When the phone rings at the Buncombe County Animal Control office, it’s most likely a citizen calling to report a roaming, barking or biting dog.
Loose animals, in particular, are a big problem in the county, says Animal Control Director Barbara Bellows, though people also call to report abused animals, or to have their own pets euthanized.
In a 656-square-mile county, responding to some 700 calls per month is no small job, says Bellows. “It’s unbelievable,” she declares, adding that the county’s six animal-control officers are “constantly, constantly going.”
A year-and-a-half ago, the county privatized its animal-control services, contracting with the nonprofit Friends For Animals to do the job. FFA has also run the county’s animal shelter for eight years.
In recent months, however, several county residents have stepped forward at Board of Commissioners meetings to harshly criticize the group’s work. FFA officers, they charge, abuse their powers and are negligent in their duties, and the Animal Control Ordinance itself tramples First Amendment rights. Most vocal in these complaints have been Priscilla and Peter Dawes, who have a lawsuit pending against FFA.
At the June 2 commissioners’ meeting, Bellows appeared beside FFA board member Bill McKelvy, who answered some of these charges.
“I think what we have here with Mr. Dawes is a people problem more than an animal problem, said McKelvy. Animal Control has responded to complaints by the Dawes and others “appropriately at every instance,” he said.
“I felt that I could no longer sit and allow Peter to just show up at commission meetings and say whatever he felt like saying without rebuttal,” McKelvy explained in a later interview. He also said that by “people problem,” he meant that the Dawes’ problem is with their neighbors, more than with Animal Control.
During his five minutes of public-comment time at the meeting, McKelvy stressed that he and FFA are both highly qualified in animal control and that FFA exists to serve the public. The group, he said, takes preventive steps to protect the public against dog attacks and runs a spay-and-neuter clinic (which he helped found) to help keep the county’s animal population in check.
A longtime animal-rights activist, McKelvy threatened to sue the county 12 years ago over the state of its animal shelter. Now, he says, governments across the country look to Buncombe’s shelter and animal-control programs as models. “It’s been a long, hard road,” he said, adding that, “We are now the leaders not only of western North Carolina but beyond.”
McKelvy says he’s proud that Animal Control last year successfully prosecuted a citizen for animal cruelty. The offender spent 48 hours in jail. “Now people understand that they cannot abuse, neglect or be cruel to animals,” he proclaims.
Animal-control officers in Buncombe County are highly trained, McKelvy maintains. Employees get four to six weeks of on-the-job-training with an experienced co-worker, and then attend a 40-hour course given by the National Animal Control Association that includes instruction about laws, legal proceedings and evidence collection.
Commissioners are currently discussing the Animal Control Ordinance with FFA. Citizens will have a chance to voice opinions on proposed changes to the ordinance at a meeting sometime in July, said County Manager Wanda Greene. The changes will come before commissioners this fall, probably in September, she said.
For the next few months, callers to Buncombe County’s many offices and services might find themselves confounded by messages that the number has been disconnected.
That’s because the county is in the midst of converting its phone system — one department at a time. It’s a “major transition,” Greene told commissioners, and there will be blocks of time where it’s difficult for a caller to get through.
All the new numbers will be in service by sometime in the fall, according to county Public Relations Coordinator Jill Thompson. At that time, the county will publish a listing of all the new numbers in the local media, she said.