There was a time when the two subjects never mentioned in polite conversation were politics and religion. In Blount County today, add animal control to that list of taboo subjects.
Two fund-raising efforts are currently ongoing. One is organized by the Blount County Humane Society and is for what group president Steve Phipps calls a no-kill animal shelter. The other effort is organized by Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation and is for what president Chris Protzman calls an all-access municipal shelter.
The Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation is made up of members from citizen groups, animal care groups and private supporters. Among the animal care groups on board with Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation are ArfNets, Blount CARE (County Animal Rescue Effort), Citizens United for a Better Blount County and Animal Works, a facility in Alcoa that offers low cost spaying and neutering for pets. The foundation was started this past March in response to the need for animal control in Blount County after a contract with the City of Maryville ran out on Dec. 31, 2006. Commissioners on the previous Blount County commission chose not to extend the contract because of an increase in the cost of the contract.
Blount County Humane Society is a group of volunteers that affiliated with the National Humane Society in 2003. It is lead by Steve Phipps.
To temporarily deal with animal control issues in the county, at the suggestion of Phipps, County Mayor Jerry Cunningham worked out an agreement with Loudon County to take the stray animals from Blount County that formerly went to the Maryville shelter. The county also hired an animal control officer to pick up the animals and take them to Loudon County’s facility.
The county commission requested proposals from volunteer organizations on building a new animal facility. While the Humane Society didn’t make a proposal, they advocated for a no-kill shelter. Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation made a proposal and presented preliminary plans. The commission then voted to release $350,000 in bond money as a loan to help build kennels for the facility, and the organization began privately raising funds to build an adoption center and educational facility to enhance the county’s kennel portion of the shelter.
The Blount County Humane Society’s proposed no-kill shelter has no property, although Phipps said they would like to build in the Rockford area. Members have raised $17,000 toward their building fund, and they have about $5,000 in their general fund.
The Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation has raised $525,000 in cash donations and in-kind donations of services. The county commission also gave them acreage on Currie Avenue in Eagleton, near the Boys and Girls Club, to build the facility.
What may not be clear to residents are the reasons for the animosity with which these two groups often view one another. While their motive of saving animals is the same, their methods for reaching that goal differ.
Both the Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation and the Blount County Humane Society favor curbing the stray/unwanted pet population through education regarding spaying and neutering, creating aggressive laws and ordinances, instituting strong spaying/neutering programs and fostering adoptions and foster networks.
The difference is in that Phipps group wants a total “no-kill” shelter while Protzman’s group says a full-service municipal shelter must come first before a no-kill shelter can survive.
The Animal Care Foundation supporters say the Blount County Humane Society is not being practical, and they favor dealing with the stray animal population by lengthening hold times to give animals a chance to be adopted. Because their facility would be a municipal shelter, it would be “all access” to all residents and could not turn away animals as a private, no-kill shelter could. Protzman’s group admits that animals that could not be fostered, adopted, placed in programs that relocated them for adoption or who are deemed vicious would be euthanized.
Protzman said the perception that backers of the proposed facility would enjoy putting the animals to death is wrong. Dealing with the stray animal overpopulation requires a collaborative solution that involves rescuing, fostering, education, animal control service and leadership, he said.
“The Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation has been mislabeled as being an organization that is set on the euthanasia of homeless animals and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
“It’s easy (for the opposition) to get a sound bite and say ‘we’re a no-kill versus kill.’ The problem is not solved through sound bites. It can’t be oversimplified, and it’s not that easy. The fact of the matter is, it’s a complicated problem that has developed over decades and will take the same commitment and effort over the next several years to correct.
“At the end of the day, I think our approach here is we’re not against no-kill shelters, we have been on the record and continued to be consistent in our message. We support no-kill shelters after the municipal shelter is in place,” Protzman said. “If you don’t have the first line of service, it’s logical why you need shelters.”
Protzman compared the shelter to a community’s fire department.
“It’s the same reason you have a fire department,” Protzman said. “You hope you don’t use them but you need them. They protect citizens and property by their existence. That is what municipal shelters do.”
Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham echoed Protzman’s thoughts. “Euthanasia of animals gives none of us any pleasure. It’s something none of us likes but it is something that has to be done. We hope to do as little as humanly and humanely possible through the adoption process,” the mayor said.
Phipps said the foundation has misled individuals.
“I have met people after people after people who have donated to them and had no idea they were going to be a kill shelter,” Phipps said. “They’re not forthright. They’re telling people this is going to be an animal control. Animal control equals killing large number of animals for human convenience. Animal control is not animal welfare.”
Divided by dollars
The conflict between the two organizations is more than just a philosophical issue of whether or not to put the animals down. Phipps said he disagreed with how the municipal facility was being financed, and he alleged that foundation supporters mislead prospective donors.
“I disagree with the way it is being funded,” Phipps said. “Every Blount County citizen should disagree with how it is being funded. The $350,000, when you donate, those dollars go back to pay off that county bond,” Phipps said. “People don’t know when you donate $50 to Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation, it is going to county coffers. That was made clear the $350,000 bond issue has to be paid by the fund-raising effort.”
Phipps said the county and the foundation should be separate. “This is the way I think it should be done,” he said. “If the county wants to put up $350,000 to build a basic animal control shelter and Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation wants to raise money above and beyond to enhance that shelter and people understand what they are donating to is a kill-shelter, I have no problem with it,” Phipps said. “Hopefully one day down the road, we can work together.”
Protzman disagrees with Phipps analysis.
“The county gave the $350,000 as a loan, and the money is to be paid back eventually through fund-raising and fees generated through the shelter,” he said.
Cunningham said the money raised by the foundation goes toward the building, not the loan from the county’s general deficit fund. “All of the money being raised by the Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation is going straight into the building of this shelter. No one is on a salary, and there will be little or no administrative costs. The organization is very open about their financial matters,” he said.
Protzman said the group is trying to offset a tax expense and raise the majority of funds through in-kind gifts and donations to alleviate the burden on Blount County tax payers. “Government can’t pay for everything. At the same time, government is the citizens and this is our problem. I take a great deal of pride in our volunteers and taking responsibility in part with elected officials to try to be part of the solution and not criticize or contribute to the problem,” he said.
As for misleading the public on the no-kill issue, Protzman said the Foundation’s message has been consistent.
“We have been the only group that has had a full disclosure of our intentions from Day One. We declared our partnership with the county, and we have a Web site that clearly walks through design and operating budgets, estimated construction costs and (Phipps) does not,” Protzman said. “Frankly I think that rhetoric is harmful to the root cause of homeless animals in Blount County. We said this would be a municipally owned and operated shelter, and he promotes a privately owned shelter.”
Protzman said those wanting a no-kill shelter should look at the problem and offer a solution if they are opposed to the direction the Foundation and county are going.
“(Phipps) had every opportunity to step forward and provide a long-term solution for the county, and he didn’t. It’s easy to throw stones but I would ask those people to step up and provide solutions instead of criticism,” Protzman said. “Wishing a problem doesn’t exist for homeless animals is not a solution. We need bricks and mortar solutions in Blount County, and that’s what we will do in Blount County.”
Blount County Commissioner Steve Samples, who is chair of the animal control committee for the commission, said the new municipal shelter would work to lengthen stays animals have from the state-mandated three days to longer to give them a better chance at adoption.
“One of biggest problems we have right now is the confusion being generated,” Samples said of the two efforts. “We didn’t hear about a no-kill shelter in Blount County until Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation stepped up with plans for a new animal adoption center in Blount County. All I see from Blount County Humane Society is it is being a real source of confusion, and I always stand back and question when all that comes out is confusion and criticism.
“I would love to see a no-kill shelter in Blount County somewhere down the road, and I would love for our shelter to be no-kill but I realize that’s just not possible. The best we can hope is to take hold times and extend those hold times as long as we can,” Samples said. “The longer we can hold an animal, the more chances we have to for an adoption or for some rescue group to take it.”
