POLKTON — County officials are defending a controversial decision to euthanize a puppy the animal shelter says bit an employee. Public reaction to the decision has been swift, with nearly 35,000 signatures on an online petition calling for the termination of the county manager.
Scott Forbes, attorney for Anson County, said on July 12 that the county was well within its rights to kill Shayla, the puppy in question, and that reports of the employee’s injury have been downplayed.
A Facebook post by a user with the name Gretchen Plyler McCollum said that the employee was “nipped” after using being witnessed using “unnecessary force” when handling Shayla. The post does not say who witnessed the incident. Both that post and more posted by other users repeat the same story and tag the Anson County Animal Shelter on Facebook.
Forbes said the bite was hardly a “nip,” and instead caused a significant injury.
“He had to use glue to stop the bleeding, had to glue the finger back together, had to have antibiotics shots, had to have tetanus shots, and is enduring rabies shots,” Forbes said of the employee, identified only as Greg.
County manager Megan Garner confirmed the injury, saying that the employee was treated in a hospital. She said via email on July 13 that a rabies test performed on the puppy was negative and added that she has no photos available of the bite injury to the employee.
Forbes said that it is unlikely that the employee mistreated Shayla.
“He was holding the dog and the dog turned around and bit him,” Forbes said. “He’s an experienced dog handler and doesn’t mistreat them. A woman who was there claims he was mishandling the dogs. I’ve seen the video where Gretchen McCollum, an animal rights activist, loves animals and is a friend of the shelter is, in this case, anti-shelter.”
In the video, uploaded to YouTube by an account named Rescue Dogs of Anson County NC, the woman identified in the caption as McCollum cries during part of it and tells an animal control officer accompanied by deputies that Shayla was mistreated by the officer. She also said that Shayla was not the dog that bit the employee.
The woman tries to direct the officer to other dogs on the property, saying that one of them was the biter, and hugs Shayla until she places the puppy in the back of the animal control truck.
“Vicious bite dog,” she says with apparent sarcasm to the officer as she cuddles Shayla.
Lindsay Lowery Biggers, an animal rescuer who works with McCollum, confirmed that McCollum is the one holding the dog in the video.
Biggers said that the petition to have Garner fired was not started by her, McCollum or Robin Sanford, all who started Saving Shayla on Facebook. She said the effort is a “moot point” since Garner will resign this month for reasons unrelated to the controversy.
She questioned the severity of the shelter employee’s wounds since no photos have been released.
Biggers did encourage those on either side of the issue to maintain civility.
“The negativity, the nasty comments and name-calling on both sides — on both sides, not just from animal activists — it’s ridiculous,” Biggers said. “We started this whole thing to save the life of one puppy, to save Shayla’s life, whatever the he-said, she-said. We started this to save her life. When that didn’t happen, and they made the decision to kill her, it stopped being about her and started being about every shelter dog that ever has been or ever will be, and started being about making something good from something that was bad.
“We…said we would fight with integrity, fight to change the rules, change the law, change the policies, change the procedures so what happened to her won’t happen again,” Biggers said. “So it’s not up to the discretion of who may or may not like animals, who is having a bad day, whatever. They can’t make the decision on their own, so policies and law will be in place.”
Biggers said that she, McCollum and Sanford have tried to reduce the negative comments but that it is “impossible to control.”
Those passionate about Shayla’s case can use their energy in a positive way, she said. She encouraged those who feel strongly about Shayla’s death to speak up about animal cruelty and to volunteer at shelters in Shayla’s memory.
Biggers thinks some will follow through on their promise to approach the county commissioners about the topic during their August meeting. She said she is unsure whether or not she will speak. She wants it known that she and others have done positive things with the shelter, giving over 400 animals to rescues in the last year, but she wants to see more positive come out of the situation.
“By the county’s account, by what they said, they feel like they were in the right, they could choose to euthanize Shayla, and I disagree with that,” Biggers said. “While I disagree, I think that both sides can agree that they didn’t have to kill Shayla. By law, they didn’t have to kill Shayla. They didn’t have to do it, so when they had the choice between life and death, cruelty and kindness, shouldn’t we all have compassion for our fellow man and especially for creatures who are defenseless? Life is hard without making it harder, so why would you choose that route?
“At this point, whether she was the right puppy or wrong puppy, she’s still dead,” Biggers continued. “We didn’t want this when we started this thing. We started it to save Shayla. They made the decision to kill her, to escalate this to what it is. I don’t know if they thought we would throw our hands up and walk away… but the decision to escalate was theirs. They made that decision.”
Forbes said the woman showed the officer the wrong dog, and that Shayla was the one who bit the employee.
Shayla was one of three puppies taken to the shelter after the owner called saying she could no longer take care of the puppies or their mother. The mother also has heartworms. Shelter employees used live traps to catch all four dogs, then transported them to the shelter on June 29, Garner said. The employee was bitten on July 5, and Shayla was euthanized on Thursday, July 11.
“We had them at the shelter and they were going through testing or doing whatever they do, and the dog in question, Shayla, was going to be released to Ms. McCollum,” Forbes said. “Before she could be released, when she got out of her cage, the dog bit our guy, Greg, the handler, the employee. Greg knows her, and went ahead and gave the dog to Gretchen.”
Garner later learned that Greg had been bitten, Forbes said and county officials then ordered that the dog be taken back to the shelter. Garner said that the release of Shayla to McCollum after the bite was a mistake.
“The decision was made to bring her back and Gretchen was called and refused to give her back,” Forbes said. “They sent two deputies and an animal shelter worker out there. According to them, they tried to give the wrong dog to the deputies.”
Forbes said that some who protest the decision have accused the shelter of making a mistake identifying Shayla as the biter.
“It wasn’t a mistake,” Forbes said. “They tried to give us the wrong dog.
