(Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series about the rescue of homeless animals in Ashe County.)
Ashe County’s new director of Animal Control, Joe Testerman, has his hands full.
On a given day the phone is ringing constantly - dog bite, horse cruelty, nuisance complaint, stray dog call, raccoon call, dangerous dog complaint, lost dog report, rabid skunk, abusive owner complaint, injured deer.
On his desk is a list of the 20 calls that came in yesterday after closing, each one of those phone calls turn into a required visit. Meanwhile, the dogs in kennels need to be fed and their quarters cleaned, the cat room overflows, and Ashe County citizens continue to bring in by the hundreds, unwanted pets.
Joe is an Ashe County native, growing up in the Helton community with his brothers, James and Jake, whose parents instilled in the boys a love for animals. Horses and dogs and cats were always part of the family. Joe has served as an officer at Ashe County Animal Control (ACAC) for 11 years and was given the director’s post full time the first of November 2011. The job continues to present challenges that are both joyful and heartbreaking.
Joe pulls up a small feist mix found wandering the outlying roads of Jefferson. She holds onto his arm with her paws, and gives a kiss, hoping he can spend time with her. He puts her down gently. There are many others in the full kennel to attend to that day, cages to clean, food to be given, administrative work that is due at each day’s end. That same dog will likely be in Joe’s arms again, this time to be held and petted while she is euthanized. One thousand and four dogs had to be put down last year at ACAC; 700 calls were logged. There is no end in site.
Asked about euthanasia, Joe comments, “It’s a sad day for all of us, the animals we have cared for, petted, named, and hoped for homes for, are kept as long as we can. When the kennels are all full and more come in, we have to make the painful decision of who has to die and who lives. I wouldn’t wish that decision on anyone, and it bothers us more than people know. The dog I accept into the shelter, feed, walk and care for, is the same one I hold in my arms and comfort, the last person that dog sees before being put to sleep. It takes something out of the humans who have to make that decision and if anyone has an answer for it, we are sure willing to listen.”
Joe and his fellow officers Dana Shatley and Jim Walters tread a delicate balance. One must stay in the office while the other two cover in their trucks over 426 square miles. In October 2011, 150 dogs and cats were taken in and 130 had to be put down. No space, no homes.
Before area rescue groups began working with ACAC, the county had been creeping up to 90 percent euthanasia rate. Loss of homes, loss of jobs, but primarily, the county’s lack of a spay-neuter ordinance and responsible pet ownership has led to an over population of unwanted pets that is staggering. One gentleman brings in 14 puppies, while another couple turns in their three dogs but looks around to see what other dogs are available. A couple turns in their cat, petting her on the way out to assure her she will make someone a good pet. A week later the cat kennels are filled to capacity, so she joins the euthanasia statistics at a shelter too small to meet the growing need.
What are the options? Go on www.petfinders.com to advertise pets, newspapers, put fliers at the grocery stores, spay and neuter your pets.
Joe says folks who bring animals often tell him “I don’t want this animal put down,” not realizing the reality of the situation at ACAC. Often the public considers the officers as villains, not aware of the heartbreaking jobs they are faced with or the impact it has on their lives and families. With close to 2,000 animals a year being put down, Joe has lost 20,000 animals in 11 years, while only 3.6 percent were adopted. What effect must that have on a life and what it says about the community?
Animal control officers combat an image of those who capture and euthanize pets. Seldom do they receive recognition or thanks for acts of selfless courage and compassion.
Joe described the following incident:
Last year, an Ashe County spring brought torrential rains and a rising river. When the phone rang at ACAC, an elderly gentleman urgently asked for help; he and his wife were trying to get their aging poodle out of the river, and she was drowning.
Joe and his fellow officers did their best to calm the man and assured him they were on their way.
Slamming the door behind them, and emptying their pockets as they drove, anticipating an encounter with the New River, they raced toward the couple’s home in rural Ashe County. Pulling up in the drive, officers noted the couple was distraught. The dog’s screams could be heard from the house. She had fallen in the river and been carried several hundred yards before her leash caught on a submerged tree branch. Had the officers not gotten there when they did, the 85-year-old owners would have gone into the river to save their dog.
Joe hurried toward the river’s edge. A steep five-foot bank was covered in brambles, below a strong current swept by, cold and ominous in the wind of a blackberry winter day. The dog’s cries muffled into chokes as she swallowed water, went under and surfaced again, panic stricken and near death. Joe stripped off his shirt, kept his one pair of issued work boots on to navigate the briar covered bank, and plunged into the cold New River. Hand over hand, struggling with a tangled leash caught up in submerged tree branches, he reached the elderly, deaf and nearly blind dog, and held her against his chest, finding footing in the water and then negotiating the steep bank.
The couple was reunited with their dog, and what could have been a tragedy on several counts, was a reunion on the cold banks of the river.
Asked what he was thinking when he plunged into the river, Joe smiled modestly and said, “I guess I didn’t think about it; I just did what needed to be done for those poor folks and their little dog.” He and his fellow officers said that the phone call propelled them out the door and into their truck, with no time to grab coats or think about what needed to be done before closing the office. “We just slammed the door and left as quickly as we could,” Joe said.
Why so many animals?
