VALDOSTA — Linda Patelski said it’s hardest with the healthy ones.
When she has to look into the eyes of a puppy or kitten and take its life only because the animal remains unclaimed, that’s when the emotional toll reaches its peak, Patelski said.
“We have no problem putting down aggressive dogs that will hurt somebody or hurt other animals,” said Patelski, the director of Lowndes County Animal Services. “It’s puppies and kittens that people haven’t taken care of before they got here.”
In 2016, close to 2,500 cats and dogs were euthanized at the Lowndes County Animal Shelter alone.
Animal-control workers such as Patelski often receive tsunami levels of rage and hatred for what they do everyday in shelters across the country: euthanasia, the prescribed and systematic killing of unwanted animals.
They are called “puppy killers” and even “angels of death.”
But euthanasia is regarded by many as the necessary response to widespread problems found in local animal populations, problems created and perpetuated not by animal-control workers but by irresponsible pet owners or even hoarders.
Pet owners fail to spay or neuter their animals, leading to an abundance of stray dogs and feral cats. Shelters only have so much room and animals are put down when space runs out.
Many animals fall prey to poor care and cruelty at the hands of humans, leading to aggression, sickness or injury, and euthanasia is considered by its proponents to be the only humane or safe option.
In the SunLight Project coverage area — Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo along with Valdosta, Thomasville, Tifton, Dalton, Moultrie and Milledgeville, Ga., and the surrounding counties — a small army of rescue agencies and no-kill shelters work to save animals by caring for them until they find their “forever home” through adoption or die of natural causes.
But resources are limited, and such organizations can only rescue so many. The rest go to the shelter where, if not adopted or reclaimed, it’s only a matter of days or weeks before they face a lethal injection that kills them instantly and painlessly.
Still, not everyone is in favor of the common practice, and animal rights activists often push for no-kill shelters.
Euthanasia: Both Last Resort and First Action
When animal control brings in stray dogs or cats that are healthy and well-behaved, the animals are held for a few days or a few weeks depending on local regulations. During that time, owners can reclaim the pets or others can express interest in adoption.
After the holding period, the animal shelter may place the animals in an in-house adoption program or reach out to local rescue agencies to see if they can care for the animals.
Euthanasia becomes the last resort for such animals. The remains are buried in the local landfill.
In Milledgeville, animals are mostly euthanized because of lack of space, said Rebecca Lanier-Weeks, the Baldwin County Animal Shelter administrator.
The Baldwin County Animal Shelter is a small cinderblock building that has 17 dog units, three puppy units and 10 cat units. The shelter operates on a $170,000 yearly budget.
If a new animal is brought in and there is no space, any animal already in the shelter with aggression issues is selected to be euthanized.
In 2016, the shelter euthanized 98 dogs and 275 cats.
Milledgeville/Baldwin County does not have a humane society. The closest one is about 30 miles away in Greensboro near Lake Oconee.
However, Animal Rescue Foundation has acted as Milledgeville’s local Humane Society for almost 35 years, taking in unwanted cats and dogs.
Like most rescue agencies, ARF does not receive any government support and operates solely on donations and small grants.
The overcrowding found in Milledgeville is a problem that plagues shelters throughout the region.
“We take in 5,000 animals a year and the shelter only holds so many animals,” Lowndes County’s Patelski said. “If an owner does not come in to reclaim their animal and their animal stays here and you’ve brought 200 animals into the building, and then next month, you have to bring 200 more animals into the building, they don’t all fit.
“They fight, there’s disease outbreaks, so we have to keep animals moving through the shelter. Unfortunately, if we don’t have a rescue for them or if nobody comes in to adopt or to reclaim their animal, we have to take the recourse of euthanizing them.”
Lowndes County Clerk Paige Dukes said animals at the shelter aren’t put down due to overcrowding now as often as they used to be — and the numbers reflect that. The 2,000 animals euthanized in Lowndes County in 2016 is a sharp drop from the number of dogs and cats put to death in recent years (6,700 were put down in 2009 and 4,000 in 2012).
But overcrowding isn’t the only issue that triggers euthanasia. It could be disease (such as rabies), injury or aggression (such as hurting a person).
In those cases, euthanasia is usually the first action rather than the last resort. When an animal is severely hurt, sick or dangerous, euthanasia is actually the “humane choice,” the Florida Animal Control Situation suggests.
And killing a single animal often means giving a multitude of others a fighting chance.
