A group of concerned animal advocates is raising questions about the Connecticut Humane Society claiming animal care is suffering due to staffing cutbacks, poor management, and the unlimited power of its president and board chairman.
Five workers say they have been fired from the Connecticut Humane Society since December, the same month they voted to unionize.
Lynn Hellinger is one of those people. She says she was fired after requesting more time to rescue a cat. "She said, 'Absolutely I'll give you a few more days and thank you for rescuing Fred.' I got a call that following Saturday saying I didn't follow proper protocol. I shouldn't have asked the district manager. I should have asked another manager," said Hellinger.
Hellinger is now part of the Coalition for Change, a group formed to oppose practices at the Connecticut Humane Society. Members are calling for longtime president and board chairman, Richard Johnston, to step down.
Among their concerns, job cuts and increased euthanasia at the Newington site. A written statement from a former finance assistant to the Board of Directors shows she found staffing dropped 23 percent from 2008 to 2009, and 50 percent specifically with animal care workers. She also wrote about finding a 31 percent increase in dogs killed for behavior problems last year, and an 85 percent increase in cats killed for that reason last year.
The private charity, which is heavily funded by donations and gifts, is not required to report euthanasia or staffing numbers to the state.
"To have that increase was very dramatic and alarming," said Cathy DeMarco, who launched the Coalition for Change last year.
DeMarco worked at the Connecticut Humane Society five months as a humane educator and quit. "Many animals were being euthanized and a lot of the time it was for behavioral issues, many of which these behavioral concerns could be addressed quite quickly, quite easily," said DeMarco.
To help support their claims, DeMarco provided NBC Connecticut with Euthanasia History Reports from the Connecticut Humane Society showing there were 46 cats killed and 26 dogs killed during January and February of this year. Coalition members also showed us two cats and a dog that they say were deemed so aggressive by Connecticut Humane Society officials that they would have been killed. Instead, the animals were rescued by former workers who say they're thriving.
Lynn Hellinger says she saved the two cats. "They were good animals. I can't tell you how many of them I've taken out or gotten into other foster homes that have just blossomed," said Hellinger.
The Connecticut Humane Society declined to release its euthanasia or staffing numbers to NBC Connecticut.
Richard Johnston has not responded to our requests for comment.
Leslie White, a board member, said by email that "a special subcommittee of the Board is in the process of conducting an investigation into the allegations being brought against the Society. During this time, we will continue to maintain the high standard of care that is already in place for the animals that come through our shelters. The investigation has not been concluded so it would be premature to provide any further comments."
Coalition members are also speaking out about working conditions. OSHA inspectors recently fined the charity $6800 for six violations, including the lack of an emergency shower or eyewash area, the lack of protective equipment, improper chemical labeling, and food stored in a refrigerator that was labeled "Biohazard."
NBC Connecticut found seven workers compensation claims filed with the state for 2008 and 2009 including a fracture, a sprain, an infection, and a respiratory disorder. The charity accepted responsibility for those first two and the other cases are still pending, according to the state.
The Humane Society of the United States is not affiliated with the Connecticut Humane Society. The national organization says part of its mission is to set standards for local animal welfare agencies across the country for staffing levels, euthanasia, and other areas. Local agencies are not required to follow such guidelines.
At the Connecticut Humane Society, Richard Johnston remains president and board chair, as animal advocates continue pushing for change. "The animals are not getting the care they need," said Hellinger.
In response to our report, board member Chris White called NBC Connecticut to dispute the staffing and euthanasia numbers mentioned in the story, calling them inaccurate and absurd. He provided staffing numbers for animal care workers that indicate an 18 percent drop from 2008 to 2009. He did not provide any new euthanasia numbers, but said he believes there's a difference of just a few dozen animals between those two years.
As a result of its ongoing investigation, White also said the board has implemented a new euthanasia policy where a five member committee will meet and review all behavioral euthanasia cases before any animals are killed.