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To defend its animal shelter, St. Louis County tried to silence its critics

The St. Louis County pet adoption center in Olivette.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County pet adoption center in Olivette.

St. Louis County runs one of the region's largest open-admission animal shelters. However, even with a nonprofit ready to take over its operations later this year, the county is still defending the shelter against lawsuits from former staff and pet owners.

In July, that defense reached new intensity as the county sought a gag order against Mark Pedroli, an attorney leading multiple lawsuits against the shelter.

In the motion, the county asked a judge to restrict what Pedroli could say about the shelter’s operations, including documents he’d obtained through Sunshine Requests, “to any third-party, including and specifically the media.”

In an interview with St. Louis on the Air guest host Emily Woodbury, Pedroli said, “I have never seen that done before, by any government defendant.”

The judge ultimately dismissed the motion, but the underlying lawsuit, brought by Erin Bulfin of Webster Groves, is heading toward trial. In 2019, Bulfin’s family dog Daisy, an 8-year-old terrier mix, bit Bulfin’s daughter. Bulfin’s husband brought Daisy to the St. Louis County animal shelter — but it’s what happened next that’s brought the matter to court: While the Bulfins say they dropped Daisy off at the shelter with the understanding that their pet would be quarantined for 10 days, the shelter went ahead and euthanized the dog only hours later.

Mandy Zatorski, a former manager at the St. Louis County animal shelter, says its problems won't be solved by privatizing.
Danny Wicentowski
Mandy Zatorski, a former manager at the St. Louis County animal shelter, says its problems won't be solved by privatizing.

Meanwhile, intake records for Daisy show that a shelter worker marked down that the dog had been processed as a “bite” case and had checked the “owner requested euthanasia” box on the intake form.

Pedroli, who is representing Bulfin in the lawsuit, said that the paperwork is incorrect and that the family never intended to have their dog put down.

“They had planned on picking up the dog 10 days later. So essentially, [the county] is blaming the people that brought in the dog, saying that they said something that they did not say,” Pedroli argued. “That especially upset the plaintiffs in this case, as you can imagine, because they feel like now that the government's defense is to lie about what they did.”

The shelter’s euthanasia policy has drawn criticism in the recent past. A 2019 audit of the shelter operations, commissioned by the county, showed that its policies for “owner requested euthanasia” effectively obscured the true rate of euthanasias conducted, allowing the shelter to present a “no-kill” live release rate of at least 90%.

Mandy Zatorski, a former manager at the shelter, told St. Louis on the Air that when she arrived at the shelter in 2019, the kennels were overcrowded and the facility’s management — which oversees a mix of staff, volunteers and animal control officers — were dysfunctional.

“My first day I walked in, it was very overwhelming,” she said. “I walked into several staff turning in their resignation notices. I walked into over 400 animals in the building. I walked into a pretty hostile work environment.”

Attorney and former manager discuss STL County animal shelter.

Zatorski was fired one year later. Represented by Pedroli, she’s now suing the county, alleging she was fired in retaliation for speaking out about its conditions and criticizing a push for privatization.

That plan for privatization is still in place. Earlier this year, the county signed a five-year, $15.8 million contract with the Animal Protective Association of Missouri in a competitive bid process. The APA is expected to take over operations by the end of this year.

Zatorski said that she hopes the APA can turn things around at the county's long-struggling shelter. But she’s worried about the influence of the shelter’s current management, who will remain in powerful positions.

“The people that are causing all the problems at the shelter will still be there,” she said. “We're just going to pay more money to have another organization come in and do what we've already proven can be done without privatizing.”

Earlier this week, St. Louis County spokesperson Doug Moore said he could not comment on the allegations brought by Zatorski and Pedroli, citing the pending litigation.

The shelter’s live release rate for July, the most recent data available, was 85%. The shelter’s population as of Aug. 25 was 170 dogs and 50 cats.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."