When Bibb County commissioners last week selected Sarah Tenon to run the county animal shelter, they hoped the decision would help them find common ground with their critics.
After the 4-1 vote, there was a round of applause from many in the room, but there were others who left the meeting less than thrilled with the choice.
Tenons hire finally answered the simmering, summer-long question of who would take the reins of the shelter that on July 1 moved from Macon to Bibb County control. But only time will tell whether the new director can be a calming force in a whirlwind of conflicting interests over shelter policies and leadership, as well as concerns about county oversight.
Two and a half months ago, what many thought might merely be a bumpy transfer between governments quickly escalated into a full-scale feud involving top county leadership and animal rescue groups. There were allegations of death threats against a county-hired consultant, of adoptable animals needlessly killed each week, and of county leaders working behind the scenes to block former shelter employee Van VanDeWalker from becoming director of the Animal Welfare Department.
What should have been an easy transition turned out to be an unnecessarily divisive situation, said Patti Jones, chairwoman of animal advocacy group Central Georgia CARES. In hindsight, this was totally a waste of energy because I cant see weve made much progress since July 1.
Macon City Councilwoman Nancy White, a strong supporter of animal causes, said its unfair to say whether things at the shelter are better or worse now that the county is running it.
Its been in a state of flux, she said. Im not going to cast stones from the city side. I know what a challenge it is to run that (shelter). We dont have an adequate facility.
Still, White said she was disappointed the county began picking up more strays, ultimately meaning more euthanizations each month. More animals also put more pressure on rescue groups as they often struggled to find room each week in their own facilities for animals they pulled out of harms way.
Bibb County Chief Administrative Officer Steve Layson said its the nature of government to be criticized but that some of the criticism leveled at the county has been based on misinformation.
Nothing has happened differently since July 1, Layson said. (The shelter) is cleaner, were complying with state laws and were complying with the (Bibb County) Health Department.
Data acquired by The Telegraph show there are some differences in how the shelter has been run. Since the county took over operations, adoptions are down while euthanizations are up. The number of strays picked up by Animal Welfare officers also is up, along with the number of animals pulled from the shelter by rescue groups.
Trying to reach the same goal
Even though tensions among county employees and rescue groups have at times reached full boil, there is general agreement on many issues facing the shelter animals.
Critics and supporters of the countys Animal Welfare efforts have all noted theres only so much any government can do with the current, dilapidated facility near the city landfill that just three months ago had to be shut down because of an infestation of roaches and mice.
And nearly everyone agrees that while a new $3 million shelter -- expected to be built within the next couple of years -- will help solve some problems, it wont amount to much in the long run if the community doesnt put a priority on spaying and neutering.
County Commissioner Lonzy Edwards, chairman of a citizens committee advising commissioners about the Animal Welfare Department, said a new shelter is similar to expanding the Bibb County jail: No matter how large the facility, it wont make a difference if underlying problems arent addressed.
If you dont deal with prevention, then it will always be a problem, he said. Im amazed by how analogous the two situations are.
White said she spearheaded a proposed city ordinance that would have created mandatory spaying and neutering in the city, but it never went anywhere.
Id like to see a mandatory spaying/neutering ordinance (in the county), White said. There are irresponsible pet owners, which includes not spaying and neutering their pets and not keeping their pets in a secure area.
While there is some agreement about basic issues, the rift boils down to differences in philosophy in how the city and then the county ran the shelter.
Donna Segelken, whose Facebook page On Borrowed Time highlights the animals at risk of being put to sleep because their time at the shelter is up, said she has tried to stay neutral during the conflict. Segelken said the city and the county have different approaches in running the facility and that its difficult to tell if one approach is better than the other.
Theyre trying to reach the same goal, but in a different way, she said. The city wasnt immunizing puppies for parvo. At least (the county) is giving them a fighting chance. ... (The county) has changed a lot and is keeping stuff clean. Im assuming the city would have done that (if it had more resources).
According to county officials, the city had 10 full-time positions dedicated to the shelter at the time of the transfer. The county currently has 12 full- and part-time positions in the department.
But Jones, of Central Georgia CARES, said her organization enjoyed a better working relationship with Macon.
Lets just say that when we worked with the city, they were very cooperative, Jones said. They were eager to work with the rescue groups and CARES. They allowed the community to be more involved. We felt like we had ownership with the shelter. We havent had that experience with the county.
