By Rick Pfeiffer
TOWN OF NIAGARA —
Amid chants and the loud sounds of honking horns from traffic driving by, about 300 animal advocates lined Lockport Road on Saturday to protest conditions at the SPCA of Niagara shelter.
Chanting, “No more killing” and “Faso has blood on his hands,” in reference to SPCA Executive Director John Faso, the protesters demanded Faso’s removal and said a probe of conditions and management at the Niagara County shelter by its Erie County sister agency would not be an “independent investigation.”
Morgan Dunbar, director of Animal Allies of WNY, which sponsored the rally, charged an “undeniable connection” between the Erie County and Niagara County SPCAs. Dunbar said a local radio station executive, who sits on the Erie County SPCA Board, is tied to SPCA of Niagara Board President Bruno “Brandy” Scrufari.
She also said the Niagara County shelter’s use of an Erie County SPCA vet technician to perform euthanizations, from late November through December, would also taint the investigation.
“Is the Erie County SPCA likely to make findings that the killings (of animals at the Niagara County shelter) were necessary and appropriate when one of their employees was doing the killings?” Dunbar asked.
Erie County SPCA Executive Director Barbara Carr, who will lead the investigation, has acknowledged her vet tech’s work at the local shelter, but told the Gazette that will make him “an invaluable resource” in reviewing allegations against the shelter and Faso.
More former Niagara SPCA volunteers came forward at the protest with stories of what they said were unnecessary euthanizations and failures to provide adequate medical care to sick or injured animals.
Adele Beatty, of Cambria, said she began volunteering at the local shelter in September 2010, and that was when she found her dog, Emma. Beatty said she immediately asked to adopt Emma, but Faso told her she was not suitable to be taken home.
“He said she was aggressive with people and other animals,” Beatty said. “But she hasn’t been like that around our children and animals. (Faso) wanted to put her down and he didn’t want us to take her.”
Wearing a shirt with “No Kill” symbols on the sides and reading “I survived Faso” along her spine, Emma wandered on a leash among the protesters. She sniffed and licked the hands of many people who walked up to pet her.
Charges were also made that Faso approved the killing of animals with conditions that were easily treatable. Scrufari has said that rules at the shelter require that both the executive director and a vet tech approve each and every euthanization.
Melissa Voutour, an employee fired by Faso in December after she complained about conditions at the shelter to members of the SPCA board, said she had witnessed animals that were surrendered or picked up by the agency placed in cages and left without treatment for several days.
“There’s never a (veterinarian) that visits the shelter, ever,” Voutour said. “And the vet tech is so busy (with euthanizations) that they have no time to provide treatment to do vaccinations.”
Voutour also said when she question Faso about the euthanization of what she believed to be healthy pit bulls, the executive director allegedly told her, “We already have too many pit bulls up for adoption. So why would we put more up?”
Despite being fired by Faso, Voutour said she’s not “disgruntled.”
“I worked here because I loved the animals and I still love the animals,” Voutour said. “I don’t think (Faso) is a monster. I just think he’s not the right guy for the job.”
Claire Sweeney, a Niagara Community College student, said she was dismissed from an internship at the SPCA and from her college program, after complaining to her advisor about the treatment of animals there.
“I spoke up and was terminated,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney held an ID card in her hand for a border collie that she said was brought to the shelter as a stray. The dog had what Sweeney described as “flea allergies” and was later euthanized rather than provided medical treatment.
“This isn’t just a card,” Sweeney said passionately. “This is a dog that was put down for its allergies. I saw a lot of animals that were healthy and euthanized.”
Another former employee charged that a cat was taken off the list of possible adoptions and euthanized because it developed a case of diarrhea.
While the protest raged outside his window, Faso was at work inside the shelter. In addition to some agency staff, a lawyer representing the executive director was also present.
The Gazette has learned that prominent Buffalo attorney and animal advocate Paul Cambria has been retained as independent outside counsel for the local SPCA board. A member of Cambria’s firm confirmed the hiring.
The board has also hired an outside public relations firm to help them during the current controversy. Stefan Mychajliw, of Profit Media Group, asked reporters to give the Erie County SPCA time to conduct their investigation.
“There’s been a lot of statements made,” Mychajliw said. “It’s important to let the (Erie County) SPCA do its job. It’s important to let Barbara Carr separate the fact from the fiction. It’s important to step back and let the Erie County SPCA do their work.”