CARRBORO — Four months after the death of a dog left in a locked car, a local service-dog training program has canceled fundraisers, lost most of its board members and closed its former office.
“Whether we will continue as an organization or close remains an open question,” said Gretchen Aylsworth, secretary of Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Paws and one of the nonprofit’s three remaining board members.
“We absolutely would not leave our current clients who may need our support,” Aylsworth said. “For the moment, therefore, we remain open, though not acquiring new dogs or clients. We will assess our status in three to four months.”
EENP began training dogs in 2008 to work with people with diabetes, seizure disorders and other medical conditions. It placed its first dogs in 2010, charging $20,000 per dog and helping clients who could not pay the full amount with scholarships.
After the golden retriever Worthy died in June, the nonprofit canceled its most popular fundraisers. Its last public graduation ceremony was in March. A recent open house was canceled along with Fun at Hogan Farm, which raised $28,000 for the organization last year. EENP also did not have a booth at Festifall this year, as it had planned.
The agency no longer leases office space at 209 Lloyd St. in Carrboro, and its charitable solicitation license expired May 15, 2012, although it continues to solicit donations on its website. It had until Friday, Oct. 18, to renew the license, which EENP says it did.
Meanwhile, some volunteers who have cared for dogs, known as puppy parents, have complained about lack of communication, high stress environments and training procedures, and administration of prescription drugs without veterinary approval.
Board members resign
On June 10, program manager Debra Cunningham locked Worthy in her vehicle for two hours. When she returned, Worthy was unconscious and panting, according to records and EENP. He died the next morning from hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature.
Cunningham was charged by Carrboro police with misdemeanor animal cruelty. Her court case has been continued twice, and is now scheduled for Nov. 19, said Jason Murphy, assistant district attorney.
EENP had a four-member independent panel review the agency in August. The panel members were Ronald E. Banks, the director of Duke University’s Office of Animal Welfare Assurance; Jeff Hutchins, CEO of Pennick Village, a retirement assisted living and skilled nursing facility in Pinehurst; Lisa Takaki, senior director of marine mammals at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; and Alan R. Kordowski, director of training, Service Dogs Inc., a 25 year nonprofit assistance dog training organization . The panel reviewed the agency in August. Volunteers, Cunningham, and EENPs executive director, Maria Ikenberry, met with the panel and received feedback.
Shortly afterward, seven of 10 board members voluntarily resigned, Aylsworth said. Besides her, the remaining three board members are Chairman Josh Gurlitz and treasurer Michelle Krawcyzk.
Previous Chairwoman Mary Justice said EENP has changed the structure of the board and the organization to move forward in a smaller way. She said she still supports the organization, although she no longer serves on the board.
Currently, two dogs, Gaz (19 months) and Clay (19 months) are in training. A third dog, George (9 months), has recently been released from training, said Ikenberry.
Cunningham unexpectedly took Gaz from his puppy parents on Aug. 22, after she called them into her office to discuss training standards. Cunningham also took Clay from his volunteer family. EENP will not disclose where the dogs are now to the volunteers who raised them or the public.
“The puppy parents who have the dogs (now) are wonderful, reliable caretakers who have asked to not be involved in our ongoing changes, fundraising and publicity,” said Aylsworth.
Cunningham continues to train dogs but is supervised to ensure she is not alone with dogs and is also not permitted to travel with dogs. Her hours also were reduced, according to a letter sent to EENP volunteers and friends from the board.
The letter also said, with two dogs nearing graduation, replacing Cunningham would be disadvantageous and too costly for the organization.
“Deb knows these two dogs well, and she has developed a strong relationship with two clients who may be well-suited for them,” the letter said. “As a Board, we firmly believe in her exceptional skills and uncanny ability to guide them toward desirable outcomes.”
Ikenberry and Cunningham are partners and live together.
“The organization is committed to keeping people in their roles at EENP,” Ikenberry said. “What happened didn’t demonstrate an ongoing problem. This was a one time occurrence that was a tragic mistake, but it is not indicative of the future.”
Animal safety concerns continue, though. Two volunteers said Cunningham administered medications to dogs without a prescription.
One bottle only had Cunningham’s handwriting on it, no warning label or authorization by a registered veterinarian, said one volunteer, who also said Cunningham administered expired drugs to dogs.
“Prescription medications were given without a vet present on site,” said Ikenberry. “We did have expired medications, but to my knowledge, veterinarians told us to keep those medications.”
She also said, to her knowledge, that the agency never gave dogs prescription medication without a prescription. However, EENP will no longer house prescription medications and will rely more on professional veterinary services.
“We have no office now, so we don’t have prescription medications,” said Ikenberry.
Another puppy parent stressed that training rooms were too hot, leading to unnecessary stress and anxiety for the dogs. Ikenberry said the training room also serves as an office and she was unaware of any temperature problems.
Organizational concerns focus primarily on communication between puppy parents, the board, and staff.
Puppy parents said they did not know who was on the board or any decisions the board was making.
EENP says it will increase communication.
“We’re focusing on what the best structure for the organization is,” Ikenberry said. “We’re assessing where we are and where were going.”