After supporters of a closed Columbia County animal rescue group rallied Tuesday in its support, a former shelter worker shocked the group’s founder by slamming conditions at the facility during a public meeting.
About 100 supporters of Happy Tails rescue, many of them accompanied by dogs rescued from the Appling facility, gathered in front of the Evans Government Auditorium prior to the county commission meeting in which founder and president Barbara Gleitsmann was scheduled to speak.
Hailed by supporters as a “hero” for her efforts on behalf of abandoned animals, Gleitsmann said the gathering was “like a family reunion” as she called many of the pets by name.
“This is just a pure demonstration of what all of us do,” she said as she introduced a succession of speakers who related their experiences volunteering for the rescue or adopting or fostering pets from it.
Shortly after, Gleitsmann addressed commissioners to spell out Happy Tails’ contributions to the community and asked officials for their support for a push to promote spaying and neutering of animals to reduce the unwanted pet population.
The celebratory air took a less-friendly turn when Tiffany Vernier of Grovetown, who said she had been homeless and was allowed to live at the Appling rescue, followed Gleitsmann’s comments with condemnations of conditions at the facility.
“The conditions have been unsanitary; broken, makeshift pens, unsafe,” she said, showing pictures she took at the shelter.
As Vernier continued, a visibly upset Gleitsmann walked out of the room, saying “This is just unfair – this is unfair.”
Vernier charged that pets’ health problems went “completely untreated,” and said she helped bury animals who died at the shelter “from parvo, from cancer, from dog fights, from untreated kidney failure.”
Conditions at the facility were “senseless and inhumane,” she said. “I wish to thank everyone who has come out in support of moving those animals to a safer place.”
While the Georgia Department of Agriculture report that led to the closure of Happy Tails noted problems with sanitation and documentation at the facility, the rescue received satisfactory marks for all direct animal care issues. The final inspection stated “the animals here do appear to be receiving humane care – they all have adequate food and water and shelter.”
Elaine van der Linden, founder of the rescue Molly’s Militia, said while she’s never known the Department of Agriculture inspectors to be unfair, she worried that a fellow rescue group could be shut down when irresponsible pet owners receive little or no sanctions.
“We see in shelters every day, people dump dogs that have been in dog fights, every rib in their body is showing,” she said. “They don’t get a ticket for animal cruelty when they dump that dog off – why is the standard so much higher for rescues?
“Yes, if you have a lot of dogs, you can get overwhelmed in a hurry. ... When a rescuer gets overwhelmed, these people are right at her throats to finish her off. With all she’s done for the dogs and the community, we ought to be a little more understanding of her,” she said, drawing sustained applause from Happy Tails supporters.
“It’s overkill to shut down Happy Tails,” she said.
As the meeting ended, Vernier left with a police escort through a rear door of the room while Happy Tails supporters gathered outside the front door of the auditorium.
Gleitsmann seemed stunned that Vernier appeared during the session.
“Tiffany needed a place to stay,” Gleitsmann said. “I opened up my property to her. I let her live on my property for two months,” Gleitsmann said. “It is unbelievable to me. She is so unstable. She is vicious. And she is dangerous. She is trying to destroy me.”