Many of us are passionate when it comes to the well-being of animals, and one would think animals would be treated the most humanely at the humane society.
But after many told us that wasn't the case right here in St. Joseph County, we launched an investigation, that has lasted for nearly two months.
Earlier this year, we aired a story about the St. Joseph County Humane Society. They were pleading with the public for help in adopting the more than 500 animals they had at the shelter.
That story prompted a flurry of comments from viewers, and many former employees, saying the conditions at the shelter were deplorable.
We contacted many of those who commented, including almost a dozen former employees. Four of them agreed to an interview, but wanted to keep their identities hidden.
They came forward with concerns for the animals' well-being; crammed into a facility built for almost half as many animals.
We looked into the allegations, and here's what we found.
“If we found animals in the conditions that we have them living in at the Humane Society, we would take those people's animals from them,” one former employee said
Some of these employees were fired, some say they left on their own, but all say it was hard to work seeing animals living in the conditions at the Humane Society.
“Better to do it than if they don't. Like putting a cat in a small carrier, you can't let it run around the shelter, that’s what wears down the people,” another former employee said.
They recommended we try to get a real look at the conditions, and said the only way would be to go in undercover.
So we did.
Over a period of two months, we sent a hidden camera through the "quarantine" area of the facility.
Most of the time, the public only sees the "adoption" area.
We saw many of the things we were told about: cages almost anywhere one would fit, many that seemed too small for animals to stay in long term, and a stack of cat carriers with food and water dishes.
It did not appear to be temporary storage.
The former employees gave us some insight.
“All those crates you saw in the treatment room should not exist… That really is supposed to be temporary and it turns into permanent for most of the cats for the duration of while they're there,” a former employee said.
Gail Marsh is the executive director of the Michiana Humane Society in LaPorte County.
We asked her for help interpreting what we found.
“OK this is how they're housing their cats? Are these cats, do you know?” she asked, after she first saw the images our hidden cameras recorded. “This is called warehousing. This is not a humane society, and that's my reaction. You know, having animals living in crates,” Marsh said.
Marsh says they only use carriers in her facility to put animals in for about 20 minutes, while cleaning their cages, and says they should never be in a carrier for more than four hours.
“These are not real cages, this is not acceptable for a humane society,” Marsh said.
Marsh says it is critical for animals in shelters to have room to move about, and have good air flow to avoid the spread of disease, which is a big problem in all humane societies.
And she says this type of atmosphere could only inflate those problems.
We also spoke to a humane society worker at another area shelter, who used to work at the St. Joseph County facility.
They were also upset when seeing the images, and said if they saw something like this in a person's garage, they would take their animals away, and press charges.
In the video, you can also see litter boxes in some of the carriers, which combined with the food and water dishes, seem to take up a good portion of the cat's living space.
That is where some former employees say the legal issues seem blurry.
They point to a county ordinance that says owners are required to make sure their animal is not "confined so as to forced to stand, sit or lie in its own excrement."
Ironically, that ordinance was written by the current director of the St. Joseph County facility.
The Humane Society says they house more than 500 animals, in a building that should hold a maximum of about 300.
“It gives them less care than they need, because you simply don't have the manpower to take care of that on a daily basis, or the supplies for that matter, but also you get sickness and infection,” a former employee said.
The employees say they decided to come forward not out of bitterness, or for revenge, but for the sake of the animals still at the facility.
“While it may look like some disgruntled employees going on about things, the implications are farther reaching,” a former employee said.
Other local humane societies use euthanasia to control their populations, and say it is unfortunate, but necessary to operate efficiently.
At the St. Joseph County Humane Society, they make a point to avoid using euthanasia.
In Part Two of the series, we will talk to the director of the St. Joseph County facility, who says it is better to have huge amounts of animals in small quarters than to put them down.
We will also look closer at how humane societies are run, including the use of euthanasia, and tell you what the St. Joseph County Humane Society says needs to be done to solve the overpopulation problems.