Animal Shelter illustration

Animal advocates have criticized the management of the Athens-Clarke County Animal Control Shelter, saying government officials haven't listened to the advocates concerns for over a year.

From concerns of poor conditions to allegations of publishing misleading information, local animal advocates have repeatedly called for Athens-Clarke County to take a closer look at the ACC Animal Control Shelter over the last four months.

Now, community members say local government has started to listen.

Every ACC Commissioner said they will take action to work with the community on animal shelter reform at a Sept. 3 ACC Mayor and Commission meeting. District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson held a town hall meeting on Sept. 25 to hear what concerned community members had to say about the shelter.

“Honestly, this is the first time that I’ve been really hopeful about where things are going,” said Lisa Milot, executive director of Athenspets, a group that volunteers with the shelter.

The commission has added a proposal to its Oct. 1 agenda to convert five part-time shelter staff positions to three full-time positions. If the proposal passes with the rest of the consent agenda at its Oct. 1 regular session meeting, the shelter will have seven full-time staff, rather than four.

“As much as the volunteers and rescue groups know about shelter operations and see what’s going on, it’s the staff that make the difference on a day-to-day basis,” Milot said.

Last week, ACC Manager Blaine Williams asked ACC Central Services Director David Fluck to resign. Fluck oversaw multiple departments including ACCAC. His firing was related to but “not a direct result” of the animal shelter controversy, Williams said.

The commission discussed an item authorizing an audit of the animal shelter proposed at the body’s Sept. 17 agenda-setting session. The item was not placed on the consent agenda for the Oct. 1 regular session meeting. The commission will vote on it then.

Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, who said the commission should take more time to consider the scope and purpose of the audit, said any Animal Control audit should be as comprehensive as possible. NeSmith’s reasoning was that the city manager has already begun work with volunteer organizations to improve the shelter.

“What I don’t want us to see is an audit report of the way it used to be because that is really not of any use," NeSmith said. "It would be very useful if we know what got fixed, or what’s going to be fixed, and what needs to be fixed that hasn't been fixed.”

In an email to The Red & Black, Commissioner Tim Denson said he has spoken with stakeholders working with the Manager's Office on the animal shelter.

"They wish for the audit to happen in its full capacity," Denson said in the email.

Nothing new

Public backlash arose in July after shelter staff euthanized more than 30 cats believed to have been exposed to feline panleukopenia. However, later testing indicated it was “unlikely” that these cats were infected by the virus, according to an Aug. 29 ACC news release.

In June 2018, Fluck visited the shelter and spoke with Lindsay Baker, a former shelter employee, and another staff member in response to allegations of cat neglect.

“There were too many cats, too few staff and upper respiratory infections were rampant [among cats] in the shelter,” said Baker in an email to The Red & Black.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture placed the shelter on a 40-cat limit and closed off the shelter to new intakes due to “horrific conditions” later that summer.

Over Labor Day weekend, three dogs were euthanized after they tested positive for canine parvovirus. The dog section was placed under a state-imposed quarantine until Sept. 16.

On Sept. 3, 38 shelter volunteers and animal advocate groups addressed the “underlying problems” within the shelter in a response to the Aug. 29 release. Signatories asked for greater commitment from ACC to reform management practices, fix staffing issues, increase transparency and update animal care practices.

“The fact that there has been so much cover-up and so many excuses for this mass killing event shows a real problem with how the county is operated,” Baker said.

The Sept. 3 letter alleges “more than 100 cats” died unnecessarily during 2018 and July 5-9, 2019. The signatories credit a “disturbing pattern of poor and uninformed decision-making by shelter management with respect to the health and lives of the shelter animals” as the reason.

Misinformation and understaffing

Animal advocates, including Milot and Sherry Tanner, a shelter volunteer, take issue with the way death statistics have been reported by the ACCAC Shelter. The shelter cannot turn away animals due to an open-admission policy, but it cannot endlessly accept animals without running out of space.

“Many in the community think that we have a very low or no kill shelter when in fact, they code animals as being ‘unadoptable’ so they only report the deaths on ‘adoptable’ animals that they self report,” Tanner said.

Tanner also volunteers for Athenspets and fosters for ACCAC and the Humane Society.

Most concerns revolve around shelter management practices and the lack of transparency with the public. The Athens shelter has remained understaffed for months now, resulting in concerns about whether proper animal care protocols are being followed.

“It was only until recently and after much community activism and press articles that the city manager decided that he would reach out to the stakeholders and get their input [into] how to fix things and move forward,” Tanner said.

Underfunding may contribute to some of these problems. Without the support of partners like Athenspets, the county budget is insufficient for ACCAC to stand on its own.

According to a review of shelter operations conducted this spring by Best Friends Animal Society, ACCAC only spends $5.70 per capita on animal control services, less than multiple other Georgia counties of comparable size.

If the commission approves the proposal to add more full-time staff, the shelter’s annual expenses will increase by $44,994 each year.

No paws in next steps

In their Sept. 3 letter, advocates listed seven requests they had previously asked shelter management to address. The county has begun collaboration with staff and volunteers to address necessary, everyday tasks at the shelter.

“That’s the number one priority, to think about what things need to be done on a daily basis to care appropriately for the animals at the shelter,” Milot said. “[The county] is actually very focused on that at this point, and I’m happy with the progress there.”

Outdated ACCAC ordinances must be overhauled, and a group of stakeholders has met with county management, Milot said. Better enforcement of ordinances and reorganizing adoption procedures would improve the shelter experience for everyone.

According to Milot, the creation of a “high-volume spay-neuter” clinic in east Clarke County would prevent the unwanted animal population from increasing, saying it’s the most important long-term goal for advocates.

“I’m cautiously hopeful, I think that both the commissioners and county management are really receptive to working with us on beneficial changes for the shelter and the animals,” Milot said.

As an associate professor of law at the University of Georgia, Milot conducts research on shelters and runs UGA Law’s Practicum in Animal Welfare Skills. If ACCAC overhauls its policies and ordinances, the shelter could be a leader of open-admission municipal shelters for the state and even the southeast, Milot said.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, it was stated the ACC commission did not approve a potential audit of the animal shelter. The audit was not placed on the commission's Oct. 1 regular session consent agenda, but it will be voted on at that meeting. Additionally, the names of Lindsay Baker and Sherry Tanner were misstated. Baker was misidentified as a former shelter volunteer, but she is actually a former shelter employee. The Red & Black regrets these errors, and they have since been fixed.

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