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After years, Ferrisburgh could act on dog rescuer; neighbors complain about noise, rats

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Posted on March 15, 2018 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



Sand Road dog hoard on porch_8676 copy.jpg
THESE DOGS WERE among a group that came from Heidi’s Haven rescue this past October onto a neighbor’s porch just after toddlers came in from the backyard. Ferrisburgh officials might take action against the rescue operation after years of complaints. Photo courtesy of Lisa Brace. Below: The owner of a Ferrisburgh dog rescue service posted this picture of a pile of baby rats on Facebook seeking homes for the rodents. The property is now infested by rats, and the town health officer demands a plan to solve the problem by March 27. Photo courtesy of Lauren Fisher

FERRISBURGH — Sand Road resident Lauren Fisher told the Ferrisburgh selectboard last week the barking is worse in the summer.

“It’s all hours of the day and night,” Fisher said. “It wakes us up at 2 a.m.”

Family friend Ziggy Comeau described how the smell hit her when she got out of her car in the Fishers’ driveway, a few yards away from a small ranch home that hosts up to 30 dogs.

“My eyes were burning,” Comeau said. “It was bad.”

Now, Fisher told the selectboard, her neighbor’s property is not only home to those dogs and many cats, but is infested with rats that have also chewed her siding and some subflooring.

“They were scratching the walls at night,” Fisher said.

More than two dozen people on March 6 crowded into the selectboard meeting in Ferrisburgh’s town office building to complain about Heidi’s Haven, a nonprofit dog rescue operation operated by Sheila McGregor — who also showed up to defend her work.

McGregor’s 912-square-foot home sits on about an acre on Sand Road’s east side and has a one-car attached garage. It’s the northernmost of a group of three homes about 3.5 miles northwest of Vergennes. The home is owned by McGregor’s brother, James McGregor of Williston.

Complaints about Heidi’s Haven date back to at least 2007, when a town notice of zoning violation was issued and then retracted when McGregor appealed. In 2013 another zoning administrator looked into Heidi’s Haven, but did not issue a violation notice.

Town officials have said over the years because it is a rescue operation, not a kennel, it conformed with zoning, and because the Agency of Agriculture oversees rescue services their hands have been tied.

Jaimeelynn Gaboriault, the town’s health and animal control officer, acknowledged Ferrisburgh officials have not been able to answer neighbors’ concerns.

“We have exhausted every angle throughout the years,” Gaboriault said. “Every avenue we’ve tried to follow we’ve run against a wall.”

Fisher’s home lies between McGregor’s and another ranch house owned by Scott and Lisa Brace. Lisa Brace has for about two decades run a childcare center out of her home. Her business offers a fenced-in playground in the backyard and serves about a dozen preschool children a day.

Loose dogs have been a problem for a decade, Brace said, and this past October a half-dozen ran free from McGregor’s property onto her driveway, lawn and deck — moments after the toddlers in her care had walked back into her home.

“It was right after we brought the children in from the playground,” Brace said.

Brace has pressed her case before to the selectboard with no results. But on March 6 the selectboard seemed poised to act, possibly on zoning, noise or health issues, or all three.

Interim board chairman Rick Ebel several times told McGregor she should scale things down.

“I want you to understand 20 or 30 animals, that’s a lot of animals in a small area, and your neighbors are feeling the effect of that,” he said. “We will do something about it.”

VALID ISSUES?

McGregor, 53, agreed at the meeting that neighbors had a few “valid issues” to complain about.

But she said she no longer allows two noisy border collies outside at night, has installed storage cabinets for pet food as a form of rodent control, and a pest control company visited on Saturday in response to a warning letter from Gaboriault about the rat infestation.

Others at the meeting wondered how McGregor could provide proper exercise and attention for 30 dogs. She answered that she takes them on group outings to parks and friends’ homes. 

McGregor said she routinely brings the animals to veterinarians if necessary, and only accepts dogs from shelters that she has “vetted in advance” to ensure she will only receive healthy animals.

“I have no wish to make you unhappy or miserable. I have no wish to have rats on my property,” she told the neighbors.

Few seemed impressed, including Fisher family friend Robin Curler, who addressed the rat infestation.

