Not a fraction enough s/n done to be no-kill, deadly dogs running amok, & humane society near broke
NEWPORT, Tennessee––Locally recognized as deficient for more than 50 years, animal control services in Cocke County, Tennessee are within a week of vanishing entirely.
Effective on August 1, 2022, the nonprofit organization founded in 1993 as Friends of the Cocke County Animal Shelter is slated to return the county animal control housing contract to the county and become officially the no-kill Smoky Mountain Humane Society, the name it has already been using under two-year board president Allison Chiaradio and vice president Sarah Kenny.
Cocke County appears to be approaching the deadline with no Plan B in sight, and much of the community unsympathetic toward spending public funds to house dangerous dogs.
Two people killed but no charges
Charles Owensby, 70, of Newport, the Cocke County seat, has yet to be charged with any offense directly connected to the April 1, 2021 fatal mauling of Tony Ahrens, 52, and the July 12, 2021 fatal mauling of Amber Miller, 29, allegedly by Owensby’s Cane Corsos in essentially the same spot, 700 feet in front of Owensby’s home.
The Cocke County, Tennessee sheriff’s department is still awaiting results from forensic tests before considering charges against Owensby, Abby Kousouris and Paige Hill of WVLT reported on July 12, 2022.
At least two of the Cane Corsos involved are reportedly still alive. The remains of one were found buried on a nearby property belonging to Owensby’s ex-wife, Cecilia “Tillie” Gregg McCarter.
“Shoot them dogs!”
Majority public opinion in Cocke County, judging from hundreds of social media postings over the past year, appears to be that Owensby’s Cane Corsos should have been impounded for forensic testing after Ahrens’ death, if not impounded earlier for running at large; that Miller’s death, at least, would have been preventable if the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office and animal control had done their jobs; and that at least some of the blame for the two deaths accrues to the Smoky Mountain Humane Society for trying to handle animal control sheltering on a no-kill basis, thereby having no open cage space for dangerous dogs and/or found strays.
Previous fatality & other incidents
Also still relatively fresh in the memories of the 36,000 Cocke County residents, many of whom are personally acquainted with many of the rest, are the April 2008 fatal mauling of two-year-old Malcolm Ray Cody Morelock in Parrotsville, 10 miles northeast of Newport, by the family pit bull, and several other local pit bull maulings.
In particular, then 10-year-old Brandon Williams of Newport was critically injured and had both of his ears torn off by a neighbor’s pit bull on August 3, 2011. Pit bull owners Anthony Lugar and Jennifer Switzer were each sentenced to serving two years on probation for allowing the pit bull to run at large.
Only eight days after Williams was attacked, 12 year-old Leann Hux was injured by two pit bulls who invaded the Parrottsville Elementary School.
“Treating the law as something of a suggestion”
A considerable number of Cocke County residents vociferously believe that any menacing dog should be shot on sight, even as many others keep menacing dogs chained in their yard to protect themselves and their economic enterprises.
Cocke County people have long been “known for treating the law as something of a suggestion,” according to TheSmokies.com editor John Gullion. In the recent past, Gullion wrote, “Chop shops [dismantling stolen cars] were abundant as moonshine operations and marijuana growers, cockfighting was thought of as a family tradition, and corruption among elected officials and law enforcement was open and well known.”
Current news coverage indicates that all of this continues today, little changed except that methamphetamine production and sales have overtaken moonshining and marijuana growing as major local industries.
Donors & taxpayers want different things
While Cocke County may be an extreme case, hundreds of other communities in which humane societies hold the animal control housing contracts, both in the U.S. and abroad, are facing a similar dilemma.
Popular as the “no kill” ideal is among animal advocates, it is self-evidently unrealistic when pit bulls and other dogs of either unknown or known dangerous history make up from half to two-thirds of all dog intake.
Humane society donors, on the one hand, do not tend to want to subsidize animal control services that include dog-catching and killing dangerous dogs.
Taxpayers, on the other hand, are unwilling to subsidize pursuit of the “no kill” ideal at the expense of public safety.
“Beyond strained & exhausted”
The impending split between Cocke County and the Smoky Mountain Humane Society originated as a budget dispute along precisely those lines.
