Former employees of an Oxford animal shelter accused operators and co-workers of animal abuse and neglect, leading to an emergency meeting and its temporary closure last week.
The shelter in question, Mississippi Critterz, is a nonprofit organization contracting with the city of Oxford and Lafayette County. On Monday, March 8, Oxford Alderman Janice Antonow, who is the city liaison with the shelter, announced that it will be temporarily closed. This development comes in the wake of whistleblower complaints, public outrage, leaks from within the organization, and a scathing report from two veterinarians who inspected the operation.
Before closing, the shelter provided animal-control services for Oxford, but housed surrendered and stray animals from around Lafayette County as well. The city and county governments collectively contribute over $200,000 to the nonprofit Mississippi Critterz each year, which supplemented those funds with donations.
On Feb. 17, one former employee filed complaints against Mississippi Critterz with the Oxford Police Department and the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department. The allegations concerned living conditions at the shelter as well as treatment of the animals housed there, setting off the final chain of events that led to the shelter’s closing this week.
Filthy and Overcrowded Living Conditions
Widespread public criticism of Mississippi Critterz began on Valentine’s Day with a Facebook post condemning operators for housing dogs outside during dangerously cold weather that day.
“It’s currently 19 degrees outside,” Riki Roederer wrote. “This is your local animal shelter. Why arent [sic] these animals inside? Or have dog houses at least?”
This criticism spurred subsequent posts by and on behalf of former employees who shared what they said are pictures taken during their time working at the shelter. Captured in those pictures are filthy and overcrowded living conditions as well as what those former employees described as extremely sick or dead animals who they allege did not receive proper care. The Mississippi Free Press is not publishing the worst of the photos we received.
Aynslee Smith, president of the Mississippi Critterz executive board, disputed the alleged conditions of the shelter and responded to them on Feb. 18 in an open letter.
“For some reason, photographs have resurfaced on social media that do not reflect the current conditions of the animal shelter….Sunday, February 14th, 2021 a few dogs were temporarily rotated outside while their indoor kennel runs were being cleaned. There was no precipitation at that point in time,” Smith wrote in the letter. “Every outdoor dog kennel was equipped with a blanket and several dogs were provided with sweaters, except for those which we knew would ingest them.”
Despite several attempts to contact Mississippi Critterz regarding past and present allegations against management and employees, the organization has not provided a response to this reporter.
Whistleblowers Detail Allegations of Neglect, Abuse
Merideth Roberson began working at Mississippi Critterz after volunteering at the shelter.
“I started as a kennel tech in January of 2019,” she told the Mississippi Free Press on Feb. 16. Within three months, Roberson had been offered the position of animal control officer at Mississippi Critterz.
“April 2019, that’s when I officially became the animal control officer. I was sent to one school. That’s all the training that I received. I was kind of just thrown out there to do it, so I kind of had to figure it out for myself,” she said.
Roberson spent her days as an animal control officer fielding calls and complaints from the citizens of Lafayette County concerned with strays, runaways and deceased animals. Eventually, she found herself shouldered with work normally completed by another employee.
“We were all doing multiple jobs,” Roberson said in the interview. “I was a full-time animal control officer, and I was also a full-time kennel technician.”
Later in the year, the animal control officer began to question what she was witnessing while at work. She was shocked at the overcapacity and general conditions at the shelter, but was also disturbed by the behaviors of co-workers, who she says abused and mishandled animals housed at the shelter.
Roberson recalled witnessing co-workers mistreat animals without being reprimanded or educated after the problem came to light.
“One time myself and another employee were out at the public dog park with our dogs, and we witnessed him pick up a dog by its neck and carry it into the shelter,” she said.
“I immediately ran up there, and I confronted him about it. The other employee that was with me called the director and notified her of it. She stated that she watched it on the video camera, and he was still allowed to work there after that. To this day, he is still allowed to volunteer at the shelter.”
‘Animals Not Allowed To Go To The Vet’
In December 2019, Roberson said that employees at Mississippi Critterz began confiding in one another about problems they had with shelter operations.
The complaints included widespread medical neglect by the operator of the shelter, Jenn Petermann. The Mississippi Free Press approached Petermann, who declined to comment, but referred this reporter instead to the Mississippi Critterz executive board.
Roberson alleges that Petermann would routinely deny sick animals the opportunity to be treated by a local veterinarian due to the cost of treatment. As a result, Roberson says, many animals were given subpar medical treatment at the shelter and would often suffer long and miserable deaths.
“There were animals that were not allowed to go to the vet to get treated,” she said. “Jenn was like, ‘ I’ll treat them myself. We don’t have the money to go take the animals to the vet.’ ”
KD Luttrell, a former kennel attendant who filed the Feb. 17 complaint against Mississippi Critterz, told the Mississippi Free Press that a lack of funding contributed to the suffering of the animals who were brought to Mississippi Critterz.
“There were days when I got to the shelter, and I’ve got a hundred cats to feed and four cans of wet cat food,” Luttrell said, adding that she was told to ration the food.
“Sick cats don’t want to eat dry food,” she added.