“It’s a huge, huge violation,” Curler said. “That right there should shut you down.”

And Brace said fencing is not doing the job.

“There was a dog in my yard last week,” she said.

McGregor said more in emails to the Independent. She said she has saved about 2,000 dogs in a 35-year career. Currently, Heidi’s Haven lists 25 dogs for adoption, and McGregor wrote she has 10 cats, two in the garage to combat the rat infestation. At the meeting she said she and her husband own seven dogs.

McGregor said her email that when she first came to Sand Road problems were fewer. A “sweet older couple” next door “often donated items to the rescue.”

But she agreed relations with Lisa and Scott Brace were strained, and added the Braces’ dogs have posed problems in the neighborhood over the years.

McGregor said when her animals get loose, “We figure out how the dogs got out, and repair/replace fencing as needed. Also worth noting, there are loose dogs ALL OVER Ferrisburgh.”

Neighbors have said that at times in the past they have seen McGregor dump pet waste on area properties. McGregor did not address that specific question in speaking to the larger issue.

“Unfortunately, we take most of our pet waste to the landfill. I would like a more ‘green’ alternative, but we don’t have one at this time,” she wrote.

As for the rats, McGregor wrote she now had a plan:

“We will always keep cats out there, and we will also have to use bait stations for a while to kill the resident rats. Terminex recommended we use exclusion (sealing access to the garage and home), and bait stations. Doing some research online, I found a rat poison that is just a high amount of calcium. The rats die from organ failure, but it is not dangerous at all to pets, children or wildlife. We will do what we can to eliminate the rats from our property.”

Some on March 6 were skeptical of McGregor’s commitment to eliminating the rats. Fisher showed the selectboard a picture of baby rats taken from McGregor’s Facebook page asking if any “animal welfare advocates” could help because “we have a mice problem in our garage.”

THROUGH THE CRACKS?

One animal advocate, Addison County Humane Society Executive Director Jessica Danyow, visited Heidi’s Haven in 2013. She gave it mixed reviews and provided the Independent with information on a 2011 animal cruelty case and the operation’s state licensure that same year.

Danyow said the dogs liked McGregor and were not obviously unhealthy or unhappy.

“But I still maintain because of the number of dogs, the sheer ratio of dogs to people to provide for their needs, they can’t be met,” she said.

Danyow compared 2512 Sand Road to the Addison County Humane Society (ACHS), which she said has 14 kennels for up to only a dozen dogs, with five employees or volunteers a day to exercise, feed and clean up after them. She said at Heidi’s Haven she saw stacked crates and was told two people cared for the animals.

She does not dispute McGregor’s motives.

“I think that Sheila is a well-intentioned woman, who like many rescuers has gotten in over her head, and has more animals than she can provide for and can be tolerated by her community,” Danyow said.

Many rescuers do good work. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 670,000 dogs are euthanized every year, a number that has dropped since 2011. (ACHS is a no-kill shelter.) Rescuers have played a role in the lower kill total.

And Heidi’s Haven gets good ratings at its Facebook site, plus McGregor supplied testimonials from happy adopters.

But in September 2010 ACHS handled a complaint that McGregor was not treating her animals properly. According to Vermont Humane Federation records, ACHS first tried to help McGregor improve her care, but Danyow said, “During those efforts conditions deteriorated at the residence.”

According to Addison County Court Criminal Division documents, then-ACHS Executive Director Jackie Rose visited the property in April 2011 and found crowded and unsanitary conditions. Rose returned with Vermont State Police Trooper Cathy Cappetta on June 20, 2011.

According to Cappetta’s affidavit, she smelled the “odor of feces and urine” in the garage and kitchen, and saw feces on the kitchen floor. Cappetta also noted “multiple kennels stacked on top of each other,” and counted 28 dogs and nine cats on the property.

McGregor was cited for depriving an animal or “adequate food, water, shelter, rest, sanitation, or necessary medical attention.”

According to Cappetta’s statement, McGregor was cooperative and told her she was “‘done rescuing’ as she may have taken on too much.”

In July that year McGregor pled innocent and was released with a condition that she not possess “more than 4 dogs and 4 felines that she owns and make good faith efforts to find homes for the other animals.”

