A well-known Chicago-area animal shelter is coming under fire by former employees who allege some of the animals are malnourished, neglected and left in inhumane conditions to die.
“It became normal for me to see an animal die and just throw it in the back in a pile in the back and that was it,” said Zachary White, who worked at Settlers Pond in Beecher, Illinois, for two years. White said he was fired after complaining to staff about the lack of food and poor conditions that he says resulted in animal deaths.
“Pinky has just neglected them until they died,” said Tyler Yates, who also worked there for two years and still works at Settlers Pond during the holidays and studies zoology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Yates contacted NBC 5 Investigates over concerns about how some of the animals were being treated. While owner Airocolina Janota, known as Pinky, has a number of supporters who commend her work, we spoke with at least a dozen people, including current and former employees as well as volunteers, customers and animal control employees, who raised similar concerns about abuse and neglect.
Settlers Pond takes in many exotic animals, from camels and monkeys to zebras and alpacas. Some of the animals they take in are sick, while others are abandoned.
“For two weeks she left her entire farm and 150 animals to two 18-year-old high schoolers with absolutely no hay,” White said. We watched animals start to dramatically lose weight.”
Both men say the animals were neglected.
“Some of these animals, their hooves were curling upwards,” Yates said. “They were walking in just a gruesome way.”
In August 2015 state inspector Joel Aschermann made an unscheduled visit to the farm and found donkeys that were underweight and needed their hooves trimmed and a potbellied pig that was thin.
The inspector issued a humane care violation and recommended a vet examine the equine and pigs. Janota says that same pig is now fat. And all the hooves and tusks on the animals have already been trimmed this year.
She passed an inspection later that year. This March a complaint of hoarding and neglect triggered another inspection – which she also passed.
We spoke with Janota’s vet, who tells us she visits the farm at least once a month and she has never seen abuse.
The shelter was fined in 2012, 2013 and 2015 for operating without a license.
“We don’t know how these investigations are really carried out,” said Attorney Anna Morrison-Ricordati who specializes in animal law.
“Illinois has some of the best laws on the books for animal protection,” she said. “The problem is they’re not enforced.”
NBC 5 Investigates discovered there are six inspectors to cover more than 500 animal shelters and horse rescues across the state. And the Department of Agriculture only inspects these when there is a complaint.
NBC 5 Investigates went undercover at Settlers Pond.
Undercover cameras captured an unusual sight: dead animals stored in a freezer. It’s not the type of thing you would normally find at an animal shelter, but it’s where NBC’s investigation began.
“You have to,” Janota later told NBC 5 Investigates, when asked about the dead animals in the freezer. “If something dies I want to know why it died, or if we need a necropsy done or whatever.”
Janota has run Settlers Pond for 18 years and said she takes in “the worst.”
When asked about allegations that there had been a lot of animals that had passed away over the years, Janota told us that “there haven’t been that many that have passed away, and everything passes away like it does in any shelter.”
“The ones that are abused the most and are the sickest,” Janota added.. “I don’t just take in the ones that are pretty because I can get them adopted. I try to take in as much as possible that’s a problem case that I know is going to be euthanized so I can at least give them a chance.”
NBC 5 Investigates’ cameras also captured monkeys in baby clothing, locked in a barn. We were told the monkeys go inside Janota’s house in the evening.
Online we found plenty of pictures of her monkeys, in highchairs, baby clothes, on a leash, a swing set and at their own birthday party.
“It’s shockingly inappropriate for an animal-care facility to be treating monkeys as pets or as surrogates for human babies,” said Julia Gallucci, a primatologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “No reputable animal-care facility would ever dress monkeys in clothing, keep them on leashes, and treat them like playthings or human children.”
Janota agreed to speak with us about the allegations against her shelter. She took us around the farm – with a group of passionate supporters recording and following our every move. The farm looked different from our undercover visit. There was fresh hay where there had been none. Jonota told us that the animals are given fresh hay on a daily basis.
The piles of feces had been cleaned out.
“After it freezes in the winter we can’t muck all the stalls out,” Janota said. “So after it comes spring that’s when the guys just start getting out there and shoveling.
Many of the animals that we had seen on our first visit were nowhere to be found.
When asked about the monkeys, she told us she had moved them to Florida because she felt it was better for them.
We asked her why she dresses up the monkeys.
“I dress them up and I put onesies on them so they keep their diapers on, cuz they do wear diapers.“
““We teach them sign language,” she added.” We spend as much time as possible for their mental enrichment, which is a major thing for primates.”
We discovered she does not have a permit to exhibit animals, as required. Her federal license was canceled three years ago.
PETA also filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal Care division in June of 2015 notifying them of the unlicensed exhibition of primates at Settlers Pond. According to spokesperson Tanya Espinosa of the USDA, they did look into the PETA complaint and Settlers Pond was told that they needed to get a license in order to operate. Settlers Pond application of a new license is currently under reviewed by the USDA.
“I just haven’t had time to go get it,” she told us.
According to her Facebook page, she did solicit donations. We discovered her non-profit status had been revoked by the IRS three years prior. She told us she was aware of that and working on getting it back.
“We aren’t making a profit on these animals,” she said.
We asked her how she disposed of dead animals.
“Usually we have a burial in the back,” she said. “In the fall we dig a hole. Sometimes the winter gets so brutal you can’t dig the ground to bury them. So we put them out there and we cover them with bedding or with straw or whatever we can do and then comes spring once it dries up a little, we are able to get a machine in there and bury them properly.”
The state requires that shelters report the animals coming in and going out. And Pinky told us she keeps track of the animal deaths. But refused to provide us with the documents.
She did eventually give us some other documents that include a Florida veterinary inspection needed to transport livestock, several foster applications and an adoption form, as well as a foster and adoption list. But many of the handwritten documents were missing dates and difficult to decipher.