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Residents fume as Humane Society explains Wednesday’s euthanizations

POSTED: June 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Tashia Payne, 21, a kennel technician for the Humane Society of Hall County, cleans out a cage Thursday at the Hall County Animal Shelter. The humane society euthanized 77 animals Wednesday in an attempt to control an outbreak of respiratory disease.

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On an average day, the Humane Society of Hall County euthanizes 23 animals because they are unadoptable or the Hall County Animal Shelter doesn’t have enough space for them.

"You don’t hear people yelling and screaming about that," said humane society president Rick Aiken.

But a lot of people got upset Wednesday after the shelter euthanized 77 animals to stop an outbreak of respiratory disease.

"Some of us (animal lovers) are just in tears over this," said Gainesville resident Lenny Baker.

The humane society made the decision after earlier attempts to control the spread of bordatella, or kennel cough, were not effective.

Kennel cough is a nonfatal but highly contagious upper-respiratory virus. The shelter has been vaccinating animals as they are brought in, but the vaccine doesn’t work if the animal has already been infected.

Bordatella is a canine disease, but Aiken said there seemed to be another respiratory virus that was affecting cats and kittens.

The good news was that the shelter didn’t have to euthanize as many animals as had initially been feared. Aiken said once all the paperwork had been completed, the final count was 77. There are still about 200 animals in the shelter, though not all of them are up for adoption.

"Some are held here for other reasons, such as bite cases and pending cruelty cases," Aiken said.

Almost all of the animals euthanized Wednesday were puppies and kittens, which are more susceptible to illness because their immune systems are immature. Aiken said the decision was made to kill even the ones that did not appear sick, because an animal can be incubating a virus without displaying symptoms.

Shelter workers tried to isolate the animals who were to be spared from the ones who were fated to be killed. But it’s hard to control a virus that travels through the air.

That’s why the shelter is cleaning out its air conditioning ducts, which hasn’t been done since the building opened seven years ago.

"I don’t think it’s really being transmitted through duct work, but it’s a possibility," Aiken said.

The society is also taking bids on having ultraviolet lights, which supposedly kill viruses, installed inside the ducts.

Some people have asked why the humane society didn’t take action sooner.

"I lay all the blame at Rick Aiken’s feet," Baker said. "He’s been there 19 years and the building hasn’t been cleaned in seven years? Somebody needs to hold this guy responsible."

Aiken acknowledged that the buck stops with him. "I knew the humane society would be held accountable, and as president, I would take the heat," he said.

But he said it isn’t true that the building was never cleaned. Employees clean each cage every day and wash down the floor with disinfectant.

However, in a shelter that receives about 13,000 animals every year, Aiken said it’s unreasonable to expect the place to look pristine.

"With any building, there are cracks and crevices that things can get into over time. You would have to remove all the animals to clean it, and that’s difficult to do," he said.

In fact, the shelter was never closed down, and there are no plans to do so. That’s because the humane society, which owns the building, has a contract with Hall County Animal Control to accept any animal that is brought in.

"If we closed, it would create an even worse situation, with nowhere to put the bite cases and other problem animals," Aiken said.

So the shelter tried conservative measures to control the spread of disease.

"We had been checking animals every day and if any showed signs of illness, we removed it," Aiken said. "We tried putting antibiotics in their food (which didn’t work because antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses). We consulted numerous times with a vet at (vaccine manufacturer) Schering-Plough. We also talked to several local vets."

But society officials finally decided they had to take stronger action, because they were receiving complaints from people who adopted an animal that turned out to be sick.

One of those people was Demorest resident Nancy Black. In January, her family came to the shelter in Gainesville to buy a puppy for their autistic 16-year-old daughter. After much consideration, they chose a 9-week-old shepherd mix named Wally.

That was on a Saturday. By Monday, Black said, the pup had symptoms similar to a bad cold. On Thursday night, Wally became lethargic and began vomiting. He was in critical condition by the time the family was able to get him to a vet Friday morning.

"He was diagnosed with kennel cough, parvovirus and ringworm," Black said.

At that point, her daughter had already bonded with the puppy and Black was willing to do whatever she could to save him. But she did call the humane society when she learned of Wally’s diagnosis.

"I tried to get them to completely shut down the shelter and clean it. Rick Aiken said that was not an option," she said. "He also said that Wally couldn’t have contracted kennel cough or parvo at the shelter."

Black ended up spending about $2,000 on veterinary bills. The humane society refunded the $70 she paid for the puppy and also gave her a $250 insurance payment that is available if an animal gets sick within 30 days of adoption.

Hoping to get reimbursed for more of her expenses, Black wrote a letter of complaint to the Georgia Department of Agriculture on Feb. 1. She said she never received a response.

The happy ending to her story is that Wally survived parvo, which many puppies do not.

"He will probably have to stay on a restricted diet for the rest of his life because the parvo damaged his intestines," Black said. "But Wally is wonderful. He’s the smartest dog I’ve ever seen, and he’s so good for my daughter."

Black said her family sought to adopt from a shelter because they wanted to do the right thing and save an animal’s life. But they didn’t realize that there are some risks with shelter adoption.

"I would only adopt from a private breeder now. I would not go to a shelter," she said. "I’m not saying (the Hall County shelter) is a bad place. But they need to find a way to keep the dogs who are up for adoption separate from the ones who have just come in."

Aiken said the shelter does what it can to prevent healthy animals from coming into contact with sick ones. But even if the building were scrubbed until every last germ was eradicated, he said it would only take one infected animal coming in to start the cycle all over again.

Aiken said the dilemma is not unique to Hall County; shelters all over the country are dealing with the same issues. He said because the Hall shelter houses animals in individual cages rather than in group runs, it has fewer cases of parvo, which is spread through contact with feces.

But it is much more difficult to contain the kennel cough virus, which is spread through the air.

"The vaccine is probably helping some," he said, "but it’s not a cure-all."

Aiken said 11 dogs that were seized from a Jackson County puppy mill earlier this year are still at the Hall shelter and available for adoption.

But the half-dozen emaciated dogs that were confiscated last week from a Gainesville woman accused of animal cruelty were likely among those euthanized, Aiken said, because they were already in poor condition.



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