Illness outbreak at Walker County Animal Shelter heightens 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's happening at the shelter is a standard response to an outbreak of illness there, but some Walker County elected officials and an animal advocate said it points to bigger issues with the facility.

The shelter is working through a bout of kennel cough, a highly infectious respiratory disease, according to an email from Joe Legge, Walker County's public relations director. He wrote that the shelter remains in good standing with the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the limits to intake 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 conflict at commission meetings, and Robert Blakemore, the commissioner for District 1 of the Walker County Board of Commissioners, said he and the board want someone managing both the shelter and animal control that can coordinate county services and keep in touch with the public and local animal rescues.

"What we're wanting is a director that will work better with the public of Walker County and will 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 seizure) happens."

The commission has 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 a county manager)

While many Walker County residents were enjoying the Honeybee Festival in LaFayette, Janice Williams was driving the injured dog seized in Rossville - dubbed Lucky by officials because he's involved in an investigation and they want to keep his real name private - to Atlanta for care.

The Rossville-area resident runs a nonprofit group called Perry's Promise that spays and neuters animals and also provides pet food to those in need, and for law enforcement officers to distribute it. That relationship led Rossville police to call her when the Walker County Animal Shelter couldn't take Lucky.

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

Due to the dog's injuries and despite her paying a bill of more than $400 for veterinarian care, Williams said Lucky had to be euthanized.

Whitfield, the commission chairman, said the animal shelter's role is to take stray, aggressive and surrendered animals - but not injured animals like Lucky. In a phone interview, he said it was up to a private citizen or the local jurisdiction to take care of Lucky.

Soon, the county will be advertising for a director to manage and coordinate animal control and the shelter, Whitfield said. He said he supports the plan to reorganize animal services.

Shelter manager Emily Sadler gave a presentation on operations at Thursday night's commission meeting. Shelter employees spoke as well, and kennel tech Chloe Clift said she's glad animals aren't euthanized at the shelter unless they're very aggressive or too sick to rehabilitate.

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

In public comments after the presentation, Erin Reichbauer said she thinks the public should be asked to volunteer at the shelter and offer their homes for fostering animals. Sadler said developing a foster program is a big effort because homes must be inspected and the animals are still under the shelter's license and liability.

Whitfield said the shelter has gotten good scores from state regulators. He said it's important to note that a lot of counties in Georgia don't have an animal shelter, and many euthanize animals at a much higher rate than a no-kill shelter like the one in Walker County. When he came into office, Whitfield said the shelter had more space and fewer problems because it was euthanizing about 30 animals a week.

(READ MORE: Report details messy, unsanitary conditions at Walker County Animal Shelter; Commissioner Whitfield says all is under control now)

Ted Harris, the mayor of Rossville, said in a phone interview that it's "irritating and aggravating" that Rossville taxpayers are paying for a service they aren't getting. He said he hopes the commissioners can work out the problem but they aren't getting much traction.

"The county is going to have to step up and do what they're supposed to do," Harris said. "When the shelter's closed, it makes it hard for everyone."

He said all the area's jurisdictions are like a big family, and it often takes time to work through issues.

Jessica Rock, an assistant district attorney in Butts, Lamar and Monroe counties who also serves as a statewide animal crimes prosecutor, said there's been a change of attitude towards prosecuting animal cases 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 attended, as did many other regional agencies.

Rock said she doesn't know if the Rossville police have filed charges and only wanted to talk about processes for prosecuting animal abuse - not specifics of Lucky's case. In her role, she gives trainings on how to prosecute those cases and she also prosecutes federal animal fighting cases.

"There's a lot of nuances to investigating and prosecuting these cases, one of which is live animal evidence," Rock said. "It's really getting everybody in the county or the city on the same page, understanding we have to have a process for this."

Typically there is some agreement between the city and the county about animal intake, even on criminal cases, Rock said. She wrote in a follow-up text message that she doesn't know of anything specific in state law but there may be statutes on the local level.

Each county has to develop its own protocols, she said, and some counties have arrangements with veterinarians, some with government-run shelters, others with independent rescue organizations. Rock said she's available to help local governments design those protocols. Taking care of injured animals can be expensive, she said, "but someone has to be on the hook for it."

There are many animals 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 photographs and details about available animals.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.