Dukes said the Lowndes County Shelter is forbidden by state law from housing sick or injured animals. The disease could spread, compromising all the animals housed in the shelter’s 215 kennels.
One small puppy with parvovirus, a contagious disease found in dogs, could kill the entire shelter if it were allowed to live, Dukes said.
“Parvo is something that could shut this entire shelter down. If we had a parvo outbreak here, the Department of Agriculture could come in and say, ‘Everything is euthanized, the shelter has to be totally cleaned from top to bottom professionally, and then we will do some testing and look at when you can start housing animals again,’” Dukes said.
In Whitfield County, the sheriff’s office handles animal control in the county and the city of Dalton. Last year, the office handled 2,500 animal-control calls.
"They work pretty much non-stop, all day long picking up dogs,” said Lt. Clay Pangle, who supervises the animal-control deputies.
In 2016, Whitfield County euthanized 365 cats and 332 dogs.
But in his many years working animal control, cats and dogs weren’t the only animals Pangle got calls about.
“Fifteen or 16 years ago, I got a call about an emu out on Georgia 2 (in the northern part of Whitfield County). Recently, we've been getting a lot of wild hog calls,” Pangle said.
“When we deal with wild animals, we refer them to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. When it comes to equines or bovines, we will find a place to house them, people that we know or that the animal shelter recommends, until the Department of Agriculture can come get them."
Many of Whitfield’s animal-control calls concern aggressive dogs, but Pangle said many dogs may not be as dangerous as they appear to be.
"We get a lot of calls about aggressive dogs, and I'm sure they do look aggressive to the person that calls, but when we get there, the dog is wagging its tail and barking because it wants attention,” he said. “I used to work animal control myself and I've seen that.”
But many dogs are just as vicious as they look, a fact that one Moultrie woman knows all too well.
A Horrific Attack
April 1, 2016, started out as had thousands of other days in Elizabeth "Beth" Ellison's 83 years. She walked outside to get her Moultrie Observer newspaper and looked over the yard of the Beaty Road residence where she has lived for more than half a century.
But within minutes nothing would ever be the same for the strong-willed woman, as a pack of dogs would nearly take her life that morning, leaving her with permanent health issues.
Police officers at the scene of the attack at about 9:30 a.m. assumed they were working a homicide case due to the severity of injuries inflicted on Ellison by the trio of pit bulldogs.
Ellison, who underwent multiple surgeries during a period of nearly two months, said her morning routine was always the same.
"I go to the paper box, get my paper and pick up in my yard. I'd seen the dogs there before. When I turned around to go inside the house, they all three attacked me from the back,” she said.
According to police, the dogs basically scalped the elderly woman.
Ellison remembers being thrown to the ground face-first and using one of her hands to try to protect her head. The largest of the three dogs was on her back tearing at her head. She also suffered severe wounds to both arms and legs.
"I knew they were going to kill me," she said. "They thought I was going to die. I lost two pints of blood in my yard.”
Two neighbors rushed to Ellison's defense and medical workers rushed her to Colquitt Regional Medical Center in Moultrie then to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. Doctors stabilized her, and she then had a lengthy period of recuperation and surgeries before returning home.
Within hours of the attack, the Humane Society of Moultrie and Colquitt County removed the three dogs and housed them until a judge issued a ruling allowing the organization to euthanize the vicious animals.
Prior to the 2016 attack, the issue of nuisance and violently dangerous dogs is one that county officials frequently had discussed in recent years, but before the end of that month, they made sure of their legal ability to deal with violent animals.
Two years to the day of Ellison's attack, Colquitt County Commission created a board to hear appeals when owners dispute the designation of a dog as a vicious or dangerous one.
The local Humane Society makes the determination of whether a dog is vicious or dangerous, and if that decision is upheld, euthanizes the canine.
The state’s Georgia Responsible Dog Ownership statute combines dangerous and vicious animals in a single piece of legislation.
It defines a dangerous dog as one that causes a substantial puncture wound with its teeth, launches aggressive attacks that pose threat of serious injury to a person, or kills another pet while off the owner’s property.
A vicious dog is defined as one that inflicts serious injury on a person.
Dogs deemed dangerous or vicious must be registered, secured in locked confinement on the owner’s property and may not be taken away from the owner’s property unless caged or leashed and under the immediate physical control of someone capable of preventing the dog from engaging people or other animals.
“They also must show the county that they have liability insurance of at least $50,000," County Attorney Lester Castellow said.
