Guilford County officials and animal rights advocates are in a dogfight.

And a catfight too.

County officials – from Animal Shelter management all the way up to the Board of Commissioners – have been greatly frustrated by recent allegations on Facebook and elsewhere that the shelter is too quick to euthanize animals, that it does not always work well with area animal rescue groups to save animals and that shelter staff incorrectly labels animals as temperament problems and destroys them instead of giving them a proper chance for survival.

Animal welfare advocates also say they’re baffled as to why the county has over $233,000 in a fund for sick and injured animals and – though it has had that money for over nine months – it still hasn’t touched the fund.

This week, county commissioners, administrators and shelter officials are fighting back against claims of improper euthanasia posted on Facebook and being raised in animal welfare meetings and in the media.

Both Guilford County Animal Services Director Drew Brinkley and Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier said adamantly that Guilford County Animal Services never euthanizes animals due to space considerations at the shelter – as numerous animal welfare advocates are charging.

Brinkley and Grier said Guilford County destroys animals only when the animal has medical issues that can’t be addressed or when it is a temperament case – namely, when shelter workers determine the dogs and cats pose a danger to other animals or to humans.

In a public statement issued last week in response to charges made on Facebook, Grier wrote that never, since Guilford County took over management of the shelter in August 2015, has the county euthanized an animal for space.

Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad said this week that it’s very frustrating to hear all the unfounded allegations despite the fact the shelter has made such impressive progress since Guilford County government took over operations of the shelter from a scandal-plagued United Animal Coalition (UAC) – a nonprofit provider that the county had hired to run the shelter for nearly two decades. State investigators found widespread animal neglect and mistreatment at the shelter under UAC management and, just over a year and a half ago, the county took over those operations and formed the Guilford County Animal Services department.

Conrad said some animal advocates have been making totally false claims on Facebook, in the media and in other public venues. He said there have been false accusations about euthanasia practices as well as unfounded claims as to the reason eight former UAC workers were fired last week.

Some fired employees said the county knew they were going to fire the former UAC workers all along and just kept them on until the shelter was up and running well. They say they weren’t fired for work-related causes but were instead terminated because they once worked for the UAC.

Conrad said it’s demonstrably false that Guilford County “targeted” shelter workers simply because they used to work for the UAC. He said that’s obvious from the fact that the shelter still has former UAC workers on the payroll.

Conrad also said that all of the retained UAC workers were given a chance – a one-year probationary period – to see if they would work out as employees of the county-run shelter under the new administration.

“At that point, individuals were given several opportunities to see whether they would fit in with the direction of the shelter,” Conrad said.

Often, when employees are terminated from their jobs, they remain silent and keep their complaints to themselves. This is not one of those times. After the eight longtime employees were let go, several of them made allegations about shelter practices to the Rhino Times, the News & Record and other media outlets. Last week, four of the eight laid-off shelter employees went on Fox 8 News in a group interview to voice their complaints regarding shelter operations.

Conrad said it’s explicable why those who were recently terminated from a job would have a lot to say about a former employer.

“Obviously, anytime an employment separation is made, it is tough on all involved, so you understand some of the frustration,” Conrad said. “I understand that and I respect that – but I just hope that people don’t take that frustration and have a ready, fire, aim mentality toward the shelter.”

The criticisms are generally not that animals are mistreated and ignored the way the UAC was found to be doing, but instead that shelter workers aren’t compassionate enough, do not walk the animals frequently, do not supply the animals with blankets to the extent that they should, don’t check to see that an animal has not spit out its medication and don’t take the time and care to properly evaluate the animals’ mental state.

The key charge that county officials are attempting to refute is that the Animal Shelter is unnecessarily euthanizing animals that could be saved.

After one animal welfare advocate posted charges to that effect on Facebook, Grier issued a statement.

“In response to questions regarding Guilford County’s euthanization protocols,” the deputy manager wrote, “the Guilford County Animal Shelter does not, nor has it ever, while under County Management, euthanized animals due to space concerns or limitations. Rather, the euthanization of animals is a difficult decision made by our administrative, veterinary and medical professionals based on many factors including: health, extreme behavioral issues, and animals that present a danger or have been deemed dangerous to the public.”

Brinkley, in an email, stated the same thing.

“We do not use length of stay as a factor for euthanasia,” Brinkley wrote. “As long as an animal’s health and behavior are not concerns we will continue to seek placement (adoption, rescue) for the pet.”

Grier also wrote in his statement, “Guilford County strongly encourages and advocates for animal rescue and/or adoption of all eligible animals brought into our shelter whenever possible. Any circumstances in which an animal has to be euthanized is truly unfortunate; it is the policy of Guilford County Animal Services to hold, adopt, foster and rescue out as many animals as possible as its first priority.”

Several animal welfare advocates who still interact with the shelter and therefore didn’t wish to be named, claim that Guilford County does euthanize animals for space but does so by labeling those animals as temperament cases. When the shelter gets near capacity, they say, staff becomes much more liberal as to which animals have bad dispositions, and then those additional animals are euthanized. According to the animal advocates, that means shelter workers are essentially putting down animals to create space even if they aren’t stating that as the official reason.

