Bibb commissioner: Investigate animal shelter euthanizations

Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen called Monday for an investigation into euthanizations at the animal shelter last week.

Interim Animal Welfare Director Deborah Biggs said 15 dogs were euthanized last week after the shelter temporarily went over its state-mandated 80-dog limit and remained well over its practical capacity of about 55 dogs.

About 50 concerned residents and animal rescue group volunteers cheered at a courthouse news conference when people called for Biggs to be fired. Animal rescue pulled out more than a dozen animals last week to pull the shelter under its state mandated limit, but the euthanizations went ahead.

Mallory Jones, a county commission candidate who has donated money to the animal shelter, said most of the euthanizations were “unconscionable.” Jones said three of the dogs were unadoptably aggressive, and another one was old with illness. Putting those dogs down would have left the shelter with 69 animals, under the state limit.

“The killing should have stopped then,” said Jones, who later left letters in the county government’s office calling for Biggs to be relieved of her job immediately.

Another commission candidate, Tom Wagoner, said it may be time for Chief Administrative Officer Steve Layson to return to Eatonton, where he previously lived.

Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said he expects Layson will present information about the euthanizations and the animal shelter operations to commissioners at next week’s meeting. Hart said it is too early to seek an outside investigation or call a special meeting.

“We’re concerned,” he said. “We want the same outcome that everybody else does, to have a center that operates as well as it could.”

The animal shelter and the department that oversees it have been beset by controversy in the past year.

Its former director, Jim Johnson, and another staff member were fired after an audit found poor record keeping. A judge ordered them both rehired.

Advocates united behind an earlier interim director, Van VanDeWalker, who again took over shelter operations when Johnson was removed from daily duties after poor conditions were found at the shelter earlier this year. Johnson retired from Macon just before the department was transferred to Bibb County earlier this month.

In August 2011, the shelter was closed for several days and puppies were euthanized to control outbreaks of parvo and giardia. Last month, the shelter was emptied -- with 99 dogs and cats rescued -- to allow an extermination of mice and roaches.

Biggs’ entry also hasn’t been smooth. She said she’s received death threats but cannot talk about them. Rumors were also flying about her rate of pay. Biggs said she’s getting $10,040 for 30 days’ work, which she based on the minimum salary and benefits for a permanent director, plus government per diems. The county said she will work 60 days.

Layson has said Biggs will not seek the permanent director’s position. The county’s Director of Animal Welfare position is advertised with a minimum salary of $54,484.54.

Bibb County commissioners, some of whom have said they want a no-kill or low-kill shelter, have not run an animal shelter before.

Cheryl Coffman, who runs Feral Feline Fixers, said the scenario described by Jones shouldn’t have happened. Animal rescue groups could have pitched in more if they had been kept in the loop, she said.

“If they had been told, those animals would have found homes. That was just a case of killing for no reason,” Coffman said outside the courthouse.

Biggs said the shelter’s stated capacity of 80 dogs doesn’t meet reality.

“I professionally would like to see no more than 60 dogs here at one time,” Biggs said. “We are full. Every run has dogs. Some have more than two. We have some dogs outside.”

And when dogs get crowded, they’re more likely to spread diseases, fight each other for food or territory, or attack workers trying to feed or walk them, Biggs said.

She said she told shelter staff to try to get the number of dogs down to 55, but she thinks the count only reached 58.

“When all was said and done, the euthanizations were done, and when the animals from outside were brought it, there were only two runs open,” Biggs said.

Chris Grice, the facility’s contracted veterinarian, said most lay people would think the shelter was overcrowded at 80 dogs. Workers can’t keep the place clean when they don’t have places to move the dogs for cleaning.

“When you start having two and three (dogs) in a run, it just compounds that problem. I said early on when I started going down there it would be a lot healthier situation for that capacity to be 50 or 55 instead of 80,” Grice said Monday.

And the animals keep coming.

When the animal shelter opened Monday morning, it had 61 dogs. A litter of nine puppies, three captured strays and one surrendered dog brought the count to 74 in just four hours, Biggs said.

Biggs said it’s still puppy and kitten season, with many litters being born now. Among the dogs euthanized last week were a mother and seven of her eight puppies, who had been getting three meals a day and were still losing weight, a condition known as failure to thrive. The other puppy was adopted by an animal shelter worker.

The animal shelter has been working with a volunteer who runs a Facebook page, “On Borrowed Time,” that highlights animals that could soon be euthanized. A June 27 post warned, “We have made it 10 weeks with no kills. We may not be able to add another week if we dont get some dogs out. They are at 75 today.”

Linda Lester, who said she volunteers with a spay-and-neuter program, began chanting at the outset of Monday’s news conference, “No kill. No kill.” She later said Bibb County needs to do better.

“No-kill is absolutely doable,” Lester said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.