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Not So Happily Ever After

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So, what’s in a name? Well, depending on the circumstances the name of an organization can tell us a lot about it. Let’s take a look at the No Kill Advocacy Center, for instance. As a function of its name, you instantly know that this organization is attempting to end the needless killing of adoptable companion animals. To understand this, you don’t even have to read an explanation of what the center stands for because its name pretty much tells you all you need to know about the mission of this organization.

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With names having so much meaning, what do you think of when you hear the name, “Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary?” At first glance, you might think that this organization exists to provide a pleasant home environment for dogs and cats until they pass away from natural causes. You might even start to envision rolling hills with dogs running around playing with one another in between hearty meals and cats resting atop the plushest cat trees available while nibbling on an endless supply of catnip.

Well, if you are thinking about the Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary in Marion, Wisconsin, and have lofty visions of animals enjoying their days as they are tended to by people who are looking out for their best interests, you need to keep reading to get the real picture of what goes on at that establishment.

Founded by Amanda M. Reitz and her parents, Ken and Lois, Happily Ever After Sanctuary is a non-profit which claims to be in the business of rescuing animals and adopting them out to forever homes whenever possible. To this end, the organization even has an adoption center in Green Bay in addition to its farm-like locale in Marion.

The problem with the Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary is clearly not its purpose. I mean, who could argue against any group that has a goal of finding permanent homes for companion animals in need, right? The problem with this “sanctuary” is that it really is not a sanctuary at all. After all, according to Merriam-Webster.com a sanctuary is “a place where someone or something is protected or given shelter” and Happily Ever After is not adequately caring for, let alone protecting the dogs and cats in its charge.

By outside appearances, it’s easy to think that Amanda and company are taking good care of the animals at the Marion location. As I approached Happily Ever After’s 40-acre property in Marion for a volunteer orientation a few weeks ago, I saw approximately ten dogs in a fenced area who appeared to be having tons of fun playing with one another in the outdoors. As I toured the barn and shed that are used to house the rest of the animals, however, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the dogs in the exterior pen are the exceptions and that the animals kept in the kennels and closets in the property’s barn and shed are the rule and outnumber the frolicking dogs many times over.

As I toured the barn and shed with the two other individuals who were attending orientation, I noticed several things that just didn’t seem right. For example, as we walked to an area that had multiple closets which housed dogs, I was overwhelmed by the smell of ammonia. Knowing that smell was the result of animals urinating repeatedly in the area over a given period of time, I began to keep an eye out for how clean the facility was. I also took note of the fact that me and my two orientation companions were not allowed to see the dogs in the surrounding closets.

As my group continued to be led around, we were introduced to a dog named, “Fric.” We were informed that Fric has been a resident in Happily Ever After’s shed for about three consecutive years. He, like the other dogs at the sanctuary, supposedly gets walked for about ten minutes three or four times per day although there is no proof that is the case. After each walk, he is returned to his wire kennel…a kennel that does not have water available for him to drink…a kennel that he spends at least 23 hours per day in even if Happily Ever After is correct and the dog is walked 3 -4 times each day.

As we continued through the barn, we were told that in addition to individual kennels, both dogs and cats are kept in closets that are smaller than most people’s bathrooms, measuring less than 18 square feet or a maximum of 3’x6’. On average, fifteen cats or two dogs are kept in a single closet; it’s important to note that up to seventeen feral cats are kept in a single closet at a time. As we got close to each closet, our guide turned on the lights inside. Our guide was careful to turn the lights off as we prepared to move on to the next closet. When asked about lighting, our guide told us that the lights were kept off for at least twelve hours per day since both felines and canines prefer darkness to lighted quarters.

A resident in one of Happily Ever After’s fourteen cat closets is named, “Chase.” When I first saw Chase, his mouth was half opened and he was drooling. I also noticed that he had quite a few bald spots all over his body. I asked our guide what was wrong with the cat and was told that he has a medical condition, but that our guide did not know his exact malady.

Even though we trainees were told that Happily Ever After only uses its shed for new arrivals who are considered lost, we met Coco when we entered the building. As our tour guide explained, Coco has lived at Happily Ever After for a year which, of course, directly contradicted what we’d been told earlier about only new animals being kept in the shed. Upon close inspection, it was easy to see that Coco had suffered injuries to his paw pads. When asked about the condition of Coco, our guide explained that the animal’s movements are not fluid because of issues with his back legs.

In addition to Fric, Coco and Chase, almost three hundred other animals live at Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary. I would love to tell you about how some or all of these dogs and cats are doing in the context of their physical and mental health, but many of the closets I walked by had a covering over the peepholes and windows I could have used to see the inhabitants within. This fact coupled with the fact that potential adopters are only allowed to visit Happily Ever After’s Marion location by appointment indicates the charity operates without the transparency that many if not every other non-profit in the area does.