During the two years before Castellow's appointment to the board, there had been no cases where owners requested an appeals hearing, he said. The board consists of Castellow, the county's zoning and safety officer and a designee from the Colquitt County Health Department.
Dog attacks, which had been on the upswing, have not dropped in frequency, but the rate of increase seems to have slowed, said Dawn Blanton, director of the Humane Society, which contracts with the city of Moultrie and Colquitt County to pick up nuisance and dangerous animals.
"(Our) animal control officer is the one that will deem a dog vicious/dangerous according to the nature of the bite/aggression," she said. "I believe education and progressive disciplinary actions has leveled out the amount of aggressive cases, but it has not significantly decreased them.
“There will always be aggressive dogs, but educating the public will reduce the amount of people bitten.”
As for Ellison — who returned home on her birthday, May 20, 2016, to find her children had fenced in her yard to give her peace of mind — her caregivers in Tallahassee have invited her to come back May 17 and address those who helped save and put her back together again.
She still faces difficulties related to the injuries and from the loss of bone in her leg used to help repair her scalp. And for someone turning 85 in about a month, healing takes longer, but she is seeing some improvement in her arms.
Fortunately, the dogs did not bite her face during the attack, and she is trying to regain the weight she lost.
Ellison, along with her doctors, attribute her survival and resiliency to a long life of hard work.
"I was strong," she said. "I could get up and do the roof on my house. I plowed a mule; I carried two five-gallon buckets when I was 12. I was brought up the old way.”
Despite the scars on her arms and legs and pain that sometimes limits her activity, she is determined to keep doing what she's always done.
"I'm the kind of person (that) if I can get around, I get around," she said. "I still pick up in my yard. I'm just able to be here and do what I do. That's what I'm thankful for."
To find out what local rescue agencies are doing to save animal lives and what community members can do to help, pick up Tuesday's edition of The Valdosta Daily Times.
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Thomas Lynn, Eve Guevara, Patti Dozier, Gil Pound and Charles Oliver, along with the writers, Alan Mauldin and team leader John Stephen.
The Band of Rescuers
For unwanted animals that aren’t diseased or dangerous, local rescue agencies are usually their only hope of finding a permanent home and escaping a premature death at a shelter.
In North Florida, the Suwannee Valley Humane Society began in 1984 when a group of 16 people wanted to help the animals in Live Oak. By November, there were 67 members with the slogan “Be a responsible pet owner.”
In 1999, they decided to become a no-kill shelter, keeping pets for as long as it took for them to be adopted. Currently, their oldest pet is a brindle dog named Lacy, who was taken in by the shelter when she was a puppy and is now 5 years old.
Lacy’s biggest problem getting adopted is that she is a black dog. Black dogs and cats are the least adopted pets, according to humane society staff. The humane society worries Lacy has lived in the same kennel for so long that she won’t be able to handle being adopted.
The kennel has become her territory, her home.
The Suwannee Valley Humane Society takes in dogs and cats left abandoned and unwanted. They team up with city and county animal shelters to get these animals into homes. They have no funding from any government entity and rely heavily on donations, member fees and whatever they sell at their thrift stores located at their facility in Madison County.
They also rely on volunteers and those who love taking care of animals — people such as Barbara Fink, who has been working for the humane society for 16 years.
“I love every minute of it,” Fink said. “It’s very therapeutic. The animals love you unconditionally. It’s very rewarding and you feel like you accomplish something.”
For 2016, the humane society took in a total of 220 animals, both dogs and cats. They had 201 of those adopted that same year, according to humane society data.
In 2016, the Suwannee County Animal Shelter euthanized 294 cats and dogs.
All over the place, organizations just like Suwannee’s Humane Society are working with tight funds and volunteer efforts to save as many animal lives as they can.
In Thomas County, the local Humane Society provides countywide animal control through a contract with the Thomas County government. The animals at the Thomasville-Thomas County Humane Society animal shelter do not face a countdown to death.
"The Humane Society does not set an expiration date on the animals in our care," said Melanie Chavaux, Humane Society president. "We try to keep animals available for adoption for as long as we can if they stay healthy, happy and do not become a danger to the public.
“As an open-admission shelter, TTCHS accepts every cat and dog that comes to the shelter. We provide the care and housing of the animals until they find their forever home.”
The Humane Society, which also receives private funding, was allotted $90,420 from the county’s 2016 budget. Funding comes from local option sales tax revenue.
