with accounts that chronicled a culture of intimidation and a decline of general oversight prior to, during and after Meloche’s tenure.

Gradually, the sources say an emphasis on adoptions moved most full-time personnel to the shelter’s front office, where they dealt with customers, conducted data entry, and generally left most of the cage-cleaning to workers from Dismas Charities, a halfway house that runs a job-placement program for criminal offenders.

When Dismas began contracting with LMAS in 2005, only one worker was provided on a trial basis. Sources close to the shelter say the worker did a great job and was well liked by staff, and that the number of workers increased as a result. Within a few years, however, conditions at the shelter reportedly deteriorated, overwhelming the staff with overcrowding and a high-stress work environment that made managing the Dismas workforce difficult.

The sources also allege that on several instances, Dismas workers obtained and/or used drugs on site, abused animals, engaged in sexual intercourse with LMAS staff and, on at least one occasion, sold city property to a junkyard to supplement their 63-cents-a-day income.

“I drove them out there myself,” one source says. “We had pieces of scrap metal from the inoperable incinerator, some extra length of fencing, some bits of unused metal for kennel repairs. We sold it all, and they pocketed the cash.”

The former employee claims he was ordered to do so by a member of management who was allegedly having an affair with one of the Dismas workers.

LEO Weekly contacted LMAS multiple times for this story, but calls to spokeswoman Jackie Gulbe were not returned.

Bob Yates, spokesman for Dismas Charities, says he’s never received any complaints about any of the “hundreds” of recovering offenders who’ve passed through LMAS’ doors over the years.

“We’ve received no complaints,” he says. “We will, however, look into
it, because this is absolutely inexcusable contact.”

The same source who recounted his experience with the Dismas workers claims he was fired last year after leaving a comment on the local news blog The ‘Ville Voice, which provided links to LEO’s coverage of LMAS. He claims interim LMAS Director Wayne Zelinsky confronted him.

“(Zelinsky) has his Blackberry programmed to receive alerts anytime something is published about him or Animal Services,” the source says. “But to be fair, I was probably let go because I told him to fuck off about 50 times.”

It’s a sentiment many ex-employees seem to share.

But regardless of everything that has transpired, Bob Risinger would return to LMAS if given the opportunity.

“In my opinion, all these people who were fired … they should at least be asked to come back,” says Risinger, who started in 1978 making $4 an hour. “If nothing else, I would just like to clean cages. I love animals. That was my career; that was my whole life.”