Family pets who are well trained are turned in due to divorce, moves, or loss of employment. Domestic abuse is another factor. A gentle Rottweiler mix was admitted, having been spray painted with graffiti. He was so traumatized he had to be put down. A story in the paper about Alice the Sheltie who found a home in New Hampshire noted that when Alice was spayed, the vet found a bullet wound. Cruelty to animals is a felony under North Carolina law. The officers of Ashe County do their best to enforce this law. All instances of suspected animal cruelty should be reported to ACAC or to the sheriff’s department.
The dogs and cats at the shelter receive water, food and fresh shavings in their cages each day. They are given walks as the officers’ time allows, which is not as frequent as the officers or the dogs would like. Amanda Wright, music teacher and tireless volunteer, walks, grooms and gives the dogs and cats as much attention as she can. Tiffany Jones, daughter of former ACAC director Jeff Jones, works from her wheelchair at home to find homes for unwanted animals. But there are too many dogs and cats, not enough homes, not enough time, and ACAC is not a humane society.
Joe and his fellow officers balance the dogs’ and cats’ needs with other pressing duties, responding to the hundreds of calls they receive each week from the community - some are serious, some are not - but all are treated with the same degree of gravity. Horses and livestock cruelty cases are rising in the winter, and reports of cruelty and neglect warrant a personal visit by the officers. Joe, Dana and Jim, are by necessity, cruelty investigators, secretaries, janitors, maintenance workers, adoption specialists, euthanasia technicians, mediators in domestic disputes, and law enforcement officers.
The county guidelines for pet ownership are clear. All animals are required to by law to display a rabies tag and a county tax tag. Strays picked up without these tags are required to be held for seven days, and then are available for adoption if deemed adoptable. If that stray is injured, and wearing tags, it will be taken to a vet. If there are no tags, county funding does not allow vet care.
Very few animals that are at ACAC have tags in Ashe County, so they are left in a limbo between ownership and euthanasia. Strays reclaimed by owners have a $7 a day boarding fee and a $50 citation fee if rabies tags are out of date.
Animals turned over to ACAC by their owners are kept for only three days, but they can be adopted immediately without the seven-day wait for strays.
Adoption fees are $73 for a dog or $53 for a cat if that animal needs to be spayed or neutered, and a certificate is provided for the surgery to be done by a local vet. Adoption fee is less if the animal has already been spayed or neutered, required for a rabies shot if needed and a county tag.
Lifetime county tags are available at the shelter for $10. Name tags are available at Happy Tails Pet Supply or at local veterinarian offices by mail order. A tag can save a life.
Community adoption days
ACAC Adoption Days are common, and recently sponsored by Carolina Wireless and Faith Fellowship Church. The officers do this on their own time, on an unpaid basis, hoping to place some of the unwanted animals they are caring for.
However, out of the 20 dogs transported to one adoption day last year, two were adopted and one found a foster home. The others, sadly, went back to the shelter. Not the greatest of odds, but a step towards more community involvement and awareness of the plight animals and their officer caretakers.
A local couple took in one of the Ashe County strays, and she now rides in the golf cart with them to their garden, looks forward to car rides to the grocery, and does overnights with their grandchildren. She “guards” her new family by sleeping in her own chair on the porch.
Famed Ashe County Chef, Isabel Tome, adopted a little ACAC dog. Victor, a Pomeranian mix, is now a beloved member of her household and a companion to her daughters and grandchildren, Lily and Alex. Victor has a new role as a therapy dog at an Ashe County Group Home. He has made a tremendous difference in the lives of the residents.
Dr. Sheley Revis of Charlotte adopted McGrady, a deaf Australian Shepherd from ACAC, who has his own Facebook page.
Sheley and her celebrity dog have a rural assistance program, and she brings much needed food to ACAC. She has started a Friends of Ashe Animals program to better address the needs of the officers and their charges.
Aunt Sis, who runs a Bed and Breakfast for Dogs in Banner Elk, recently fostered a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon from ACAC. He found a home after three weeks of love and attention and basic obedience instruction from Sis. Known for her devotion to the animals of Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties, Sis’s shelter enabled Lucky Dog to find a new life. Watauga Humane Society ran Lucky Dog’s picture and story on their website.
Sis now has BaaBaa, a toy poodle mix from ACAC who runs the B & B for dogs, greeting and shepherding the “guests.”
What you can do
Please visit Ashe Animal Control when you are considering a pet and if you aren’t, please consider a donation to help provide food and shelter and even medicine. Budgets are being cut on all fronts. Donations of money for food and medicine at Ashe Animal Control are badly needed. All gifts are gratefully accepted and acknowledged and are tax deductible. Send checks to: Ashe County Animal Control, 767 Fred Pugh Rd., Crumpler, NC 28617.
If you have an unwanted pet, please try to place that animal with free media listings, or by posting the animal’s photo at the two local veterinarians and Happy Tails Pet Supply. And if you have a computer, go to www.petfinders.com to post the animal. It’s free.
Low-cost spay and neuter programs are available; ask your animal control officer or the local humane societies in Ashe and Watauga counties.
Please, before you buy, go to Ashe County Animal Control. Located on Fred Pugh Road in Crumpler. Call 982-4060 or go online to www.asheanimals.org.
If you want a certain type dog that you don’t see there, please call or email Clare Tager, email@example.com, 828-964-0927. I am matching up people and dogs by going to animal shelters and websites for humane societies in a three-county area, as well as Petfinders.
Check out Purebred Animal Rescue Groups at www.purebredrescue.com to find a home for a pure bred dog, or to find a purebred to adopt.
(Next, learn more about ACAC working with area rescue groups and hopes for the shelter’s future.)