Another former employee, Catey Cuesta, briefly worked as an adoption counselor at Mississippi Critterz. She corroborated Roberson’s claims, telling the Mississippi Free Press that she once begged management to treat a dog that had begun to deteriorate at the shelter despite having entered in a reasonably healthy state. Denied the request, Cuesta then fostered the dog so that she could ensure it received proper treatment at her own expense.
Cuesta also recalled an instance when a kitten was denied the emergency care it needed for a ruptured eyeball. The former employee of Critterz alleged that Petermann reprimanded a volunteer who had taken the ailing feline to a veterinarian in secret. Once ordered, the volunteer returned with the untreated animal, where Cuesta says it died days later.
“I’d call it a kill shelter in a different way,” said Cuesta, who started at Mississippi Critterz in August 2020. “We didn’t euthanize for time and space, but we also didn’t provide medical care, so things died on their own.”
‘We Were Trained to Lie to People’
Each of the former employees interviewed accused Petermann of obscuring the realities of the shelter from outsiders, including the Mississippi Critterz executive board, city and county liaisons, and even Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill. Roberson, Cuesta and Luttrell spoke of what they claim are Petermann’s attempt to hide overcapacity, underemployment and the conditions that resulted from those factors.
“We were trained to lie to people so that they wouldn’t ask questions,” Luttrell said.
“She was sick of people complaining about the conditions, especially about a couple of particular dogs, but mostly about the cats. She was so sick of everybody telling her that all these cats need care. So, she started to take them and hide them places.”
Cuesta and Luttrell described a grim discovery that they claim resulted from Petermann’s mismanagement of the high intake rate at Mississippi Critterz.
“I was at work, and we were trying to clean out parts of the building. Me and Catey Cuesta went into quarantine to grab a big scrub brush from the closet, and I opened that closet, and I just about threw up because I was hit in the face with not only the smell of dead cat, but cooking dead cat.” The dead cat was in a crate on a heating pad. “Turned on. And he was left there to die in a closet,” Luttrell said.
Roberson recalled a one-time surprise visit by Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill.
“Well, Robyn came into the building unexpectedly one day, and I immediately recognized her because I had attended, you know, board meetings with the city. And so I intervened, and she was like ‘I want to see around,’” Roberson recalled. “And I showed her around, and while I was showing her around I was getting phone calls from Jenn saying, ‘Don’t let her in the backroom, don’t take her here….’ So the mayor never saw the back room full of cats. That door was locked. Under a lock and key with a staff member back there making sure that no one opened that door.”
The Crowded Cat Room
Former employees said operators of Mississippi Critterz stowed away what sometimes amounted to hundreds of cats behind those doors. The “cat room,” Roberson said, was Mississippi Critterz’s answer to the high volume of cats coming into the shelter from within the boundaries of Lafayette County.
“There were stacks and stacks of cat cages in the building. Full of sick cats,” she said.
The former employees told the Mississippi Free Press that this room is unheated, unventilated, and cats in both healthy and contagious states are housed together there.
Dr. V, a Mississippi Veterinarian who did not want to be identified, corroborated seeing what former Mississippi Critterz employees described and stated that the operation is incorrectly housing animals.
“You don’t just keep bringing new cats in, just randomly throwing them in that community cat room because they’re all just going to keep spreading diseases,” the animal doctor said.
Dr. V told the Mississippi Free Press that they also saw sick cats in the same states described by former employees.
“They clearly needed treatment, they were just huddled in a corner not moving with their eyes crusted shut. They had snot all over their noses, and they were in a room with healthy cats,” they said.
Dr. V recalled their thoughts upon seeing the cat room, saying to themself at the time, “That’s not how this works.”
Alderman: Critterz Contract ‘Most Reasonable’
Ward 3 Alderman Janice Antonow spoke with the Mississippi Free Press in February regarding the allegations of neglect and abuse against Mississippi Critterz. Antonow acts as the liaison between Oxford’s Board of Alderman and the shelter. Alderman Antonow regularly attends the board meetings for Mississippi Critterz and stated that she has been aware of the many allegations against the no-kill shelter.
Antonow said the no-kill shelter, formerly contracted by another organization who euthanized animals routinely, has been subject to criticism from community members who have varying opinions on veterinary euthanasia.
She confirmed that a November 2020 emergency meeting took place after employees of Mississippi Critterz approached the board with concerns about the treatment of animals at the facility. That meeting prompted the board to place Petermann on administrative leave so an inquiry could be conducted in her absence.
Whistleblowers Merideth Roberson and Catey Cuesta say they presented three members of the executive board with the same statements and graphic pictures they shared with the Mississippi Free Press.
When asked what the city would be doing to investigate the most recent claims, Anotonow said, “Well, you know, I am putting a lot of this on the Mississippi Critterz board of directors.”
“They did an investigation, and I think that they’re on top of it more than they were because of these allegations,” Antonow added.
“You know, I don’t feel like we need to be in there monitoring everything they do with the animals. I don’t know enough about animal care to know whether they’re doing it right or not doing it right. The board, the veterinarians—those are the people who need to be telling us whether it’s OK or not OK,” Antonow added.
