A case of animal cruelty involving more than 60 dogs, two cats and several fish at an animal rescue group in Morristown has sparked local discussions of how local animals are rescued and sent to other cities.
The Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department and a group called Animal Rescue Corps reportedly found the animals living in “deplorable” conditions at a private home that has served as the location of a group called The Puppy Patch.
Many of the animals had been left without food or water, stuck in small cages and surrounded by feces, urine and piles of garbage, according to Animal Rescue Corps. Many had also suffered from illnesses and injuries due to the conditions in which they had been forced to live.
“These animals have been living in a house of horrors, with an overwhelming stench of ammonia and an unbelievable buildup of feces all over,” Animal Rescue Corps President Scotlund Haisley said as the group worked to move them to a safer place. “These animals have endured tremendous suffering, and it ends today.”
Officer Carrie McCann of the sherriff’s department said Tuesday the two women involved in running The Puppy Patch have each been arrested. She said Hamblen County residents Kimberly Turner and Melissa Turner have been charged with 63 counts of animal cruelty. Both have court dates set for March.
She said the animals had been taken to the shelter run by the Morristown Hamblen Humane Society.
After an email message from local resident Linda Bryant prompted Bradley County Commission members to look into claims that animals from Bradley County had ended up at The Puppy Patch, Commissioner Ed Elkins asked a representative from the group that will soon be handling the county’s animal control needs to speak at the Commission meeting Tuesday afternoon.
The letter from Bryant alleged local rescue groups had transported animals to The Puppy Patch in Morristown, and those dogs had ended up being abused.
“At least 20 of the dogs found in this horrible place came from Cleveland,” she wrote. “This is absolutely unacceptable. I find it hard to believe that anyone would knowingly do such a thing, but this has happened.”
She went on to say she believed those animals had been vetted by local groups Cleveland For A No Kill City and Dixie Day Spay and sent to other rescue groups by the Dixie Pet Underground Railroad. She also accused some local animal rescue groups of being more focused on the number of animal rescues rather than the animals’ quality of life. Bryant also said the County Commission “has turned over the welfare of animals in Cleveland to this faction.”
Elkins invited SPCA of Bradley County representative Beth Foster to speak about the organization’s relationship with those mentioned in the email.
“The SPCA is not involved in any way,” Foster said. “The SPCA has yet to take custody of an animal.”
She said the animals involved in the Morristown case have been “betrayed” by people who had been running what was supposed to be a rescue group there. Foster also said she had learned that about four — not 20 — dogs from Cleveland had ended up at The Puppy Patch because of the local pet underground railroad’s attempt to help more animals get adopted by sending them to cities other than Cleveland.
Foster stressed the local organizations in question are not part of the SPCA, which has signed a contract to handle Bradley County’s animal control services beginning March 17. However, she said the SPCA has on occasion partnered with other local organizations.
She said she did not hold them at fault for sending the four dogs to Morristown because they had no way of knowing they would later be abused.
Both Cleveland For No Kill City and Dixie Day Spay have issued statements on their respective pages on the website Facebook saying they had partnered with The Puppy Patch, trusting that the animals would be kept safe.
Cleveland for a No Kill City’s statement said The Puppy Patch had contacted the local organization in December 2013 “to ask about rescuing dogs from Cleveland Animal Control,” and the Morristown group “came with references from established rescue organizations.” The local group said it had sent volunteers to check out the place and at the time “had every reason to believe [it was] working with an organization that was providing these animals with responsible, appropriate care.”
Betti Gravelle, Dixie Day Spay’s director and president of the SPCA of Bradley County’s board of directors, had similar things to say about the incident in Morristown.
“Not only were these animals betrayed, but so were many good individuals, organizations and other veterinary clinics who put their faith in Puppy Patch's promise to give these animals a better life,” she said.
Commissioner Adam Lowe said the partnership between the county and the SPCA was “a pilot program” that continued to be a work in progress and was “irritated” by some people’s attempts to discredit the SPCA before its contract even begins.
The discussion later continued at the SPCA’s board meeting Tuesday night, and Shelter Director Jack Cooper said he agreed with Foster it was not “logical” for a group in Cleveland to be held responsible for what a group in Morristown does.
“None of us put our stamp of approval on that place,” Cooper said.
However, as the board works on putting its governing policies for the new shelter in place, he said it may be a good idea to consider adding a policy that says representatives from the SPCA must pay visits to any animal foster homes or rescue groups it places animals with in the future.