State leads nation in Humane Society rescues
By Anne Paine • THE TENNESSEAN • December 8, 2009
Tennessee has relied on The Humane Society of the United States over the last two years for nine rescue missions — more times than the nonprofit has been called in to assist in any other state in the country.
The cases included three puppy mills, one animal hoarder, three cockfighting operations, a farm with starving horses and a post-tornado animal rescue across a devastated community.
The group took on oversight of 1,203 animals — not counting the scores of fighting roosters that had to be dealt with.
During that time, California was second with five rescue assists, followed by Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana and North Carolina, with four each, according to the group's emergency services division.
"Tennessee just doesn't have the infrastructure to address animal cruelty," said Leighann McCollum of Nashville, the Tennessee director for The Humane Society of the United States.
Unlike in Virginia, for instance, 40 of 95 Tennessee counties have no government-funded animal control program. Many that do merely have dogcatchers who have no authority to investigate animal cruelty, she said.
Tennessee's numbers might be higher, also, because more law enforcement officials here may be finding out about the rescue group and are willing to call on it for help, she said.
The fate of mistreated animals drew a spotlight on Thanksgiving Day, when the group rescued 84 food-deprived horses and mules — many too weak to stand — from a Cannon County farm and moved them to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, where volunteers are still caring for them.
Seventeen emaciated dogs also are being sheltered there after they were abandoned for weeks, neighbors said, without food and water at a trailer in East Tennessee.
Locals aren't prepared
County sheriff's departments, often low-budget operations trying to deal with burglaries, car thefts and a host of other duties, tend to be ill-equipped for costly animal cases.
Dickson County Sheriff Tom Wall said his department got a call last August about dozens of neglected dogs, cats and horses on a woman's property.
"It's like, 'Oh boy, what do we do now?' " he said. "We can't put these animals in jail. We can't take them home with us."
Someone suggested calling The Humane Society of the United States' emergency services, which responded right away, taking charge of what turned out to be 75 animals, he said.
The group provided cages for each of the 50 dogs, for instance, had vehicles to transport the animals, made arrangements for veterinarians to check them out and placed them with shelter groups.
"They have all those resources we don't have," said a grateful Wall, who gave money as well as thanks. "After they came down here, I went on the Internet and joined, and set up an automatic deduction out of my paycheck for them," he said.
The group relies on donations to meet its yearly budget, which can exceed $2 million. The Cannon County horse rescue, which is expected to cost $3,000 per animal, could run to $250,000. The ill horses require more food, medication and care than smaller animals typically need.
Wall said he plans to have training sessions, which the group offers, for his officers to recognize and learn how to deal with animal abuse.
Horses, for instance, might appear nourished, when their bellies are actually full of worms, according to the Humane Society. And sometimes officers fail to notice starvation in dogs because long hair covers up their bony torsos.
Cannon County Sheriff Billy Nichols praised and thanked the group and volunteers for the Thanksgiving horse rescue, and Sumner County Sheriff Bob Barker called the staff "professional and very knowledgeable."
The group has helped with rescues in that county that included removing 108 border collies in September from squalid conditions on a Portland, Tenn., property.
"They really do a great job," he said, adding that the Humane Society has provided training sessions for officers in his department. The Humane Society has trained more than 200 law enforcement and animal control officers in the state.
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Growth after Katrina
Hurricane Katrina, when many animals were abandoned, marked a turning point for the Humane Society, which then beefed up its emergency services for animals, not just in natural disasters but also in human-caused ones.
"Cruelty has no boundaries," said Scotlund Haisley, emergency services senior director of the Humane Society.
The group offers a $5,000 reward for tips, which can be anonymous, leading to arrest and conviction in animal fighting cases, of which Tennessee has had its share.
Just under a year ago, the group helped the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in a raid in the Nashville area that the DEA called the "largest ever" facility for cockfighting discovered in this country.
Starving dogs join rescued horses at TN fairgrounds
Abused dogs will join rescued horses at TN State Fairgrounds
Starved horses get attention of lawmaker
Starving horses get help on Thanksgiving day
Owner of starving horses relinquishes them to rescue group
Starving horses will be cared for at state fairgrounds
Report on animal shelters in Tennessee
"Our weak misdemeanor penalties have invited the Mexican drug cartel to Tennessee," said McCollum, the Humane Society director in Tennessee.
Cockfighting is a misdemeanor rather than a felony here, which is the case in only 11 other states in the country, she said. Starving an animal to death — unless it's a dog or cat — also is a misdemeanor.
Bills have been proposed without success in the Tennessee legislature to change both situations.
State Rep. Janis Sontany said a bill is expected in the coming legislative session that would try again to make cockfighting a felony. Also, a bill was drafted last week that she intends to sponsor to make withholding food or water from any animal — including horses — a felony. "Cruelty is cruelty," she said.