Just as many celebrities don’t appreciate what’s reported in unauthorized biographies about them, Guilford County officials are getting highly aggravated about the posts that have been going up on a popular Facebook page – Guilford County Animal Services WATCH.
The page isn’t affiliated with Guilford County government in any way and it is clearly labeled as “unofficial” on Facebook.
It’s run by Shawn Henegar, an animal welfare advocate who’s been very vocal – and very critical – in recent years about shelter operations and animal care in Guilford County. Henegar, along with several WATCH page administrators, runs the site that frequently infuriates county officials.
Henegar said this week that Guilford County had put out so much misinformation and been so deceitful about what’s really going on at the Guilford County Animal Shelter that a page like hers was badly needed.
To take one example from that Facebook page, on Wednesday, August 30, Henegar shared a post from another animal welfare advocate who alleged that a puppy named Nala, with a heart condition, was at the shelter for three months without proper care and with no effort made to find it a suitable home.
Henegar added her comment to the woman’s post: “Why are the animal shelter failures continuously in the news? Because county management is failing miserably at animal care and RETALIATES against rescues and volunteers that speak out.” Henegar also posted a request for a local attorney willing to do pro bono work.
The page is also often critical of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and is trying to find new political leaders to oversee the shelter. One recent post states: “The Guilford County Animal Services WATCH page is looking for 2018 county commissioner candidates to endorse that will make a real difference in the Guilford County Animal Services’ efficiency.”
Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad has been a constant target of the page, where he’s sometimes referred to as “Justin Con-man.” Conrad, the most visible commissioner involved in the animal shelter operations, is chairman of the Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board. He therefore draws much of the flack. Conrad used to respond to some allegations put out on the WATCH page, but he has been banned from posting.
Conrad said the WATCH page – and some other social media sites as well – take unfounded stories, rumors and half-truths and create a false and misleading narrative about the shelter. He said they push the message that the shelter doesn’t function well and mistreats animals.
“It doesn’t hurt us – it hurts the animals,” he said.
Conrad said that, in reality, the shelter has been making great strides since a major animal neglect and abuse scandal in mid-2015, and he added that the negative image created and the barrage of constant criticism from the site serves no one well.
“Social media can be a great thing,” he said. “When a dog is lost, or needs to be adopted, social media can get the word out.”
But he added that, with power comes “great responsibility.” Conrad said the Animal Services WATCH page does not exercise responsibility before posting accusations because statements made are often untrue or misleading.
Conrad said that can hurt the morale of shelter workers and county staff who are doing excellent work under trying circumstances.
“When you care for animals, that’s a tough environment,” Conrad said. “It can be a very tough place to work.”
He mentioned one frequent poster on the WATCH page – a former shelter worker – and offered a simple explanation about why she’s so vitriolic.
“She got fired,” Conrad said.
That woman told the Rhino Times earlier this year that it’s the other way around – that she got fired because she wasn’t afraid to speak out about problems at the shelter.
Conrad said others who post online are those who get upset by false information they read on the page.
“They are people stirred up by Shawn Henegar,” Conrad said.
He said the shelter recently did an amazing job this July, through terrific effort, to find homes for a huge number of animals at the shelter, but the WATCH page focused on high cat euthanasia rates instead.
“If you don’t think that is progress, then you are not willing to look at reality,” Conrad said of the recent “Clear the Shelter” effort.
Henegar said, “They killed 300 cats that month – you’ve either got a rampant disease or someone who doesn’t like cats.”
Conrad said he used to attempt to try to correct misstatements in posts but now he can’t.
“They banned me from the WATCH page,” Conrad said.
Henegar said she welcomed Conrad’s input regarding animal care and shelter operations. She said Conrad wasn’t banned for being critical of the page – but because he was posting personal information about administrators, which is against the page’s policy.
“Justin would use the page to talk personally,” Henegar said, declining to state what it was specifically that caused her page to ban Conrad.
One point Conrad is known to make frequently about Henegar is that “She lives in Colorado.” He has said she has an axe to grind with county administration so she is stirring things up even though she lives on the other side of the country.
Conrad said the only thing he can think of that got him banned from the page is that once, when someone posted a question as to why Henegar had not been volunteering at the shelter, Conrad posted that it was because she lives in Colorado. He said that is far from a personal attack and in fact all he was doing was responding to someone’s question.
Henegar said she lives both in Greensboro and Colorado and added that she and her husband pay $1,400 a year in property taxes in Guilford County.
Henegar said her goal is to help the animals and she said her WATCH page offers a valuable service posting pictures of animals that need to be adopted, getting the word out about free spay and neuter events and providing animal-related public services in other ways as well.
In fact, Henegar said, one reason the page exists at all is because the Guilford County Animal Shelter consistently refuses to post enough pictures of adoptable animals.
Henegar said she got involved with the shelter years ago by working with a friend to make the animals look appealing in photos. She and a fellow volunteer would bring toys and props and put the animals in the best light and take pictures to post. She said she would also spend time with the cats and dogs so she could write a little bit about each, such as, “Be prepared for lots of kisses it you adopt this dog.”
Henegar said it’s a mistake to claim that the WATCH page is only critical, and she said she hopes people will look at the page and judge for themselves.
