By Terri Ferguson Smith
In a letter to Lauderdale County and city of Meridian officials, Lauderdale County Attorney Justin Cobb called recent episodes involving the treatment of animals by an animal control officer "very disturbing."
In the letter Cobb detailed three instances, one of which involved euthanizing a dog with a pellet gun.
"I am contacting you to make you aware of certain incidents that I have investigated as county attorney that involve animal control that is jointly operated by the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County," Cobb wrote in his letter. "I bring to your attention as it is part of an inter-local agreement between the two governmental entities and feel you should be informed. It is my opinion that the facts suggest that both the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County should give consideration to the policies and procedures it has in place and the mechanism in place for supervision of the animal control facility and the employees."
Cobb then listed details of three incidents he said he learned of during his investigation. Cat traps were placed at a residence on the 1500 block of 14th Avenue in Meridian on Jan. 16. The homeowner called animal control the next day to notify them that a cat was in the trap. She called back five days later to remind them that the cat was still in the trap, Cobb wrote in the letter.
"The cat was left inside the cage for 5-6 days," Cobb wrote, "and but for the kindness of the homeowner, the cat did not have food or water. Furthermore, the temperature in the evening for this period of time was in the low 20s. I do not think the citizens of our community would approve of the confinement of the animal under these conditions. I certainly do not."
Another incident Cobb described in his report was one in which a dog was euthanized with a pellet gun at the facility.
"I believe that there is a more humane way to euthanize an animal than with a pellet gun, and furthermore, I believe that the citizens of our community expect more than this," Cobb wrote. "Why was the animal euthanized with a pellet gun at the animal control facility?"
In another case, Cobb wrote than an owner was denied access to her injured dog, a female lab mix, who was missing for several days after a gunshot injury. The owner found out that her dog had been picked up by animal control on Feb. 8, which was a Saturday. She tried to get her dog that afternoon but the facility was closed, so she went to the Meridian Police Department, which made contact with the officer who was on call that weekend, Cobb's letter states. She was reportedly denied access to her dog, and told to go back to the shelter on Monday. She did, and took her dog to a veterinarian but it was too late to save her pet, which had to be put to sleep, according to the letter.
Cobb's report further states that because of injuries to her feet, the dog was forced to "stand on the top portion of her feet which ultimately led to the skin being worn down near the bone."
A letter from the veterinarian states that there is no way to judge if earlier medical treatment would have helped, but due to the loss of time in getting treatment, the opportunity for a positive outcome was lost.
Both city and county officials have spoken in recent months about ending the partnership, which calls for three officers from each entity to operate animal control. Part of the problem is that county officers cannot enforce laws that only apply in the city. Another issue has been staffing by the city, which has only had one officer in recent months.
Documentation obtained by The Meridian Star lists city of Meridian Animal Control Officer Freddy Collins as the officer who handled the two cases involving dogs.
In a telephone interview with a Meridian Star reporter, Collins, defended actions that were spelled out in Cobb's letter.
Question: "Have you shot a dog with a pellet gun?"
Answer: "I've been authorized to do so," Collins said.
Q: By whom?
A: "My superior, Assistant Chief Buck Roberts. The only time I shoot a dog is when it's something feral that I've been unable to catch, that's been out there a long time that we were unable to catch with a trap. I get authorization from my supervisor. That's the only time I shoot a dog with a pellet gun."
Animals are typically euthanized with a Sodium Pentothal shot, he said.
Roberts said he did not tell Collins he could use a pellet gun to euthanize dogs.
"I did not authorize him to do that with a pellet gun," Roberts said.
When asked if the practice of using a pellet gun to put down dogs will be discontinued, Roberts replied, "Absolutely, 100 percent."
As to the dog that was left untreated at the animal shelter and later had to be put down by a vet, Collins said he picked up the dog and tried to locate its owner, but couldn't.
"We're closed on Saturday and Sunday. The only time we come down here is to feed the animals," Collins said. "The shelter is closed on Saturday and Sunday."
Roberts called that incident a misunderstanding that has since been resolved and said changes will be made.
"A lot of things have been going on that need to be fixed," Roberts said.
Collins said the cat left in a trap for four days should have been picked up by county officers since he was on vacation during that time.
Mike McGrevey, chief administrative officer for the city of Meridian, said the city is working on filling the jobs at animal control and they are considering whether the agreement between the city and county should be changed. The city also is planning to improve training for animal control officers.
"Even when I look at it, as well-intentioned as the people that put it into place, it needs to be reopened and looked at with regards to the basic organizational structure so we can improve the effectiveness of the agreement and then two, also set standards for training," McGrevey said. "I'm not sure it works when you have different training for different people under the same roof. It comes back to we have to have a unified training program to where officers are cross-trained between city ordinances and county ordinances."
McGrevey said the city wants to make its partnership with the county on animal control a success.
"We are committed to making this work because it makes sense that where we can have a joint operation it's efficient for the taxpayers out there," McGrevey said. "The responsibility is upon us to figure out how to make it work and that's what we're focused on."
Josh Todd, president of the Board of Supervisors, said the county is taking the contents of Cobb's letter seriously and it is considering ending the partnership.
"It's definitely something we are looking at to make our case to whether we stay or go on our own," Todd said.