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Debate Continues in Avery County about Need for Animal Services Officer; County Commissioners Reject $100,000.00 Donation

By Tim Gardner

Avery County’s 2021-22 fiscal year budget does not include funds for specific animal control enforcement services in the county, as a debate continues whether such is needed in the county.

Avery County has no animal ordinances such as control or lease laws or other related regulations.

In June, Jim Ward, representing the non-profit Advocates for the Care of Animals in Avery County organization presented the Avery County Board of Commissioners with a check for $100,000.00 to fund an animal services position in Avery County since such a position was not included in the county budget. However, the commissioners did not accept the check.

Ward, also founder of the High Country Charitable Foundation and a part-time Avery County resident, said: “(We’re) not looking to change any of the animal control existing laws. Instead, we are asking to support the laws that are already there.”

Avery Board of Commissioners Chairperson Martha Hicks said the decision to decline the $100,000.00 donation was an unanimous (5-0) consensus by the Board, which also consists of Tim Phillips, Dennis Aldridge, Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr. and Blake Vance.

Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr. said concerns over continued financing and additional need were key determining factors in the decision by the Board of Commissioners to reject the donation and not have an animal services officer.

“We deeply appreciate the most generous donation offer from the Advocates for the Care of Animals in Avery County. But the commissioners and I believe there are enough staff and resources already in place to do what needs to be done for animal services without creating a new position at the current time,” Barrier, Jr. said. “If you check with the surrounding counties to Avery, we have more staff in our Sheriff’s Department, not counting jail staff, than those other counties, and we have a budget that is half a million to a million dollars larger than our neighboring county to the south, Mitchell. We have the necessary resources to handle animal services.”

Ward said Avery is the only county in the State of North Carolina without a specialized Animal Control-Rescue Officer.

“Sheriff (Kevin) Frye recognized the need and asked for money for an animal control officer and the county commissioners refused (the request),” Ward added. “The Avery Humane Society has asked for funding to cover the expenses of taking care of strays (animals) that are brought in (to the humane society), because the county won’t do its job. The county should not dump the responsibility on the humane society, which can’t enforce laws. The commissioners have turned down funding for the humane society for six years.”

Barrier, Jr. said he has the highest degree of respect for Frye and the rest of the sheriff’s department personnel as he does for Dyer and the humane society staff as well as for Ward, the Advocates for the Care of Animals in Avery County and the High Country Charitable Foundation and their personnel.  But he added that he and the commissioners are also concerned about funding the position after its initial year of existence if one were approved and once the $100,000.00 donation money is all spent. He said the commissioners are reluctant to create a position they possibly could not fund in future years.

Barrier, Jr. noted that the Avery Sheriff’s Department and town police departments respond to various animal-related calls in the county as local law enforcement departments must handle such cases that do not have animal control enforcement specialists according to state law.

He added that the majority of these calls involve domestic animals, usually dogs. 

“A new animal control officer would not be one just for stray dogs. It would be for an officer who would only be investigating neglect, cruelty and dangerous dogs, all of which already has to be done by North Carolina state law,” Barrier, Jr. noted.

Frye continues to support having a specialized Animal Services Officer for the county and released the following comments about that need:I want to say that Phillip Barrier is one of the best county managers I have with whom I have ever worked and the current Board of Commissioners is the most law enforcement supportive Board of Commissioners with whom I have ever worked. However, we have a very different view of the problem and the potential solution (about animal control services). I would like to say that comparison of our sheriff’s office with that of other counties is like comparing apples to oranges, each sheriff’s office operates differently, has different programs and priorities. For instance, Mitchell County, I believe has three School Resource Officers (SROs), but they are in the school budget and not the sheriff’s department budget.  We have four SROs partially funded by the school system, but in the sheriff’s department budget. So those comparisons really can be manipulated or construed unfairly for either side. 

“Now for the reason we need an animal services deputy…we need a single deputy who has the training and equipment to handle the ever-growing issues we are having with animals. Avery County has changed a lot in the past decade with a growing population of citizens from other areas. Some dogs are aggressive and we deem them to be dangerous because they go onto other people’s property and attack people or other animals. We also have a significant problem with our local drug abusers failing to take adequate care of their animals. 

“Deputies are not trained in animal cruelty, so to make these cases, a deputy needs specialized training and certifications. It would be both unwise and fiscally irresponsible to try to get every deputy this training.  It costs $800.00, besides having the necessary equipment for every deputy when all that is needed is one deputy with the necessary equipment. Finally, to turn down $100,000.00 to fund this and see if it works because the commissioners feel it will have to be funded by the county in the future is basically saying: ‘We don’t want to know if it works because if we know it is successful we will have to fund it in the future.’ What I told them (commissioners) was even if they did not accept the donation, we are answering so many calls now, that I will have to appoint a deputy to send to training and get equipped anyway. That salary is tax money and will potentially increase response times to calls as that deputy will be taken off routine patrol functions.

