RIVER FALLS--They're gone. Nearly 200 stray and unwanted dogs and cats, plus a few rabbits and a ferret were removed Friday from the animal shelter on Hwy. 65 south of River Falls.
Cats Meow Dogs Bark owner Jen Kamish complied with a 24-hour "Abatement Order" from the Pierce County Public Health Department. It demanded she either eliminate heath hazards at the shelter site or remove or surrender the animals under her care.
She chose the latter option. An undetermined number of the sickest cats were killed.
"We worked right up until the deadline at 9:30 p.m. getting all the animals out that we could," Kamish said. "I had five remaining employees, and they were committed and absolutely wonderful.
"We stayed calm until the very end. Then we just balled our heads off--out of joy and the strain of getting through."
Kamish blasted Pierce County's legal actions against her, saying they were "uncalled for."
She said her attorney may file lawsuits against former "disgruntled employees" and certain board members of the old Humane Society of Pierce St. Croix, the group that previously ran the shelter.
"This is a personal vendetta against me by those people," she said Tuesday. "It had nothing to do with the care of the animals. I am very disappointed and saddened by what happened."
Kamish said Pierce County health officials made "exaggerated claims" about the actual conditions of her facility.
A copy of the county abatement order obtained by the newspaper lists a string of health hazards and public health nuisances. Among the major ones:
--Overcrowding...as well as loose animals running freely throughout the shelter.
--Urine and feces throughout the facility, including litter boxes overflowing.
--Animals with ringworm, which overcrowding exacerbates. Concern of transmission to workers, volunteers and exposure to the public entering the building.
--Animals failing to receive proper medical treatment...inappropriate record keeping regarding medical treatment.
--Animals with upper respiratory infections, which overcrowding exacerbates.
--Generally unhealthy and unsanitary conditions, including used syringes improperly disposed of.
--Lack of food and water for the animals.
--Strong odor of feces, urine and ammonia...inadequate ventilation.
--The rat problem, identified by a Sept. 1 Public Health Department inspection, continues.
--Potential water contamination issues due to the rat problem existing near the well.
--Evidence of septic system failure in outdoor dog-run areas, and indoor drain and septic problems.
--Inadequate documentation and procedures for animal bites/human rabies exposure.
--Public restroom unclean, feces on floor, cats drinking from toilet.
Sue Galoff, assistant director for Pierce County Public Health, said what happens next at the vacated shelter is up to Kamish.
"If she wishes to reopen, she must meet the conditions spelled out in that order," Galoff said, adding shelter repairs and a cleanup would have to be followed by an inspection by county health officials.
Galoff said repairing or replacing the shelter's septic system would be costly.
Pierce County Sheriff Everett Muhlhausen said he still has an officer investigating what happened at the shelter in recent months through Friday's mass removal of animals.
"We're reviewing the situation and looking at things for potential violations," he said. "If we can substantiate enough information, the case will go to the district attorney."
Muhlhausen wouldn't specify what possible criminal charges Kamish may face.
Last week, the sheriff confirmed the shelter had too many animals. Pierce County sheriff's deputies were involved in the forcible shutdown of the shelter.
Kamish said she will meet with county officials Wednesday to review the abatement order. She said she has until Oct. 23 to comply with cleanup instructions from that order.
Kamish said she and her board of directors have three options to consider about the animal shelter:
--Follow the abatement order, clean it up and then reopen.
--Tear the place down and build a new, larger facility.
--Close for good and sell off all salable items and the land.
Kamish said she has a River Falls area firm working on design plans to build a new facility. She wouldn't name the firm.
"We have plans drawn up," she said, adding this included a list of potential donors and a fundraising plan. All told, she said about $2 million would be needed to rebuild.
Kamish said none of the dogs at the animal shelter were euthanized Friday. She estimated 10 percent of the nearly 150 cats were euthanized.
"It was a quality of life issue," she said.
Kamish said the Golden Valley, Minn.-based Animal Humane Society that worked with Pierce County officials during Friday's closure was a nuisance and forced some euthanizations.
"They hindered us and wouldn't allow some of the cats to leave," she said. "We were jumping through hoops for them."
Kamish had harsh words for area pet owners.
"There seems to be a different mentality in your part of the world in Wisconsin," she said. "There's a general lack of care for animals, pets--letting them run loose, not getting them neutered or spayed. Not everyone has this attitude, but many people do. The animal shelter is turned into the dumping ground for all those unwanted animals."
Kamish, who lives in Newport, Minn., said her animal shelter's failure stemmed from a lack of volunteer support.
"People in Wisconsin need to get your city councils, town and county boards to step up to the plate and help animal shelter facilities," she said.