Last week’s controversy surrounding the adoption of a dog from the Carter County Animal Shelter was reignited Tuesday during a session of the county’s planning commission. Planning and County Commissioner Steve Chambers and County Mayor Leon Humphrey exchanged heated words concerning the incident that received national attention.
Two weeks ago, a golden retriever by the name of Hokie, who is owned by Kimberly Clark, was separated from the family during a trip to scout for fishing spots along the Watauga River. On the same day, the dog was found and taken to the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter.
On Saturday, June 16, a friend of the Clark family suggested that they check with the shelter to see if the dog had been located. Clark noticed Hokie in one of the kennels, but was unable to take him home since the shelter was already closed for the day.
Earlier that day, a local man adopted Hokie, but chose to have the dog stay at the animal shelter in order to be transported to the veterinarian to be neutered. When the shelter reopened Monday, the Clark family called the facility but learned that the dog had already been adopted.
Following the call from Clark, the animal shelter staff contacted the dog’s new owner about the situation.
On Tuesday, Chambers addressed the matter and provided additional background about the individual who adopted Hokie earlier this month. Chambers stated that the young man owned a golden retriever as a child that bore a strong resemblance to Hokie. He added that the boy and the dog were inseparable and shared a deep bond. “The dog that he adopted years ago had been abused. When he brought him home and tried to teach him to fetch, he would go to the ground because his previous owner had beaten him,” he noted.
Chambers said the dog and his young master bonded over the course of the next decade until the golden retriever died in 2008. “When he died, I saw the boy bury the dog. Tears were running down his eyes as he carried the shovel to bury the dog in a field,” Chambers recalled. “After that happened, he said he would never own another dog. But, by chance, he was going fishing on the river and just happened to go by the pound last weekend and saw another golden retriever almost identical to the one he owned.”
Last Tuesday, Carter County Mayor Leon Humphrey was contacted by Clark seeking assistance in finding a solution to the matter. “If you have an animal you’re attached to and you lose it, you’re going to be somewhat heartbroken because the pet becomes a member of the family,” Humphrey said. “In that email, there was an appeal for someone to contact the new owner and pass along an offer to reimburse them for all fees and they would also make a sizeable contribution in their name to the animal shelter. There were other things in their offer, as well.”
The mayor said he felt compelled to contact the new owner to seek a fair resolution. Humphrey stated that he had a pleasant conversation with the man and explained to him that he had received an email from the Clark’s asking that Hokie be returned. “I also explained to him that he was the legal owner of the dog, but that the previous owner had appealed for its return. I just asked him to consider that,” he commented.
Several minutes later, the gentleman called Humphrey back and asked for a couple of days to decide whether or not to return the dog. After the call, Humphrey contacted Hokie’s previous owner and informed her of what he had learned.
Last Thursday, the man returned Hokie to the Clark family during a reunion at the animal shelter. Humphrey said that the presence of documentation and clearly defined rules and regulations assisted Animal Shelter Director April Jones and her staff to resolve the matter within a few days. “Before these rules were put in place, I have heard of similar situations where people didn’t get their dog back,” he added.
Chambers acknowledged the animal shelter followed state law regarding the 72-hour waiting period, but added that the man who adopted Hokie was vilified in the community. “He was called a mean, vicious man. This man came down there to save one of these animals,” Chambers said.
“You are correct,” Jones stated. “Damage has been done in this situation. Who wants to come and adopt an animal when they believe someone is going to come in the next five or ten days to take it away?”
Chambers raised concern that the identity of the local man who adopted Hokie was leaked, which led to threats of violence.
“I can assure you that at no point was any information about his identity breached,” Humphrey explained. “We did everything we could as professionally as possible to protect all individuals on each side.”
Planning Commissioner Bill Armstrong, who also serves on the Elizabethton/Carter County Animal Shelter Advisory Board, stated the recent controversy provides a clear explanation of why the planning commission should not be involved in animal control matters. Armstrong then presented a motion to move Animal Control Officer Chris Pierce from the direction of the planning office to the animal shelter director.
In the May planning commission meeting, a motion to move the position to the animal shelter director’s scope of authority was tabled, thereby giving the board additional time to discuss the matter. On Tuesday, however, a motion to table the question was presented by Planning Commissioner Ralph Watson.
Chambers, who also opposed the motion, explained his opposition to the move by commenting he has received some complaints from individuals associated with the animal shelter. “Some of them are employees who have been there a long time and have left dissatisfied,” he said.
Humphrey countered, “Last month, I made an appeal to the county commission to put the animal control officer under the leadership of the animal shelter director. We followed up (with the planning commission), as well. At that point in time, you had a concern. You tabled it for 30 days. I thought we were going to revisit it here today. Believe me; the animal shelter advisory board is working hard to put all of this together. We’re basically trying to build a program overnight.”
The mayor also commented about the hard work and diligence being shown by Jones. He noted, in most weeks, Jones works approximately 55 to 60 hours per week to ensure that the shelter is making positive steps to improve services to county and city residents. Humphrey also said he has received positive feedback from the community on the job that Pierce has done in his three months as animal control officer.
Humphrey continued, “Six months ago, this board was so adamant to lose all control of the daily duties of the animal shelter. Why are you rejecting this now? Why is this such a hard decision? We need all the people involved with animal control under one roof. And as far as people leaving, I don’t believe we have lost any employees.”
“I don’t believe I said anyone was leaving, I just said we’ve had some complaints. Nobody has said anything about anyone leaving,” Chambers responded. “I have had complaints from people who have been involved with the animal shelter for years. They say they don’t like the way it’s being run. You wanted me to be honest with you, so I’m telling you.”
Watson’s motion-to-table the question on the animal control officer narrowly failed on a vote of 5 to 6. Voting against the question were Jerry Smith, Bill Armstrong, Richard Renfro, Russell Kyte, Bob Townsend and Tom “Yogi” Bowers.
After the motion failed, Armstrong’s motion to move the animal control officer to the direction of the animal shelter was then brought up for a vote.
(note: in today’s print edition of the STAR, the article indicated that Mr. Armstrong’s motion passed by a vote of 6 to 5. After speaking Wednesday to Chairman Bowers, however, it was determined that a motion must receive 7 votes to pass. Since there are a total of 12 members on the planning commission and Planning Commissioner Mary Ann Patton was not present, the vote on the animal control officer moving to the shelter failed.)