CLAYTON • For weeks, the St. Louis County Council has heard complaints from activists and volunteers about conditions at the county’s pet adoption center that they said aren’t fit for animals or humans.
In a public hearing about the center on Tuesday, council members heard a lot more of those complaints, largely blaming Beth Vesco-Mock, who started as the manager of the center in August. She was described as a bully who had driven out more than a dozen employees and who has made racist comments in public. Volunteers said there weren’t enough animal control officers working the streets. They claimed shelter dogs aren’t being walked enough.
But council members also heard from supporters of Vesco-Mock, including two board members of the county’s Animal Care and Control Board. They say the shelter in Olivette has dramatically cut its euthanasia rate by finding adoptive homes for pets and that it is professionally run and clean. And also that Vesco-Mock had relationships in the animal welfare community that resulted in many pets being saved.
“I think what she’s done is a remarkable achievement in six months,” said Ellen Lawrence, the animal care board’s vice chairwoman.
And at least two members of the council — Pat Dolan and Mark Harder — have made unannounced visits and found no problems.
And Melinda Stewart, who runs a stray rescue group, called Vesco-Mock a “breath of fresh air” for her efforts to reduce animal killings.
A two-hour hearing saw members of the council pressing for a clear picture, but getting no closer to one. As time ran out on the hearing, a flummoxed vice chairwoman Hazel Erby called for an audit.
In testimony, Vesco-Mock pointed to many successes. Under previous management, the shelter killed animals at dramatically higher rates. She said she’s helped raise awareness for pet adoption in the county by holding events. She pointed to an instance where she saved 20 cats that had been rescued from a pet hoarder, when many shelters would have killed them.
“They were ear tagged,” she said. “I know someone had put resources into those animals. So I reached out to the group that does surgeries on these (cats) and patiently waited with them. It took two months but … most of those animals are handleable now.”
But there were also troubling statements. Vesco-Mock said she didn’t know anything about St. Louis County, and only learned earlier this week that East St. Louis wasn’t part of it. She told Harder she was a veterinarian, but later clarified under questioning that she wasn’t licensed. And when Erby asked her about whether she had called black people “gang bangers” and expressed a preference for “crackers,” her lawyer whispered into her ear, and she refused to answer.
As first reported by the Riverfront Times, controversies are nothing new to Vesco-Mock, who previously worked as director of the Animal Service Center of the Mesilla Valley in New Mexico.
Vesco-Mock was charged in 2015 with three misdemeanor counts connected to the shelter’s handling of two dogs suspected of killing livestock. She was accused of violating a county ordinance after shelter staff members allegedly refused to release one of the dog’s microchip information to a county animal control officer. Vesco-Mock was also charged with resisting, evading or obstructing an officer. But prosecutors dropped the case at trial. She sued the sheriff’s office for malicious abuse of process and defamation of character; the case was settled for $90,000.
A story last April on a local Fox station included photos it said had been supplied by a former shelter employee that showed filthy living conditions, crowded kennels and dogs injured from fighting.
Vesco-Mock said the photos were “very old,” and said that the shelter had changed protocols on how it handled dogs fighting.
Two weeks later, the local ABC station reported she had allowed a drug company to test an experimental diarrhea medication on some of the shelter’s dogs in exchange for $1,200 per dog. Vecso-Mock said no animals were harmed, but admitted she hadn’t told board members about the experiments.
Then, during an April board meeting, a woman claiming to be a former shelter employee accused Vesco-Mock of being “a racist, bigoted pig” who drove staff away.
Vesco-Mock resigned in July, and moved to St. Louis.