“That is not an admission that we have enough deputies to handle the problem, but a realization that the problem has grown in scope that animal services issues have to be addressed. We have the support of many of the local hunting organizations because they know that their animals are well cared for and they know that a single complaint from an ill-informed citizen can create so much social media backlash that it puts them and their dogs in the crosshairs of radical animal rights groups. Our local hunting organizations know that this animal services deputy will be notified of problems and provide the education component to help stop those false allegations which will be of great benefit to hunters. This is a local problem and we are trying to handle it with local people in a reasonable way that protects not just animals, but our local culture and traditions to the greatest extent possible.” 

Beech Mountain and Seven Devils, have border municipality with portions of those towns in both Avery and Watauga counties, which allows for the Watauga animal services officer to have jurisdiction in part of the municipality and takes some of those calls received in those towns.

When an animal bites a human it must be determined if the animal has rabies as it can be fatal to the bite victim. Dogs are the most common animals in bite reports, and by North Carolina health laws, they require a 10-day quarantine after a reported bite to observe whether the animal had rabies when it bites the human.

The Avery Humane Society in Newland takes in stray animals, but its officials maintain that they are often the most challenging and more expensive animals to care for as they usually need more medication, vaccinations and other treatments compared to many other dogs and cats brought there.

Gwynne Dyer, Executive Director of the Avery Humane Society is an advocate for specific animal control enforcement officer services in the county and is dismayed because of a lack of funding from the county for the humane society.  She released the following statement about both: 

“The lack of animal control or even any funding from the county for the key role that the Avery Humane Society provides for stray animals in the county is a scenario that shocks a lot of people. Animal Control in most places consists of three main functions: investigating reports of neglect and abuse, investigating reports of vicious animals and handling stray animals. For a number of years, the Avery Humane Society has filled the role as the only hope for stray animals in the county, yet receives no county funding. 

“We take in an average of more than 300 stray animals a year. While they are with us, we provide medical care, vaccinations, food, shelter and a lot of love and attention. We also microchip and spay or neuter them before they are adopted out. A lot of the stray animals come to us in very bad shape both physically and fearful of people. And at times they require a lot of medical care and extra attention. It is amazing to see the difference of how they come to us and then how they leave with their forever families. 

“The fact that we spay and neuter these animals at our cost is also extremely important. If these animals were left to reproduce on the streets of Avery County the number of animals roaming the county would be staggering. If one cat is left to reproduce on the streets of Avery County and has a litter of kittens and then those kittens reproduce at an average rate then one cat can lead to 20,736 cats in 4 years. One dog in the same scenario can lead to 4,372 dogs in 7 years. Imagine what it would be like to have this number of stray animals roaming our streets. It really is unimaginable and this is what the reality would be if we were not providing the services that we provide.

“The financial burden that this puts on the Avery Humane Society is staggering. The idea that the county does nothing to help fund this is hard to believe. We have applied to the county to help fund specifically for what we do with the stray animals within the county for the last two years and have been turned down completely. We rely on donations from the public, grants and fundraising in order to operate. The High Country Charitable Foundation provided us with a grant last year to help with our work with stray animals and that funding was immensely important to us and the work we do for the citizens and animals of the county.

Barrier, Jr. noted that county funded the Avery County Health Department $345,000.00 in the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, and that it took in an additional $175,000.00 to operate on $520,000.00 that fiscal year. He said in comparison that while the county did not fund the humane society in 2020-21, it still operated on $679,000.00 it received in donations. 

Dyer said the humane society operates at a deficit.

“It takes $679,000 to operate the shelter each year, but most years we run at a deficit of approximately $200,000 a year,” she declared. “Our loss was less last year because of the PPP loans, but one of the main reasons we need funding for what we do is because we cannot continue to operate at a loss. We draw on reserves that will not be there for an unlimited amount of time. That is why we ask for county funding. There is a limited time that we can operate at a deficit and still continue to provide the services to the public that we currently provide.” 

Barrier, Jr. said he and Frye remain in discussion about animal calls in the county.

“I’ve asked the Sheriff to give me a report every month about animal-related calls as the commissioners and myself need to have more facts before we would consider funding an animal control officer post in the long-term. 

“The commissioners will do what they feel is best for all our citizens. We always follow a priority list addressing the what are our top needs and we certainly understand the advantages of having a specialized animal control officer. But we will always try to first fund what we feel is most important.”

Ward said he and the Advocates for The Care of Animals in Avery County group would consider funding an animal control-rescue officer each year for the county.

“I asked the commissioners to accept the check and have an animal officer for a year and then we would talk about it again. Then we could further determine the needs of animal control rescue services and how they could be funded in the future. Our organizations are not trying to take over and run things; we’re just trying to help out.  The High Country Charitable Foundation has given more than $2,000,000.00 to worthwhile causes in the county over the past five years.”