Dana Gentry/Nevada Current

Beast, a 2 year-old pitbull and mastiff mix, spends most of his time confined to a small room with a concrete floor. The sand pit he uses to relieve himself is also where he sleeps, says Ariana Williams of A VIP Pet Resort in Las Vegas, where Beast is boarded.

The small window in the door to Beast’s room is smeared with excrement.

“He’s an active dog,” Williams says, adding the facility, including Beast’s room, is cleaned daily. “Just one of those dogs that would rather roll around and play in his feces and whatnot.”

Beast has an aversion to other dogs. Finding him a home has been a challenge.

“I didn’t ask for this dog. The dog was on the kill list,” says Annie Lamb, the founder of Animal Network, a non-profit rescue, who brought Beast to A VIP a year and a half ago. “The Animal Foundation contacted us and asked if we would please take the dog. So we took it.”

Lamb says she has board members who visit the rescue’s dogs at A VIP, and who she trusts “to know what is best for our animals.”

But volunteers who walk Beast and take him for enrichment training once a week say the animal is distraught from isolation and yearning for contact.

Each year the government-funded shelter, the Animal Foundation (TAF), transfers about 1,500 dogs to dozens of rescue organizations like Animal Network in Southern Nevada in hopes of finding homes. Some are placed with fosters.

The rest are kenneled, sometimes for months or even years at pet boarding facilities throughout the valley, a practice animal activists decry as cruel and antithetical to the mission of rescuing animals. They also say the money spent on boarding could be better spent on medical care and food.

“It’s like moving them from one hell to another hell,” says a care provider who asked not to be named for fear she’ll lose contact with the dogs. “I get it. Everybody’s looking for help. Everybody’s looking for fosters. But if you can’t give the dog the quality of care they need, sometimes you have to say no.”

If not for the transfers, TAF’s euthanasia rate of a little more than 10% for dogs would likely be higher, as would its rate of 16% for cats.

TAF has no protocol for following up on the fate of transferred animals, but the transfers are counted in the shelter’s favor when it tracks so-called ‘positive placements’ or ‘live outcomes’, the benchmark of shelter success.

Adoptions, animals returned to their owner, or cats returned to where they were found, are all considered ‘live outcomes,’ as are animals transferred to rescues.

Rescues with government contracts have the highest rate of live outcomes at 96.3%, while shelters with government contracts have the worst rate at 84.79%, according to Shelter Animals Count, a database of information from animal welfare organizations in the U.S.

To the rescue?

“Sometimes the rescues bite off more than they can chew,” says Jason McCollum, owner of Adventure Pet Resort, which houses dogs for individuals as well as rescues. “If we have dogs that have been in here for way too long, it’s no longer a rescue. It’s just housing a dog at a boarding facility.”

“The sad thing is these are not pets,” Annoula Wylderich, founder of Animal Protection Affiliates, said in an interview at Pawtastic, a non-profit where rescue dogs spend an hour a week learning behaviors that will help them get and keep a home. “They have no owner to speak for them. And if the rescue doesn’t care, it’s left to the volunteers. The volunteers are afraid to come forward because they’ll be banned by the rescue and the dogs will suffer.”

McCollum says he tries to limit rescue dog stays to 90 days, “but there’s dogs that have been there longer. Sometimes I’ll tell the rescue to relinquish the dog to another rescue.”

Some rescues are better than others, activists say.

“PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has exposed one so-called ‘rescue’ after another that hoards dogs, cats, and other animals in squalid, severely overcrowded conditions for weeks, months, and even years on end,” PETA cruelty investigator Daphna Nachminovitch said in a statement. The organization “urges legislators to regulate these groups, including by requiring inspections of their facilities, foster homes, and veterinary records.”

The policies of no-kill shelters, according to PETA, are causing warehoused animals to suffer before they die, rather than be euthanized.

But some rescue operators defend the practice of warehousing as sometimes the only way to keep an animal on TAF’s kill list from being put down. The government-funded shelter also relies on rescues to take hard to place animals, as well as those in need of medical care.

A draft ordinance to be introduced by Las Vegas City Councilwoman Victoria Seaman would require rescues to be licensed.

“It shouldn’t be so easy for anyone to get a permit, rescue an animal, announce they’re a rescue, and start soliciting for donations,” says Wylderich. “There should be some accountability to prevent some of the worst outcomes for animals by any bad players.”

Seaman says the measure is intended to bring accountability to boarding facilities and also applies to shelters. The owner of PawZazz, a boarding and grooming facility, was sentenced last month to serve about a week in jail following the death of a rescue dog in the facility’s care.

PawZazz did not respond to questions submitted in writing.

