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Times Free Press file photo / Kevin Key stands with a dog after it was met by a family for potential adoption at the Walker County Animal Shelter in Chickamauga, Ga.

The leader of an animal rescue group in Walker County, Georgia, is pushing local lawmakers to introduce a bill that would boost criminal charges for animal rights crimes in the state.

Janice Williams is the director of Perry's Promise, a nonprofit organization in Walker County that specializes in animal rescue work. Williams has met with lawmakers and hopes they will soon introduce a bill that would allow law enforcement to hold perpetrators accountable for egregious crimes involving so-called puppy mills, animal cruelty and other matters.

As it stands now, mandatory inspections are conducted at puppy mills by the state's Department of Agriculture through its Companion Animal Division. The state agency is in charge of regulating puppy mills and handling any disciplinary action needed once an investigation is finished.

It's Williams belief that local law enforcement should have more authority as such an investigation is opened by the Department of Agriculture.

Last year, seven Georgia kennels were mentioned in an annual report by the Humane Society of the United States, and the national organization said it was troubled because of the lack of inspections being done due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Williams cited the arrest of Reason Craig Gray as an example of when law and order worked as it's supposed to, but said too often such crimes go unpunished or ignored.

Gray operated Georgia Puppies in Berrien County. In 2019, Gray was charged with multiple counts of cruelty to animals when more than 700 small-breed dogs were rescued from his property.

In April, Williams helped an animal welfare group based in Maine rescue nine dogs from Walker County after her organization was turned away for help by county animal shelter officials who cited limitations under the coronavirus crisis.

Rep. Mike Cameron of District 1 said he was part of the early talks when Williams approached him and state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, about getting a bill introduced. Cameron said Monday that talks have since stalled as the Legislature works on getting election laws and budgetary concerns ironed out.

Chris Arnt, district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, met with Williams about drafting the proposed bill. Arnt said Monday afternoon the main goal of the new legislation would be to clarify the duty to investigate between state and local agencies to make it clear what kind of enforcement would be appropriate for each group.

Arnt said a list of concerns was submitted to the Office of Legislative Counsel, but so far no bill has been introduced halfway through the session.

"One of their main concerns that [Williams] voiced to me is that the enforcement is kind of spotty," Arnt said. "Sheriffs' officers around the state seem reluctant, and the Department of Agriculture is more focused on the licensing and fines and not so much the criminal abuse aspects."

The issue isn't so much people raising dogs, Williams said, but when things get out of control, perpetrators should face some sort of punishment. When breeding dogs are kept in unsafe conditions, owners and operators of those kennels and puppy mills should be held liable, she said.

Arnt said in his early stages of drafting recommendations, the first one will be to make it clear that local sheriffs' offices should lead criminal cases and the Department of Agriculture would assist them.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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