Only on 12: County investigating waste water concerns at CSRA Happy Tails Rescue

By: Katie Beasley Email
By: Katie Beasley Email

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Monday, Sept. 20, 2012

APPLING, Ga. -- On Wednesday, News 12 broke the story about a local animal shelter being investigated by the state. The Department of Agriculture is looking into CSRA Happy Tails Rescue in Appling.

During a recent inspection, the department found more than 18 violations for things like lack of paperwork and unsanitary conditions.

Now News 12 is learning more about another investigation by the Columbia County Health Department. The state started this investigation in July and quickly brought in the County Health Department. What they found may shut down CSRA Happy Tails Rescue.

The violations continue to pile up against CSRA Happy Tails. For the past nine years, the nonprofit animal rescue has been operating out of president and founder Barbara Gleitsmann's home and yard.

The website touts more than 8,600 pets that have been rescued. This summer, the Department of Agriculture inspected the property and found more than 18 violations.

They include a lack of records, pest control and sanitation issues, including the possible spread of diseases. They also found Gleitsmann was housing rescue animals with animals that families were paying to board at "Whiskers Resort."

News 12 obtained the documents and the photos.

Susan and Bobby Kirkland moved to Appling in 2006.

"We bought this piece of land because it was quiet, it was country -- and then we built our dream home," Mrs. Kirkland said.

But in 2008, they say CSRA Happy Tails Rescue, next door from their home, began taking in more and more animals.

"It's unimaginable. You can't believe the torment we've been through the last few years; this has been going on since 2008," Mr. Kirkland said. "We can't go out in our backyard with our grandkids, with our children, we can't even enjoy the outside of our home."

The Kirklands complained to the county, even initiating an inspection, but the state couldn't find evidence. A real estate agent even wrote a letter saying that because of Happy Tails, the Kirklands can't sell their home.

Happy Tails backs up to the Kirklands' yard. Even our cameras caught the non-stop barking and then people yelling at the dogs multiple times to "knock it off."

"Normally, we wake up to dogs barking, but pretty much they bark most of the day," Mrs. Kirkland said.

And it's not only the barking. The Columbia County Health Department found "improper disposal of waste water" coming from the washing machine on the Happy Tails property where the group washes towels and other items that are "in direct contact with the dogs and kennels."

"The kennels slope onto our property, and the Health Department has come out and taken a water sample because there are drainage issues," Mrs. Kirkland said.

Standing water with flies and mosquitoes can be seen here on the Kirklands' property. On Wednesday, The Health Department got its results and sent a letter to Gelitsmann stating, "The results indicate that the water has a very high fecal count." They're talking about urine and feces. The state mandates no more than 200 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water. The results show there were 3,750 bacteria and 42,000 bacteria in the two samples.

"It's really frightening," Mr. Kirkland said.

"I am worried, I'm concerned, I'm concerned about our family, I'm concerned about our neighborhood," Mrs. Kirkland said.

The Health Department calls it "prohibitive discharge" and says it must be stopped immediately.

"It does really bother me that my property is probably contaminated, and it's going to have to be cleaned up," Mr. Kirkland said.

And Mr. Kirkland says that runoff from the property is killing his trees.

"You're looking at all of the damaged trees, the dying trees that I've had to cut down," he said to News 12.

"I had a tree service come in and cut down some of the dead trees and some of the other trees that were in the process of dying," he said.

The owner of that tree service even sent an email to the Department of Agriculture saying, "When I went to assess the dead trees, I noticed a very strong odor of dog urine ... it is my experience that excessive dog urine will kill a tree."

The Health Department says the only move forward for Happy Tails is to install a septic system or alternative waster water collection system. Both require permits.

"There's only one septic tank on the property and that's for the house, there's no separate septic system or drainage system for anything with the boarding or foster animals. So it all just drains off into the neighborhood," said Tiffany Vernier.

Vernier first came to Happy Tails last year to board her own pets.

"It broke my heart to leave my dog there and I thought it was only going to be for a week or two weeks initially," she said.

But Vernier fell on tough times, and a few months back, began living on Gelitsmann's property at Happy Tails, volunteering every day in exchange.

The Department of Agriculture found her living in the cat house.

"When investigating this building, a total of eight cats were present; plus a worker by the name of Tiffany Vernier was living/sleeping on a cot inside of this building (Using a port-a-potty and nearby campground to bath)."

In their reports, The Health Department told Gelitsmann that despite the other violations, the "most troubling, however, was that you were allowing an individual to reside in a structure with upwards of 15 cats, given the structure is not meant for human habitation."

Vernier is now working with the Department of Agriculture. This week she left Happy Tails, moved in with a friend and has a new part-time job.

"I'm doing much better today; this was the first day in a week I was even able to take a shower because now I'm finally in a place that has running water," Vernier said.

She says she and her animals will be OK.

"They're going to be on the mend and so am I, and I'm going to get my health back and so are they," Vernier said.

Now her concern is with the dozens of animals still there.

"I think those dogs, the animals there, need to be given a chance to be given good homes," she said.

"The main thing that I want is for the dogs to be safe, for the dogs to have a good home and for us to have peace and quiet. No one can turn a blind eye now," Mrs. Kirkland said.

This is an ongoing investigation. The state has issued a stop order, ordering Gleitsmann not to take in any more animals. At a re-inspection, though, they found out she was still accepting pets.

Since News 12 broke this story, we've heard from several board members who tell us they resigned in the last year.

In an email, one of them wrote, "We were fighting a losing battle. Barbara was asked to step down, she refused. Essentially, the board had no control."

Gleitsmann and her attorney have agreed to sit down with News 12 next week to talk about the work being done to fix the issues.

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