"We rescue animals daily from running at large and possibly being hit by an automobile," Chavaux said. "We rescue animals from possibly starving to death. Sometimes we rescue animals being treated cruelly. We also work with individuals here in Thomas County and surrounding areas to relocate animals that have been brought to the Humane Society."
Although the shelter does not place a time limit on animals’ lives, it still ended up euthanizing 805 cats and 283 dogs in 2016.
The Humane Society is working toward being a no-kill facility.
TTCHS is in the beginning phase of working with a non-profit initiative that teaches proven practices to communities nationwide to help open-admission facilities reach the goal of zero euthanasia of all adoptable shelter animals.
"Ideally in three years or less, by partnering with Target Zero, implementing best practices and lots of hard work, the Thomasville-Thomas County Humane Society will reach the target of zero," Chavaux said.
TTCHS will officially launch its Target Zero initiative publicly June 27 in the Thomas County Board of Education auditorium.
Thomas County also has the Miss Kitty Feline Sanctuary & Adoption Center on Covington Avenue, a no-kill, privately funded feline sanctuary founded by the late Jerry Henderson and his wife, Bettye, in November 2010.
"Miss Kitty was opened to try to alleviate the high rates at which cats were dying in our part of the state," said Carol Jones, chairman of the Miss Kitty board and clinic executive director.
The clinic, which serves a 75-mile radius from Thomasville, has taken in 754 cats since opening. Adoptions total 434. Some 87 cats have died or been euthanized for humane reasons.
Two newborn kittens discarded at a Thomas County trash site are being bottle-fed at the no-kill facility. A third littermate was not so lucky: The tiny feline, whose eyes were not yet open, was run over at the site.
Animal-control and rescue agency officials are adamant that an animal never has to get to the point of waiting for a family to call its own, or piling up in a shelter and ending up in a euthanasia room.
Workers say the number of unwanted cats and dogs could be slashed drastically by actions that people have to take long before animal control is called.
How the Community Can Help
"Spaying and neutering is key to (limiting) unwanted litters that end up in shelters every year," said Dawn Blanton with the Moultrie-Colquitt County Humane Society. “For instance, in just seven years, one unspayed cat and her offspring can produce over 420,000 kittens, and one unspayed dog and her offspring can produce 97,000 puppies.”
Many organizations offer vouchers that lower the cost of spaying and neutering.
The Hamilton Humane Society doesn’t have an animal shelter, as it seeks a land donation on which to build a no-kill shelter. But the group does does operate three programs, including one provides assistance for spaying and neutering by partnering with the North Florida Animal Rescue and Health Center.
It also provide education in a “Be Safe with Dogs” program for schools and youth organizations and its Dog Training Team offers free training and behavior advice to dog owners.
The Hamilton Humane Society also is using a foster home network to rescue a limited number of homeless pets.
In 2016, 31 dogs and puppies were processed through the Hamilton Humane Society directly and in cooperation with the Town of Jennings and the City of Jasper animal control facilities. There was one animal euthanized because it was unacceptable due to extreme physical and behavioral problems.
The Tift County area has no animal rescue agencies, but Tift County Animal Control recently established Save Our Pets, a non-profit which uses grants to assist with spay and neuter clinics that help control the feral animal population.
From July 2016 to March 2017, the Tifton-Tift County Animal Shelter euthanized 1,087 cats and 257 dogs.
Lowndes County Clerk Paige Dukes said many aggressive dogs are the result of poor living conditions.
“Dog bites and altercations involving aggressive dogs are on the rise in our community. It is believed that this is in part due to the number of dogs that are ‘abandoned’ on chains or in backyard pens,” Dukes said.
“These mostly un-socialized dogs are attacking people and other animals when they manage to free themselves from their chain or pen.”
Dukes said numerous aggressive dog cases — dogs roaming free and attacking, biting or possibly even killing humans or other dogs — could be prevented through responsible pet ownership.
“Tethers are not meant to be the living area for dogs, only a temporary restraint,” Dukes said. “Dogs should be given an opportunity to exercise and interact with humans and other animals.”
She said that proper animal care means spending time with pets, socializing them so they are comfortable around other pets and people, and not allowing them to run free.
Additionally, Dukes said a microchip — which can be inserted into an animal at most shelters for a decent price — can help to identify stray dogs and return them to the right home more quickly.
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Jessie R. Box, Thomas Lynn, Eve Guevara, Patti Dozier, Gil Pound and Charles Oliver, along with the writers, Alan Mauldin and team leader John Stephen. To contact the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.