FOCUS: #MSWelfare Scandal • Jackson WaterAbortion2022 Elections • Race & Racism • PolicingIncarceration • UM Emails • JFP Acquisition

Beleaguered Oxford Animal Shelter to Close After Disturbing Photos Emerge

A black cat sits outside Mississippi Critterz looking forlornly toward a red pickup truck.
Animals now at Mississippi Critterz, like this cat, are still in need of homes and available for adoption. Photo by Grace Marion

OXFORD, Miss.—The Mississippi Critterz board of directors held a meeting tonight in which Board of Alderman member Janice Antonow announced that Oxford’s animal shelter will be closing temporarily after months of rumors, leaks, and photos circulating of sick animals in unhygienic and crowded conditions.

“We don’t have specific plans right now for the shelter,” Antonow said at the meeting tonight. “I do know we’re going to close down, at least temporarily.” 

Antonow, who is a liaison between the Board of Alderman and the animal shelter, went on to explain what she knows now.

“We’re not going to be accepting animals,” Antonow said. “We’re not going to have any staff. The conditions in the shelter are below par, so there would be a lot of work to be done. So we’re just taking it one step at a time.”

Last Thursday, hours before an emergency board meeting that resulted in a decision not to accept more animals—but to stay open—veterinarians Phillip Bushby and Kathy Kvam had inspected the Mississippi Critterz facility. Bushby spoke with the Mississippi Free Press today about his findings. 

“I think the most concerning thing is the lack of any type of records and the lack of any type of identification for any of the animals,” Bushby said. 

Mississippi Critterz was unable to present records regarding intake dates, vaccinations or any other medical information to the inspectors, Bushby said. 

“If you had a half a dozen animals you could take you could keep that information in your head,” Bushby said. “With 100-plus animals, there’s no way they would remember ‘this animal got these vaccines on this date and was de-wormed with these drugs on that date.’ There’s no way that they could keep that information in their head, and they had no no paper or computerized records of any sort.”

Cages too small for the animals they housed were another concern of Bushby. 

“There was one dog, it was a puppy, but it was in a cage so small that I would not put a little kitten (in it),” Bushby said. “This was probably a 10- or 12-pound puppy, and the cage was too small for 2- or 3-pound kitten. That animal could not even stand up at all.”

Still Open for Adoptions and Fosters

Bushby noted that shelter director Jenn Peterman was not present at his inspection on Thursday. When asked at today’s board March 8 meeting why Peterman wasn’t present for the inspection, Board President Aynslee Smith told the Mississippi Free Press that Peterman had been transporting animals to surgery. 

The veterinarian was present at the location for two to three hours on Thursday. Animal Clinic of Oxford, where the board stated that the surgeries had taken place, is a 2.8-mile or six-minute drive from Mississippi Critterz. 

Former Mississippi Critterz animal-control officer Merideth Roberson drove animals to the same clinic during her tenure at the shelter.

“You drop them off, it takes probably 10 to 15 minutes to load them (out of the van),” Roberson told the Mississippi Free Press following tonight’s board meeting. 

Board member Tamara Austin stepped down today as well, citing family issues. Austin can be heard in the Feb. 19 board meeting audio promising to step down, at 22:12, after arguing with fellow board member Gail Brown. 

The shelter is still open for adoptions and fosters, and looking for volunteers for morning dog walks, Board of Alderman member Janice Antonow said.

‘We Need Reliable Oversight’

Local freelance health reporter Leigh Ann Hubbard was never involved in animal-rights work before she saw the photos from inside Mississippi Critterz, the nonprofit organization contracted to run the city animal shelter. The photos showed animals in unhygienic conditions with obvious medical issues. 

A pile of kennels near the dog runs behind Mississippi Critterz sits across from a small feral cat colony in the shelter's parking lot.
A pile of kennels near the dog runs behind Mississippi Critterz sits across from a small feral cat colony in the shelter’s parking lot. Photo by Grace Marion

Hubbard founded the Oxford Animal Shelter Watchdog Group Facebook page on Feb. 16 to help monitor the shelter with her fellow community members after disturbing photos leaked from inside of the shelter starting in November 2020.

“We need reliable oversight no matter who’s running the shelter,” Hubbard said in an interview on Friday, referencing that issues were also seen at the shelter when the Oxford Lafayette Humane Society ran it. 

The shelter itself belongs to the City of Oxford, which has contracted with nonprofit groups like Mississippi Critterz and, before that, the local Humane Society to run it. 

“I’m thrilled that Mayor (Robyn) Tannehill and the City of Oxford made that decision to not accept any more animals,” Hubbard said. “I hope that this leads to a complete severing of the contract from Mississippi Critterz, and a re-evaluation of how the budget is allocated.”

Hubbard says she has spent weeks trying to uncover information on what’s happening in the shelter. She got her wish when the Oxford Board of Alderman announced last Thursday that the shelter will no longer be allowed to accept animal surrenders. 

“Obviously, things have not been working for a long time, and we need a complete overhaul,” Hubbard said. “This is a positive first step.”

‘A Lot of Cats in that Back Room’

The news about Mississippi Critterz followed weeks of rumors and leaks, including the anonymous release of a Feb. 19, 2020, audio file of the Mississippi Critterz board of directors meeting in which at least one member of the board confirmed recent claims of long-term neglect of animals at the shelter. 

Less than 12 hours after Thursday’s announcement, the Mississippi Critterz board of directors held an emergency meeting via Zoom. 

