After supporters of a closed Columbia County animal rescue group rallied Tuesday, 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 adopted from the Appling facility, gathered in front of the Evans Government Auditorium before the county commission meeting in which rescue 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 pets by name. “This is just a pure demonstration of what all of us do,” she said as she introduced speakers who related their experiences volunteering for the rescue or adopting pets from it.
Shortly after, Gleitsmann addressed commissioners to spell out Happy Tails’ contributions to the community.
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 “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, 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, the 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 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 applause from Happy Tails supporters.
As the meeting ended, Vernier left with a police escort through a back door while Happy Tails supporters gathered at the front.
Gleitsmann seemed stunned that Vernier appeared during the meeting.
“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. It is unbelievable to me. … She is trying to destroy me.”