“It was decided that it was in the best interest of the community to euthanize it and send the head off for testing for rabies,” he continued. “The state statute gives us discretion: one, you can hold for 10 days and then euthanize; or hold for 10 days and release; or go ahead and euthanize.”
Forbes then acknowledged that it is possible, albeit unlikely, that the dog was misidentified by the shelter.
“I do know the dog was there, and the employee on the video said, ‘That’s not the dog, this is the dog,’” Forbes said. “Anything is possible, but not likely. And as I understand it, Greg saw the dog afterwards.
“What happened was, she didn’t get the wrong dog. She got the dog that bit him when he handed it to her while he was still bleeding and everything.”
“There’s not a chance that (an incorrect identification) happened,” Garner said. “The employee was bit as he was taking that dog to Gretchen at the rescue. He’s completely sure of the dog, as I would be if I was bit.”
The animal control officer also referenced a kennel card that had a photo of the puppy on it to ensure the proper identification of the animal, she said.
Forbes said the county will not release any medical records regarding the employee’s bite and treatment, and he was unable to name the breed Shayla was. He confirmed that Shayla’s head was sent in for rabies testing.
On July 12, county commissioner Ross Streater answered the phone for the Anson County Animal Shelter and said that he and Anna Baucom, chairwoman of the board of commissioners, have been at the shelter to support the staff, as shelter director Maureen Lett is on medical leave. He will be at the shelter some mornings and Baucom will be there some afternoons.
“I stand behind the decision of the county manager, yes, I do, because we’ve talked with our attorney before all this was done,” Streater said. “I 100 percent stand behind the county manager’s position… we had an employee, and his health and safety is our number one.”
Streater said he had never visited the shelter before Wednesday, but was impressed with what he saw.
“The only thing I can say about the staff at the animal shelter here from the time I’ve spent with them is that they are real professional and I couldn’t ask for a more fine group to work with,” he said. “They are all hard workers.”
On July 12, Streater said that there was one volunteer, three employees and himself at the shelter.
“…it’s one of the cleanest places that you’ll want to see,” he said. “The animals are taken care of…From the outside looking in, I would expect a working animal shelter to be really dirty and all that, but this place is as clean as a person’s house.”
Right now, the commissioner said his priority is supporting the staff. He said he is an animal lover.
“Both Anna and myself love animals,” he said. “I have a cat and dog, Chocolate and Dakota.”
A Change.org petition calling for the termination of Garner had 34,431 signatures by 10 p.m. July 14. The original goal was set at 25,000, and when that was met, a stretch goal of 35,000 was set. The petition was posted by Barking Mad Animal Rescue and used the same text that a Facebook post by the Greater Charlotte SPCA had posted at 2:51 p.m. last Wednesday.
In the post, the Greater Charlotte SPCA echoes what Forbes said McCollum stated. The SPCA said that one of Shayla’s siblings was mistreated and was “dangling from a lead” and bit the employee, and that Shayla was misidentified as the aggressor.
The SPCA said that a 10-day bite hold is common, but that a different puppy should have been taken, especially after the shelter was told it had taken the wrong dog.
“Rescue advocates have been reaching out to the shelter for the last few days to right this wrong, emailing and calling but there hasn’t been any communication back,” the SPCA said. “Instead, the county manager has been communicating threats regarding Shayla and saying she wanted to euthanize her and do a head ship for rabies testing. There were threats made that if the puppy showed any sign of any illness, that they would euthanize for rabies testing. They wanted an excuse to kill her. These puppies are about four months old and they were handled with zero compassion and instead with a lot of force. It is not a surprise that one of them reacted with a bite. The more that animal advocates in our area reached out, the more vindictive shelter management seemed to become.”
The SPCA added that it called multiple times to offer to help but “were never acknowledged by those who had any decision making authority.”
As of 6 p.m. July 13, the SPCA’s Facebook post had more than 9,800 “likes” and “reactions,” more than 4,600 comments and had been shared 20,789 times.
Protesters have used #justiceforshayla in posts about the case.
Garner turned in her resignation notice earlier this year for unrelated reasons, letting the commissioners know her last day with the county will be July 28.
The Facebook post by Greater Charlotte SPCA called on protesters to call the town of Rural Hall, where she will become the town manager after leaving Anson, to tell the town they want Garner’s offer of employment revoked.
Garner said she hasn’t seen the petition and was unfazed by it on angry social media posts, and that she knows the county made the right decision.
“The little bit I have seen posted, and it’s not been much, has been fake news, false information that’s out there,” she said.
“I think the people who are spreading this are attempting to play on people’s emotions and not looking at the facts of the case,” Garner added.
“We knew that given the bite history of the dog that it posed a threat to the safety of our public, so it was not going to be released for adoption or rescue,” Garner said. “The only way you can test for rabies is to send it to the state.”
Garner said she was unsure whether the puppy had ever bitten anyone else besides the employee, but said that the first time it was taken to the shelter it had tried to bite the employee.
Rural Hall Mayor Larry T. Williams provided a comment to Fox 8 saying that the backlash will not change the council’s mind.
“The Rural Hall Town Council conducted an extensive search for a town manager,” the statement said. “Ms. Garner was selected from many well-qualified candidates. Ms. Garner comes to Rural Hall highly qualified and highly recommended. We remain confident that she will be an outstanding town manager and she has the full support of the Town Council.”
According to Fox 8, Rural Hall town officials said the town hall has been “flooded with phone calls from animal advocates.”
“I know that we made the right decision,” Garner said. “We consulted with the state vet and state inspector, and our vet of record, and all agreed that this was a decision that needed to be made.”
Reach reporter Imari Scarbrough at 704-994-5471 and follow her on Twitter @ImariScarbrough.