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Calls for Change in How Dogs are Treated by Tennessee Counties

It seems that Tennessee (or at least parts of the state) may be years behind other states in handling stray dog issues. This article ran...

Joy  |  Nov 29th 2006


It seems that Tennessee (or at least parts of the state) may be years behind other states in handling stray dog issues. This article ran on The Tennesseean.com.

As counties grow, so does stray-dog problem
Wilson, Sumner animal-control services limited

By NATALIA MIELCZAREK
Staff Writer

Of an estimated 38,000 households in Wilson County last year, close to 14,000 owned a dog.

The number has been steadily climbing as more people move in, bringing their pets. Scores of pups end up on streets, lost or abandoned. If they get picked up by a county animal-control officer and have a known owner, they have five days to be brought home. If they are not known to have an owner, they get three days.

The lucky ones who can get adopted usually do but only with help from outside agencies, because Wilson County doesn’t handle animal adoptions. If not adopted, the animals die.

The scenario holds true throughout the Midstate. Animal advocates say the assistance that government-funded animal-control programs offer is inadequate and can’t keep up with growth. Those who do the job can do only so much.

The gap in services has forced private organizations and individual people to pick up the slack.

“My frustration is that our county government and the different municipalities are woefully lagging behind the times,” said Wilson County resident Donna Wagner, who said she has rescued scores of animals on her own.

“I expect them to enforce the laws that are on the books, investigate cases of animal cruelty,” Wagner said. “I understand that it takes money to do this, but I also think it takes goodwill.”

Wilson County does pick up stray dogs. But 34 of the state’s 95 counties, including Cannon, Smith, Moore and Trousdale counties in the Midstate, have no government-funded animal control at all, said Dave Head, president of the state’s Animal Control Association.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think they keep up with growth in any community, whether it’s in Tennessee, Florida or California,” said Judy Ladebauche, past president of the Animal Control Association of Tennessee. She’s director of Metro Animal Control, which operates on a $1.6 million annual budget and employs 27 people, she said.

“Animal control costs money, and usually they don’t get funded in a way that allows them to be really proactive, so they’re generally reactive.

“An agency that just picks animals up and, if they’re not claimed in three days, euthanizes them is what used to be referred to as a catch-and-kill facility, and certainly in the year 2006 we should all be way beyond that.”

Metro, others do more

Head cited Metro Nashville, Rutherford and Williamson counties as examples to follow. All offer a variety of services, from adoptions and spaying and neutering clinics to education.

“We have to continue to add people to be able to provide the services that are needed by the public,” said Loreen Darley, supervisor at Rutherford’s animal control agency, which employs 12 full-time and three part-time officers, plus management, and runs on a $1 million annual budget.

“More staff is always a plus. We hope people appreciate the work that we do. We’re public servants, and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Animal-control services in fast-growing Sumner and Wilson counties are more scaled back.

In Sumner, animal control is handled by two people.

“I’m sure, as the county grows, we’ll have to grow, too,” said Richard Bennett, animal-control director, about the county that U.S. Census figures show grew by 14,000 residents between 2000 and 2005.

“Overall, I think we’re doing good with what we have,” Bennett said. “But it could always be better.”

Wilson County’s animal-control unit has two full-time officers and one part-time officer, a director and an assistant, and is among those that offer a basic service of responding to calls about stray dogs a problem that local officials say plagues the community.

Nonprofits step in

But with steady population growth, some worry it isn’t enough, and private groups pick up the slack.

Diana Townsend and other animal lovers are working on a solution in Sumner County, where the issue of animal control and cruelty came up weeks ago. A Bethpage woman was charged with running a puppy mill and convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty. More than 280 small dogs and cats were seized from conditions described as filthy, and most were put up for adoption.

“Sumner County has changed so much, and they still have the same animal control. It wasn’t adequate 34 years ago, and it’s not adequate now,” said Townsend, who’s a part of S.P.A., Safe Place for Animals, a group that’s getting nonprofit status and looking for a site for a modern animal shelter.

“In Sumner County or Wilson County, it’s just not a priority. Like everything else, it’s politics-driven,” she said.

Wilson County Mayor Robert Dedman and animal-control director Bill Arnold say the county service, with its annual budget of $150,000, is effective in handling strays.

“They don’t take in animals, and we probably should get into that,” Dedman said. “We don’t have the money to finance that many people. As the growth comes, we’ll need to add a person or so.”

The county works with private animal-rescue groups and Lebanon animal control to adopt out some animals, officials said. The Humane Association of Wilson County has helped numerous times.

“We can’t take every animal that comes in the door without euthanizing another one for space, and we’ve chosen not to do that,” said Melissa Richards, president of the association’s board of directors.

“What we would like to see is a full-service animal control, one that handles animal-cruelty investigations, one that does adoptions. Like other rescue organizations, we want our position to be a volunteer organization that assists animal control. We don’t want to be animal control. It’s the government’s job.”