Rockland Green’s Control Of Animal Shelter Signals A Return To Euthanasia After Hi-Tor Ran A No-Kill Facility For More Than A Decade

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Insiders Say Rockland Green’s Short-Term Consultant Four Legs Good Prepared A List To Euthanize Animals; Rockland Green’s Advisors Are Recommending Euthanasia For An Overcrowded Shelter With Open-Admissions Policy

By Tina Traster

Crystal. Cookie. Cali. Arlo. And Hudson — but he’s had a reprieve. This is a “list” of pit bulls, pit bull mixes that may be euthanized, according to several sources at Rockland Green’s “Rockland Cares Animal Shelter” — the former Hi Tor Shelter in Pomona.

“Rockland Green has been trying to warm up the population to euthanasia since it took over animal management,” said a former volunteer who worked with dogs.

The new animal management consultant hired by Rockland Green to replace Hi Tor in late September through the end of December is reportedly embracing euthanasia for non-terminally ill animals due to overcrowding and the belief that certain animals are dangerous and unadoptable, according to several accounts. This marks a complete reversal for the management of Rockland County’s shelter animals: For more than a decade, Hi Tor adhered to a strict policy of being a no-kill shelter, which meant only terminally ill animals beyond treatment were put down. Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal welfare organization, in 2022 awarded Hi Tor a “No-Kill Shelter Award,” recognizing Hi Tor’s “over 90 percent save rate for cats and dogs at the shelter.”

When Rockland Green (Rockland County’s Solid Waste Management Authority) took responsibility for the county’s animal management and contracted with Hi Tor in January 2023, the shelter operator retained its independence to run the organization as it saw fit, according to the two-year contract that Rockland Green abruptly severed on Sept. 21, 2023, with no warning or notice. But now, Four Legs Good, a small nonprofit cat rescue operation that has been hired as a consultant through Dec. 31st to run the daily operations at the shelter, is fully beholden to Rockland Green’s policies and management, according to the language of the “Consulting Agreement For Animal Shelter Management and Operation Services” between Four Legs Good and Rockland Green, which RCBJ has obtained.

Rockland Green severed its contract in September with Hi Tor, which ran the shelter for 60 years, allegedly due to a panleukopenia viral outbreak during the height of “kitten season” in July. The outbreak, common in shelter populations around the country, particularly open-admission shelters, cleared up within weeks. However, insiders say there is a fresh outbreak of panleukopenia, as well as at least 15 cats afflicted with ringworm, a highly contagious condition that several years ago necessitated the removal and relocation of Hi Tor’s cats to the County’s empty Sain building in New City for isolation. In addition, the shelter has not been accepting or adopting cats for weeks, and dog adoptions have slowed to a trickle, compared to the previous nine months.

“Rockland Green has been trying to warm up the population to euthanasia since it took over animal management,” said a former volunteer who worked with dogs. “It wants to make more space. That’s not how we did things. We did everything we could to work with these dogs and to get them to foster families or sanctuaries even if they were too far gone.” Sanctuaries can charge up to $10,000 to take an unadoptable dog. Hi Tor had an extensive foster network developed over many years of operation.

Concern over the shelter returning to a “kill shelter” was raised at a recent Rockland Green public meeting where several dogs were named as “listed” for possible euthanizing. Rockland Green Chairman Howard Phillips denied any knowledge of a list of dogs slated for euthanizing. Phillips has maintained that the new shelter Rockland Green hopes to build in an empty warehouse in the Village of West Haverstraw will not be a kill shelter but insiders say he’s laying the groundwork so the public will become accustomed to a practice that was abandoned long ago in the county and beyond in the sheltering industry.

“I always felt that Rockland Green’s requirement that Hi Tor accept every animal that arrived at the shelter was intended to cause overcrowding so we would be forced to euthanize,” said a former manager at Hi Tor, who preferred to remain nameless. “We never did euthanize for space or aggressiveness, but Rockland Green’s consultants urged us to use euthanasia as a population management tool.”

