Animal shelter with high kill rate attracts local and state attention

Published: Oct. 6, 2022 at 5:51 PM EDT
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - As Ogdensburg goes over its proposed city budget, money to the St. Lawrence Valley SPCA will be scrutinized.

City Manager Stephen Jellie says he was shocked by our recent report that the animal shelter kills nearly 90 percent of the pets it takes in.

Ogdensburg pays the shelter $20,000 a year to help the city’s dog control officer.

Jellie says the shelter’s future funding and its kill rate will be discussed at next Monday’s budget meeting. He also wants St. Lawrence County government to show leadership.

“The problem of stray animals, dog control, animal control for that matter in St. Lawrence County is not handled appropriately. There is no consistent service, policy or enforcements, containment, if you will, throughout the county.”

The Ogdensburg-area animal shelter is also on the radar of the New York Attorney General’s Office. 7 News has learned a complaint has been filed against the St. Lawrence Valley SPCA.

Our recent report that the shelter kills nearly 90 percent of the animals it takes in struck a nerve - not just in the north country, but around New York. One person, who wishes to remain anonymous, says they’ve filed a formal complaint with the state attorney general’s office. Others have come forward with stories that some might find disturbing.

“There are times when there’s just so many and sometimes they’ve been here for a very extended period of time.”

That’s Karen Cunningham, St. Lawrence Valley SPCA board president, explaining why the shelter euthanizes healthy animals.

Between 2013 and 2019, the shelter took in 8,335 cats and dogs. It put down 7,049 of them.

A veterinarian, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, briefly did some work for the St. Lawrence Valley SPCA. It started with spay-neuter procedures and other surgeries. Then the vet says there were requests to euthanize animals.

The doctor says they obliged until they learned the shelter was trapping and killing animals the vet says probably could have been adopted. The vet quit.

“I didn’t realize it - they’re a kill shelter,” the veterinarian said. “I just didn’t want any part of it.”

“I was shocked. I had no idea it was so high,” said Janea Bartlett, medical director, Jefferson County SPCA.

The Jefferson County SPCA says it has offered free help to the shelter multiple times, including transporting animals to Watertown for adoption.

“More than once we were told that they do not work with other organizations. They do not want the help. We were shut down,” said Bartlett.

When Cunningham was asked about this, she said, “To my knowledge, it didn’t occur.” When asked if the shelter would work with Jefferson County SPCA, she said, “Not at this time. I don’t think we need to add to the stress of our staff.”

“We’re here to place them in loving homes and give them the best opportunity in life and I feel like they’re not even giving them that opportunity,” said Bartlett.

A number of people have come forward to say the shelter has refused to allow them to adopt a pet. Cunningham says people are carefully vetted and some of them are rejected based on their history.

Lorraine Hajek of Hammond says Cunningham allowed her to adopt a dog as long as she promised to have him neutered. Hajek agreed and made an appointment with her vet.

“When he hadn’t been fixed after a week, she threatened to come to my house and take him back. She also told me to never come adopt another pet from there again,” said Hajek. “She also threatened a lawsuit if I didn’t do as she said... When I got to the vet, the receptionist informed me Ms. Cunningham had called to make sure I showed up.”

Ogdensburg business owner Ben Wenson says he and his wife tried to volunteer at the SPCA on more than one occasion.

“They basically turned her down in an extremely rude manner. The first thing they said to her was we don’t have space for people trying to work off their community service hours,” said Wenson. “She’s never been in trouble a day in her life.”

“Studies prove time and time again that you should trust your public and trust your community and that people will do right by the animals,” said Audrey Lodato, senior strategist, East Region, Best Friends Animal Society.

Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal welfare group, also offered to help the shelter. The offers were turned down and the shelter accused the group of harassment, an accusation Best Friends denies. The SPCA’s lawyer sent Best Friends a letter to cease and desist.

Now Best Friends is working to form a coalition made up of other animal shelters.

“There are a lot of shelters in this community that do a lot of great work and so we think that working together we might be able to make some impact for the animals in St. Lawrence County,” said Lodato.

When 7 News asked Cunningham if she thought there was room for any improvement at the shelter, she said, “I don’t have an answer.”