Numbers don't lie. And when it comes to the number of animals killed at Burke County Animal Control every year, like the front page headline reads, the numbers are sobering.
On Wednesday, The News Herald began its four-part series on the high death rate for animals at Burke County Animal Control. Beginning the series, we pointed out how irresponsible pet owners' failure to spay or neuter their animals has contributed to the nearly 7,000 animals killed at Animal Control in the last three years. But that's only part of the problem.
In today's paper, we've shown how Burke County's shelter ranks among other shelters in neighboring counties and in the state and how much money is allocated for animal welfare. The numbers show how Burke County is failing animals and that it's long past time for a change in how animals are treated. And after highlighting the problem to county officials, they, too, agree.
To show the stark contrast in how BCAC operates compared to shelters in neighboring counties, News Herald reporters toured facilities in McDowell and Catawba counties. In McDowell, which is a smaller shelter, the county has turned its operation around in the last two years to where it no longer has to euthanize animals for space. The same practice is in place in Catawba County. Neither of those shelters are operated by their respective sheriff's offices, as Burke's is, and officers are only used to respond to calls of animal neglect, abuse or complaint issues.
In addition, McDowell’s and Catawba's shelters actively network through the Internet, social media and with area rescue groups to find homes for animals. Use of these resources has greatly attributed to their ability to only euthanize for health or temperament reasons.
When The News Herald toured and videoed the conditions at all three shelters, some of the biggest differences in attitudes toward animals were evident. Both McDowell and Catawba provided bedding and toys for their animals and the dogs had a play area where they could get some daily exercise. Catawba already has an army of staff and volunteers who help their operations run smoothly and McDowell is preparing to have volunteers come in and assist at their operation. By contrast, Burke County Animal Control is operated like an animal prison where the death penalty is imminent for the majority of those who enter, when their only crime was being born.
What's even sadder than the thousands of animals killed in Burke County annually, is that it doesn't have to be that way. Now that county officials have recognized the problems that exist, it's time to take the steps necessary to reduce the number of needless animal deaths.
The problems are vast and county officials are correct that it will take time, but there are small changes that can be made immediately that will make a huge difference.
First and foremost is a change in mindset. Currently, Burke County Animal Control is managed with a statutory mindset of law enforcement rather than one of compassion. Granted, the department is underfunded and understaffed, but there are many registered foster-based rescues and volunteers who've offered to help, only to be turned away.
Sheriff Steve Whisenant told The News Herald that his office wants to turn over control of the shelter to another department but continue to provide the enforcement side of animal control. This is the first major step needed to begin real change at the facility.
In the meantime, animal control needs to move into the 21st century and utilize social media and the many volunteers who are willing to step up — what Commissioner Vice Chair Scott Mulwee called low-hanging fruit — to try to minimize the number of animals euthanized in the county. Shelters in neighboring counties have found much success in finding homes for animals by networking online with the public and rescue groups and Burke County needs to follow their lead. As it stands now, rescue groups aren't even allowed to photograph cats at the shelter to help find them homes.
It also needs to extend the hours the shelter is open to those volunteers to more than just one hour two days a week. Those limited hours are prohibitive to those who are making efforts to save lives.
County commissioners are considering building a new shelter and looking at how the shelter should be managed. We are asking the board to consider making a change in its 2019-20 fiscal budget to give the management of the shelter to another department and to allocate more funds to the shelter. McDowell County’s shelter is under the direction of public works. Nearby county shelters fall under the direction of its health department or under emergency services.
While we realize the traditional way for many counties of controlling the population of unwanted animals was to euthanize them, times have changed, and it's time for Burke to change with it. It can't be left to just rescue agencies to stand up and be the voice for abandoned animals in Burke County. It will take a change in attitude by the community, those working at Animal Control and the county. But with a concerted effort by all, we can find the path to becoming a no-kill county and doing what's right for our furry friends.
It's time to stop punishing animals for our failures. The animals deserve better. They deserve a chance at life. Let's give it to them.