Over the weekend, Maria Salvaggio, founder of 2 Hands Saving 4 Paws animal rescue of Thomson, stepped up her efforts to expose what she alleges is severe animal abuse at the McDuffie County animal shelter.
Salvaggio and several supporters previously appeared before the county’s Board of Commissioners asking questions about how the facility is run. Having not received answers to those questions, she said Sunday that she felt it was time to come forward with what she characterized as evidence of mishandling of local strays.
Starting on Friday night, the animal activist began releasing videos, many of which included audio recordings of conversations she reportedly had with shelter staff that she believes prove her accusations.
Salvaggio told The McDuffie Progress Sunday that she wants Juan Montes, the shelter’s fulltime staff member to resign or be fired due to a variety of allegations, including the mistreatment of shelter animals, improperly having animals euthanized, and falsifying records. She also wants an outside agency or group to take over shelter operations from Gail Newsome, the county code enforcer tasked with running the shelter.
“Gail does a wonderful job for code enforcement, but she just doesn’t have time for the animal shelter,” Salvaggio said of Newsome, who is listed on Department of Agriculture paperwork as the Director of Animal Control, though county officials have said in public meetings that there is no McDuffie County animal control agency.
“They need somebody who can appropriately take care of the animal issues in this county and find the owners or find them homes,” Salvaggio said of the strays.
Although 2 Hands Saving 4 Paws has worked with the county shelter for about seven years, she said she didn’t speak up before for fear of losing her license to operate in McDuffie County.
She said she has recorded more than 200 conversations with shelter and affiliated staff since 2016 to protect herself, and that the recordings in her possession back up the allegations she has levied against the shelter.
“The recent killing of the 35 or 36 animals at the shelter threw me over the edge. It devastated me,” Salvaggio told The McDuffie Progress.
One day in early June, she said — in the presence of Montes and veterinarian Dr. Darrell Wester, who provides services to the shelter — she received adoption commitments for more than 30 of the dogs from other rescue organizations up north. At the time, she said, she couldn’t transport all of them to her facility for transfer to the other rescue organizations, so she took five and said she would be back to pick up the rest.
She wasn’t able to return until the next day, she said, and when she did, Montes reportedly told her that Wester had euthanized the dogs already.
“When I said, ‘You killed them?’ he laughed at me,” she said of Montes. “I came home and sat in my driveway and thought about it, and decided it was time to come forward,” she told the newspaper.
Asked if there might have been a misunderstanding, the activist said she is sure there wasn’t.
Salvaggio also describes a revolving door of stray animals between the shelter and the Wester Veterinary Clinic, as well as conversations with Montes in which he reportedly admitted to falsifying intake information on strays in order to more quickly euthanize them.
“He’ll change the dates. As he said in the recording, no one knows when the animals come in,” she said. “All these years, I wonder how many people searched for their dogs that were killed there.”
Salvaggio said Montes also admitted that some euthanized animals are placed in body bags before they even stopped breathing.
“The visual on that just makes me want to vomit,” said Salvaggio. “I know there are dogs that do have to be euthanized for safety reasons, but never just because they need care.”
As of The McDuffie Progress press time, Montes had not responded to multiple calls and voicemails left on his cell phone.
Several former staff members of Wester Veterinary Clinic have come forward to bolster Salvaggio’s claims, saying they witnessed poor treatment of shelter animals, were instructed to euthanize healthy animals, and witnessed the use of improper euthanasia procedures.
Former vet staff site issues
Ashley Jones, a former veterinary technician at the Wester Veterinary Clinic, said Montes abused the animals in his care — especially during the euthanasia process — and that veterinary technicians were inappropriately instructed to euthanize animals.
“The majority of those dogs were never checked for a microchip. They would become the property of the shelter and be euthanized within a day or a couple of days, or occasionally a couple of weeks,” said Jones.
Montes, she said, would arrive at the clinic almost daily with shelter animals, but particularly on Monday mornings, when he would arrive before the clinic was even open.
“He would be at the clinic at the breezeway in the back with the shelter truck loaded with dogs to be put to sleep first thing in the morning. At least once a week, he was there before we even opened and would say, ‘Hurry up before anybody sees me,’” she said. “He would bring up to 10 animals at a time and they had not been on a proper stray hold and had not been seen by a vet.”
She said she witnessed Montes choking animals with leashes or kicking or stomping on them to get them under control, particularly if they struggled while being euthanized.
“I’ve even seen him slam their heads on the concrete,” she said.
Jones said Wester’s veterinary technicians had access to the euthanasia drugs, a controlled substance that was supposed to only be used by or under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian.
“Pam Wester told the vet techs that as an employee, euthanizing these animals was part of our job,” Jones told The McDuffie Progress. “We were told that if we can’t get a vein or it collapses, we were told to do a heart stick through the rib cage into the heart directly.”
She said that procedure is only supposed to be done by a licensed veterinarian.
“No technician should ever, ever, do a heart stick,” Jones said. “If it needs to be done, it is a vet’s responsibility to make sure that they hit the heart and make it as painless as possible. It’s pure torture.”
Jones also said that because veterinary technicians were handling the euthanasia process without the presence of a veterinarian, they would sometimes declare animals dead without checking their heartbeats.
