The scene has all the makings of a courtroom drama.
The five-member panel hears testimony from both sides, with a lawyer and a police officer present. Then the panel goes behind closed doors to discuss the case and comes back to the room with a verdict.
But this time, it’s not a person on trial; it’s a dog.
The Jackson County Dangerous Dog Committee meets when cases come up regarding dogs that may be considered dangerous to the community. It’s up to the five-member committee to make sure residents are taking proper care of their pets and ensuring dangerous animals don’t harm anyone.
"It’s a group of Jackson County citizens who respond to the dogs that have been taken that have proved to be a potential danger to the community," said Jean Collins, a Commerce resident and committee member.
Though no special training or certification is needed to be on the committee, the members are not without a commitment to keeping the community safe from dangerous dogs.
"I think that there are owners who have dogs that they don’t contain that are vicious, and the only way they’re going to contain them is to have a committee like ours to enforce it," Collins said. "I’m just an animal advocate, that’s all."
The dangerous dog process
The process begins when someone complains to authorities about a dog that poses some sort of threat, Collins said.
"The referrals come through animal control, when someone calls them to complain about an animal," she said. "Animal control gives them (the offenders) a warning and if nothing is done, then it comes to us."
Jackson County defines a dangerous dog as one that "inflicted severe injury on a human being on public or private property" without any kind of prior provocation. However, if a person trespasses on someone’s property or abuses the dog in any way, the term "dangerous dog" can’t be applied, according to the county’s animal control ordinances.
Most cases involve a dog that attacked a person or another dog. Both the owner of the dog and the attack victim offer their sides of the story.
"We present our case with how many times the dog has attacked and they present their dog deemed potentially dangerous and the committee makes a decision," said Nichol Martin, an administrative assistant in the county’s code compliance office who works with the committee.
When a dog is deemed "dangerous," the owner has two options: Keep the dog with certain restrictions, or give up the animal.
"If they deem the dog potentially dangerous, they have to get an insurance policy for the dog and fit it in an enclosure" that keeps the dog from interacting with other people, Martin said. "If they choose not to keep the dog, then the dog is euthanized."
Martin said that people generally choose the latter option for financial reasons.
"Most of them generally euthanize their animals because the policies are expensive to keep," she said.
County sees dangerous, abused dogs
Since Collins joined the committee four years ago, the committee has only come together a handful of times to hear cases. But she said these few meetings are not necessarily representative of the South’s reputation for dog abuse.
"I’ve never seen animal neglect like I’ve seen in this state," she said. "We have just not kept up with the rest of the country."
Collins attributes the small numbers of cases the committee oversees in Jackson County to people choosing not to inform the proper authorities, Collins said.
"Either people or taking care of it themselves or they’re just not calling in animal control," she said.
Jackson County handled a major animal abuse case in February 2008, when nearly 300 dogs were taken from L&D Farm and Kennel in Nicholson and put up for adoption a few months later through the Humane Society of Jackson County.
Jennifer Marie Hughes, 34, her mother and father, Marie and Ronnie Hughes, and Brandy Shree Stone, 25, were charged with two felony counts of aggravated cruelty to animals and 133 misdemeanor counts of cruelty to animals. Two of their employees provided claims of malnutrition, inhumane and unsanitary living conditions.
Roxane Rose, vice president of the Jackson County Humane Society, said the agency doesn’t see the kind of abuse and neglect that animal control may see. But she has heard from some people that Jackson County’s size may have something to do with the small number of animal neglect cases.
"Back during the puppy mill bust, one of the conversations we had was because Jackson County ... is so rural and because it’s so large, there’s a lot more abuse and neglect than we know about. That’s something I’ve heard a couple of people express," Rose said.
But some people are taking steps to turn around the cycle of animal abuse, according to Collins.
"I was glad to see that Athens had a rally about dog fighting," she said.
Coupled with the efforts from animal control, the humane society and the dangerous dog committee, Collins and other animal advocates can make a difference, she said.