Former volunteers allege mistreatment of animals at Four Paws Rescue

FILE PHOTO

MILLVILLE – It has been several years since Nicole Hellstrom was a volunteer at Four Paws Rescue, but she is still bothered by what she said is happening with the Millville-based animal rescue group.

The organization’s mission is similar to other animal rescues. It is non-profit, volunteer-run and rescues cats and dogs from high-kill shelters before helping them find new homes through foster care and adoption.

Hellstrom and other former volunteers have come forward claiming the animals at Four Paws are being mistreated, that they don’t receive proper veterinary care and that the shelter is overcrowded. Hellstrom said she was aware of one cat that was kept in a crate for more than three years.

“Those animals have haunted me long enough,” she said. “I’m not going to be silent.”

Julie Hatch, a current volunteer who has spent more than five years with the rescue, was asked by Four Paws director Lisa Shaw to speak to CacheValleyDaily.com on behalf of the organization. Hatch said she is aware of the allegations from former volunteers and is adamant they aren’t true.

“It’s caused a lot of harm to us,” Hatch said. “We do have supporters who say, ‘Wait a minute. I know better than this.’ Most of what they are saying is based on rumor and innuendo.”

Hatch said Shaw’s work has been beneficial to Cache Valley. She said in 30 years more than 11,000 cats and dogs have received vaccinations, been spayed or neutered and been placed into new homes. Hatch, Shaw and other volunteers spend Saturdays at PetSmart working to get the animals new homes.

But the group of former volunteers insists the shelter is so overcrowded that it can’t support the animals, that more than 100 cats and dogs are kept in the homes of Shaw and the rescue’s assistant director Sheri Zollinger. They claim the organization lacks transparency, that animals are relocated and hidden long enough for Animal Control to make visits, then are moved back.

Hatch confirmed both Shaw and Zollinger do keep some of the rescue’s animals at their homes, but disputes former volunteer Whitney Schulte’s claim that there are more than 20 dogs and around 100 cats in Zollinger’s home alone.

“I can’t tell you exactly how many she had,” Hatch said. “She didn’t have that many.”

Schulte said the conditions at the shelter and in the houses are inhumane.

“The cats and dogs live in travel crates,” she said. “So some of them can’t even stand up or turn around. This has all just been ongoing.”

Hatch refuted those claims as well. She said the animals are well taken care of and usually kept in containers big enough to hold litter boxes, food, water and beds. Similar, she said, to how animals at the Cache Humane Society are kept.

Both Schulte and Hellstrom said that Four Paws volunteers are rarely, if ever, allowed in the shelter or allowed to see the animals. Schulte and Hellstrom said they often helped with social media, communications and fundraising, but all hands-on work with the animals was done by Shaw and Zollinger. That alone raises red flags, Hellstrom said, and added that Shaw and Zollinger alone can’t give the animals the attention they need.

“They don’t get out to play,” she said. “Nobody walks them.  Nobody socializes with them.”

Concern for the rescue’s condition goes beyond the group making the complaints. Members of other Utah animal organizations expressed worry as well.

The No-Kill Utah (NKUT) coalition is an initiative led by the Best Friends Animal Society. Its aim is to bring together shelters and rescues from across the state to put an end to euthanizing adoptable dogs and cats. It does that by relocating animals from overcrowded shelters to organizations where they’ll have a better chance of adoption.

Tracy Kelley, the NKUT specialist for Best Friends, said that Four Paws was at one point a part of the NKUT coalition, but lost its status several years ago after the condition of the animals and a lack of transparency became a concern. According to Kelley, Four Paws has applied for membership twice since 2012, but it wasn’t granted after the rescue didn’t respond to requests for a tour of the facility.

Kelley said she is concerned about the welfare of the animals at Four Paws, but due to a lack of transparency from the organization, NKUT can’t help.

“The problem is that Four Paws won’t allow anyone from the outside to inspect the animals,” Kelley said. “That creates a problem for our rescue groups and shelters that are part of the coalition, because not knowing the condition of the animals, that makes it hard for them to know what their capacity is and what they can handle.”

The Cache Humane Society is another member of the NKUT coalition. Director Stacey Frisk said she reached out to Four Paws in the early part of February to see if the Cache Humane Society could help with the overcrowding, but so far no one has been able to see the animals, the facility, veterinary records or even get disclosure on the number of animals.

“We simply requested to see a list of animals in their care,” Frisk said. “Just how many animals do you have? Let’s just start there.”

Cache County Police Department Sherriff Chad Jensen said a complaint was issued by the former volunteers to Providence Mayor John Drew that there were at least 80 cats being kept in Zollinger’s home. Jensen said Animal Control visited the home Jan. 31, but found just three cats and four kittens.

Schulte believes Zollinger knew Animal Control was coming, and moved the animals before the inspection was conducted.

“They didn’t find all the cats,” she said, “but they found that her house was in horrible condition and it looked like a ton of cats had been there recently.”

At the request of Millville Mayor David Hair, Cache County Animal Control officer Floyd Powell also went to Shaw’s home to see if the city’s ordinance, which allows six dogs and six cats per resident with a kennel license, was being violated. Powell reported to the City Council Thursday night that he found six dogs and 51 cats. Of the 51, 19 were in the carport, 18 in a barn and 12 were in the house. The six dogs were also in the house. All the cats except two inside the home were kept in kennels.

Powell said Shaw was open, honest and showed him all of her animals. Shaw told the council she was unaware of the ordinance on cats, and was providing space for them until they could be adopted, but will work to find them homes and comply with the ordinance as quickly as possible.

Consistent with claims from the former volunteers, Millville City Council member Daniel Grange said he was informed that there may have been a local animal boarding facility that was used to house dogs during Powell’s inspection of Shaw’s residence, which were moved back after the inspection.

Hatch said she believes the former volunteers do care about the animals, but that they misunderstand the situation. She said Cache County’s animal control problem would only get worse if Four Paws were to shut down.

“I hope it can be worked out diplomatically,” she said, “so they can be satisfied that things aren’t as bad as they seem.”

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