Layson said some of the problems have arisen from the simple fact that many people dont like to deal with change.
I think there are enough groups out there -- not just in Bibb County, but throughout the U.S. -- that want to be part of a good organization, he said. Thats what our organization is going to be. Plenty of people out there want to be part of our system.
Wendi Hilliard, an inspector with the states Department of Agriculture, said many of the changes the county has made have been positive. For example, she said, getting rid of an automatic watering system was a good idea, even though it drew the ire of many rescuers.
You know how bad a problem the water dripping was in (attracting) roaches? she said. The largest part of the roach problem was that the water was dripping out onto the floor. Thats where the roaches breed. People are harping on the wrong thing. (County workers) are going to water and feed these animals.
Some of the rescuers have protested that decision, saying the water lines were put in when the city ran the shelter to ensure the animals always had fresh water on weekends. They also said most of the roaches were the result of the shelter being next to the city dump.
Anne Brennaman, who runs the Macon Purrs N Paws shelter that specializes in finding homes for cats, said shes seen no evidence the water lines were the reason the shelter was infested with roaches and other vermin.
Ive found no test results about that, she said.
Hilliard said county workers also are going the extra mile to feed the animals the proper amounts of food, based on the animals size and breed.
Theyre going by the weight of the animal and the chart in regards to feeding, she said. Thats a plus.
Commitment to a low-kill shelter
Critics of the county-run shelter point to a statement made by Edwards earlier this year that commissioners are committed to running a low-kill shelter. And yet, they point out, euthanizations have risen dramatically over the first two months the county has run the facility.
Im very disappointed -- thats the best way to put it, Brennaman said. We were promised on day one by Lonzy Edwards that it was going to be a low-kill shelter, and its been nothing but the opposite of that.
Edwards says he stands by his pledge for a low-kill shelter, but the community, in tandem with Tenon, must work toward that goal and support spay-neuter programs.
Right now weve got a shelter that can only handle 60 dogs and 20 cats, he said.
Regarding the Animal Welfare Department, Edwards said the countys primary obligation now is the health and safety of Bibb County residents.
Obviously, weve made mistakes; thats inevitably part of the process, he said. Thats why its so important to have professional management. There are bigger issues to address: a new shelter, new programs. Weve been treading water, because the problem is trying to put in an effective spay/neuter program. The city didnt have one in place either, to my knowledge. ... Im going to push that program as soon as (Tenon) is on board.
Segelken said she understands the challenge the county faces.
There has to be some give and take, she said. People have to understand (the shelter) isnt a Humane Society or rescue organization. There are still too many dogs running around.
Animal rescuers have complained that the county has stepped up its intake of stray animals, knowing it would lead to higher kill rates because of the shelters low capacity. Some rescuers also said county officers arent distinguishing between vicious animals and domesticated ones.
When VanDeWalker served as interim director of the facility for the city, he said he focused his attention on tracking down an animals owner and forcing them to take responsibility for the animal.
You solve the problem (of strays) by finding out where the dog lives and hit the owner in the wallet, he said. You do whatever you can to go after the animals owner. It seems like this community views dogs and cats as disposable. ... It takes a little extra work (to find the owner), but thats what the officers are being paid to do.
But Layson alleges that VanDeWalker often told people who called the shelter that the facility was full and that he wouldnt send officers to pick up reported strays.
The intake dropped by over 60 percent, Layson said, referring to the change between the time former Macon Animal Control Director Jim Johnson was in charge and when VanDeWalker ran the shelters operations earlier this year. They were telling people that they cant go and get vicious dogs because they were full. We wont do that. Were going to get those dogs. Safety and health are our first two concerns. After that, we focus on adoptions.
VanDeWalker denied turning people away, saying it was his duty to pick up vicious dogs that had bitten or scratched people.
I dont buy (Laysons characterization) at all, he said. Every bite case has to be investigated and followed up with the health department.
Sara Roberts, an assistant Bibb County district attorney and president of the Paws & Adopt rescue group, said shes had few issues with the county since it took over the shelter. Many of the problems the county faces, she said, are based on the shelters low capacity versus the high number of stray animals running loose.
You just cant keep stacking up the dogs, she said. The first thing (Animal Welfare) has to be concerned with is the safety of the community. You have to go out and get that dog.