Young Williams model
Phipps said simply trying to lengthen hold times in hopes of fostering adoptions won’t lead to no-kill status. “Those are great ideas, but they don’t work. The Maryville Animal Shelter, with all people who say they like them, they had a 74 percent euthanasia rate at the time they were providing animal control for the county. Young Williams (in Knoxville) has all the bells and whistles. They’re open, and their euthanasia rate is 74 percent. It doesn’t work. It is proven the tactics don’t work. Go to any shelter. They follow the same old tactics of adoption.”
Tim Adams, executive director with Young Williams Animal Center, said not many shelters start out as no-kill facilities. “We take in 17,000 animals a year in Knox County, and there’s no way we could build a facility big enough to hold all those animals,” he said.
Adams said that sometimes unfortunately they do have to euthanize animals for lack of space. “We have 22,000 square feet of space, and there are lots of days I can’t hold everything that comes in,” he said.
Adams said that the center in 2006 took in 16,914 animals and had to euthanize 12,090. “The rate is pretty high, but our goal is to be a facility that would get to the point where no adoptable animal has to be euthanized.” he said. “It requires an all encompassing approach. I don’t know any place that hasn’t taken a few years to get to the point where they’re not euthanizing animals. We’re not there, but that’s our goal, and we’re determined to accomplish it.”
The facility recently launched a $1.2 million mobile spay and neuter clinic, Adams said, which will help with the problem and with education.
Cunningham said he didn’t understand the Blount County Humane Society’s ill will toward the progress that was being made toward a municipal shelter. “My thoughts are that the shelter that we’re hoping to build and get up and functioning is a common-sense type operation that will address the problem here in Blount County. The no-kill shelter, while a concept that everyone would like, from a pragmatic point of view, doesn’t seem to have much common sense laced into it,” he said.
“In essence, what it would be is a retirement home for stray animals. If they can make it work, it would be wonderful, but they are just going to be overrun and not be able to handle everything, from what I know of the situation. I wish them no ill will and am bewildered by the ill will that seems to flow from them toward our efforts,” the mayor said.
Dreamers & Doers
Cunningham said that in dealing with animal control, county government sees a lot of visionaries who have an idea of what ought to be. “Then you’ve got me and the animal control committee trying to be the ‘doers’ and it’s hard to incorporate in the doing everybody’s vision of what it should be,” Cunningham said.
“As for the Humane Society, when our concept first started, they helped us with suggesting Loudon County and had a lot of praise for the Loudon County operation. When they found they were not going to be allowed to run the Blount County animal facility and dictate to the county, they said a lot of negative things, which is unfortunate.”
Samples said that when the county had a request for proposals from community groups, Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation was the only group that stepped forward to help.
“The bottom line is, we asked for proposals from voluntary organizations and Smoky Mountain Animal Care was the only one to step up and say, ‘Yes, we want to be a part of a new animal center in Blount County,’” Samples said.
Phipps said his group didn’t step forward at the time but the group wants whatever facility is built to have the ultimate goal of becoming no-kill. “With the model they’ve chosen to follow, Young Williams Animal Shelter in Knoxville, that model does not achieve no-kill,” he said.
Protzman estimated that while the Maryville facility was taking in 3,300 strays a year from the county, when the new facility opens it would probably get about 5,000 to 6,000 animals a year. He says they hope for a much lower euthanasia rate than what Maryville or Knoxville had. “I think it’s fair to expect a euthanasia rate of 50 percent or maybe higher,” he said, especially in the beginning. “It all depends on adoption rates.”
Phipps said no-kill animal shelters are the coming trend. “Citizens are going to demand animal shelters stop killing animals in such huge numbers,” he said.
Samples said he hopes the no-kill shelter becomes a reality. “I’d love to see a dozen of them around here, but I don’t think we can support a no-kill shelter right now at the expense of the efforts we’re making to build an animal adoption center. Adoption is the key,” he said.
Samples challenged the Blount County Humane Society to help once the new municipal shelter is built.
