Disease outbreak at Walker County animal shelter intensifies criticism

The Walker County Animal Shelter has limited its intake of new animals, complicating a police investigation in Rossville in which an injured dog seized as evidence had no place to be housed.

County officials said what was happening at the shelter was a standard response to a disease outbreak there, but some Walker County elected officials and an animal advocate said it pointed to bigger issues with the establishment.

The shelter is going through an attack of kennel cough, a highly contagious respiratory disease, according to an email from Joe Legge, director of public relations for Walker County. He wrote that the shelter remains in good standing with the Georgia Department of Agriculture and that admission limits should be lifted by the end of this week. The intake limitation began on May 28, he wrote.

The animal shelter has been a source of contention at commission meetings, and Robert Blakemore, the Walker County Board of Commissioners’ District 1 commissioner, said he and the board wanted someone to run the both the shelter and animal control who can coordinate county services and keep in touch with the public and local animal rescues.

“What we want is a director who will work better with Walker County audiences and have a better relationship with local residents,” Blakemore said in a phone interview. “To have a plan of action if something like this (the dog’s seizure) happens.”

The commission passed a plan to reorganize animal services in Walker County, but Blakemore said implementation has been slow.

(READ MORE: Walker County, Georgia commission discusses adding county executive)

While many Walker County residents were enjoying the Honeybee Festival in LaFayette, Janice Williams was driving the injured dog seized in Rossville – nicknamed Lucky by authorities because he is involved in an investigation and they want to keep his real name private – in Atlanta for treatment.

The Rossville-area resident runs a non-profit group called Perry’s Promise that neuters and neuters animals and also provides pet food to those in need, and law enforcement officers for distribute it. This relationship led Rossville police to call him when the Walker County Animal Shelter was unable to take Lucky.

“They’re calling us out of desperation when they’ve been calling for weeks or months or there’s an injured animal and the county refuses to answer,” Williams said in a phone interview. “They just call us to help.”

Because of the dog’s injuries and despite paying a bill of more than $400 for veterinary care, Williams said Lucky had to be euthanized.

Whitfield, the commission’s chairman, said the role of the animal shelter was to take in stray, aggressive and abandoned animals, but not injured animals like Lucky. In a telephone interview, he said it was up to a private citizen or the local jurisdiction to deal with Lucky.

Soon the county will announce a director to manage and coordinate animal control and the shelter, Whitfield said. He said he supported the plan to reorganize animal services.

Photo provided by Janice Williams / A dog name Doe is raised by Janice Williams in a Murray County animal cruelty case. Williams, who runs an animal-related nonprofit group, criticized the Walker County Animal Shelter.

Shelter manager Emily Sadler gave a presentation on operations at the committee meeting on Thursday evening. Shelter workers also spoke up, and kennel technician Chloe Clift said she’s glad animals aren’t euthanized at the shelter unless they’re very aggressive or too sick to be rehabilitated.

Sadler confirmed Legge’s timeline for a return to normal operations at the shelter and said he is still adopting some animals.

In public comments after the presentation, Erin Reichbauer said she believes the public should be invited to volunteer at the shelter and donate their homes to foster animals. Sadler said developing a foster program is a big effort because homes must be inspected and animals are still under the license and responsibility of the shelter.

Whitfield said the shelter has received good scores from state regulators. He said it’s important to note that many counties in Georgia don’t have animal shelters, and many are euthanizing animals at a much higher rate than a no-kill shelter like the one in Walker County. . When he started, Whitfield said the shelter had more space and fewer problems because he was euthanizing about 30 animals a week.

(READ MORE: Report details messy, unsanitary conditions at Walker County animal shelter; Commissioner Whitfield says everything is under control now)

Ted Harris, the mayor of Rossville, said in a phone interview that it was “irritating and annoying” that Rossville ratepayers were paying for a service they weren’t getting. He said he hoped the commissioners could fix the problem, but they weren’t having much success.

“The county is going to have to step in and do what it’s supposed to do,” Harris said. “When the shelter is closed, it’s difficult for everyone.”

He said that all the jurisdictions in the region are like a big family and it often takes time to resolve issues.

Jessica Rock, assistant district attorney for Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties who also serves as a statewide animal crimes prosecutor, said there has been a change in attitude at the regarding animal prosecutions in Georgia. Most police investigations seize evidence, but she said in a phone interview that the issue is complicated when the evidence is a live animal.

A 2021 training on how to prosecute animal abuse cases was hosted by Rock in Walker County. Williams was present, as were many other regional bodies.

Rock said she didn’t know if Rossville police had filed any charges and only wanted to talk about the animal abuse prosecution processes – not the details of Lucky’s case. In her role, she gives trainings on how to prosecute these cases and she also prosecutes federal animal fighting cases.

“There are a lot of nuances in investigating and prosecuting these cases, one of which is live animal evidence,” Rock said. “It really puts everyone in the county or the city on the same page, understanding that we need to have a process for this.”

Typically, there is an agreement between the city and county on admitting animals, even in criminal cases, Rock said. She wrote in a follow-up text message that she didn’t know anything specific about state law, but there may be laws at the local level.

Each county must develop its own protocols, she said, and some counties have agreements with veterinarians, some with government-run shelters, others with independent rescue organizations. Rock said she was available to help local governments design these protocols. Caring for injured animals can be expensive, she says, “but someone has to do it.”

Many animals are ready for adoption at the Walker County Animal Shelter. Visit the shelter on the web at walkercountyga.gov/residents/animal-shelter or its Facebook page to find photos and details of available animals.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at [email protected] or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.

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