“There’s no accountability and usually the owner that takes them to these places, maybe that aren’t as reputable, can’t afford a necropsy,” Seaman said in an interview. “And so these people get away with killing dogs.”

The proposed ordinance would require boarding facilities to report deaths to authorities.

It would also require boarding facilities, groomers, and others who provide pet services to conduct background checks on employees and prohibit the employment of anyone with a history of violations involving animals.

But it would do nothing to prohibit the use of boarding facilities or limit the time rescue animals may be boarded.

“While a regulation that prohibits the long-term storing of animals in a facility would seem helpful, a problem arises if the animals are not adopted out in time,” which could result in at-home hoarding, says Wylderich. “Based upon some of the situations we’ve encountered, there can be a fate that’s worse than death – if anyone has seen animals living in squalor, not receiving necessary vet care, confined, and denied a basic quality of care in an effort to ‘save them.’”

By law, boarding facilities must be inspected annually. Wylderich wants to see more frequent, unannounced inspections.

“If the boarding facilities are giving them a price break, the rescues will turn a blind eye to substandard conditions because they have nowhere else to place an animal,” she says. “We maintain that whether it costs $10 for a rescue animal versus $30 for a boarding customer, the animals all deserve the same quality of care.”

A recent complaint-driven inspection of A VIP Pet Resort by Clark County Animal Control revealed no violations, however Kurt L. Williams, the owner, was cited for failing to sterilize two dogs on property that he owns. The inspector says Williams said he would obtain a new permit for breeding.

Williams, who is also a recreation official for the City of Henderson, declined to elaborate on his activities as a breeder.

“Everyone has a hobby,” he said.  

The proposed ordinance also attempts to get a grip on breeding by requiring breeders to pay a $50 annual fee.

“That’s nothing with what they’re making off of those puppies,” says Lamb, who says she’s “sickened” that the owner of A VIP continues to breed while making money off of homeless dogs.

Seaman says limiting pet stores and legal breeding would encourage illegal breeding, which she agrees is “rampant and Metro and Animal Control haven’t been able to get their hands around it.”

The proposed ordinance would limit legal breeders to producing two litters in 18 months, with exceptions in the event a litter must be destroyed.

Positive outcomes?

Some activists say the proposed regulations from Las Vegas and Clark County ignore the root of the problem – the Animal Foundation’s reliance on rescues to take animals off its hands.

On Wednesday, Seaman publicly requested an audit of TAF during the City Council meeting.

Wylderich is also working on an ordinance with Clark County Commission chairman Jim Gibson.  He did not respond to requests for comment.

Wylderich would like to see an ordinance that requires shelters to follow up on animals it transfers to rescues.  She’d also like to see a basic standard of care established to ensure needs such as food, water, and sanitation are met, and that “basic enrichment” is provided regularly.

“I don’t trust the state,” says Lamb. “The government runs the Animal Foundation and they can’t get that right. Now they want to regulate us?”

TAF’s intake of cats, dogs, and other critters is among the largest in the nation. The shelter  receives close to $5 million a year from Clark County, Las Vegas, and North Las Vegas.

Inspection reports from the last year obtained by the Current detail a facility in disrepair, with animals housed in dirty and unsafe conditions, some without water.

TAF’s executive director, Hilarie Grey, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.  Grey took over the operation in January. That month the facility stopped providing animal care to the public because of the departure of its veterinary staff in November 2021.

“They aren’t even spaying and neutering dogs before they transfer them to rescues,” says Lamb, adding her Animal Network has taken seven dogs from TAF in recent weeks who had yet to be sterilized. “It’s an additional cost for the rescues.”

TAF is not alone in its challenge to free up cage space. Shelters across the nation are setting up makeshift kennels to deal with the influx of cats and dogs, which some say is attributable to inflation, while others suggest the intake surge is the inevitable result of  COVID-era adoptions by people tethered to their homes and in search of a companion, albeit temporary.

The Miami Dade shelter has resorted to accepting animals that are injured or have been taken into custody as a result of abuse or neglect investigations. The shelter is asking people who find animals to house them while searching the neighborhood for owners.

Seaman, who defeated Grey to win reelection in 2019, says she’s “not done with the Animal Foundation” which she says is top-heavy with highly paid administrators. “I don’t believe that it’s operating the way it should be operating and I’m going to make sure that we are on top of it 110%.”

The councilwoman says she intends for the city to eventually have its own facility, a practice local governments abandoned in the 1980s when the city and county consolidated shelters.

The problem, Wylderich says, “requires a multi-dimensional approach which is why further discussion with officials would be important. It also requires our entire community to be involved in reducing the animal overpopulation issue by practicing common-sense measures,” such as spay and neuter.