“When it comes to the point that an animal has to be euthanized at the new animal center, we’ll be happy to call the Blount County Humane Society, and they can pick it up for their no-kill shelter,” he said.
“That’s what we’re going to do,” Phipps said. “Blount County Humane Society is going to make Blount County a no-kill county with or without the help of anyone or the other animal groups.”
Phipps said progress is being made on the no-kill shelter. “We’re working on building our shelter,” he said. “We’re closer now than ever before to getting a private no-kill shelter. The current property we’re hopeful of getting is in Rockford. If someone steps forward with several acres, we’re not going to turn it down.”
Phipps said shelters must go the extra mile to keep animals out of the shelters. “The missing element, the key to a no-kill county, is the will. That has to be your ultimate goal, and I don’t see it as being their ultimate goal,” he said.
“It’s a difference of philosophy,” Phipps said. “Our philosophy is that our ultimate goal is to make Blount County a no-kill county following proven methods. Traditional animal control philosophy is to adopt a few and kill the rest,” Phipps said.
No--kill battle rages
Phipps said this battle going on in Blount County is going on across America. “People have to decide which philosophy they want to support and follow as animals are concerned in their county,” he said. “This is a polarizing issue. I believe that if people would look at all the facts, they would choose to support the no-kill philosophy over the animal control philosophy.”
Protzman said some folks have tried to polarize this issue as one or the other when in fact it’s both. “It’s as simple as arithmetic,” Protzman said. “If you have a no-kill shelter which has been proposed by several opponents of the Foundation, they would physically not have the kennel capacity to handle the current demand in the county,” he said.
Phipps said that what needs to happen is all groups involved need to work together with the specific goal of making Blount County a no-kill county. “The Humane Society has been leading the way, and we’ve had no cooperation from other groups. I can’t figure it out,” he said. “We’ve had people in our group try to meet with them. My personal view is some in their groups think that anyone that believes no-kill can be achieved is ignorant and backwards. I think that is the underlying sentiment of that group.”
Terri Lane of Friendsville is a member of Blount County Humane Society and supports the concept of a no-kill shelter. “We would like to have a shelter where we can rescue pets and all kinds of animals and have a truly safe place for them until we can adopt them out,” she said. “We’ll have an adoption program and spay neuter clinic, basically a safe place for them to be before they get adopted.”
David Wietlisbach is treasurer of the Blount County Humane Society and said the organization’s building fund had a little more than $17,000 in it and there was about $5,000 in the general fund that goes for spaying and neutering foster animals, food and other expenses. “Anything above $5,000 gets transferred over into the building fund,” he said of fund-raising efforts.
Wietlisbach said some in this part of the country see animals as objects to use and throw away. “We need to get the message out that these animals are more than just possessions to be thrown away when you don’t want them. We need people to step up to the plate and say it’s not OK to do the easy thing, turn them into shelter and kill them,” Wietlisbach said. “We need a no kill shelter because it’s the right thing to do and that’s why I’m part of Blount County Humane Society.”
Blount County Humane Society member Amy Patton said she wished the new shelter was taking a different approach to animal control and not use euthanasia. “The Blount County Humane Society is the only thing making change from what we had before,” she said. “They’re hoping it’s a wonderful facility, but ultimately it doesn’t change anything as far as animals in Blount County.”
Phipps and Protzman do agree on public involvement.
“I think the last statement I would like to make is everyone in Blount County who considers themselves animal lovers should look at the issue, choose whose philosophy you would like to support and get involved.”
Protzman said the county can have a state-of-the-art facility that addresses the needs of the county, fosters adoption and works toward a no-kill philosophy. The foundation, he said, has gone on record as supporting a no-kill shelter that works in conjunction with a municipal shelter to take animals that are highly adoptable.
“The experts in the business will tell you the best, most progressive communities have shelters coordinated with adoption and fostering groups,” he said.
Protzman compared the municipal shelter to the work done in building the Blount County Public Library. “Like our new library, a publicly built and supported institution, it will be a reflection of collaboration, a private effort with public support with county government,” he said.
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