Explained the Smoky Mountain Humane Society in a June 23, 2022 posting to Facebook, “Approximately two years ago, Friends of the Animal Shelter began a complete transformation. A new board of directors and shelter leadership led this effort by first committing to becoming a no-kill organization. That means we will not euthanize an animal just to make space for another to be euthanized later on.”
Predictably, the posting continued, “The past two years, and especially this year, have been extremely difficult. Since July 1, 2020, we have taken in 2,252 dogs, cats, puppies and kittens from the county’s animal control officers and from county residents. That’s an average of 94 animals every month for our facility that has only 48 kennel runs and four cat rooms.
“Our volunteer foster program is beyond strained and exhausted,” the Smoky Mountain Humane Society acknowledged. “We have had to consistently tell many, many others who were looking to surrender their pet(s) that we were full to capacity.
“Operating as no-kill is inconsistent with doing animal control”
“We have always offered food from our community food pantry and have asked pet owners to continue to care for their pets while we worked to get them adopted,” the posting said, but added “Our all-volunteer board of directors is physically burning out,” and admitted that the shelter has had “an 80% turnover rate in staff,” with “no sick or vacation time and no other benefits like health insurance.
“On April 4,” the Smoky Mountain Humane Society said, “we made a presentation to the county’s budget committee. We requested an $11,000 increase from the current funding level. The amount only represented the then cost of living inflation rate of 8%.”
The request was rejected. Members of the Cocke County Legislative Board, representing one of the poorest counties in Tennessee, instead told the Smoky Mountain Humane Society delegation that “the shelter got enough last year,” and that operating as a no-kill shelter is inconsistent with performing the animal control mission.
Spent equivalent of 3,000 sterilizations to run shelter
“To operate the shelter this fiscal year,” the Smoky Mountain Humane Society recounted, “we spent over $290,000. The county provided just $138,000 of that amount. The rest of the funding needed to care for the almost 1,000 animals that came into the shelter since July of last year, came from fundraising,” including “more than $32,000 in veterinary costs,” but not including expenditures for physical improvements to the Smoky Mountain Humane Society Animal shelter building.
Returning the animal control contract to the community is exactly the strategic ploy advocated since 1984 by former San Francisco SPCA executive director Richard Avanzino, and many other no-kill gurus since then, as the first step toward achieving a no-kill community.
The Avanzino premise was that essential animal control services, including stray pickup, impoundment, open admission acceptance of found and owner-surrendered animals, and euthanasia of dangerous or unhealthy animals, should be done by tax-funded agencies, operating on the same basis as police and fire departments.
What worked in San Francisco
Taxpayers, Avanzino reasoned, could not be expected to fund “extras,” such as spay/neuter and adoption services, but humane donors would, if the warm-and-fuzzy role of providing humane services could be separated from the unpopular roles of dog-catching and killing animals.
Thus the city of San Francisco was obliged to form the San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control, kitty-corner from the San Francisco SPCA, which had previously held the city animal control contract since 1895.
That in turn enabled the San Francisco SPCA to become one of the leading spay/neuter service providers in California and the world, drastically reducing animal intake at both the SPCA and the Department of Animal Care & Control.
The Adoption Pact
The original Avanzino formula proved successful enough that 10 years later, in 1994, the San Francisco SPCA and San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control signed the Adoption Part, through which the SPCA agreed to accept and rehome any animal turned over to it by the Department of Animal Care & Control as safe for adoption.
Thereafter, the major reason why dogs were euthanized in San Francisco was rapidly rising intake of dangerous pit bulls. Avanzino and then-San Francisco SPCA director of law and advocacy Nathan Winograd, who later founded the No Kill Advocacy Center, tried to address that in 1996 by rebranding and rehoming pit bulls as “St. Francis terriers.”
That experiment was terminated within 60 days after several of the rehomed “St. Francis terriers” demonstrated a penchant for killing cats.
Ten years after that, after Nicholas Faibish, 12, was killed in San Francisco on June 3, 2005 by two pit bulls kept by his mother, Maureen Faibish, 39, then-San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control director Rebecca Katz finally addressed the major reason why her department euthanized dogs by winning passage of a 2006 ordinance mandating that pit bulls must be sterilized if brought within the San Francisco city limits.
The ordinance reduced San Francisco shelter intakes of pit bulls by two-thirds in two years, bringing San Francisco the lowest volume of pit bull killing in shelters of any major U.S. city, along with a marked reduction in fatal and disfiguring dog attacks.
