GREENSBORO — Abuse. Fear. Stress.

These are some of the conditions that animals at the Guilford County Animal Shelter were forced to live under, according to a report in August from the N.C. Department of Agriculture that outlined 65 instances of neglect.

But the harsh environment wasn’t limited to pets. In interviews with the News & Record, former shelter staff members said that working conditions were oppressive and a climate of control existed that reached beyond the workplace and into their personal lives.

It was a culture that, up until recently, has remained shrouded in secrecy, at least partly because of the strict policies put in place by Marsha Williams, the shelter’s former executive director, who had run the shelter since 2001.

Williams told employees not to socialize while at work and not to fraternize outside of the shelter. She installed family members and close friends in management positions, a professional security blanket that made it impossible for workers and volunteers to complain or deal with concerns.

Her motivations are unclear. She couldn’t be reached for comment, and Duane Bryant, her attorney from High Point, declined to comment.

But Williams’ management style was unambiguous. It resulted in a toxic work environment with high turnover, low morale and a staff who feared for their jobs.

“There was nowhere for me to go to complain about anything, and there was nowhere for me to go in the company,” said Elizabeth McGeehee, who worked at the shelter as an intake specialist from 2013 to 2014. “I would probably still work there if it wasn’t for them.”

Although the shelter is technically a Guilford County agency, county officials had no involvement in hiring or dismissing staff members. Those decisions fell to the United Animal Coalition, a Greensboro-based nonprofit organization that ran the shelter for 17 years under a contract with the county.

Williams, fired last month after the state’s investigation became public, was an employee of that organization and reported to its board of directors, which met monthly behind closed doors.

None of its members worked at the shelter, and most didn’t spend time there. The few who did visit the shelter regularly were reprimanded after Williams told the coalition’s board that they were interfering with her ability to do her job.

“Being a member of our Board entitles any member to go to the facility and INSPECT and OBSERVE,” then-President John Nieman wrote in an email to board members on Aug. 24, 2014. “If a board member decides to volunteer at the Shelter, that board member is subject to the same policies and limitations as any other volunteer. We occupy no special position or authority by virtue of board membership.”

Williams had sole authority over operations at the shelter, employees said, but she managed the facility largely from an office in a detached trailer in the parking lot, protected by a pass code. She kept tabs on shelter operations through video feeds from cameras located throughout the main building.

“She would just sit there and watch, play eye in the sky, basically,” McGeehee said. “If something happened, she was calling you on the phone. It just made you feel like, ‘God forbid I do something wrong, then I’m going to get yelled at for it immediately.’ ”

Muddled practices

Shelter policies, where they existed, seemed random and disorganized. The daily euthanasia list, for example, was compiled by Williams and Marissa Studivent, a veterinary technician manager. Neither woman interacted with the dogs on a daily basis and would walk through the kennel area and add dogs to the list without physically handling them first.

“That was a big problem,” said Hannah Elliott, who worked at the shelter as a veterinary technician for about five months in 2005. “Working there, I learned the true meaning of the word ‘arbitrary.’ You could have two identical animals, same age, same breed, both heartworm-positive, and they’d put one down and treat the other.”

“Exhibits aggression” was a reason often listed for euthanizing an animal.

“They used that term way too frequently,” McGeehee said. “Most of those dogs were not aggressive. I would say out of 10 dogs that were put down, maybe two were aggressive.”

Occasionally, an employee would try to advocate for an animal they felt shouldn’t be euthanized.

“It didn’t matter if I said something,” Elliott said. “The most we could really do was refuse to euthanize a particular animal. But then they’d just find another employee to do it.”

Sometimes, employees would suggest contacting an animal rescue organization to take a dog or cat out of the shelter. Williams rarely listened, McGeehee said, unless she or another manager had bonded with the animal on their own.

“Normally, the only dogs put into rescue were the ones they’d fallen in love with,” McGeehee explained. “But if we suggested it for a dog we had fallen in love with and been caring for, the dog just got put down anyway. She just didn’t care for our opinions, and she played favorites with her managers.”

Working conditions

Most of the shelter’s management were members of Williams’ family. Her son Brandon managed the United Animal Coalition’s website, and his wife, Brittany, worked as an administrative assistant. Williams’ daughters, Candice Williams and Dana Williams-King, served as executive manager and assistant manager, respectively. Williams’ sister, Randolyn Mayo, oversaw the volunteers.

Employees were told not to discuss pay, McGeehee said, although it was generally known that most of the full-time workers, including the veterinary technicians, made minimum wage.

