No charges filed in Spencer County cat cruelty case

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

ROCKPORT— No charges will be filed following an investigation into allegations that staff at the Spencer County Animal Shelter euthanized cats by placing them in garbage bags and freezing them to death.

The Spencer County Prosecutor’s Office and Indiana State Police announced the results of an investigation into the shelter’s practices and the decision not to file charges at a joint press conference Friday afternoon in Rockport.

“Unfortunately for those wanting to see criminal prosecution in this case, the law simply does not allow for it, and the available evidence is insufficient to support a case in a court of criminal law notwithstanding the statutory exceptions,” Prosecutor Dan Wilkinson said in a press release.

The investigation began in August after former shelter employee Bridget Woodson posted to her Facebook page an account of Christina Payne, the Spencer County Animal Control officer in charge of the shelter, instructing Woodson to place live cats in garbage bags in the freezer for euthanization.

Woodson’s story was corroborated which were corroborated in screenshots of text messages between Woodson and Payne and screenshots of texts between shelter volunteer Stacey Jones and Animal Control Board President Joy Zook. As of now, both Payne and Zook still have their jobs.

“I’m shocked, Woodson said in a phone call after the press conference. “I’m really, really upset.”

Law enforcement began investigating the allegations in August. The Spencer County Sheriff’s Department began the investigation, but handed it over to the Indiana State Police’s Jasper Post, citing a conflict of interest since the sheriff’s department and shelter are both county entities.

The ISP brought in an investigator from outside the district to handle the case and handed the findings over to the prosecutor.

According to the press release from the prosecutor’s office, ISP’s report said, “there appears to be no direct evidence or information that live animals were put into the freezer as a form of euthanasia.”

The press release also quotes the report stating that shelter volunteers and staff who came forward stated they never actually saw an animal they believed to be alive put into the freezer.

Indiana Code is ambiguous when it comes to humane society employees. According to Indiana Criminal Code covering animal cruelty, torturing or mutilating vertebrate animals, including cats, is prohibited. However, the code also states that the section of law does not apply to employees of a humane society acting in accordance with the guidelines of said humane society.

“The bottom line is that the law as it is presently written by the Indiana General Assembly specifically bars prosecution in this circumstance,” Wilkinson wrote in the press release. “The Indiana State Police and I have both reached this conclusion.”

Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda, Maryland-based animal rights organization that has staff on site in Spencer county,  sent a letter to Wilkinson ahead of the press conference arguing that the state’s animal cruelty laws would apply in this case. According to the letter, which cites Spencer County Animal Shelter procedures approved at an August 10 animal control board meeting prior to allegations surfacing, the shelter’s policies state that “euthanasia is the act of inducing death by chemical means. This act of death shall be perfromed correctly and professionally by trained animal euthanasia technicians at Animal Control or a licensed veterinarian.” 

The release also says that though the conclusion has been reached not to press charges, that “does not mean nothing happened.”

In response to Woodson’s allegations, the Spencer County Animal Control Board released a statement that seemed to acknowledge the allegations had occurred and reviewed its euthanasia policies in mid-August.

According to the updated policy, euthanasia is “the act of inducing death by chemical means.”

The policy also states that euthanization “shall be performed correctly and professionally by trained animal euthanasia technicians at animal control or a licensed veterinarian.”

The board also outlined euthanasia procedures, stating that severely injured or sick animals will take priority for vet visits. On weekdays, the policy says, staff will contact the vet to find out if the animal can be seen in a “reasonable amount of time,” though what constitutes a reasonable amount of time is not specified.

In the weeks since, the story has gone global, attracting the attention of animal rights supporters throughout Spencer County, Indiana and the country, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Alley Cat Allies, who has staff in Spencer County.

Alice Burton, Alley Cat Allies Animal associate director of shelter and animal control engagement, joined six local concerned citizens at Thursday’s county commissioners meeting where they were allowed to speak. Burton also gave each of the three commissioners a sign-on letter from Alley Cat Allies calling for change to shelter operations that has been signed by 7,965 people world-wide, including 122 signatures from Spencer County.

Video of the commissioners meeting shows Commissioner Tom Brown, who also serves on the county’s animal control board, asking those in attendance to be patient and let events run their course.

Whether further changes will happen at the shelter following Friday’s press conference is unknown. Woodson said she and other volunteers plan to continue working with Alley Cat Allies for change in Spencer County and to the animal cruelty laws of Indiana.




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