The trouble with Charlie

Drama abounds at Safe Haven
Charlie, a one-year-old pit bull, was slated to be euthanized by a member of the Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary board according to his new owner Lisa St. Clair. Charlie had been suffering from parvovirus, but has since been making a recovery. BY RYAN MAVITY
September 2, 2013

A former volunteer for Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary, a no-kill shelter, says she rescued a dog that a Safe Haven board member had decided to euthanize.

Volunteer Lisa St. Clair said the dog, Charlie, a 1-year-old pit bull, has responded well to treatment for parvovirus, an airborne, contagious condition that is 90 percent fatal if untreated. She said Charlie contracted parvo at Safe Haven.

St. Clair, owner of Tailbangers, a Millsboro-based pet treat wholesaler, said she was dropping off dog food Aug. 4 to Safe Haven, on Shingle Point Road in Georgetown. She said she often did this to help out the financially struggling shelter.

St. Clair said she was asked by board member Rita Hughes to pick up Charlie at Dover’s Delmarva Animal Hospital and take him to Windcrest Animal Hospital in Wilmington. St. Clair, who said she had never met Hughes, agreed.  St. Clair said Charlie was not treated for parvo because Safe Haven did not have medical facilities or staff in place.

At Delmarva, she said she found a very sick dog, and also found that Safe Haven had requested he be euthanized. St. Clair said she called Hughes and was told to drive Charlie to Windcrest, where they would be expecting him. When she got to Windcrest, St. Clair said was told the cost for treatment was $2,500 for the first night and $675 each additional night.

St. Clair said she would have liked to have paid to get Charlie treated, but she couldn’t because she was not his legal owner. When they finally reached Hughes on the phone, St. Clair said a technician at Windcrest told her the dog “would be taken care of,” and that Hughes had told Windcrest St. Clair had no legal authority for the dog.

After some pressuring, St. Clair eventually got Hughes to sign Charlie over to her, and the dog was treated. Parvo attacks a dog’s blood and bone marrow, but is treatable, St. Clair said. Charlie still needs to be quarantined for several more weeks from St. Clair’s five other dogs, but he has been treated and is recovering.

Former Safe Haven employee Karli Swope said there had been a strain of kennel cough going through the facility lately, although it is definitely not parvo. She did vouch for the rest of St. Clair’s story however.

Hughes could not be reached for comment. Board member Hal Dukes said he did not have any information on Charlie other than he heard he was in poor condition. Safe Haven spokeswoman Lynn Lofthouse said, "There have been issues with several dogs of late with health concerns.  I do know that none, none, have been euthanized."

Former board member Rich Garrett said, “The story makes me so sad because I believe the current board of Safe Haven has totally lost its credibility and legitimacy. Knowing most of the people involved, I believe it's not what any of them would do if they have a choice, but they have boxed themselves into a corner.”

He said the financial questions and challenges – Safe Haven is in debt to the tune of $200,000 and lost its Kent County dog-control contract earlier this month – make the shelter unsustainable, something that could have been avoided if the facility had closed in July and let its animals move on to other shelters. Garrett, along with fellow board members Richard Kirchhoff and Jane Blue, resigned from the board after a board decision to close the shelter was overturned.

“In recent weeks an inexperienced board has focused on personal agendas and vendettas.  Now they find themselves in the situation of having to choose euthanasia because they can't afford treatment and care,” Garrett said.

Dogs returned to shelter

Meanwhile, 47 Safe Haven dogs that were being held by Delmarva Pet Resort have almost all been returned to the shelter.

Delmarva Pet Resort owner Todd Clyde said the last nine of the dogs went back Aug. 22. What has not returned is the $60,000 Clyde said Safe Haven owes him for housing the dogs since April. Clyde said he is seeking to recover the money through arbitration.  He said his attorney has called and sent letters to Safe Haven but those requests have been unanswered.

Safe Haven board Chairwoman Lois Fargo said there is room for all the dogs because the shelter has had adoptions lately. She encouraged more people to come and adopt.

Kevin Usilton, director of the Kent County SPCA, which has the dog control contact for the state, said Safe Haven has too many dogs, but is working to get them adopted. At this point, Delaware's animal control laws are confusing and it is unclear as to who has enforcement power of state law, Usilton said. For instance, while Kent County SPCA has the dog control contract, reports of abused or neglected dogs in Sussex County would be handled by the Sussex County SPCA or the Delaware State Police.

The state is attempting to clarify enforcement powers with the creation of the Office of Animal Welfare, which just began posting notice to hire an executive director. Until that office is set up however, who enforces state animal laws and what the penalties are is still not clear, making it easier for violations to occur, Usilton said.

"When the fox is gone, the hen house runs amok," he said. "It's not a good time to be an animal in this state."

Clyde said despite the facility's financial woes, the shelter was clean and the dogs were fed. He said Safe Haven got in over its head trying to run a no-kill shelter with no money. Much of the organization's financial woes come from the building of the shelter itself, Clyde said.

"They built the Taj Mahal of shelters with no way to pay it back," he said.

War of words

Meanwhile, Lofthouse recently sent out a press release accusing Swope and Tyler Mock of fraud for their site.

The site, Swope said, was started because animals were coming in and not being treated, with private vets wary of taking Safe Haven animals for fear they would not be paid. She said it was disheartening to see animals needing treatment but not receiving it. Swope said the site was a way to help the animals without the money being accessible to Safe Haven's management. So far, the site has raised $7,000, Swope said.

Lofthouse said Swope and Mock were using the Safe Haven name to raise money, with none of the funds going to the shelter. She said Swope has been defaming Safe Haven and its board by telling people not to support the shelter.

"All anyone at Safe Haven wants is for this fraud to stop.  Our animals need the money," Lofthouse said. "It is about holding criminals accountable more than anything. We are pursuing this because it is the right thing to do."

She said the Attorney General's Office and the Internal Revenue Service will be notified. However, Lofthouse said Safe Haven does not plan to sue in order to direct the shelter's funds towards the animals.

For her part, Swope said Lofthouse was making personal digs at her in order to get rid of her. She said after reading Lofthouse's comments, she quit Safe Haven on Aug. 27. Swope said the board of Safe Haven has become paranoid, rejecting volunteers who have spoke out about the overcrowded conditions at the Georgetown facility.