‘We have let people down’: County approves euthanasia policy, kills animal ordinance progress

Asked by Chairman Eric Maxwell who was in opposition to the proposed animal shelter policies, the assembled crowd’s stance was clear. (Staff Photos by Christopher Dunn)

“Why are these animals being hurt? Why?” 11-year-old Shannon O’Connor-Larson asked the County Board of Commissioners. Receiving no response, she said, “I think I’ve made my point.”

For more than 90 minutes, most of the County Board of Commissioners sat silently listening as resident after resident expressed their concern over what a proposed new animal control policy could mean for animals waiting at the shelter. They listened and they voted to approve the policy against the crowd’s wishes, even tacking on a clause to kill without warning the work being done between animal advocates and the County to revamp its animal ordinances.

The agenda item to be discussed was for staff’s recommendation to adopt a management and euthanasia policy for the animal shelter. Key points include establishing a minimum 30-day hold on animals before they can be euthanized, establishing a capacity threshold of 75 percent of cages, and setting up a notification process with rescue agencies before animals are put down. The policy, County Manager Steve Rapson said, is aimed at figuring out how to best use existing resources, existing staff, and the existing facility.

“By definition, animal control is we control the animal population, as opposed to the humane society, which is a different role,” he said, differentiating between the county entity and non-profits focused solely on rescuing animals. “What we’re trying to do as a shelter is move more towards that no-kill, humane society role.”

For Animal Control Director Jerry Collins, who emphasized that 30 days is not a drop dead date for the dogs and that they would use discretion, he doesn’t want animals to be in the shelter so long that they become institutionalized.

“You keep them in a cage long enough, and they feel that’s their home,” he said, choking back tears. “What breaks my heart the most is when I see an animal when they’re taken for a walk and you get to the door and it runs to go into that kennel. I just feel that is not right to the animal.”

Based on public comments, the key sticking points with the policy were the definition of the 75 percent capacity threshold and the 30-day mark for when animals could be euthanized if the shelter is at capacity. Currently, there is no capacity threshold, and the director has discretion to euthanize after the end of a five-day stray hold. As noted, he would still have discretion after 30 days with the new policy.

Stephanie Cohran, President of the Fayette Humane Society, spoke first, reading the organization’s official position into the record.

“The Fayette Humane Society agrees that the Fayette County Animal Shelter should have a euthanasia policy in place in order to remain transparent to the public and take out some of the guesswork and emotion when tough decisions are necessary. We realize the county shelter has very limited capacity and is trying to do the best it can with a staff and budget that is disproportionate to Fayette County’s population. However, we have serious concerns about some elements of this proposed policy,” she said. “We cannot support killing healthy, adoptable animals in order to keep 25 percent of the shelter’s dog runs empty. (Shelter) staff has indicated that keeping two empty cages has been adequate for most situations in the past. Intake numbers warrant managing the shelter at 92-100 percent capacity, and as taxpayers, this is how we’d like to see our money spent.”

Cohran said that they believe 30 days is often not enough time to find an animal a home, and she has seen that hold true with most animals that the Fayette Humane Society adopts out.

“The national trend of animal shelters is toward No Kill, and there is no reason that Fayette County Animal Control, as a limited-intake shelter, could not achieve this goal,” she said. “For FCAC to reach this goal, it needs the help of the entire community, with more focus on spay/neuter, education and responsible pet ownership. FHS is committed to helping FCAC achieve this goal.”

Leah Thomson with the Fayette No Kill Coalition holds up a photo of Casper, a dog that was advertised as adoptable by the Animal Control before being labelled aggressive and euthanized.

Leah Thomson, representing the Fayette County No Kill Coalition, spoke on behalf of the dogs that did not get out of the shelter in time, in particular Pierre and Casper who were put down March 29, 2017.

Holding up photos of each dog, she said, “At some point in the day, the decision was made to take Casper and Pierre out of their shelter-made homes, where they had been cared for and loved since their arrival, and to lead them down the hall to the room where they were given an injection that would end their lives.”

The dogs were labeled as aggressive, despite being made available for adoption to the public, as the reason for euthanasia.

“Casper meant so much to one of the shelter employees that she made sure that he did not die without her by his side so that the last person he saw would be one that he trusted and that he loved,” she said. “Asking if Casper and Pierre should have been killed is the wrong question. The answer is that they were, and we can’t change that. The question to be asked is how we can all come together and make sure that this choice does not have to be made again.