When orientation was finally over, I couldn’t have been happier. I was appalled by what I’d seen at Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary and made a silent vow to investigate the charity further. Within days, I’d pulled the non-profit’s recent tax returns and contacted Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for information about Happily Ever After’s state inspection. I even started soliciting and receiving emails and communications from current and former Happily Ever After volunteers who requested to remain anonymous to avoid retribution from the organization and/or any of its paid or volunteer representatives. The biggest fear that the majority of volunteers have with regard to expressing their concerns about how Happily Ever After operates is that they will be prevented from continuing to volunteer there and that the animals will suffer as a result.

While Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary did pass its inspection in May of this year, its representatives were informed that they had to make certain changes. For instance, the inspection revealed that the dogs housed by Happily Ever After did not receive twelve hours of light daily. As a result, the Reitz’s were told they needed to provide a “diurnal lighting cycle” for the dogs. While the Reitz’s later claimed that they’d made the necessary adjustment, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection cannot verify that the dogs on-site are now being exposed to at least twelve hours of light each day because, according to DATCP, “the diurnal lighting cycle can only truly be verified by daily on-site constant monitoring by the division, which obviously is not feasible.”

It is important to note that up until one week before its state inspection in January of 2014, Happily Ever After did not have complete insulation in its shed. This means that even while they were indoors, certain animals were exposed to extreme conditions and dangerously cold temperatures for long stretches of time. Even now, months after its inspection, Happily Ever After fails to provide the cats in Room 8 with the proper ventilation required to keep the room at a comfortable temperature; the room also does not have an exterior window. So, while the state believes it has been at least partially responsible for forcing Happily Ever After to provide at least a minimum of certain things for the dogs and cats in its charge, circumstances are still not ideal to support the 300 or so animals on-site.

The messages I received from some of Happily Ever After’s current and former volunteers ranged from pleas for me to tell the world that Happily Ever After shouldn’t be judged by its Green Bay location since the most egregious of the charity’s offenses occur behind the scenes to stories about how sick and deceased animals are handled by the non-profit. More specifically, I learned that animals who are in need of hospice care are not whisked away to a vet for proper medical care. Instead, they are taken to live in Amanda Reitz’s room.

I also learned that animals who die at Happily Ever After are buried in mass graves on the eastern side of the property. During warm weather months, deceased animals are typically buried within a few hours up to a week. The bodies of the animals who expire during the winter months when the ground is frozen, however, are kept in a plastic storage bin until a mass grave can be dug after the ground thaws. By then, of course, the bodies of these animals have decomposed into something resembling a gross, soupy mixture.

These practices continue even now…even after one of Happily Ever After’s own volunteers made arrangements for the charity’s deceased animals to be cremated by a reputable crematory. Instead of making changes and handling the bodies of formerly living, sentient dogs and cats with the respect the crematory would have allowed for, Happily Ever After continues to occasionally store and then bury these animals in mass graves because, according to Amanda, “we don’t do that. We don’t believe in incineration.”

On Happily Ever After’s “About Us” webpage, Amanda Reitz claims that her charity was and is modeled after the nationally lauded organization, Best Friends Animal Society. She also states, “It is easy to say things should change, but it's a whole other thing to take action and make a difference. Often times, we sit back and judge others, but don't do anything to improve a situation, and I wasn't going to be one of those people.”

While she’s clearly wrong about her first claim as it relates to Best Friends Animal Society, it seems Amanda is correct about her second, meaning she isn’t one to sit back and do nothing to improve a situation. Instead of being that kind of person, she is someone who has made a bad situation much worse for the helpless companion animals who rely and her and Happily Ever After’s representatives for their literal lives and well-being. How? Well, the answers to that are many and varied so I will simply remind you that Fric is a dog who spends a minimum of 23 hours in his kennel every single day, day after day, without water, without socialization with other dogs and without human interaction and that Chase is a cat who either needs immediate medical treatment for a diagnosed condition or should be euthanized due to his obvious physical discomfort.

Please keep in mind that I am a firm believer in the No Kill Equation. As a result, I only support the decision to euthanize an animal when it is in the creature’s best interest, meaning when their physical illnesses can’t be cured and they are in pain than cannot be lessened or when their behavioral patterns cannot be reversed sufficiently for them to no longer be a danger to themselves or others. With that said, even I feel that if Chase cannot be treated medically, then the kindest, most humane thing to do for him might be to euthanize him to end his suffering.

When I reached out to Best Friends Animal Society to ask if anyone affiliated with that organization had heard about the negative things happening at Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary, I received a quote from Liz Finch, Best Friend Society’s Senior Manager of National Programs, which reads as follows:

"Happily Ever After has been a No More Homeless Pets Partner Network for several years. Best Friends created the NMHP Network to benefit animal welfare organizations of all sizes, from small 501c3s to large municipal shelters. A largely self-motivated program, it gives groups access to a range of resources (from private consults to grant opportunities) in the hopes that more of those in the animal welfare field will take advantage of such support and work to save even more lives.

We realize that even the best rescues sometimes get in over their heads or need some assistance, and we are justifiably concerned by the recent reports about what is happening at HEA's facility. Our NMHP Network Specialist Diane Young did reach out to Amanda directly late last week to see if we can get further information and if there is a way we can assist HEA in improving conditions for their animals. We have not yet heard back, but are hopeful that they will be motivated to review their business policies given the number of people expressing serious questions about how HEA is currently functioning."

