[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he cute cartoon pets of Waggin’ Tails Shelter may be Cicero’s forward face for animal care, but a group in the town alleges an appalling mistreatment of animals may be a truer representation of the shelter.
Since December 2014, residents in Cicero have formed a group online focusing on bringing forth allegations of abuse within the shelter, claiming that there is evidence and testimony that Cicero officials are ignoring. So far, the group has utilized social media and formed protests to bring attention to Waggin’ Tails.
Town officials were able to meet Frank Soveg, the group’s leader and a resident of Cicero who works as a research scientist at Northwestern University. While at a March 10 town board meeting, Soveg presented a petition signed by 700 people calling for investigation into facility staff, a reform in standards and practices and a public apology from the town president.
“As a community leader, Larry Dominick’s lack of action was unacceptable,” said Soveg to the board. Soveg went on to describe how the group is calling for an investigation of shelter staff, while also trying to engage with shelter officials via social media. “The town’s response to our actions has been nothing short of unsatisfactory and embarrassing,” he continued.
Organizers of the group have told EXTRA that comments criticizing the town or Waggin’ Tails are often deleted and those attempts to reach out via Facebook messenger are blocked. Ray Hanania, spokesperson for the town of Cicero, responded at times saying that organizers “don’t care about the animals,” and that they “only care about their own political agendas.”
At the end of his presentation, members of the town board challenged Soveg by asking if he ever visited the shelter. Though he admitted to not personally seeing it, Soveg said that the group had photo, video and testimonial evidence to support his claims.
Town of Cicero President Larry Dominick said, “I’d take a ride down there before I open my mouth.”
The board meeting was just the latest in recent efforts to bring attention to Cicero’s animal control department. A November 2014 FOX Chicago investigative report into Waggin’ Tails created controversy on the shelter when it aired pictures of abused animals and cell phone video of poor conditions. While interviewing former volunteers, the station displayed images of dogs and cats with infections, illnesses and deformities. The station also showed pictures of rats, dirty laundry and fecal matter in the floors of cages.
Investigative Journalist Dane Placko also reported that Waggin’ Tails put down eight dogs in 2012, 66 dogs in 2013 and over 300 dogs in 2014, according to state records. The town of Cicero calls Waggin’ Tails a no-kill shelter.
Also according to the report, Waggin’ Tails Director Erika Rosas was hired as director of the shelter in 2009 with no previous experience running one before. However, Rosas contributed more than $11,000 to the Cicero’s Voters Alliance, Town President Larry Dominick’s campaign.
Since the FOX report surfaced, members of the community have organized to protest the alleged animal abuse. On Facebook, the group has called themselves “Cicero Residents against Animal Cruelty.” The group has amassed over 1,600 page likes and has organized rallies. Since November, there have been two public demonstrations in front of the Waggin’ Tails facility on 16th Street and Laramie Avenue. There, protesters chanted and wielded signs saying, “We are their voice,” and calling the facility the “Cicero Slaughterhouse.” A third demonstration took place just outside the town hall.
Hanania spoke with EXTRA about the Waggin’ Tails Shelter and the organizers behind the protests. “All of their accusations have been lies,” Hanania said. “We’ve pretty much ignored this group.”
Hanania contends that the group’s motivations are political. When asked about those motivations, though, he said, “I have no idea.”
“They’re against us. They’re against the town.” Hanania said that protest organizers are using the animals to criticize town officials and that disgruntled former employees may be involved. However, despite that being the official stance, change has come to Waggin’ Tails.
“Sometimes controversy is a good thing,” said Hanania. He said the shelter has addressed some concerns, while still dealing with the realities of being part of Cicero’s Animal Control Department. According to Hanania, two workers are assigned to an overnight shift, a time where the animals once remained unsupervised, to make conditions more sanitary in the morning.
Hanania also said that the huge spike in euthanasia was caused by houses in Cicero that engaged in the “hording of animals.” According to him, in March the shelter has been ordered to stop all euthanasia except for when an animal cannot be saved.
Aside from those changes, the shelter has also ordered 60 new cages for the animals and increased their presence on social media. The shelter also has plans to build an isolation room for sick animals, and invest in a computer system to keep track of animals.
Still—for Soveg and the rest of protesters—there is more to be done.
“[These are] baby steps in the right direction, but not as big a stride as I would have hoped,” he said.
The group still seeks the suspension of Erika Rosas, who has not made any public statements up until this point. And the group still has concerns over the shelter’s volunteer program, which has stopped taking volunteers since the protests began. The group’s petition also calls for an independent investigation into the accusations of animal abuse, and a revision of policy to only allow those with prior certified experience in animal care to be hired.
“We’re going to keep them accountable,” said Soveg. “We have to implicate members of the government body because those are the ones who can affect change at Waggin’ Tails. Throwing out the whole thing because it’s ‘political’ is just silly.”
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