According to ACHS documents, McGregor complied. They also state that in October 2011 Addison County State’s Attorney David Fenster notified ACHS that “because Sheila conformed with all the stated requirements that he was dropping all of the state charges without prejudice.”

McGregor wrote conditions deteriorated because she had allowed another rescuer to stay at her home, starting in January 2011, not realizing he was mentally unstable. She said he caused the problems at Heidi’s Haven.

“I had taken in a man with severe mental health issues. I was trying to help,” she wrote in an email. “I was in way over my head. I am NOT qualified to ‘save’ humans.”

McGregor supplied statements from friends to attest to the man’s mental issues, and from other Vermont rescuers who wrote that they had been to 2512 Sand Road and had not seen the kind of conditions present in early 2011.

“Having seen Sheila’s house before I can attest that the state of Sheila’s home that evening was completely contrary to how it normally is,” read one statement.

LICENSE GRANTED

October 2011 is also when the Agency of Agriculture granted McGregor a “pet merchant license” to operate Heidi’s Haven.

Agency Veterinarian Kristin Haas remembers the 2011 licensing discussion included McGregor’s court case.

But Haas said attorneys advised the agency not to deny the license.

“In order to revoke or withhold a license from someone there has to be a demonstrated or imminent public health risk or public safety risk,” Haas said. “If this is the case I remember correctly we talked with our assistant attorney general and the circumstances did not rise to something we could set a precedent on by refusing to give her a license.”

Danyow said she spoke with Haas four years ago about the issuing of the license.

“There wasn’t a good answer on how she could have gotten that license,” Danyow said.

Haas said the situation shows why the agency should no longer oversee shelters and rescue operations, and the Legislature revoked its authority in 2016. The agency has no “criminal investigative or enforcement authority,” Haas said, nor could its representatives insist on immediate admission if they show up unannounced.  

“It gave people a false sense of security that things were done properly,” Haas said. “It didn’t do what people thought it should be doing, including me.”

Several residents complained about the inspection process at the March 6 selectboard meeting: They believed McGregor had ample time to prepare to improve conditions before her last inspection, in 2015.

“Somehow she does seem to get through a state inspection,” Gaboriault said.

But Danyow said the situation points to a bigger concern: No one is working with shelters and rescuers to improve poor conditions until the only recourse is an animal cruelty complaint.

“If this kind of situation occurred when there was oversight, what kind of slippery slope are we on now?” Danyow said.

FUTURE IN FERRISBURGH?

On March 6 neighbors said things at 2512 Sand Road have again gone downhill.

Fisher said Heidi’s Haven has become “significantly louder” since she bought her home three years ago, while the smell has “also gotten significantly worse.”

“We can’t leave our windows open,” she said.

Fisher pointed to the town’s noise ordinance, which reads in part, “No owner of a dog shall keep or harbor a dog which by frequent or long-continued noise, barking or howling disturbs the comfort or repose of persons in the vicinity.”

Gaboriault on Feb. 27 wrote James McGregor about the rat infestation, citing code violations, requiring that “a pest control company do a site evaluation and treatment,” and giving him a March 27 deadline to provide a report from the company.

As for Ebel’s repeated suggestions to McGregor that she voluntarily scale back Heidi’s Haven (Sample: “When you’re living in a neighborhood like that, it can’t continue. You’re hearing that from the town.”), she was asked whether Ebel made a “reasonable request.”  

McGregor responded: “We can reduce the number of dogs we save. I know I can’t save them all, but I am heartbroken by the number of sweet, healthy dogs dying and have dedicated my life to saving as many lives as I can.”

Ebel said the board will at its March 20 meeting review town ordinances, and discuss whether new laws or changes might be appropriate, including looking at whether to buy a decibel meter.

“Everything is on the table,” he said.

Ebel said any steps cannot target Heidi’s Haven or any other single resident or property, but must look at the greater good to help “neighbors get along with one another” in all situations.

“We need to look at it on a town-wide basis,” he said. “We have to take a broader look and see how it affects everybody.”

Fisher and Brace both said after the March 6 meeting they hoped the selectboard could finally act.

“Before they said their hands were tied,” Fisher said. “This was very encouraging.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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