New animal policy ‘huge step backward’

The Citizen’s coverage of the July 13 Board of Commissioners’ vote on the new euthanasia policy for the Fayette County Animal Shelter, including Commissioner Ognio’s explanation of his position, is misleading.

Commissioner Ognio and Citizen reporter Ben Nelms (as well as the CBS reporter who interviewed Commissioner Ognio) are spinning this new policy as a positive change, a life-saving move to increase the time an animal stays at the shelter. I don’t disagree that the shelter director needs a policy, but I disagree that this one is an improvement.

Previously, the only policy in place was the 5-day hold for owner reclaim, after which an animal is placed for adoption if deemed adoptable. That part has not changed.

The new policy adds a cap of 30 days before an adoptable animal will be killed; the previous policy had no cap. Yes, they have always euthanized for space when the shelter was full, but “full” meant full, 100 percent capacity. The new policy reduces capacity to 75 percent.

How is this a life-saving policy, an improvement, when you decide to kill healthy, adoptable animals in order to keep 25 percent of your cages empty “just in case”? By the way, the Fayette County Animal Shelter is not even an open admissions facility; they do not accept owner-surrendered pets.

The reason Director Collins gave for reducing capacity to 75 percent of available cages was that he did not have the budget and staff to care for the animals properly when the shelter was at full capacity.

But, as Commissioner Ognio pointed out in his letter to the editor, the shelter budget has been increased by $50,000, and the staff increased by 1.5. If previous directors could manage to care for the animals at 100 percent capacity, with less money and fewer employees, I question how efficiently these additional resources are being utilized.

Director Collins also expressed concern about the humanity of keeping an animal caged in the shelter longer than 30 days, almost breaking down in tears as he talked about how dogs “become institutionalized.” I suspect that is his rationale for implementing a 30-day cap on their stay, assuming that death by lethal injection is more humane than living in a cage.

Although rescue groups would prefer that the animals be given more time, we can live with the 30-day limit if operationally necessary. It’s the 75 percent capacity restriction that is hard to accept.

Commissioner Ognio’s letter, as well as the news coverage by Nelms, make this issue about money. Yes, before the policy was brought up, the BOC discussed some budget issues about proposed enhancements to the shelter, and in their public comments, many citizens made suggestions for upgrading the shelter and even proposed that we build a new shelter.

Before this new euthanasia policy came up for discussion, many citizens were not aware how inadequate our current shelter is. But how will Fayette County be able to justify building a new shelter if we are only planning to use 75 percent of current capacity?

The euthanasia policy voted on by the BOC was not about budget; it was about establishing a mindset for shelter management: population control over life-saving.

The animal ordinance that Commissioner Ognio proposed to terminate, as an addendum to this euthanasia policy vote, was not on the July 13 BOC agenda, and his recommendation was made after public comment was closed. Most citizens were not even aware that a coalition of local animal rescue groups had been meeting with Commissioner Brown, County Administrator Steve Rapson, and Director Jerry Collins (with the knowledge of the rest of the BOC) to revise Fayette County’s out-dated animal ordinances.

A volunteer from the Fayette Humane Society hired and personally paid for an animal welfare attorney who had successfully brought animal ordinances adopted by other communities up to 21st century standards while remaining compliant with state law. This attorney and Fayette County’s attorney had been driving the work, and although the revised ordinance was not yet complete and ready for presentation to the BOC and the public, the working group was about 90-95 percent in agreement on its provisions.

The new animal ordinance was not about money, either. In fact, a portion of the ordinance focused on saving taxpayer dollars. In 2014, the Fayette Humane Society, in partnership with the Fayette County Animal Shelter, received approval from the BOC to implement Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) as the preferred solution to complaints about free-roaming cats. Research presented showed that TNR is much more effective, not to mention more humane, than traditional trap-and-kill methods, and communities around the country are embracing it.

Since 2014, the Fayette Humane Society has successfully procured grants from several animal welfare foundations to fund TNR efforts in Fayette County, resulting in hundreds of unsocialized cats being kept out of the Fayette County Animal Shelter and saving thousands of taxpayer dollars that would otherwise have been spent to trap and kill these cats, as well as the offspring they would have produced. All this work was done with volunteer labor and private funds.

The grants were obtained by showing a year-over-year reduction in cat intake and cat euthanasia at the shelter as a result of the TNR program, with the promise that the BOC supported updating the county ordinance to sanction the program. Now that work on updating the ordinance has been halted and the unofficial TNR policy is still at odds with the law, it is unlikely any more grant money will be forthcoming to support the TNR program. That means more unwanted kittens will be born, more cages will be filled with unadoptable cats, and more taxpayer dollars will be spent to trap and kill them.

I am saddened that the BOC has chosen to take this huge step backward. The July 13 vote and decision to discontinue work on improving our animal ordinances seemed to be prompted more by animosity for Commissioner Brown than by what was good for Fayette County. I trusted our elected officials to put aside personal differences and listen to their constituents.

Sharon Marchisello
Peachtree City, Ga.