State regulators lag on animal investigations, say activists

These are some of the 715 dogs recovered from a breeding operation in Berrien County in early March 2019. The dogs, matted, and covered with feces, had been packed into wire cages for most of their lives. CONTRIBUTED: ATLANTA HUMANE SOCIETY
These are some of the 715 dogs recovered from a breeding operation in Berrien County in early March 2019. The dogs, matted, and covered with feces, had been packed into wire cages for most of their lives. CONTRIBUTED: ATLANTA HUMANE SOCIETY

Valerie Bass was heartbroken when her 16-year-old toy poodle, Faye, died in November. The retired teacher, 57 who lives in Middleburg, Florida was depressed and began losing weight. “I knew I couldn’t live like this,” she said.

When she found a mini poodle at Georgia Animal Rescue and Defence (GARD) in Pembroke she agreed to drive three hours to PetSmart in Pooler to claim the dog. When she arrived, she was shocked when she saw the dog’s condition.

Belle smelled awful. Her fur and claws were matted with feces. She had not been microchipped. Undeterred, Bass paid the $400 adoption fee, waited for microchipping and the following Monday, she took Belle to the veterinarian.

“Heartworm positive was the only thing that was supposed to be wrong with her,” Bass said. But the vet diagnosed an ear infection, a permanent eye infection which requires daily cleaning and medication, and the vet told Bass the dog was closer to 8 years old than 4 years old.

“They lied,” Bass said. “I would still have adopted her even if I had known about her eye condition.”

The pandemic has brought a boon in pet adoptions as residents sheltering in place have decided the time is right for a pet companion. Nationwide pet adoptions increased about 15% from 2019 to 2020, based on data from Shelter Animals Count. The group, which has gathered data from nearly 800 rescue organizations nationwide reports 36,668 more pet adoptions in 2020 than 2019.

As adoptions have grown, so has awareness of the problems in the dog rescue and breeding industry. Some rescues are overwhelmed with not enough staff or volunteers to properly care for animals. Some breeders or sellers are capitalizing on the demand and selling animals online without a license, animal activists say.

In an emailed response to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a GARD representative said they try to work with adopters to make sure everyone is happy.

“We don’t get that many complaints or sick pups going out but of course they’re living breathing creatures so things can happen. We return the adoption fee and always take our dogs back if they don’t want to keep them,” said the representative.

But animal activists say the state Department of Agriculture — the agency responsible for regulating anyone who produces, sells, boards, grooms, offers for adoption, or exchanges pet animals — isn’t doing enough to track possible violations.

Last month, Candler County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Vicki Buck on multiple counts of animal cruelty after they found 74 animals held in unsanitary conditions behind her home. Buck had been on the radar for a while, said Sheriff John Miles but recent information allowed them to get a search warrant to enter the property.

In May, a report from the Humane Society of the United States highlighted more than a half-dozen Georgia kennels for problems ranging from unsanitary conditions to animal cruelty. As a result of one incident, an employee in the companion animal division of the Georgia Department of Agriculture was fired and a supervisor was suspended, said spokeswoman Julie McPeake in a previous interview with the AJC.

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At the time, the agency said new policies would require inspectors to document the number of animals at any facility and communicate with local law enforcement and animal control when violations are found.

But the pandemic has impacted operations. “We have been shorthanded at times due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols, but have managed to be innovative by performing re-inspections virtually in certain circumstances,” McPeake said. There has also been an increase in applications for permits, she said.

But critics say even before COVID-19, it took the department too long to investigate complaints and work with law enforcement to hold repeat offenders accountable.

“Clearly the GDA has an obligation to do more than walk through a facility and say, ‘yes, they have water,’” said former politician and Marietta attorney Mitch Skandalakis, who said he planned to send a letter to government officials telling them to perform their duties correctly. “Law enforcement in any jurisdiction has a duty to follow up with anything the agriculture department finds is going on. Everybody just needs to be doing their job,” he said.

While the Companion Animal division does not have any open complaints against GARD, McPeake said the Inspector General’s investigation of the rescue is ongoing with several steps to complete before the investigation is closed.

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Bass said Belle is still skittish but has recovered from heartworm and is running like the wind in the backyard with their 9-year-old, 50-pound rescue. She said she wants rescues and breeders to be properly investigated and held accountable for any violations before animals or buyers are hurt.

“It is just not right and then when you complain how they didn’t take care of the animals, they manipulate everything and they try to make you feel guilty,” Bass said. “I am devastated by what is happening.”

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