Update: The Cheyenne Animal Shelter Board suspended CEO Bob Fecht without pay for 60 days roughly a week after this story was published.
CHEYENNE – A Cheyenne Animal Shelter employee says her boss and local animal control officers abused a young dog with pepper spray last week in an incident shelter officials are describing as a “training exercise.”
In an email sent to five shelter board members Thursday afternoon, Community Cat Program Coordinator Jay Klapel alleged the abuse followed a Tuesday incident when shelter volunteer and foster coordinator Marissa Cox was bitten by an 8-month-old pit bull mix named Tanner.
Animal control officers got the dog subdued and into a kennel, she wrote, and Cox received medical care.
But the next day, Shelter President Bob Fecht ordered animal control officers to bring Tanner and another dog – meant to agitate the pit bull – to the back of the shelter building and told employees, “I better not catch anyone with cellphones out or recording this,” Klapel wrote.
Klapel, who gathered information about the incident from other employees, says Fecht offered Cox pepper spray to use on Tanner once he was agitated. Cox declined to spray Tanner, the complaint says, but an Officer Smale did.
Staff then hosed Tanner off with water “as he was coughing up quite a bit of blood,” and took him back to a kennel to await euthanasia 24 hours later, Klapel wrote. (Shelter records indicate the animal was euthanized Thursday morning.)
“This demonstration is not only a gross abuse of power,” Klapel wrote, “but it is absolutely abuse of the animal involved – it was the cruel and intentional infliction of pain, fear and suffering.”
She later added in an interview that biting was common at the shelter, and that while it could be scary due to the prospect of rabies, retaliation against a helpless animal went against the shelter’s mission.
Shelter leadership is disputing the allegations as a board investigation proceeds. Employees named in the complaint either declined to comment or were not available for comment Sunday and Monday. Fecht declined to speak on the record, citing the ongoing investigation.
But officials did release a Saturday report written by an animal control officer, whose name was redacted, describing the biting incident in vivid terms, saying the dog was “viciously mauling” the employee and had left her fearing for her life.
The report also describes the pepper spraying as a safe, relatively harmless exercise meant to:
- Determine whether pepper spray would make the dog more or less aggressive;
- show staff how to effectively use pepper spray; and
- build employees’ confidence in pepper spray as protection from violent animals, pending additional training.
The report does not mention any order to put phones away, but does note that Tanner “was escorted outside … by the freezer section, where the exercise commenced apart from any possibility of observation of anyone except the designated persons,” whose names were redacted.
It also does not mention another dog agitating Tanner and says the spray “immediately (stifled) his demeanor to a non-aggressive and submitted/distracted state of mind.” It does mention that the dog regurgitated pink mucous once on the way back to his kennel, but notes it was a “single incident” and says the dog “showed no signs of stress, pain, injury or trauma.”
Cheyenne Animal Shelter Board President Chloe Illoway said in an interview Sunday the board was taking the allegations seriously, but she also said there was no abuse and referred to Klapel as a “disgruntled employee” frustrated with other issues at the shelter.
Illoway added the incident was “nothing” the board “didn’t know about,” and echoed the report in saying officials only wanted to know whether pepper spray would work on an angry dog.
Klapel said the report was a complete fabrication.
She said Cox was hardly mauled because she came back to work the next day. She also noted that Tanner was kept at the Avenues Pet Clinic for weeks with no major incidents before coming to the shelter, undermining the report’s assertions that he was a “vicious dog.”
Sheree Sweeney, a receptionist at the clinic, confirmed that record.
“He never once showed signs of aggression,” Sweeney said. “He was a little stir-crazy because he was a pit bull puppy, but we let him out whenever we could. He was a good dog.”
Former Animal Control Officer Travis Talton took issue with the need to test the spray.
“That’s BS,” he said. “We use it out in the field a lot when we feel threatened (by charging dogs.) We get charged a lot, and we know it works.
“If we have found out someone was doing that to their dog, we’d be citing them with animal cruelty.”
Talton said he was fired by Fecht last week after he learned of the incident and expressed concern about it.
Kevin Brueck, a former animal care employee at the shelter who resigned Friday, seconded Klapel’s point about biting.
“We work with dogs,” he said, “so we’re going to get bitten, and we’ve never decided that pepper spray would be the solution for it.”
In an email Sunday, Animal Care Supervisor Cecelia Brown reminded employees they were not to speak with the news media.
“Please remember the social media clause that we all signed during orientation,” she wrote. “This also applies to regular media such as the newspaper and television. If you are contacted by any one of the organizations, please refer all questions to either Bob or, per Bob, Chloe Illoway, our board chair (sic). … Thank you all for having the best interest in our organization and each other during this time.”
The shelter is a nonprofit organization funded by donations and a contract with the city of Cheyenne for animal care and control services.
Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr said the shelter functioned like any independent contractor, and she expected shelter leadership to conduct “any investigation needed.”
City Councilman Rocky Case, the City Council’s representative on the shelter board, echoed Orr’s remarks.
“I want to talk to all the folks involved, including Fecht,” he said, “and see what really happened.”