Yes, Houston County, you have a problem


On April 13, 1970, Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert, aboard Apollo 13, more than 200,000 miles from Earth, uttered five fateful words after he and the rest of the crew, Fred Haise and Jim Lovell, heard an explosion: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Those words should be uttered again, but this time the Houston is pronounced differently and refers to a county in Georgia, not a city in Texas. The problem isn’t a spacecraft headed for the moon, rather an animal shelter, that has all too many earthly problems. Issues that can be seen from outer space if anyone is paying attention.

The problem with Apollo 13 was its No. 2 oxygen tank that suffered from a design flaw that after an ingenious effort to stay alive and return to Earth by the astronauts and mission control, was redesigned and fixed. The basic problem with the Warner Robins Animal Control shelter is people.

Stuck between two sets of people are dogs and cats the shelter ends up serving. Some of the animals have owners who can no longer care for them and are just dropped off at the shelter. Other animals are simply abandoned and left to fend for themselves on the street. Can you believe some owners just move away leaving their pets behind? Well, it happened just last month when Warner Robins animal control officers found 17 cats and four dogs in a home where their owners had been evicted from. It’s heartbreaking.

On the other side of the equation are the people charged with caring for those animals. It’s a tough job that carries with it some unpleasant aspects. Still there are policies and procedures that they have to be held accountable for following. Though rumors about animals being mistreated at the Warner Robins shelter have been circulating for some time, and local officials notified, there was little urgency until red flags started to appear on Oct. 20. That’s the day the Warner Robins Police Department, which runs the shelter, sent a media release stating the shelter had euthanized 22 dogs and 39 cats in a single day. Euthanizations take place all of the time, but even at that, 61 dogs and cats euthanized in a single day seemed out of whack.

The shelter takes in animals from the unincorporated area of Houston County, Robins Air Force Base and Centerville. Perry, wisely opened its own shelter in January. The release said 38 of the 39 cats euthanized were feral and ineligible for adoption, and of the 22 dogs put down, 10, the release stated, were vicious and another five were sick with kennel cough.

Fast forward to Oct. 31 when the GBI announced it was going to investigate allegations of animal cruelty at the shelter. This action was brought about by charges made in a complaint filed with the Houston County Sheriff’s Office by animal control officer Samantha Okalani. Her complaint, though no specifics were given, said it was regarding multiple incidents of animal cruelty she witnessed by animal control employees.

What was the initial response from authorities? Did did they plead for patience while it got to the bottom of the problem and pledge support for the GBI investigation? Not exactly. The police department’s spokesperson said there would be no response because an investigation was pending. However, Houston County did respond. It fired Okalani, who worked for the county, not the city. Not the smartest move under the circumstances.

If the GBI investigation validates her claims, Warner Robins will have to open its checkbook to pay her. Even if her claims aren’t validated, she will still be able to charge that her firing was in retaliation for being a whistle blower.

No matter what comes of the GBI investigation there are a more than a few shelter truisms. No matter how big the animal shelter, it will never have enough room to prevent animals from being put down until human behavior changes. That is not to say shelters shouldn’t be as clean as possible and disease free.

Communities that care about animals have to work collaboratively to keep euthanizations at a minimum. That means shelter personnel have to work closely with rescue groups and any other group that can help keep the shelter population under control. And there has to be a never ending drumbeat throughout the community to spay and neuter.

Until we solve the people problem in Houston County — and most everywhere else — we will always have defenseless animals caught in the middle of groups of people who really care little about them.

This editorial originally stated that animal control officer Samantha Okalani was fired by the Warner Robins Police Department. Okalani worked for Houston County and her duties included picking up stray animals in the county.

— Editors