There are 125 publicly run animal shelters in the State of North Carolina and only one of those – the Guilford County Animal Shelter – is currently operating under a failed inspection status.

Guilford County hopes it has finally found an answer for that and other shelter problems: After months of searching, the county has now made an offer to an applicant for the Guilford County Animal Services director position and hopes to have a new director in a matter of days.

County officials say some of the shelter’s recent problems are due to the fact that it hasn’t had a full-time Animal Services director since late July, when the former director, Drew Brinkley, resigned suddenly after the shelter was hit with $1,200 in fines and several troubling problems were revealed by state inspectors.

The Guilford County Animal Shelter has not only failed its inspection – it’s failed twice in a row. In 2017, the shelter has also received warning letters and was hit with fines, so county officials are eager to get the shelter back on track and they’re keeping their fingers crossed that this promising new prospect will take the job and turn out to be the person who finally gets the shelter running properly.

According to Heather Overton, the public information officer for the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees shelters in the state, that department’s Veterinary Division doesn’t keep a separate compilation or spreadsheet of disapproved shelters, but she said the online reports are kept up to date. The Rhino Times checked the inspection reports for every operational public shelter in the state – shelters run by counties, cities, towns and even fire departments – and, in every case, the shelters were operating under an “approved” status, with the exception of the shelter run by the third largest county in the state.

In addition to 125 public shelters, there is also an even larger number of animal facilities such as pet stores, kennels and private shelters that the Department of Agriculture also inspects. The Rhino Times didn’t check every one of those inspection reports for private facilities, but it did spot check a large number of current reports from those facilities across many counties and didn’t find a private shelter that was currently operating with a “Disapproved status,” as Guilford County is. Though, according to the Department of Agriculture, some of those have failed the most recent inspections.

“We do have other disapproved shelters,” Overton wrote in an email. She added that she was aware of one community shelter that had gotten two disapproved reports in a row and then had had its permit suspended.

She stated it is difficult to give an exact percentage of inspections across the state that result in a “disapproved” rating.

“Since we treat all facilities individually, it is hard to give a frequency or percentage of disapproved or suspended,” she wrote. “Our goal is to work with all shelters to help them reach and maintain compliance.”

But whatever the cause of the Guilford County shelter’s problems, it doesn’t seem to be that the state’s Agriculture Department is using an unreasonably tough scoring method or that the department is quick to fail or fine shelters.

Several public shelters and private animal facilities in 2017 have received warning letters or civil fines, but those are few and very far between. For instance, on Oct. 10, the Appalachian Animal Rescue Center in Franklin, North Carolina, got a warning letter from Agriculture Department inspectors because the gravel in a play pit for dogs was less than the required six inches in depth, and also because some dogs didn’t have enough room in their cages, but no fine was issued in that case. And, in June, the Dare County Animal Shelter was fined $500 for a failure to vaccinate some animals from rabies in a timely manner. There are a few other cases of recent fines and penalties. However, over the last three years, no shelter in North Carolina has seen the extended run of trouble the Guilford County shelter has. The worst reports out of the shelter came in August 2015, when the now defunct nonprofit United Animal Coalition (UAC) ran the shelter and state investigators discovered more than 60 cases of animal abuse and neglect there.

Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, who serves on the selection committee for a new Guilford County Animal Services director, said he feels confident that things are about to get much better at the shelter. He said Guilford County has just made an offer for a new shelter director and that he’s very excited about this prospect.

“If this person takes it, then I think we will have the best run shelter in the state,” Alston said.

County officials, however, are very cautious with their optimism when it comes to hiring a new Animal Services director, because a previous candidate looked very much like she was going to accept an offer from Guilford County, but in the end she decided to stay at her current job after that employer made a counter offer high enough to keep her there.

In addition to getting a new director, the Animal Shelter would like to pass an inspection and remove that cloud from above it, but it’s not clear when the next inspection will be.

Overton stated that shelter inspections are surprises.

“Shelter visits are unannounced,” she wrote in an email. “The only exception to this is when a facility first opens and we come for the first time, usually this courtesy visit is scheduled.”

Overton wrote that shelters are inspected once a year at least but may be inspected more than that if there are problems.

“The frequency of when we return is determined on the condition of the facility and staff resources,” she wrote, adding that the state has 900 animal facilities it inspects.

Guilford County failed an inspection this summer and failed a follow-up inspection as well after, among other things, it did not correct some problems reported by inspectors the first time. Brinkley was director the first time it failed and, after he left, Deputy County Manager Clarence Grier was named as interim director and the shelter failed to pass inspection again. Guilford County commissioners were very frustrated at the continued string of problems from the shelter and so they tried something else: The county took the highly unusual move of naming the county manager the head of the shelter.

Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing was named the interim director of Animal Services – which was a way of handing accountability for the problems to Guilford County’s top administrator. Alston said recently that Lawing is the manager so it made sense to put him in charge of that department in order to get the problems worked out.

Lawing has been spending some time down at the shelter; however, he is still the county manager with a many other responsibilities. Lawing is also, by the way, the head of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) – with nearly 1,000 employees – since the county never replaced former DHHS Director Joe Raymond after he resigned.

The latest Animal Services controversy has arisen over the time of day at which the county’s shelter incinerates euthanized animals. Earlier this year, some shelter volunteers and visitors were upset that the shelter was burning animal remains during regular business hours, which meant that people who came to the shelter to adopt pets were met with the smell of burning cats and dogs. When the issue was brought up at a Guilford County Animal Services Advisory Board meeting months ago, Brinkley stated that the shelter was going to stop the practice of incinerating animals while open to the public. For a while, the shelter appears to have followed that practice; however, Brinkley left and, two weeks ago, some visitors to the shelter were met with the smoke and odor from the burning animals and said they were upset by it.

Lawing said there are problems with incinerating the remains in the evening, when it has been done at times in the past – because the county doesn’t want to have one employee alone on the premises, and, he added, it’s expensive to have two people stay after hours to run the incinerator.

Lawing also said that in some cases, depending on the weather and the atmosphere, the smoke will tend to linger in the air around the shelter rather than go straight up and dissipate where it doesn’t create a foul odor at the shelter.

Lawing said he’d been made aware of the concern before the Rhino Times asked about it and he said he was looking into the issue. He also said the county was likely to now start moving toward incinerating the animals in the morning, before the shelter is open to the public.

Ever since the huge UAC shelter scandal in mid 2015, it has seemed to be one issue after another at the shelter and, while county officials point out progress is being made, it’s still somewhat amazing that Guilford County, with its size and resources, is unable to pass an inspection while every other public facility in the state can. Guilford County has made some progress since it took over the shelter from the UAC in 2015, but it really only had one direction to go from that point.

The $290,000 fine state officials levied against the nonprofit United Animal Coalition was nearly 50 times higher than any previous fine for shelter misconduct in the history of the State of North Carolina. The UAC ran the shelter for about 18 years under contract from the county before Agriculture Department investigators found widespread neglect and abuse at the shelter.

At that time, Jennifer Kendrick, public information officer for the Agriculture Department, said the sky-high nature of the penalties levied against the UAC was a reflection of the widespread and wholesale problems that state investigators discovered.

“The fines were so high because the violations were so bad,” Kendrick said in 2015.

She said at that time that the department’s goal in fining such a large amount was never for the state to get money but instead was to insure a corrective course of action,

“We do not fine animal shelters very often, because we want the money to go to the animals,” Kendrick said in 2015.

When the UAC disbanded after the scandal, the state dropped the fine.