It’s unclear how much money the family made collectively, although tax documents show that Williams, as director, received a salary of $92,107 in 2013. That year, the United Animal Coalition paid just less than $1.1 million in total compensation for 88 employees.

Employees were yelled at for socializing during work hours and taking their time to treat and bathe animals. They were cautioned not to contact each other outside of work or to interact with volunteers inside the shelter.

But being in management had its perks.

“I remember one time Candice had a mobile car-detailing service come to the shelter to work on her car,” Elliott said. “No other employee would be treated like that. We were criticized harshly if we were seen even taking a break. It was a horrible working environment. It was truly the haves and the have-nots.”

Cruelty found

The state’s investigation outlined dozens of examples of animal cruelty, including multiple dogs and cats who were admitted to the shelter with injuries and didn’t receive medical attention before being euthanized.

McGeehee said she saw some examples of that. Injured dogs admitted to the shelter would be evaluated by a veterinary technician but would not receive X-rays or further medical treatment unless they were deemed a “high priority” dog that could potentially raise money for the shelter, like Toby, the burned Lhasa apso puppy.

Neglect was rampant throughout the building. Kittens were left in their cages, covered in food, for days at a time.

Animals were pulled and dragged from place to place, sometimes scraping their paws in the process.

Workers would use bleach to clean the dog kennels without properly rinsing it, burning the dogs’ paw pads when they re-entered their cages.

Employees didn’t report those instances or try to change the policies, Elliott said, because they feared for their jobs — and there was no one to tell.

“You get so defeated by the nepotism,” she said. “You go into this type of job knowing there are going to be struggles, but I didn’t expect it to be like this. The interpersonal stuff, the staff and how they treated us and the animals was awful.”

Cold shoulder

Conditions weren’t better for volunteers, who were also encouraged to keep to themselves, avoid conversations with employees and do their work without causing trouble.

If volunteers approached management with questions or suggestions, they usually would be ignored. Blair Bloomquist, who volunteered with her parents, had inquired about the shelter’s relationship with animal rescue groups after noticing that certain cats and dogs were being euthanized instead of sent to foster homes.

“It was pretty clear that their policy was that they were willing to have rescues come in, but they needed to pay the adoption fee for every animal they took out,” Bloomquist said. “We had contacted some rescues who said they’d tried to work with the shelter, but there was no policy that allowed them in.”

If their inquiries persisted, volunteers also could be terminated. After asking shelter management about high euthanasia rates and its spay and neuter policy, among other things, Bloomquist and her parents received letters from Marilyn Green, then the president of the United Animal Coalition, informing them that their services no longer were needed.

“The reason they gave was that we bathed a dog in the wrong area and there were concerns about infection control,” Bloomquist said. “But honestly it was just a reason for her (Williams) to finally get rid of us. We were just asking too many questions and trying to get to the root of everything, and that was just not something that they wanted to deal with.”

Unsettling reports

Those conditions had existed for years but only came to the attention of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners earlier this year.

“Towards the end, when the red flags started going up with us, we started hearing reports that community partners, like rescue agencies and volunteers, were cutting ties with the shelter,” said Commissioner Hank Henning, the board’s chairman. “They were leaving or being fired, and both of those scenarios are unacceptable.”

Last week, Williams, Williams-King and Studivent were indicted on felony animal cruelty charges stemming from an investigation into the Davidson County Animal Shelter, which the United Animal Coalition operated from December through August.

Williams was also charged with obstructing that investigation and unauthorized possession of the controlled substance tramadol, a narcotic prescribed for moderate to severe pain in humans and animals. She had more than 100 tablets of the drug, according to court papers.

All three were arrested Thursday and released on bail. They, along with Williams’ other relatives, were fired from Guilford’s shelter in August when Guilford County assumed control of the shelter on an interim basis. Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes has said he expects indictments from a grand jury in his county, too.

The next step

The long-term management options for the facility remain unclear. Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing is expected to make a recommendation to the commissioners, but there’s no timeline for when that discussion might occur. The county could sign a contract with another nonprofit group or fold the shelter into an existing department.

But no matter what, changes will be made. Transparency will be key. So will accountability.

“We had no real oversight over the United Animal Coalition,” Henning said. “There needs to be some mechanism so that we have direct reports coming to us and we know exactly what’s going on.”

The nepotism issue is potentially stickier. If the county directed another outside entity to run the shelter, it would be difficult legally to dictate who the group could hire, Henning said.

“From here on out, we need to know who they’re hiring and firing and how they’re running the shop,” he said. “It’s obvious, at this point, that they were given way too much leeway in the past.”

Contact Kate Elizabeth Queram at (336) 373-7003, and follow @KateElizabethNR on Twitter.

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