Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and Animal Shelter Director Debbie Dobbs discussed animal confinement laws during the last meeting of the city and county Animal Control Board. (Tony Casey/Johnson City Press)
Debbie Dobbs wants the animals that get adopted from the Washington County-Johnson City Animal Shelter to become part of a family.
This, from her perspective as director of the shelter, does not mean that a dog spends its entire life chained to a pole, tree or dog house in the backyard as is often the case with complaint calls she and her staff at the shelter take. There are also situations, she said, where dogs are kept in crates, rather than full-sized kennels, which equates to inhumane confinement as well, something that they will investigate.
“We want these animals to become part of the family,” she said. “The part we’re trying to get across is about the seclusion.”
Cruelty and animal confinement laws, she and Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin believe need to have some teeth, similar to the state laws in Virginia. There, for example, it’s written into law that any dog on a chain needs to have a certain length of chain depending on its size and can only spend a certain amount of time on the chain.
Here, she believes, pets are treated too much as property, where the owners feel they have the right to treat their animals however they see fit.
At the recent monthly Animal Control Board meeting, Van Brocklin asked that the animal adoption contracts reflect stipulations so there are grounds to take back the animal if it’s seen as being treated cruelly.
“To me, you’re saying you can’t chain to a tree, to a dog house or to a pole out in the yard full time. But it’s just as bad, or maybe even worse if they’re confined to that kind of crate,” he said. “What I want to make sure is that if we adopt out an animal that we’re not putting in that type of situation. I know you can’t 100-percent prevent that from happening, but if it’s in the contract that they’re signing that’s a part of this adoption policy that stipulates then we do have rights to go and take the animal back.”
He said he was bringing it up because of a recent conversation he’d had where a man reported seeing two dogs living in crates, with not much more room than enough to turn around. Moving forward, he said he’d like to have a better idea of what the Animal Control Board and Johnson City’s ordinances say so they can be better enforced.
Dobbs had a similar anecdote from when she first started on the Animal Control Board, when a former city commissioner told her of a dog that was secluded from its family for 14 years, only getting contact when they would come out and give it water and food. Inexcusable is what Dobbs said of those types of situations.
This kind of seclusion, Dobbs said, brings the level of frustration of a chained animal to a much different level than one in a fenced-in area. They’re limited by the length of their chain, which makes them make their chained area their territory.
“Chaining them to a tree, that’s where our dog bites come from,” Dobbs said. “If you chain a dog to a tree and don’t make it a part of the family, they have their territory there at the length of that chain and if a child comes into it, they get bit.”
She also said that while crates can be an effective tool for training, many of the complaints she receives are people leaving the animals in the small spaces for their entire lives. This is a big issue with dogs because, she said, they won’t go to the bathroom where they stay, so their inability to do so produces many internal injuries, such as those in the bladder.
Virginia laws say the owner has to provide, “adequate space in the primary enclosure for the particular type of animal depending upon its age, size, species, and weight,” which goes further than Tennessee’s, which calls cruelty a situation when the owner, “fails unreasonably to provide necessary food, water, care or shelter for an animal in the person’s custody,” and the owner “commits an offense who knowingly ties, tethers, or restrains a dog in a manner that results in the dog suffering bodily injury.”
Dobbs said the way to get Tennessee’s laws at the level of Virginia’s is to utilize lobbyists in Nashville, with the help of the Humane Society of Washington County. Because the new animal shelter is being built and planning its current construction takes up a lot of the efforts of her staff and the Animal Control Board, she said it would be a goal to get better animal confinement laws on the books around the first of the year, though it’s something that’s high on her priority list.
For the time being, Dobbs said the shelter and animal control officers work on a complaint basis, where they investigate any report of confinement or cruelty, which is what she suggests.
“Call and tell us and we’ll check it out,” Dobbs said. “We’ll be glad to.”
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