Less than three weeks after Antonow spoke with the Mississippi Free Press, veterinarians did just that. Following an inspection of the shelter by Dr.’s Phillip Bushby and Kathy Kvam on March 4, the Mississippi Critterz executive board decided to halt intake at the facility, essentially closing the shelter temporarily.
“We’re not going to be accepting animals,” Antonow said in a Mississippi Critterz board meeting Monday. “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.”
Unethical Euthanizations at No-Kill Shelter
Despite the City of Oxford’s trust in Mississippi Critterz and President Aynslee Smith’s claim that the pictures released on Facebook do not reflect the current conditions at the shelter, individuals claiming to have intimate knowledge of the operation expressed a variety of serious concerns when speaking with the Mississippi Free Press. Some of those whistleblowers, including Roberson, Cuesta and Dr. V, recounted in great detail what they witnessed at the shelter.
Roberson discussed in vivid detail the task of euthanizing animals in a van outside the facility with Petermann, who Roberson claims euthanizes animals in an inhumane manner. Roberson accused Petermann of injecting the fatal drug Euthasol with a gauge of needle too small for the procedure and at injection sites that would not allow for a painless death.
“I can tell you no sedation was done before the euthanasia happened,” Roberson said. “I would just hold the animal down, and she would inject Euthasol in the cephalic vein, which is the forearm of the dog.”
“If that didn’t kill the dog, then she would take a needle and stab it directly in the heart. There were times that I saw her stab kittens and adult cats in the abdomen with the needle—um—conscious and awake. They were just kind of—they were sick so they really didn’t put up a fight, and I would hold them down while she did that.”
When asked about this manner of euthanization, Dr. V told the Mississippi Free Press: “It is something that should be done on a sedated animal. You should never do it on an animal that’s awake. … It’s not considered humane to do a cardiac or liver stick with an awake animal. It is considered humane if they’re sedated.”
Dr. V added that the needles are only about 3/4-inch long. “They cannot reach either organ,” the vet explained. “That means she is just injecting the solution into the thorax or into the abdomen. Neither of which are quick, painless methods.”
Alerting The Board of an Emergency
In late November, Roberson, Cuesta and employees Mary Tanner Simmons, Meghan Titus and Bekah Chapman called for an emergency meeting with the Mississippi Critterz executive board. Accompanying the employees were two volunteers at the shelter, Juanita Boutin and Connie Parham. Rather than the full board, the concerned employees met with three members—Aynslee Smith, Tamara Austin and Natascha Scott—of the executive board.
“They knew exactly what it was like at the shelter,” Cuesta said. “They acted like this was the first time they had seen anything.”
Cuesta said detailing their experiences to the board leaders did not go well. “We gave them the benefit of the doubt that the board didn’t know everything that was going on in the shelter,” she said.
“They immediately jumped to Jenn’s defense, blaming us for the things that went on.
The first thing they went to was blaming other people. Not even acknowledging how traumatic this was for us. How hard it was for us to come to them despite the consequences we knew we were going to face from Jenn,” Cuesta said.
The Critterz executive board claims that a thorough investigation was conducted following the accusations former employees brought against Petermann. Two veterinarians in Tupelo visited the shelter, Smith’s Feb. 18 open letter said. One veterinarian believed to be responsible for that investigation declined to comment, stating that they had business interests at stake. The other veterinarian believed to have inspected the shelter could not be reached for comment.
Cuesta discussed her experiences at the shelter during Petermann’s leave of absence. She told the Mississippi Free Press that she was called into Mississippi Critterz to help board members organize records and deep clean the shelter during this time.
“Why is this animal not in the system? What is this animal’s name?” the board member demanded.
There were some animals, where I was like “I don’t even know if they have a name. I have no idea where their intake information is,” Cuesta answered.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Cuesta said she told a board member. “This is how things worked when I was here and when Jenn was here.”
“We would get animals in, and Jenn wouldn’t allow us to input the animals in the computer,” Roberson added.
Oxford liaison Antonow told the Mississippi Free Press that the City did not provide any type of oversight or audit on the reports Critterz is contractually obligated to provide, instead leaving that to the Mississippi Critterz board.
“The reports that she was giving the City or the board of Critterz were all inaccurate,” Roberson claimed.
‘Every Run Had Too Many Dogs In It’
When discussing the allegations against Mississippi Critterz, Dr. V spoke of seeing the same conditions former employees alleged existed and stated that anyone can walk into any shelter and snap a picture of something unsightly. However, Dr. V told the Mississippi Free Press that they were shocked to see the conditions and lack of order at the shelter.
“There were four big puppies in this little kennel. Every run had too many dogs in it. Poop smeared everywhere. All of their water was contaminated with feces,” the veterinarian said.
“It was just gross, and there’s no excuse for it, really,” Dr. V added.
Dr. V stated that the City of Oxford and Lafayette County could afford to give more financial support to the shelter. “I also don’t know if Critterz deserves to get more money and continue to run the shelter,” the vet added.
With the shelter closed for the foreseeable future, it is unclear what steps local leaders will take to care for unhoused animals currently living in Oxford and Lafayette County.