GONZALES — Nearly a week after a simmering dispute between the Ascension Parish Animal Shelter and a nonprofit rescue group burst into view on social media, the disagreement has led to a renewed call for an independent probe into the shelter while parish government has also sued to set the administrative cost of public records inquiries made by the rescue group on the shelter’s operations.
Meanwhile, even as the nonprofit, Companion Animal Rescue of Ascension, plans a potentially contentious public meeting on the shelter at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in St. Amant, CARA has backed off its own threatened lawsuit over being barred from shelter and has discussed meeting with parish officials to try to address its concerns.
“We have received such an overwhelming amount of support from the community that we hope to get this resolved without resorting to litigation,” M. Virginia Kelly Smith, attorney for CARA, wrote in an email Friday.
“As such, we have no immediate plans to file suit.”
CARA would appear to be dialing back inflammatory rhetoric from earlier this month when an unnamed CARA official promised on a personal Facebook page to unleash “the wrath of hell” on the taxpayer-funded shelter for restricting CARA volunteers’ access to animals.
The volunteer-run CARA finds foster and adoptive homes for dogs and cats, but CARA claimed volunteers were recently told they needed rabies vaccinations in order to take large dogs outside of their cages for promotional photographs. CARA officials also claimed they were being prevented from providing foster homes to pit bulls without a certification.
Smith claimed in a May 12 email to parish officials that their volunteers were being singled out with the vaccination requirement and that it was part of a two-year pattern of retaliatory behavior by a shelter she claims euthanized more than 90 percent of its animals.
“The shelter has continuously attempted to impede CARA’s efforts through the imposition of arbitrary policies and retaliatory actions in response to complaints,” Smith wrote nearly a week before the Facebook post came to light.
Michael LeBlanc, shelter supervisor, has disputed the rabies vaccination claim. He said he only warned shelter employees that if they had concerns about an aggressive, larger-breed dog injuring volunteers, the employees could ask CARA volunteers to take the photograph through the cage.
Once the Facebook post was made, though, parish attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr. moved to temporarily block CARA volunteers from going into the shelter, to protect parish employees from what some parish officials saw as a threat.
The incident unleashed a torrent of unproven animal welfare allegations on social media — many parish officials have defended the shelter’s operations — and also revived festering welfare concerns raised two years ago when the shelter was facing severe funding problems.
In light of that history and the new allegations, Ascension Parish Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee said Friday he wants to see an independent probe.
“Due to the recent substantial public outcry of alleged wrongdoings at the Animal Shelter in Sorrento, I plan to call for a full and complete investigation of the facility,” Satterlee said in a statement.
When a council committee was considering a new shelter funding method in March 2013 due to revenue shortfalls, Satterlee noted, a former shelter employee and an attorney who claimed she had successfully sued the parish over the shelter both raised unspecified animal welfare issues.
The committee and the full council ended up agreeing then on a new funding method that included new revenue from the parish’s municipalities, but Satterlee’s call then for an investigation failed to get a second and died.
“Instead, my colleagues gave me every assurance that we were running a top-notch operation,” said Satterlee, a retired LSU animal sciences professor who ran a 1,000-bird research facility. “What we need now, and have always needed, are facts, no more ‘he said, she said.’ ”
The parish filed suit Thursday in 23rd Judicial District Court to have a judge determine whether and how much the parish can charge CARA for the cost of its public records request in addition to the already specified cost of copies.
The suit claims the parish needs additional fees to review the large number of records CARA is requesting before they are released. While state law does not allow agencies to set such administrative fees, governments can ask a court to set them.
A large portion of CARA’s request doesn’t ask for documents, but instead seeks answers to questions as well as statistics on animal care for the past three years, such as the number of euthanizations or the number of animals that died in their cages.
Parenton said many of the shelter’s records are on paper and can contain potentially private information about adoptive owners.
But the suit also charges that CARA’s public records request “is being used as a coercive tactic because Ascension Parish would not bow to the wishes of Companion Animal Rescue of Ascension Inc. in the Parish operation of the shelter.”
To support that claim, the parish supplied the court with the email sent by Smith on May 12. In it, Smith says that if the shelter does not lift the volunteer access restrictions, CARA would file a federal civil rights lawsuit and “begin submitting public records requests regarding every possible facet of shelter operations.”
In an email Friday, Smith said the public records statement was not a threat.
“I don’t really see how one can utilize their statutorily provided right to public information as a threat,” Smith said.
The CARA forum will be held at The Venue, 13475 La. 431, in St. Amant.