Nixie Gueits, who has run Four Legs Good from the basement of a large house she owns on South Mountain Road in New City, at Rockland Green’s public meeting last week, denied that any of the named dogs had been euthanized,” but she said one of those dogs mentioned was sent to a “very reputable rescue.” In fact, that dog has been taken home by a shelter worker, according to several accounts, and not to any rescue registered with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the state agency charged with registering shelter and rescue operations. The “reputable rescue” Gueits referred was a 501c3 nonprofit that had its status revoked in May of 2020.

Sumprer is considering filing a “wage-theft” complaint against Four Legs Good and Rockland Cares. In September, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation that makes wage theft a criminal larceny in New York State.

Jen Sumprer, who was recently fired by Four Legs Good without warning or discipline, said she believes the true cause of her termination was that she spoke out against euthanizing healthy dogs. She was told she was being fired because “she smokes” and that “she wasn’t a good fit.”

Sumprer said the smoking allegation is irrational – and that Four Legs Good management and others “smoke all day long on the campus.”

When Rockland Green abruptly took over in late September, it told the Hi Tor Board to fire its employees because effectively the public authority put itself in control of the shelter. The new contract with Four Legs Good permits Rockland Green to “direct” Four Legs Good’s employees as necessary. The contract runs until December 31st and allows Rockland Green to cancel anytime with 15 days notice.

A handful of employees were interviewed and rehired, including Sumprer, who said during week one she was told she was “an unpaid volunteer” on trial, and received no compensation. After week one, she claims she’d been working seven days a week but has only been paid for a 40-hour week. She has not received any overtime pay for hours worked over 40 per week. Other insiders say they’re working overtime without compensation and do not understand the change in policy given that Rockland Green has raised $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars in 2022 to cover operations for the shelter.

“I used to get overtime under Hi Tor, but not anymore,” she said. “I’ve been doing it because I’m one of the few dog handlers who can manage the difficult dogs and I know they need extra help. They are seriously understaffed.”

Another employee said, “Four Legs Good are cat people. They are not dog people. About 30 percent of the dogs don’t even get out to be walked every day.” He said the shelter is woefully understaffed and does not have enough volunteers.

Sumprer is considering filing a “wage-theft” complaint against Four Legs Good and Rockland Cares. In September, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation that makes wage theft a criminal larceny in New York State. Sumprer says employees are told any hours worked over 40 hours are “volunteer hours.”

When asked about Sumprer’s firing at Rockland Green’s public meeting last week, Phillips said “no one has been fired.” But Gueits, who spoke also at the meeting, confirmed Sumprer had been fired for “smoking.”  A second dedicated employee had at press time walked out in protest of Sumprer’s firing. Sumprer, who had been working with difficult pit bulls and pit bull mixes, joined Hi Tor in late 2021, and is an experienced dog handler.

“I started volunteering at Hi Tor when I was seven,” she said. “Hi Tor has always been my heart.”

The fired employee, along with others who have inside knowledge, said Four Legs Good has begun “making lists” of animals slated for euthanasia due to overcrowding, as well as listening to the advice of animal trainers and other animal organizations that have been recommending euthanasia to better manage the shelter’s population of “dangerous” pit bulls and pit bull mixes, as well as “unadoptable cats.”

Those with inside knowledge of the shelter’s operations confirmed the existence of the list. They say many are upset over this change in direction. Hi Tor’s written policy was: Animals who have been diagnosed by a veterinarian with a terminal or critical illness or condition whose prognosis is poor to grave, whereas no other practical recourse suits the most humane needs of the animal, may be humanely euthanized. Animals with poor to grave medical statuses may also be humanely euthanized under measures whereas treatment options are unlikely to suffice to produce a reasonably sustainable prognosis ahead, or where the course of such treatment unnecessarily prolongs an animal’s pain and suffering.

Former Hi Tor insiders said no animal was ever euthanized for lack of shelter space or behavioral reasons.

Is the tide turning?

“Four Legs Good brought in a dog trainer who was quick to say these dogs should be put down,” said Sumprer. “Three dogs specifically – Hudson, Crystal, and Arlo – were part of the conversation. They said these dogs are a danger to society. They say these dogs should either be sent to sanctuaries, an expensive option, or be put down. But before Four Legs Good, we worked with these dogs. We’ve been able to get some of them adopted. They were never put down.”