Animal advocates also claim there isn’t enough of a review process before euthanizing an animal and that means a lone shelter worker having a bad day can sentence the animals to death improperly. In addition, shelter critics complain the staff also doesn’t, when evaluating an animal’s behavior, take into account things such as the fact that unneutered male dogs placed in the same cage with other males are naturally competitive.

Grier and Brinkley stated that, in fact, checks are in place in the euthanasia process.

“Two workers have to sign off on euthanasia,” Grier wrote in an email.

Brinkley said that generally a worker on the shelter floor will call attention to behavior issues in an animal and then that first opinion will be double-checked by a manager before an animal is killed.

“The manager reviews it and agrees or disagrees – that would be the second signoff,” Brinkley said.

Critics of the shelter respond that, while it may be the case that two people sign off on a euthanasia order, often only one shelter worker has truly evaluated they say and they say even that evaluation wasn’t conducted with the necessary thoroughness.

The shelter is licensed to hold 300 cats and 325 dogs and Brinkley said the shelter does sometimes get full.

“That can happen in the summer,” he said.

But Brinkley added that the Animal Shelter never euthanizes animals because it’s at or over capacity.

Brinkley also said that, when the shelter does get full, rather than destroy animals, the shelter holds adoption specials, contacts animal foster homes and works diligently with rescue groups to reduce the population.

Animal welfare advocates also point out that animals at the shelter are in an agitated state when they are being held there and they may come in covered in fleas or traumatized – so of course they will snap at a worker or do something else that makes that shelter employee label it as aggressive even though that may not be the animals true disposition. Animal welfare advocates also say there have been occasions when a dog is marked as a temperament case but an animal rescue worker gets the animal and it becomes friendly – “a completely different dog” – as soon as it is out of the shelter and in a car away from those hectic conditions.

Brinkley said he and his staff are very aware that animals behave differently in a shelter environment and he said he agrees that being in a shelter is difficult on the animals.   He said he and other shelter workers understand it is “a stressful environment” for the dogs and cats there.

“It is the environment we operate in,” Brinkley said. “I think every animal deals with that differently.”

The shelter’s director added that there’s some research that shows animal temperament in a shelter isn’t highly predictive of how that animal will behave in different settings.   He said many factors come into play and staff attempt to take those into account. What is the animal’s history with the previous owner? Did it attack a human or kill another animal? How is it interacting with other animals and with humans at the shelter?

For medical cases, there’s a different set of questions when euthanasia is considered.   Are the animals responding to treatment? Are they getting better? What kind of quality of life would the animal have after a medical procedure?

Animal rescue workers have complained that Guilford County sometimes will not let them take animals even when the rescue group is willing to accept all legal liability for the animal.

But Brinkley said the liability concerns the shelter has aren’t always related to legal liability.   He said animal transfer can be structured in a way that protects the shelter but he added that that doesn’t relieve the shelter of its obligation to protect citizens. He said the shelter is concerned about citizen safety whether the shelter is legally liable for an animal attack or not. Brinkley added that part of the shelter’s legal responsibility is enforcing laws that protect county citizens against dangerous animals.

Brinkley also said that sometimes when the shelter doesn’t hand over animals to rescue groups it is because, if an animal his adoptable, the shelter likes for that animal to be on the shelter floor for a week so that there’s a good selection of desirable cats and dogs that keep people coming through the doors. If people only come in and find say, a group of sick pit bulls and no variety, they will stop coming in. He said that, if those animals aren’t adopted after having a chance to be, the shelter is willing to turn them over to the rescue groups.

One thing causing animal advocates to question if the county is committed to doing everything it can for the animals at the shelter is that the county hasn’t used Susie’s Fund at all. Guilford County received the money in late June 2016. The fund contains nearly $234,000 to help sick and injured shelter animals that have been neglected or abused.

Also, critics point out, those funds would likely be replenished if they were used by the shelter since the success stories of animals saved by the fund have always caused people to open up their wallets and pocketbooks and donate more. But now that a dime hasn’t been spent from the fund in over two years, donations don’t come in anymore.

Late last year, county officials stated the money had been used because there were no guidelines in place for the process for using Susie’s Fund. In December, the Board of Commissioners finally established those guidelines. At that time, it was expected that the money would be used to save animals but, as of yet, none of it has been used.

In response to a question about the usage of the fund, Grier wrote in an email, “At this moment, the County has not used Susie’s Fund for the medical treatment of abuse and/or neglected animals at the Animal Shelter. Just recently (this past December), we obtained approval of the policies and procedures to use Susie’s Fund from both the Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board and the Board of County Commissioners. Prior to approval, we utilized operating funds for the medical treatment of any abused or neglected animals at the shelter. We have a dog at the shelter currently that we are considering using Susie’s Fund for the medical procedure required for this animal.”

Brinkley said of the county’s decision not to use Susie’s Fund, that the animals still get the medical care that they need; it’s just that the county pays for those medical procedures out of the shelter’s operating funds rather than Susie’s Fund.

“We’re still giving care,” he said. “It’s kind of an accounting question.”