So, according to the non-profit which Amanda Reitz claims to have modeled Happily Ever After Animal Sanctuary after when she attended a class hosted by Best Friends along with her parents several years ago, it has received various reports about what has and is going on at Happily Ever After and acknowledges that the conditions in which animals are currently living at Happily Ever After need to be improved.

While I haven’t heard from anyone affiliated with Packerland Veterinary Clinic yet, the animal hospital chosen by animal control to handle the lost and stray dogs and cats the group picks up throughout the year in and around Green Bay, the clinic did stop sending animals to Happily Ever After as of the middle of May of this year. Why is that? I’m not sure, but it very well might be because of reports that clinic has heard about, too.

So, what happens now? Well, only time will tell, it seems. It is clearly going to take some time for Amanda to respond to Diane Young, the Best Friends representative who reached out to her, even though acknowledging the woman’s message should only take seconds. It’s also going to take time for the Reitz’s to make the changes necessary to provide acceptable care for the dogs and cats they are both personally and professionally responsible for.

What won’t take any time? Your actions. If you are an active supporter of Happily Ever After, stop sending money to the charity. Suspend further donations until you are positive that the animals kept at Happily Ever After are being cared for and protected properly, meaning wait to send additional funds until this “sanctuary” actually becomes what it claims to be.

If you are a volunteer with the charity, start insisting that changes need to be made to improve the living conditions of the animals who live at the non-profit and start demanding that the organization operate with complete transparency.

If you are unaffiliated with Happily Ever After, you can still help to force necessary change to occur by sending letters and/or emails to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and demanding that its representatives re-inspect Happily Ever After repeatedly until the public can be sure that the animals within its walls, living or dead, are treated with the kindness and respect they deserve. You can also contact your state elected officials and ask them to draft laws that are strong enough to stop the systemic abuse of animals that is occurring at Happily Ever After.

UPDATE - July 12, 2014

As many of you may already know, I recently published an article entitled “Not So Happily Ever After” on Examiner.com, a website I’ve represented as its Milwaukee Animal Welfare Examiner for several years. During my time with Examiner.com, I’ve had the pleasure of telling my readers about some of the great things people have done for animals and, at times, I’ve had the displeasure of sharing news about the abusive, neglectful treatment others have shown toward animals and, in some cases, their very own pets.

In the article referenced above, I described the experiences I had and the observations I made when I attended a volunteer orientation at Happily Ever After’s Marion, WI, location a few weeks ago. As a result of me sharing these things, it has been insinuated that I acted deceitfully and unfairly because I did not indicate I intended to write an article about the non-profit before doing so.

As I said earlier, I have been writing about animal welfare in-and-around Milwaukee, WI, for several years. I am proud of what I compose and firmly believe that I am performing a community service, more importantly, a service to improve the lives of animals, whenever I prepare an article. With that said, I have never denied that I am an author who reports on animal welfare issues in even a single instance. In fact, Happily Ever After had me on the roster for the orientation I attended for more than a month before I stepped on the non-profit’s premises and had ample time to research my background along with those of the other two individuals who attended the session with me.

I have also been accused of denying any representative affiliated with Happily Ever After the chance to put my experiences and/or observations in a context other than the one I witnessed first-hand. A few hours after my orientation ended, Erin Elliott, the charity’s volunteer and communications coordinator informed me that the group’s founder, Amanda Reitz, would be more than willing to sit down for an interview with me adding, “I [Erin] see you write a little.”

Well, I am more than willing to interview Amanda Reitz to learn about the context I should put my recollections in to justify why things are the way they are at the organization she founded. I would be grateful for the opportunity to learn about why only ten of the 200 animals who have died at Happily Ever After since 2006 had to be euthanized. I would also appreciate knowing how it is that Happily Ever After can make the claim that neither I, an ardent believer in the No Kill Equation, nor the other person cited in my article, Liz Finch, the Senior Manager of National Programs for the Best Friends Society – the national organization Amanda Reitz claims to have modeled her group after – share the belief that animals should live with the highest quality of life possible because we do.

What I don’t believe, however, is that quality of life involves animals going without necessary medical treatment provided by veterinarians instead of non-medically trained caregivers. What I don’t believe quality of life involves is domesticated animals spending more than half of every 24-hour period in darkness until their caregivers were told that was inappropriate by state inspectors. What I also don’t believe is involved in quality of life is dogs spending more than 20 hours per day in kennels and/or seventeen cats living together in a space that is too small to accommodate that many of them.

Put simply, I firmly believe that quality of life for an animal involves never setting a paw within Happily Ever After’s walls until changes have been made and in place for a long enough period of time to prove that they are permanent procedural changes and not merely cosmetic ones in place just long enough for the public to stop questioning the operational machinations of a non-profit which, at present, is the antithesis of a sanctuary.

So, if Amanda, her parents, Erin or anyone else intimately familiar with Happily Ever After and how it operates wants to sit down with me for an open, honest interview, I am more than willing to comply and, so there’s no question about my intent, report the truth of what is said during the interview to my readers.

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