“I’m not saying they aren’t making progress,” Henegar said of the county, adding that she was thrilled about new moves meant to increase spaying and neutering.
But Henegar added that cat euthanizations were very high, the county doesn’t use a mobile unit it has for spay and neuter services, the shelter has fired employees known to speak out, and the poor quality of photos of animals posted hurt their chance of adoption. She also noted that state inspectors have found multiple infractions at the Guilford County Animal Shelter this year.
Henegar, who has two dogs, Bentley and Gypsy, said her concern is for the county’s animals and that she supported previous shelter directors Logan Rustan and Drew Brinkley until “they let animal lovers down.”
“I was a cheerleader for Logan and for Drew,” she said.
Brinkley resigned last month after state inspectors found new problems at the shelter.
Henegar said the postings from former shelter employees are not because those employees were disgruntled and trying to get back at their former employer but instead because they know what has been going on at the shelter and were willing to talk freely once they no longer had to worry about keeping their jobs.
“It did them no favors to let loose of those eight employees,” Henegar said of the mass firing at the shelter in February.
“There had to be a place where people could go and post and get the information out,” Henegar said of her Facebook page. “If you were a volunteer at an orphanage and one child disappeared and you said, ‘What happened to Jody?’ and the answer was, ‘You ask to many questions’ – well, you would be concerned.”
Guilford County Deputy Manager Clarence Grier is another common target of those posting on the site. Henegar said she tried to meet with Grier to address concerns but he wouldn’t meet with her.
“He canceled and cancelled and stood me up and told the commissioners I wouldn’t meet with him,” she said.
One poster asked on a different Facebook page, “When are you going to arrest Clarence Grier and others at the Guilford County Animal Shelter for animal abuse. What, another 10 years and another 3 million dollar contract like you did with [former Guilford County Animal Shelter Director] Marsha Williams with the UAC [United Animal Coalition] after you had been told by phone calls and emails with proof of abuse and torture.”
Grier is the top-level county administrator charged with overseeing the shelter during times when Animal Services doesn’t have a director. Grier said Guilford County has been making progress, working hard and trying to ignore unjust attacks on Facebook.
The Guilford County Board of Commissioners voted last month to buy land for a new $9 million shelter on Guilford College Road.
Personnel regulations keep the county from saying too much about ex employees and their claims, Grier said.
“I would just say you’ve got some passionate individuals and at times the passion is probably ill-placed and ill-informed,” he said. “Being a county government, a lot of times we can’t discuss everything. There is some good and some bad about that.”
The deputy county manager said the shelter has a good staff and is looking after the animals.
“All of the employees are caring and passionate about the animals,” he said. “And we treat a lot of animals that come through the shelter on a daily basis. I think at times there have been some misguided posts or information. The biggest concern is helping to get animals re-homed. That’s the focus.”
He said the shelter takes in 140 animals a week, so every four weeks it is getting an amount that would put the shelter over capacity, which is 525 animals.
“I tend not to focus on it,” Grier said of the negative comments. “I’m a positive person and I try and keep a positive focus on the shelter and trying to help as many animals as possible.”
Like Conrad, Grier said he believes some of the criticism is due to disgruntled former employees and others with a personal axe to grind.
“There have been some people we have had to ask not to come and work with us and volunteer at the shelter, and some of those people have at times shown up on these social media sites,” he said. “I can assure you that if we asked someone not to volunteer at the shelter, or not work with us, we have given them numerous opportunities to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner and they have not.”
He said he met with one critic who secretly recorded the conversation and posted it on Facebook.
“Now, in my mind, I’m having an honest meeting,” Grier said. “But I’m being recorded without my knowledge and then it’s posted on a social media site as though I’m doing something nefarious, when I was trying to work with that person.”
Grier said Guilford County has done a great deal to overcome the problems and the county on the right track, especially with a new shelter on the way.
“I would hope that individuals who make comments in regard to Guilford County operating the shelter – although we’ve made some mistakes – just understand that we’ve only been doing this for two years and that there’s a larger problem that causes the issue. One of the problems is that the facility has been dated. We have been moving with the right steps to get a new facility. That will solve many of the problems we have.”
Grier said the county’s shelter is one of the most transparent in the nation.
“We’re the only shelter in the country, outside of one other, that reports weekly numbers,” he said.
He said Dallas Animal Services and Adoption Center reports daily numbers.
In Guilford County, he added, if those numbers aren’t posted every week, then, within one or two days there are negative posts on Facebook.
Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board Member Linda Stanton, a former animal cruelty investigator, said that the discourse at meetings can be too heated and she said that charges were sometimes off base.
“I am a passionate animal person,” she said, “but just because somebody doesn’t treat an animal the same way as me does not mean it’s being mistreated.”
Stanton has tried to respond to the critics at meetings.
“I said, are you here to make an argument or here to make a difference?” she said.
“Spewing hate on social media is not helping the animals,” she added. “They have gone after volunteers who do good work.”
She also said that there are limits to the Animal Services Advisory Board’s power and those members are not to blame for county policies.
“We’re not your punching bag – we are an advisory board,” she said. “We don’t make laws. We can’t tell the commissioners what to do. It’s like, come on, people.”