Following an 18-month investigation by the Florida State Attorney, all charges against Phoenix Animal Rescue were dismissed for lack of evidence on August 31. This was a very expensive fight, one which included death threats made against Michelle Dunlap, the Executive Director of the rescue. Phoenix is holding a fundraiser on September 16, near Gainesville, Florida, to thank their supporters and try to recoup some of the monies they were forced to spend on what were proven to be unsubstantiated allegations, filed by nine complainants. They have also launched this YouCaring site, for those who believe in Phoenix’s cause: saving the lives of animals. They will enthusiastically embrace any new supporters and welcome back the many benefactors they lost in the battle, which began in March 2014, a battle launched by a number of disgruntled ex-volunteers.
The case, detailed below, clearly shows how the internet and social media, which can be an excellent tool for assisting animals and rescues, can also be used by disgruntled individuals, groups, and corporations, to target animal rescues and individuals through slander, libel and outright lies. Personal information will be made public, by people claiming “public record”. This information usually has nothing to do with the case at hand, can be decades old, and will always be manipulated into half-truths and innuendos by those who wish to attack and destroy an organization or an individual. Stories will be manufactured and molded to fit the accuser’s view of a situation, and widely disseminated to convince as many others as possible that only theyknow the ‘truth‘ of a situation.
Those who stand with the accusers and continue to distribute the fictitious and misleading information as ‘fact’, relishing in their feelings of self-importance, usually have no knowledge of the situation and are simply jumping on the finger-pointing bandwagon. The accusers may go so far as to file false claims in court, wasting the time of the judicial system with incredible fallacies. They will hound local and national government agencies, media outlets and corporations and employers by email, telephone and social media, in their quest to ‘expose’ what they are convinced are ‘bad rescues’ or ‘scum’, a word the internet trolls delight in using whenever and wherever possible. These actions can affect those targeted innocent victims in financial, emotional and physical ways, sometimes causing an excellent organization to have to close its doors, always causing great distress to those put under their microscope.
The ultimate loser in this ‘game of trolls’ will always be the animals; once a reputable rescue is forced to shut down, who will take in an animal sitting on death row? It is never those who began this defamation game, they never step up to the plate. Many times they are not even a rescue; they may be individuals bearing a personal grudge against someone in the rescue, or against rescue itself. Sometimes they are actually forbidden by the court system to be involved in rescue in any way, shape, or form. Yet they appoint themselves as the ‘saviors of the animals‘, when, in actuality, they are contributing to the animal’s demise.
Here is the case, from the shoddy start based on unfounded insinuations, to Phoenix’s ultimate victory in court. In March 2014, Phoenix Animal Rescue was dealt a devastating blow when complaints from disgruntled ex-volunteers against Ms. Dunlap led to an onslaught of social media attacks and a series of news stories over several months. The news stories, in print and on-air, are all are readily available online. You can search for them if you wish, but due to their biased, inflammatory nature, providing links to them would be an insult to this rescue.
The ringleader was an ex-volunteer, a one-time board member. This person was given bank records with which to develop a budget and annual report, but had not acted on these directions. After locking Dunlap and board members out of Google documents, created with the rescue’s proprietary information, she enlisted an ex-employee, whose dismissal for negligence this ex-volunteer had approved and witnessed, to approach a local TV station with a ‘scoop’ about cruelty and frivolous expenditures at the rescue. The reporter, a personal friend of this ringleader, took most of his story from purely emotional Facebook accusations against Michelle Dunlap regarding the vaccination and care of rescued dogs whom ex-volunteers claimed had been abused or neglected. No current Phoenix Animal Rescue employees, volunteers or board members were ever contacted by the press for comment.
Extensive veterinary records from several animal hospitals and veterinary specialists for the dogs cleared Ms. Dunlap of any wrongdoing, but the sheer number of allegations on Facebook encouraged the reporter to continue his public denunciation with allusions to undocumented misdeeds. This was his defense for feeding the flames of the fiction, as reported to a Phoenix Board of Directors member at the time. Troll behavior transmitted from social media directly to the airwaves, lies disguised as ‘truth.’
In 2014, the same TV station, under the reporter’s prompting, aired his story on February 28, alleging the launching of a Florida State Attorney investigation of cruelty charges against the rescue. What turned out to be fake complaints filed with county Animal Services in order to ensure the State Attorney investigation were dated February 25. There was no evidence to support the allegations, only veterinary records to the contrary, and investigations by Levy County Animal Services that followed the ‘complaints’ found no problems with the care of dogs by Ms. Dunlap or her rescue. In total, there were nine complaints filed, not the ‘dozens’ reported on social media. No charges were ever filed by Animal Services or the State Attorney office.
When the TV station realized their mistake in running a story not properly sourced, four employees involved were dismissed. In the months Phoenix waited to be cleared, they lost thousands of dollars in donations and several major donors. Organizations such as PetSmart Charities, who had worked with Phoenix for several years, were one of the donors cajoled into examining the baseless charges.
While Ms. Dunlap continued to do damage control online, she received death threats from individuals who believed the lies being spread on social media. Ms. Dunlap and the rescue’s online activities were invaded by cyberstalkers, who continued their campaign of treachery, phoning corporate sponsors of the agency to spread the fictitious allegations.
On August 31, 2015, the entire case was dismissed for lack of evidence, following the investigation by the State Attorney. The black cloud of doubt created and developed by the persistent negative media attention, and the orchestrated social media attack led to Phoenix Animal Rescue being denied access to dogs who needed their help, and many donors and supporters walked away, unsure of who to believe.
Phoenix Animal Rescue never wavered in its mission to save dogs and continues functioning on a shoestring budget with the help of hardcore volunteers, a handful of loyal local business owners, and fellow rescues around the state.Phoenix Animal Rescue was rated a Top Non-Profit in 2015, in the midst of all this turmoil. They were twice-named Charity of the Month by SunState Federal Credit Union, and earned a top honor from Tractor Supply in a national contest of animal rescues, finishing in the Top Ten of all nominated organizations nationwide. Donations to help Phoenix rise back into the black can be made here, on RebuildPhoenix, or on their website here,
You can read many of the personal comments left by their faithful supporters here. If you would like more information on fostering, please email AdoptaPhoenixDog@gmail.com. They will match you with the perfect foster dog for your family. Included in this article are some animals available from Phoenix. Please look at the photo of Kenny Rogers. He was placed in a home in Wellborne, Florida, but escaped. The rescue was alerted in 2009, and has offered a rewardfor his safe return.
Although they were faced on a daily basis with threats, lies and slander, they never stopped rescuing animals such as Gilligan, a little pup found paralyzed, with a broken back. You can read all about Gilligan in a follow-up story here. Phoenix also never wavered in their commitment to their PTSD Service Dog Training and Placement Program.
Phoenix would like to thank all those who stood by them during the last 18 months, and look forward to a bright and glorious future for the rescue and the animals they help each and every day. Though some tried to force this rescue into ashes, Phoenix rose above, victorious.