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Macon leaders finally address animal shelter crisis: Five years with no animal laws wore public thin

After years of debate over stray animals in Macon County — namely the lack of anywhere to take them — county leaders decided last week that it’s time to build a county animal shelter.

Along with the shelter will come two animal control officers to pick up strays and enforce animal control laws, as well as one office staffer. It will cost the county upwards of $250,000 a year, but county commissioners said it is an issue the county has dodged for too long.

“It has reached a critical mass. It is something that needs to be acted upon,” said Chairman Charlie Leatherman.

Right now, the county has no animal control laws, no county-run pound and no animal control officers. If someone has a stray cat living under their tool shed or an aggressive dog tormenting the neighborhood, there’s little they can do.

“This is one of the items everybody in the community talks about,” Commissioner Ronnie Beale said. “It is an ongoing problem.”

In the absence of a county-run program, the burden of caring for stray or abandoned pets has fallen to the non-profit Macon County Humane Society, which has a shelter that can accommodate around 140 dogs and cats. But the Humane Society doesn’t have the space or money to handle the volume of the entire county, according to Chris Murray, director of Humane Society shelter.

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The Humane Society won’t euthanize animals solely to make room for more coming in, said Murray. A county-run pound, on the other hand, would.

Murray said the Humane Society applauds the county’s decision to finally build an animal shelter and doesn’t see it as competition with their shelter.

“I am glad to hear the county is doing something. I think there is room for both and a purpose for both,” Murray said.

Murray said the non-profit constantly gets calls from the public asking them to take animals, but has to turn them away.

“I am very happy the county is building their own pound,” said Jan Meinders, president of the Macon County Humane Society. “There are a lot of animals around that need to be picked up.”

The Humane Society isn’t the only entity that has pitched in in the absence of a county shelter. Animal lovers have pooled together to create a network of backyard kennels and safe homes for abandoned pets.

“There are several fringe groups and even individuals running adoption shelters on their own,” said County Manager Sam Greenwood.


When to euthanize

Commissioners attempted to negotiate a contract with the Humane Society to run a shelter on the county’s behalf. But they couldn’t arrive at an agreement, largely due to the Humane Society’s reluctance to euthanize. The Humane Society will only euthanize an animal when it is terminally ill, aggressive or otherwise unadoptable — not simply to make room for the next one coming in the door.

“We just absolutely can’t do that. You can’t justify within our mission statement that a dog is unadoptable within 72 hours and euthanize specifically for space reasons,” Murray said.

The non-profit shelter will euthanize only when it is very clear an animal is not adoptable. Of course, that is subjective, Murray said.

“How do you define ‘otherwise unadoptable?’” Murray said.

“After a certain period of time we have had hundreds of people walk by an animal that has been there and at what point do you say it is unadoptable?”

In other instances, euthanizing a dog that has become “kennel crazed,” for example, can be more humane than keeping it alive, Murray said.

In 2006, the Humane Society only euthanized 35 of the 267 dogs and cats it took in. Greenwood said the county just couldn’t afford to run that kind of shelter.

“We can’t afford to keep animals indefinitely and run an adoption agency,” Greenwood said.

Unlike some county-run animal shelters, Macon County’s pound won’t be a place where the public can come to adopt animals, Greenwood said. Instead, the county will rely on the Humane Society to continue to fill that role. The Humane Society can select animals to rescue from the county’s pound and take them to their own shelter, and from there the public can adopt them. The county could extend a similar arrangement to other networks of animal lovers that run makeshift shelters.


Long time coming

Macon County hasn’t always been without an animal control program. For many years, the county contracted with the Humane Society to house stray and abandoned animals hauled in by an animal control officer. The county employed one full-time and one part-time animal control officer and contributed $35,000 a year to the shelter.

But the arrangement fell apart about four years ago. Animal lovers that disapproved of euthanizing animals accused the Humane Society of mismanagement at the shelter. They questioned both the treatment of animals at the shelter and the finances of the Humane Society, even filing a lawsuit, although it was later dropped.

The county had never asked the Humane Society to justify how it spent the county’s $35,000 contribution, but in light of the public spectacle decided it ought to do so. The Human Society refused to share its books, however, so the county terminated the contract.

Jan Meinders, president of the Macon County Humane Society, said the arrangement with the county had been putting quite a strain on the organization. Ultimately, the Humane Society was glad to sever the official arrangement.

“It was not a good deal for us financially,” said Meinders. “They brought us all their animals for very little help. It didn’t work.”

Murray agreed.

“That was never a fair arrangement,” Murray said. “The Humane Society was required to take any amount of animals the county threw at them.”

Since the county pulled the plug, the Humane Society has had to rely totally on donations to keep up its shelter, however.

“Thank goodness we had our thrift store to pay our bills,” said Meinders, also citing generous donors.

Since the county no longer had a place to take animals, it stopped employing its animal control officers. That left the general public with no recourse for dealing with strays or unwanted animals except to capture the animals themselves and keep their fingers crossed that the Humane Society had room.

County commissioners periodically attempted to tackle the problem, but were waylaid by differing opinions from the various groups of animal lovers in the county about what direction to take. It seems now the chapter will soon be closed.

“I think at this point we need to build our own facility and get this thing resolved,” said Commissioner Bob Simpson.

The county plans to build the shelter on land it already owns. Greenwood estimated construction will cost $350,000. The shelter could be finished as early as January. After the county builds a shelter, it will pass animal control laws, commissioners said.

“Before we have an ordinance we have to have somewhere we can house the animals. Right now, we have nowhere to take the animals,” said Simpson.

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