“This is not just about Casper and Pierre, this is about an ideology and understanding that has to come from the top. Euthanasia can be necessary in sheltering, but it should never be used as a form of shelter population control. Euthanasia policies that impose time limits and capacity limitations are archaic and inhumane.”

Few dry eyes were left in the house when she introduced a photo of Stitch, a pit bull mix who had recently been adopted after a long stay in the shelter.

“The truth is, this is what sheltering should look like,” she said, introducing his new family. “Stitch was at the shelter for over 100 days, and the shelter has been full several times since then. If this policy had been implemented, Stitch would not be in a warm bed with this wonderful family.”

Through teary eyes, Stitch’s new mom said, “I love Stitch, and I can’t imagine my life without him now” as a standing ovation rained down from the crowd.

After the deluge of speakers and the floor had been closed for discussion, Commissioner Randy Ognio made the motion to approve the policy with an unexpected twist.

“I’m not in favor of moving forward with the ordinance,” he said, tacking on a clause to “stop progression of the ordinance.”

An ordinance was news to some and a shocking death that was devastating to many. Since late-January, Commissioner Steve Brown had been working closely with local animal advocacy leaders to update the county’s animal ordinances. They had met multiple times with Rapson, and County Attorney Dennis Davenport was involved in the process as well.

While pieces of the ordinance could be revived at the whim of the commission, for all intents and purposes it is dead. The work of many amounts to a wasted effort.
“If this passes, I’m really, really sorry to say that, because it was included as part of the (motion), that all the ordinance changes that we have been working on are now in the waste bin,” said Brown.

The advocates and volunteers paid out of their own pockets for an attorney well-versed in animal rights to draft the ordinances based on other successful organizations. They were doing all of their work at no cost to Fayette County.

“They got their own attorney so that we wouldn’t have to spend our own money, and they put all that together, and we worked it and reworked it,” said Brown. “I’m just really, really downhearted that it’s going to be killed if this motion passes, all that work. That really hurts me. There’s no reason for it, especially when 90 percent of the (ordinance) changes no one had any qualms with.”

There was no indication that the ordinance was on the table, as it was still in progress and not slated to be on an agenda for discussion until later.

Commissioner Charles Rousseau took exception with what he called the “piecemeal” nature of voting on a policy first, then potentially the ordinance later.

“This is the danger when you talk about the other piece that is yet to come,” he said. “That’s not looking at matters in a comprehensive fashion. It’s piecemealing, and it’s dangerous.”

Brown countered that the work has been part of a very thorough process.

“The ordinance changes that we have been working on are a comprehensive review of every line of code that Fayette County has,” he said. “It is the entire series of code related to animal control. It is the most comprehensive review of the animal control ordinance in the history of animal control since it’s original writing.

“What you’re saying is wrong,” he said pointedly to Rousseau.

Brown found no support from his fellow commissioners, and said he is looking forward to the end of his term more and more given the at-times contentious relationships on the dais.

“There’s a lot of things that go on that you don’t understand and you just try to live with them, but I’ve got a year and a half left, and man I’m counting the days,” said Brown as it became clear that his fellow commissioners were voting in the policy and throwing out the ordinance work in progress. “I can’t take stuff like this anymore.”

The policy, with the addition to kill the in-progress ordinance, passed 4-1 with Commissioner Ognio, Rousseau, Charles Oddo, and Eric Maxwell in support and Brown in opposition. A visibly disgusted Brown left the meeting chambers after the vote and did not return.

“You work on something, and you try to do it for all the right reasons, and then you don’t even let it get on the agenda,” said Brown. “That just breaks my heart.”

Maxwell complimented crowd on staying polite through much of the night.

“It is one of the most difficult things that this commission does is deal with animal control because it is a very emotional issue. I appreciate how you have conducted yourselves,” he said. “I appreciate the decorum that you came to this room with.”

After the vote, that tide turned as many felt blindsided by the surprising dumping of the ordinance, and they let the commissioners know just how they felt.

“This is absolutely awful, and it puts a bad stain on Fayette County,” said Darcy Mitchell.

“I don’t want anybody to think any of us up here are heartless,” said Commissioner Oddo.

“You are,” answered back several in the audience.

The sentiment didn’t get any kinder as thoughts turned to the dogs who could soon become victims of the newly-approved 30-day euthanasia policy.

One voice from the crowd asked, “How about the commissioners voting on this walk those dogs to their deaths?”

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Christopher Dunn has been the sports editor for Fayette Newspapers since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Game Day magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.


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