The lesson to the world should have been that breed-specific issues require breed-specific solutions; but that lesson has yet to be widely absorbed, and has been actively denied by the American SPCA, Best Friends Animal Society, Humane Society of the U.S., and Maddie’s Fund.
Five years after introducing the Adoption Pact, PeopleSoft founders Dave and Cheryl Duffield hired Avanzino away from the San Francisco SPCA and put him in charge of the former Duffield Family Foundation, renamed Maddie’s Fund in honor of the Duffields’ adopted schnauzer.
Unfortunately, Avanzino personally and Maddie’s Fund as an institution soon forgot all about the formula that made San Francisco ostensibly the first U.S. “no-kill city,” via the Adoption Pact, which began with providing 10 years of heavily subsidized low-cost and free spay/neuter service to the community.
Maddie’s Fund, to be sure, has funded a great deal of subsidized low-cost and free spay/neuter work, but has also poured a great deal of funding into dead end and just plain dim-witted schemes.
Dim-witted dead-end approaches
Among the most dim-witted Maddie’s Fund “achievements” has been redefining “no kill” as a 90% “live release rate” instead of euthanizing no safe and healthy animals.
This has only encouraged both humane societies and animal control shelters to simply refuse admission to any animals who may be difficult or impossible to rehome, such as pit bulls, other dogs of dangerous history, feral cats, and any found animal whom shelter management can persuade the finder to release to find his or her own way back to a home, even if the animal shows signs of having been dumped by someone many miles from where the animal once lived.
Also dim-witted and predictably hitting a dead end was promoting formation of community “no kill” coalitions that in effect––where attempted––transferred animal control policymaking from elected officials to no-kill advocates accountable to no one.
Further dim-witted and also predictably hitting a dead end have been programs trying to end dog-and-cat overpopulation by promoting adoptions instead of doing more and better-targeted spay/neuter.
Reality is that spay/neuter has accounted for approximately 95% of all the national reduction in animal shelter killing over the past 50 years, by reducing shelter intakes, even as adoption volume has flatlined nationally because the typical shelter admission is no longer a cute and cuddly puppy or kitten from an accidental birth, and is instead a pit bull or other adult dog or cat who will, at best, be a rehabilitation project instead of an easily assimilated new family member.
Why Cocke County is not San Francisco
The Smoky Mountain Humane Society could scarcely be in a community more different from San Francisco, which is among the most affluent and best-educated cities in the world.
Indeed, in 2015 Samuel Stebbens of the web site 24/7 Wall Street, no relation to ANIMALS 24-7, undertook to discover the most miserable place to live in each U.S. state, as determined by “an index of three measures: poverty, bachelor’s degree attainment among adults, and average life expectancy at birth.”
The most miserable place in Tennessee turned out to be Cocke County.
“Life expectancy at birth in Cocke County is only 71.5 years, well below the 76.0 year state average,” Stebbens reported. “Additionally, the local poverty rate of 23.5% is considerably higher than the 15.2% poverty rate across Tennessee.”
Educational attainment was only 43% of the already low Tennessee state average.
Six times the San Francisco rate of shelter intake
Stebbens did not look at animal shelter admissions, but if he had, he would have discovered that the Smoky Mountains Humane Society received 31.6 animals per 1,000 human residents in fiscal years 2021 and 2022, five times more than the San Francisco SPCA and Department of Animal Care & Control received between them when they embarked on their effort to make San Francisco no-kill by signing the Adoption Pact.
Faced with the reality that Cocke County is nowhere near ready to go no-kill, and that at the present pace of spay/neuter locally will never get there, the Smoky Mountain Humane Society on June 29, 2022 informed county mayor Crystal Ottinger that “we will never end our commitment to being a no-kill animal welfare organization. It is clear that the paths to accomplishing each of our missions are divergent and irreconcilable.
Shelter gave Cocke County 30 days
“Moreover,” the Smoky Mountain Humane Society continued, “even if our facility were to somehow be expanded to double or triple its capacity (a physical and fiscal impossibility), the current condition of our economy and the rate of inflation will more than likely cause our organization to become insolvent by the end of the next fiscal year.
