All Amber Klepsteen wanted to do was make sure her late friend's cats were safe.
Since she first contacted Almost Home, the North Central Iowa Humane Society's no-kill Fort Dodge animal shelter, she believes things have spun out of control.
Klepsteen's friend, who died in December, owned 14 cats. When she passed away, the cats were left alone in her home, possibly for a week.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Greg Wells, president of the North Central Iowa Humane Society board of directors, speaks Thursday afternoon during a press conference at the Almost Home Animal Shelter as newly appointed shelter Director Renee Drown listens.
Klepsteen wanted the cats to be safe, so she contacted Almost Home.
Just about everyone agrees with the story to that point. Then, the controversy begins.
Online allegations - some anonymous - have been made that Almost Home Shelter Director Renee Drown had contacted the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, which would take the cats out of town and euthanize them. They characterized Drown as inexperienced and unqualified, said Almost Home should have "easily been able to absorb a mere 14 cats," and said two shelter employees were fired as a result of the situation.
In Saturday's Messenger
The two fired Almost Home employees air their concerns, and the shelter's board president addresses more issues.
Based on the nature of the information and the speed with which it was posted, some Almost Home officials believe some of the most virulent posts were made by someone who was employed at the shelter or volunteered there.
Greg Wells, president of Almost Home's board of directors, and Drown held a press conference Thursday to address some of the issues. He touted Drown's qualifications for the job and described the hiring process where a field of nine candidates was reduced to four candidates by the board's executive committee, then Drown was hired on a unanimous vote by the entire board.
In a press release, Wells said Drown brought with her "a variety of both business management experience, as well as a background in animal rescue, as she served as volunteer coordinator for the states of Iowa and Minnesota for Small Paws Rescue for seven years." Small Paws is an organization that rescues bichon frise dogs.
Drown, who had worked for Wells as director of sales for Three Eagles Communications, was hired Dec. 17, 2012, and worked with one of the shelter's previous directors, Tania Dencklau, for about two weeks before Dencklau left for a job with a different organization.
Once Klepsteen saw the online posts saying Drown had contacted the ARL, which one website identified as "the largest killing machine in the state," she said she became concerned for the cats' safety.
"I did not want them to be put to sleep," Klepsteen said, "and I did see (the post about ARL) online."
Recently fired Almost Home employees, Katt Flockhart and Barb Smith, said they believed they would be involved in removing the cats from the deceased woman's home, but that at some point Drown contacted ARL.
Wells said he was concerned for employees' safety because of the number of cats, the amount of time they had been left alone, and the build-up of ammonia due to the cat urine and feces in the house.
"It was at my instruction that Renee called the ARL," he said.
Drown said first responders who had entered the house after the woman died indicated to her there was the possibility of a biohazard. She said she went to the house at night, and the situation wasn't as bad as she had been led to believe.
But she didn't want to put anybody from Almost Home in harm's way, and she was concerned that there could be liability issues. Drown said she went into the house to leave food, water and cat litter, and discovered that due to the ammonia concentration, smoke detectors were going off and frightening the cats. She said she disconnected the alarms.
Wells said Thursday he was concerned that she was taking a risk.
Tom Colvin, ARL executive director, confirms that his organization was contacted about removing the cats from the house, something the ARL does on a regular basis using experienced staff members who have nets, masks and other equipment that would protect them and help them capture animals safely.
ARL doesn't present itself as a no-kill shelter, but Colvin said the online assertion that it is the largest killing machine in the state is "designed to be inflammatory." ARL is called upon to take animals from 67 counties and other states, and has a number of programs in place to help animals go on to permanent homes, as well as more than 2,500 volunteers, foster homes, animal behavior specialists and three veterinarians on staff, he said.
While animals are sometimes euthanized for medical and/or behavioral conditions, every effort is made to try to rehabilitate any animal that can be healed, Colvin said.
He disputed online accusations that the ARL charges other shelters when it provides manpower and equipment to assist with a rescue.
Because the request by Almost Home was made on New Year's Eve when many people weren't available, there was going to be a delay before ARL could remove the animals. Before that could happen, Klepsteen and three people she knew decided to bring the cats into the shelter themselves.
Klepsteen said she contacted Drown, who told her there could be liability issues and that Drown couldn't give Klepsteen permission to enter the house. Klepsteen said she didn't need Drown's permission, that she would get the necessary permission to enter the home.
"We didn't care about liability issues. We just wanted to get the cats, and I know that Almost Home is a no-kill shelter," Klepsteen said. "So, I figure if I walk in the door with the cats, and I hand them to them, it's a no-kill shelter, and nothing's going to happen."
There were two dead cats in the house, she said, and a neighbor said one of the cats had escaped. In total, Klepsteen and her friends found and transported 10 cats to Almost Home.
In an email, Klepsteen said that Flockhart and Dr. Mike Bottorff, a veterinarian who serves on the shelter's board, were there when she arrived at Almost Home with the cats and "they were so kind and gentle with these poor scared kitties."
Bottorff has been caring for the cats since they were taken to the shelter and said Thursday that while they are "all doing very well," like all animals accepted into the shelter, they are being kept in quarantine initially to make sure there are no health problems.
"Other than a few runny noses," Bottorff said, "we have not seen any problems" after one cat was initially treated for an abscess.
He also said he was not aware of any decision at any time to send the cats anywhere but Almost Home. His understanding was that "ARL would go in with their team, rescue the cats and bring them into our shelter," he said.
In the described situation, Bottorff said, "we didn't know the state of the house, the state of the cats - if they would be too difficult to handle. We were worried about the possibility of disease, the possibility of a biohazard. Rabies is the big one. We were just concerned."
Klepsteen said, "All I know is what I personally know. I want to get the cats adoptable. I want them to be in a warm, fuzzy bed somewhere. And with all this, that's not going to happen.
"I don't want people to not adopt them. I'm going to follow them until every one of them is placed in a home," she said.
She feels she owes that to her friend.
"She loved her cats. Her pets were her life," Klepsteen said. "I wasn't going to just back down and let something unknown happen to them."