Four Legs Good brought in “experts” in  padded full-protection “dog bite suits” (think the Michelin Man) to test dogs’ aggressiveness before being listed for euthanizing, said a former worker, who added “of course these dogs were agitated.”  Bite suits are generally used to train military and police dogs.

At issue is whether Rockland Cares, Rockland Green’s shelter, will embrace euthanasia as a solution for shelter crowding or whether it will amend its “open door” policy that requires the shelter operator to take every animal, sick or not, that’s brought to the facility. In its former contract with Hi Tor, the long-time shelter operator had some discretion built into its contract to turn away certain animals. Hi Tor refused to take a batch of cats with ringworm – and never had an outbreak in the nine months it contracted with Rockland Green. But the agreement between Rockland Green and Four Legs Good has eliminated that discretion, and essentially any freedom its consultants might want to exercise.

In late September, just before Rockland Green severed its contract with Hi Tor, Rockland Green invited the ASPCA to evaluate the shelter. At a meeting attended by Hi Tor management, Hi Tor Board members, and Rockland Green management, ASPCA verbally praised the shelter operations, given the resources it had to work with, including its dilapidated 60-year-old facility. At the meeting, Elizabeth Berliner, ASPCA’s Senior Director of Shelter Medicine Services, said Hi Tor was properly staffed, adoptions rates were impressive, and animals were receiving the care they needed, according to at least three people who attended the meeting.

However, Berliner also pointed out the shelter was unsustainable given its “open door” policy, and recommended change in its mandate. In a report issued after the meeting, the ASPCA wrote:

“Rockland Green repeatedly expressed their interpretation of Schedule 2c of their contract with Hi-Tor to mean that Hi-Tor must accept all animals immediately from the public upon request. Hi-Tor expressed a commitment to housing all animals at the shelter for as long as it takes to find a live outcome, including dogs and cats with bite histories, animals with chronic conditions not currently receiving treatment, and even dogs legally deemed dangerous.”

The ASPCA concluded that these two positions are “simply irreconcilable” with providing positive animal welfare and safe working conditions, especially given the condition of the facility and size of the staff working there.

The ASPCA report said humane euthanasia must be considered for animals suffering from “medical or behavioral conditions” that can’t be managed or do not have adoption prospects. Earlier this year, Rockland Green’s consultants at The New York State Animal Protection Federation also encouraged euthanasia at the shelter as a population management tool.

Closed Door Negotiations Over Unfinished Business

In the meantime, Rockland Green and the Hi Tor board are negotiating behind closed doors over “unfinished business,” according to several with direct knowledge of the talks.

At Rockland Green’s public meeting, Phillips said “Hi Tor owes us $160,000.” He provided no detail as to why monies are allegedly owed. An email sent to Rockland Green’s outside counsel seeking detail went unanswered.

But Hi Tor says it is Rockland Green that owes the nonprofit money and not the other way around.

“We owe them nothing,” said a Hi Tor insider.

What’s being negotiated is how much Rockland Green owes Hi Tor for essentially commandeering the shelter’s physical assets when it shut down the operation on Sept. 21.  Rockland Green gave Hi Tor no notice to clear out and fire its employees before it locked the door and turned the shelter over to its consultants Four Legs Good. Hi Tor left behind buildings, equipment, medical devices, cages, veterinary equipment, appliances, and more – 60 years’ worth of assets that have been accumulated but were left on site during the unexpected and chaotic ouster.

On top of lost assets, Hi Tor says it’s owed monies for back salaries and reimbursements on expenses it accrued when Rockland Green was issuing monthly payments to Hi Tor derived from the $1.4 million Rockland Green raised from taxpayers to run the shelter. Estimates from undisclosed sources say Rockland Green owes Hi Tor nearly $400,000 in hard costs though the number does not account for damages stemming from a potential breach of contract.

“They know they owe us,” said a Hi Tor board member.

In other news, Rockland Green has cancelled its Nov. 16th meeting — the third monthly public meeting the public authority has cancelled this year.