“Accordingly,” the Smoky Mountain Humane Society said, “we find that it is not possible for us, in good faith, to renew a contract to continue to provide services as the county’s animal shelter and remain a no-kill organization. We will continue as a charitable nonprofit solely dedicated to animal welfare in our community.”
While Avanzino in 1984 gave the city of San Francisco five years to fully transition animal control service to the newly formed Department of Animal Care & Control, the Smoky Mountain Humane Society gave Cocke County just 30 days.
That may be enough time for Cocke County sheriff’s deputies to load their shotguns.
Shelter also threatened to quit in 2017
Some Cocke County Legislative Board members may not take the Smoky Mountain Humane Society threat to quit accepting animal control impounds seriously.
After all, Friends of the Cocke County Animal Shelter, under previous leadership, made the same threat under similar circumstances in June 2017, when animal control housing was funded by the city of Newport.
The impasse then got as far as a series of clear-the-shelter events before the city of Newport bowed out and Cocke County became the sole governmental funder.
The rocky relationship between the shelter and local government worsened in December 2018, when Cocke County sheriff’s deputies, acting on a complaint from Steele Away Home Canine Foster & Rescue in Newport volunteer Amy Huff, arrested shelter director Terry Starnes, 44, for alleged severe neglect of a young redbone coonhound named Kylar.
The Friends Animal Shelter, as the organization was by then called, fired Starnes by a vote of 4-1. Pleading “no contest,” Starnes in June 2019 was sentenced to serve five days in jail and a year on probation.
“I guess we were working with an impossible situation”
Defending Starnes, reported Travis Dorman of the Knoxville News Sentinel, was Friends Animal Shelter president Anne Fontaine.
“Fontaine has been involved with Friends of the Animal Shelter since 1996,” mentioned Dorman. “She helped raise money to build the shelter, and one of the buildings is named after her.
Wrote Dorman, “The nonprofit runs a no-kill operation — the shelter previously euthanized animals — and often houses more than twice the number of animals it should, Fontaine said.”
“We were trying to work with very little money,” Fontaine told Dorman. “We couldn’t hire as many people as should have been hired. In addition to that, we really couldn’t even afford as much veterinary care as would be ideal. I guess we were working with an impossible situation.”
Indeed. And if Friends of the Animal Shelter had emphasized spay/neuter all along, instead of providing subsidized shelter services for the county, the situation might not have remained so impossible.
Carol Hood, DVM, emphasized s/n
According to the Smoky Mountain Humane Society web site, “The first animal shelter in Cocke County was started in 1978, by Lynn Bright and Cynthia Woods at the Newport Fairgrounds. The shelter was run entirely by volunteers and donations. In the early 1980s, the shelter was flooded, and the facility was wiped out. Thankfully, all the animals were saved and by 1984, the City of Newport agreed to allow a portion of a garage and salt storage area, used by the Newport Street Department, to be used as the animal shelter for Cocke County.
“Living conditions for the animals was extremely poor,” the web site admits.
Local veterinarian Carol Rebecca Hood (1952-2014) formed Friends of the Animal Shelter in 1993. The shelter itself was later named after her.
According to an announcement of her memorial service, Hood “sold her veterinary practice to Sandra O’Conner, DVM, after being asked to euthanize large numbers of animals at the local shelter. Hood helped fund the animal shelter by giving up her salary, and then by doing low cost spays and neuters for extra revenue. She also began [an organization called] Beat the Heat, which has performed 2,000 or more spays and neuters at a low cost.”
Humane priorities reversed
Beat the Heat still exists, operating from Rogersville, 50 miles north of Newport, but IRS Form 990 filings show annual revenue declining from $82,258 in 2016 to just $11,414 in 2019, indicating a complete reversal of what should be the community priorities if getting to no-kill on a realistic footing is really the goal.
The current Smoky Mountain Humane Society opened on May 6, 2000.
Allison Chiaradio, the current board president, became involved in 2020, personally raising $30,000 for extensive shelter improvements, after fostering and eventually adopting a puppy named Calvin.
Calvin, according to Amelia Young of WBIR, “was found in a near-death condition, left to die outside of the Friends Animal Shelter of Cocke County in November” 2019.
Which is what happens when a community tries to go no-kill prematurely, before doing enough spay/neuter to eliminate surplus animal births.