Layson noted that the city was killing 5,000 or 6,000 animals a year about two or three years ago. Given the monthly average of 68 euthanizations since the county took over, that would put the county at 816 kills over the span of a year if that rate holds steady.
Not long ago (Macon) was at 100 per week, he said. Were doing a fraction of what they did two or three years ago.
One of the biggest points of contention between the county and animal rescuers was VanDeWalkers July resignation following conflict with Layson and Deborah Biggs, who ran the facility on a 60-day contract as a county consultant.
VanDeWalker said he resigned because his job description was changing and he was told he would have to make the call about which animals would be killed each week. VanDeWalker said that change, plus having his wife and daughter banned from volunteering from the facility after separate arguments with Biggs, compelled him to leave his job. VanDeWalker also said his dog, AC Pup -- who serves as the mascot for CARES and was the mascot for the shelter when the city ran it -- and shelter cat Fiona Fred also were barred from the facility.
Id be the one with the responsibility for which animals were going to die, he said. It was obvious to me that they didnt want me or CARES around, and this was a way to get us out of there.
Layson, however, said the job descriptions of many former city employees who joined the county July 1 changed. He stands by the decision to contract with Biggs on an interim basis to help in the transition and to find ways to improve the shelter.
Was it the right decision? In some aspects, yes, Layson said. Overall, she did a fairly good job. Can you predict what was going to happen? I think nobody in their eyes (who wasnt VanDeWalker) was going to do a good job. We brought in somebody who knew the field. We needed someone with expertise, someone independent to take us through there.
Layson said hes heard everything from one end of the spectrum to the other regarding confrontations between Biggs and some volunteers, saying the truth is probably somewhere in between. Early on during her two-month tenure, Biggs said she had received death threats, but the Bibb County Sheriffs Office later determined there was no credible threat. No charges were filed.
Many animal rescuers also were disappointed that VanDeWalker wasnt a finalist for the directors job that went to Tenon. VanDeWalker withdrew his application for that job when he resigned. When he reapplied several weeks later, the selection committee already was conducting interviews with the finalists, and VanDeWalker wasnt interviewed.
As the tumultuous summer at Animal Welfare gives way to fall, there is hope that Tenons hiring might be the beginning of a détente.
Last week, VanDeWalker, who worked with Tenon as city animal control officers for eight months in 2008, praised her as very knowledgeable in the field.
Hopefully, shell do great, he said. I got along with Sarah. I like Sarah. ... Shes a very knowledgeable, very intelligent woman. Im glad to have someone in there other than Steve Layson.
Although White doesnt recall meeting Tenon during her time in Macon, she received favorable reports about her.
I recall a lot of complimentary things that were said about her, White said. Im very optimistic.
Hilliard said she worked with Tenon during her Macon stint four years ago as well as when she served as animal control supervisor for Hawkinsville. Hilliard said Tenon will be a tremendous asset for the shelter.
Ive worked with her two times before and shes the greatest plus yet for the shelter, Hilliard said. Shes a businesswoman who never loses focus on whats important -- the welfare of these animals.
Some of the local animal activists have expressed concern about Tenon because the largest rescue group in Mobile County, Ala., was banned from that shelter, where she serves as director. County Administrator John Pafenbach, however, said he was the one who made the decision to ban that group after some of its members caused disruptions in the facilitys normal operations. The critics also noted a high kill rate at that shelter.
Many animal advocates are taking a wait-and-see approach about how Tenon will do as Bibbs shelter director.
Only time will tell, Jones said. I have no way of saying what kind of job shell do. ... The community was all supporting Van because they knew he was a quality worker. He was familiar with the operation and he was a visionary. Certainly, we want to support Ms. Tenon, because we will do what we have to do to help the animals.
Edwards said one of the reasons Tenon got the job was a proven track record in working with rescue groups, and he hopes local organizations will give her the benefit of the doubt.
Obviously, we want to work with the rescue groups, he said. Right now, its not as smooth as it needs to be. But were not going to solve these problems by ourselves. Were trying to get more citizens involved.
Edwards said the planned $3 million shelter will be a big improvement for the county. The citizens committee that recommended Tenon plans to score architects for the project this week and is close to narrowing the final choices for the new shelters location. In addition, the committee will soon travel to state-of-the-art shelters across the state for ideas.
If its done right, it will be an asset to the whole community, he said, and we are going to insist on doing it right.
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.