The meeting—which lasted less than five minutes after roll call—resulted in unanimous votes to remove board member Gail Brown and to accept the resignation of shelter director Jen Petterman, effective March 10. 

Photos leaked by volunteers and employees showed unhygienic conditions within the shelter. The Oxford Police Department and Lafayette County Sheriff’s department investigated the issue, but it was announced at a Board of Alderman meeting on March 3 that no criminal charges will be filed in relation to the case, News Watch reported. Photo by Grace Marion

Brown was the main speaker in the leaked audio of the Zoom call, with Oxford Board of Alderman member Janice Antonow and other board members replying.

“As far as their accusations, they are right on the money, because (the shelter director) does—she thinks she’s a vet, and she’s not,” Brown said at the Feb. 19 meeting, speaking of Petterman. “These animals lay up in that shelter and suffer and die. And I will not stand for it.” 

“If I need to talk to the public about it, I will because I’ll take every one of your goddamn asses down with it,” Brown said, going on to say she was excluding board member Natasha Techen Scott from her comment. 

The tape goes on for over 20 minutes, with Brown expressing her frustration with the organization and her peers responding. 

On the recording, shelter board member and Oxford Alderman Janice Antonow defended some of the conditions in the shelter during the meeting. In recent weeks, photos went public showing what looked like neglected and abused animals.

“There were a lot of cats in that back room, Gail,” Antonow said. “I saw them, and it was distressing, but they got transported (to other shelters). She (the shelter director) didn’t go out in the street and pick them up and bring them there.”

The Mississippi Free Press also secured complaint documents that former employees and volunteers presented to the board of Mississippi Critterz in November 2020. 

“It is important that you know we have struggled with coming forward and have considered our love and loyalty to Critterz and to the people who work there,” the introduction reads. “We feel we have no choice but to share this story with you and hope that you will find it as distressing as we do.” 

Stumped Trying to Get Answers

Leigh Ann Hubbard says she kept running into walls as she tried to learn more about what was going on inside the shelter before last week’s action. Elected officials and the city’s lawyer rebuffed her transparency attempts, she said.

”We have to be able to know as citizens that they are being transparent and that they are being accountable and that the shelter is open to the public constantly,” Hubbard said, adding that it should, of course, have normal business hours. 

A white doghouse with the Mississippi Critterz name painted on it sits outside the shelter
Mississippi Critterz is a nonprofit organization with a contract to run Oxford’s animal shelter. Photo by Grace Marion

Government entities are subject to freedom of information laws, which guarantee citizens access to that information. Organizations holding government contracts are often exempt from transparency laws, but the City of Oxford’s requirements for nonprofit organizations receiving city funding includes a clause specifically closing this loophole. 

“The governing board or authority shall ensure that donors, stakeholders and interested members of the public have access to appropriate and accurate information regarding finances, operations and results,” the clause says. “In addition, every board member shall have equal access to relevant information when making decisions.” 

In the leaked audio, board president Aynslee Smith said she was not made aware of previous complaints.

“I’ve not heard about this, yet,”  Smith said in the audio after Brown expressed her own experiences in the clinic.

“I can’t tell you the number of animals I found in there dead,” Brown added. 

Helped by Mississippi Animal-rights Activist 

Long-time animal rights advocate Doll Stanley got involved with Hubbard’s Oxford Animal Shelter Watchdog Group on Facebook to help. 

Pet carriers of a variety of sizes and colors stacks outside Mississippi Critterz in Oxford, Mississippi
Pet carriers are stacked high outside Mississippi Critterz, the pet shelter in Oxford, Miss. Photo by Grace Marion

“We are hoping that they are going to break their contract with this nonprofit and engage new people to run the shelter,” Stanley told the Mississippi Free Press about the City of Oxford. 

Stanley has been aware of Oxford’s shelter system for years, she said, recalling when the local Humane Society ran the building. “I can tell you that if it had not been exposed the way it was, they would’ve kept right on, because there were complaints before,” Stanley said. “This isn’t the first time there were complaints.” 

Stanley explained—and documentation confirmed—that many of the people involved in the Oxford Lafayette Humane Society transitioned over to leadership positions in Mississippi Critterz and, in turn, re-hired some of their old staffers. 

The most notable issue Stanley saw in the photos was overcrowding. “It’s pretty hard to say no, when you’re seeing animals that are going to die if you don’t take them in,” she said. 

The activist explained that people need to understand that overcrowding leads to diseases spreading faster among shelter animals. 

“They don’t understand that sometimes overcrowding and illness are far worse than the conditions,” Stanley said. 

At least one offer has been presented to the city to take over the shelter, the Mississippi Free Press found.

Correction: The spelling of Janice Antonow’s last name is corrected in all instances in the above story. Due to an editing error, we also referred to her in earlier references in the story as a board member of the shelter organization rather than a member of the Board of Aldermen correctly in all references. We apologize for the errors.

Comments

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

 The Mississippi Free Press is nonprofit, solutions journalism for Mississippians and others who care about the state. 

Our newsroom runs on donations from people who care about Mississippi and this reporting. We thank you for reading and ask for your financial support.

Click the Support button below or at the very top of the site. Your donation will be made through the Community Foundation for Mississippi, our fiscal agent. Thank you!

Can you support the Mississippi Free Press?

 The Mississippi Free Press is nonprofit, solutions-driven journalism for Mississippians and others who care about the state. 

With your help, we can do even more important stories like this one.