'Red Alert' at the Sullivan County Animal Shelter means it is full

J. H. Osborne • Updated May 23, 2018 at 8:08 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — If you’ve ever considered adopting, fostering or rescuing a dog from an animal shelter, now’s the time in Sullivan County. On Tuesday, the Sullivan County Animal Shelter, which has space for about 70 dogs, issued a “Red Alert,” indicating its kennels are full and it can take in no more dogs until some on hand are adopted out or transferred to rescue organizations. The shelter, funded by taxpayers and donations, also announced the adoption fee for dogs has been reduced by half to try and help ease the overcrowding.

Sullivan County took over operation of the animal shelter on Jan. 1 after dissolving a years-long “partnership” with Kingsport and Bluff City. That partnership used a nonprofit organization to operate the animal shelter in Blountville and another facility in Kingsport. 

The “Red Alert” came a day after several volunteers from the shelter spoke to the Sullivan County Commission, airing grievances over their own treatment, alleged animal abuse, and outrage over what they said was about a dozen of them having been blocked from a Facebook page connected to the shelter.

“We’re not going away,” Vicky Darnell told the commission. “We’re not a bunch of crazy animal nut people. We’re going to start campaigning for the people who are going to stand behind us. And I mean actively. This past Saturday, we raised $2,000 in a few hours. So if you all want to stand with us, stand with us. And if you don’t, we’re going to drain the swamp.”

Gerald Sensabaugh, running for county mayor as an independent in the general election in August, has in recent days been making hay with the issue on social media and met with the volunteers outside the courthouse after they spoke to the commission. 

Sarah Foster, an attorney and a shelter volunteer since last September, said she first spoke to the commission in February about what she called a “disconnect between the shelter and volunteers.” Foster said back then she had been told there would be a committee formed to oversee the shelter with membership including volunteers.

“It absolutely appalls me how are our volunteers are treated at this shelter,” Foster said Monday. “It absolutely disgusts me.”

Foster compared it to an abusive marriage where the abused partner continues to come back and take blame.

Thirty cats were euthanized this past weekend, Foster said, and that number could have been less had volunteers been rallied to put out an “all call” and say “we got 30 momma cats and kittens.”

“They get called nuts, they get called fanatical,” Foster said of the volunteers. “They get told they’ll come back ‘they’re just mad because they can’t run the shelter.’ ”

Foster said posts on Facebook are the lifeline for dogs and cats to get out of the shelter — so blocking volunteers was counterproductive.

As for whether the Facebook page in question (Sullivan County TN Animals) was an “official” county page or not, Foster said county officials can say that all they want — but when it is being administered by county employees it clearly is connected to the county shelter’s operation.

Foster has created another Facebook page (Sullivan County Animal Shelter) for herself and other volunteers to administer and use to advertise the animals available for adoption as well as other shelter-related news. In about two weeks, it has drawn more than 1,400 members.

“How bad does it have to get for you to step in?” Foster asked commissioners. “There are a lot of resources we are not harnessing, and so much of it is because of the way these volunteers are treated. I am wiling to help. I want to help. Please, for the love of God, let us help.”

After public comment ceased, County Mayor Richard Venable thanked all the volunteers who had spoken.

“We share your passion,” Venable said. “It may not always be apparent, but we share your passion. We’ve had the animal shelter here five and a half months under the direction of county government. We can’t run or county without volunteers, whether or not it is with the shelter, or volunteer firemen or volunteer with a rescue squad. The citizens of Sullivan County cannot afford to pay what we get from you. With the animal shelter volunteers, it’s been a little like drinking from a fire hose. There’s so many, and we’ve had such a short time. We had to provide for the physical needs of the animals we inherited on January 1 of this year. And we inherited employees on January 1. Some employees have left and some have stayed. We inherited volunteers. And we’ve found there’s not always agreement among volunteers. And that’s normal. But, again, we have so many and we have so much to do. We’ve dedicated just about the full time of our solid waste director and our IT person in the county, and even our accounts and budgets director volunteering hundreds of hours trying to get  a handle on this. What we inherited was not something you’d be proud of, not something the County Commission would be proud of ... but we’re moving in that direction. Five and a half months seems like a lot of time when you’ve got an animal in distress. I agree with that. But we’ve got limited resources. It’s not always possible. You have passions and you see them not met. And we feel badly, too. But we are giving every effort to make a humane shelter. This is the first time the county has been in charge of an animal shelter. The sheriff ran one for years and did it well. Then we had an agreement with Kingsport and it didn’t work out well. Generally it was a money-based issue. We had to come up with a million dollars or take it back. Many times during the last six months, I’ve said ‘please come up with a million dollars and give it back.’ Because it’s difficult, let me tell you. And there’s not a lack of compassion on the part of the people dealing with it. It’s a lack of resources and a lack of time. We will continue to move forward, and we are making physical changes to the shelter. Each individual case, it’s tragic. But we have many success stories.”

Venable said that the county is directing the public not to a Facebook page but to the county’s main web page (www.sullivancountytn.gov) to find information about the shelter, including animals available for adoption and monthly data reports on intake, adoptions, total animals euthanized and other statistics. Some of the volunteers shook their heads while Venable made those comments.

Venable said that was indicative of why the issue has become a point of contention: the different perceptions of different people. Venable then asked the volunteers to stop and think about whether what they were doing was helping or hindering.

“We need your help,” Venable said. “We need your direction.”

Foster later told the Times News Venable asking the volunteers to think about whether they were helping or hindering by airing their concerns was just plain offensive.