“Dogs were put in body bags while still breathing,” she said, echoing Salvaggio’s allegation.
“Vet techs did the euthanasia about 90 percent of the time if Juan brought the animals there. We aren’t licensed to do that,” Jones said of the practice.
The former veterinary technician said that, at one point, clinic staff was told to lie to the family of a dog that had been euthanized before a proper stray hold period had expired.
“We were told to say we had not seen that dog so that they (the owners) wouldn’t know,” she said.
Jones said that after working at the clinic on and off over more than four years, she quit and is now working with animals in a non-clinic environment. She said she did not report incidents that concerned her to authorities at the time for fear of losing her job.
Veterinarian Emily Garnto Martin, who worked at Wester for the first year after her graduation from veterinary school about six years ago, said the McDuffie shelter didn’t appear to have common processes in place to return animals to their home or rehome them before deciding to euthanize them. She said she, too, witnessed Montes handling shelter animals roughly.
“I remember seeing him be rough handling the puppies, and he was forceful with physical restraint if they tried to bite during euthanasia,” she said. “He was abusive with animals that were brought in. I saw a puppy get thrown onto a cement area.”
She also confirmed the allegation that euthanasia was typically performed by non-veterinarian staff and that the heart stick method was sometimes used without sedating the animal first, as is common procedure.
“There was never sedation administered to these dogs before heart sticks,” she said. “There is an ethical way to do this and it should be overseen by a doctor.”
Martin resigned after less than a year of employment and went to work at another clinic.
Former Wester veterinary technician Liz Moore said she quit a couple of years ago after 18 months working at Wester “because of what was going on between the shelter and the vet.”
Moore said she witnessed Montes removing collars from dogs, though those collars suggested the animals had homes. She also said he would simply declare animals aggressive or sick in order to have them euthanized, without the animals being seen by a veterinarian first.
She said she and other veterinary technicians at Wester would hide healthy strays brought to the clinic so they would not be sent to the shelter only to be brought back to the breezeway of the clinic to be euthanized, sometimes the very next day.
“The techs I worked with at Wester, when dogs were brought in off the street, we would hide them because they were to be euthanized. We would make up owner names on the cage cards and move them around trying to find their home or a home for them,” she said. “The girls and I would try to get the pets adopted out. They would go home with us on lunch and we wouldn’t bring them back.”
Moore said that on her final day working at Wester, she was told things would never change.
“He (veterinarian Darrell Wester) said he built our shelter, and that the way things are run is that it is just a holding place to wait for them to be euthanized,” she said. “He told me that will never change.”
Veterinarian Darrell Wester declined to comment at this time via an email message sent to the newspaper by his wife, Pam Wester.
Salvaggio and her supporters say they will do everything they can to ensure that there is a change in how the county handles stray animals and animal control issues going forward.
She is not shy about saying 2 Hands Saving 4 Paws would be willing to step in to oversee the shelter and animal control activities in McDuffie County, and that she would take on that responsibility without payment to herself or her organization, using the budgeted county funds only for the actual proper care of the animals.
She believes the main focus of the shelter should be reuniting animals with their families or finding them new homes.
“I’d take that shelter over in a heartbeat. Give it to a rescue or humane society strictly for animal care. The stray holds could be done here (at the rescue) and we could be open more hours. It gives an owner an opportunity to find their dog. These dogs aren’t given an opportunity to get back home,” she said.
Salvaggio said software she has available could be used to accurately log photos and intake information about each animal and also to make that information available online to allow local families to locate their lost pets. With a network of adoption organizations, she said, a rescue could rehome unclaimed animals, rather than have them euthanized as a regular practice.
“We can network these dogs and get the dogs out to new homes,” she said.
As for animal control, she said a rescue could partner with law enforcement to accompany rescue personnel into situations where that might be necessary.
Salvaggio said she and her supporters feel vindicated by the county’s decision to open an investigation. (See related story, "County opens internal investigation of animal shelter")
“It is absolutely the best news that I have heard to date. It is astonishing and I am very happy to hear it,” she said.
She said she will stop posting videos including what she says is audio evidence of malfeasance at the shelter until the investigation is complete, as long as appropriate action is taken.
The 2 Hands Saving 4 Paws founder said that she has already filed a complaint against Darrell Wester with the Georgia State Board of Veterinary Medicine and expects other witnesses will do the same.
She said that if the county investigation doesn’t result in meaningful change, she will look into filing criminal complaints against those involved and will go to court to have warrants issued on her own if it comes to that. She also said she would likely file complaints with PETA and the national humane society.
After the county announced its investigation Monday, Salvaggio said she declined an invitation to meet with Wester and County Manager David Crawley because she believes the actions of the Wester Veterinary Clinic should be part of any investigation’s focus.
She did, however, meet with Crawley on Tuesday morning to share with him the information and evidence she says she has of the alleged abuses at the county animal shelter. She is also encouraging other witnesses to come forward and share what they know with all investigating authorities.
In the end, she remains committed to seeing Montes resign and Newsome relieved of responsibility for overseeing shelter operations.
“I’m just looking for them to resign, walk away,” she said. “Get some animal advocates in there.”