The Situation With McKamey And HES - And Response

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

I’ve been following the complaints about the McKamey Animal Center with considerable interest. Several years ago I was involved with the creation of that facility, so it is a personal matter with me. Due to the pandemic I had not visited for months but under present circumstances made an appointment and toured the buildings and grounds with the new executive director, Inga Fricke.

First, let me say that I am very impressed with the new head of McKamey and believe that it is in good hands. Her training as a lawyer and background in environmental matters add to her considerable resume in animal care. Her 10 years experience as a shelter consultant (nine with The Humane Society of the United States) is particularly notable.  Such talents would have been very useful in McKamey’s early battles against unlicensed breeders, puppy mills and unsanitary commercial retail pet operations. Such battles never completely end and there will be more in the future.

As for the current issues that resulted in unhappy staff, anything that seems neglectful or cruel is never defensible. But it should be noted that the dog that was accidentally left in the truck for eight  hours was not harmed. The cage was well ventilated and the temperature was not uncomfortable. Regarding the dog that was injured by the catch pole, all agree that perhaps another choice would have been better. Still it must be acknowledged that the dog had a documented history of aggressive behavior and therefore was not adoptable. I sincerely understand the desire by many for “no kill” shelters, but the need to euthanize some animals is a regrettable but necessary fact.

On physical conditions, I was pleased to see that the buildings and grounds were in much better shape than might have been expected based on recent publicity. There were some obvious but mostly superficial maintenance items such as paint and wrinkled fencing but nothing that cannot be quickly and completely addressed. Replacement of the center’s laundry equipment was underway at the time of my tour.

Let me share a little history. 

The process that led to creation of McKamey Center started during the administration of Mayor Jon Kinsey. Responding to urging from citizens and members of the city council at that time, a 1998 task force report addressed the communities needs for improvements in public animal care and a new shelter. It was generally recognized that the crowded and dilapidated old “dog pound” on Highland Park Avenue was inadequate and, in fact, something of an embarrassment.

Community efforts and discussions waxed and waned over ensuing months. Things came to a head in March of 2004 under Mayor Bob Corker. At that time, another working group issued a comprehensive report entitled “Completing the Mission” recommending among other changes a new shelter “providing adequate capacity for use not only by the city but also by the county and other localities”. A committee was named for raising $4.5 million in private financing, an architect was selected, a site was chosen and a number of better examples of public shelters in other cities were studied and toured. 

Finally, in 2008 - 10 years from beginning the long marathon process - the McKamey Animal Center opened incorporating all of the advances that had been hoped for - truly a “state-of-the-art” facility.  I was mayor at that time. Even though it was designed to accommodate the needs of the county and other jurisdictions, Hamilton County elected to stay on with the Humane Educational Society based on a promise that their contract would be extended without an increase in cost. Also the leadership of HES at the time stated that their existing quarters could be sufficiently repaired and remodeled to serve their permanent needs.

It is my understanding that the county’s annual cost for HES services has subsequently increased from about $500,000 to something around $800,000....which leads to my final point.

When it was announced more than two years ago that the Humane Society planned a multi million dollar replacement for its ancient facility, efforts were renewed to accomplish a merging of the local animal care agencies. Once again, the financial savings and operation efficiencies of such a merger were stressed. But aside from the money question, a greater goal was envisioned to permit HES to pay more attention to the “educational” element of its creed. Unfortunately, those efforts to bring unity once again proved fruitless and HES proceeded to build a duplicate (but a very nice duplicate) within a stones throw of McKamey Center. At the very least a more practical location for the new shelter might have been somewhere around Ooltewah to better serve the northern reaches of the county...But that’s water over the dam now.

Finally, at the risk of sounding like a broken record let me once again vent on the issue of county financing. To put it simply, general revenue is supposed to be used for the general population - something for all taxpayers in general. When the county grants $10 million to a nonprofit agency that serves about 40 percent of the population while ignoring a very similar nonprofit agency that serves about 60 percent of the population, elected representatives of those citizens should take note. (I’m talking to you, members of the County Commission). And when that $10 million underwrites a needless duplication of services without a ”required business plan” (per a county commissioner) outlining how additional services will be staffed and paid for, then taxpayers should take note. 

It’s simply not right that McKamey Center should have to borrow funds for capital needs while HES is enjoying free county money taken from the collective purse. The county shouldn’t play favorites with general revenue. 

Going forward from today, even with this unnecessary duplication and football rivalry, there are ways to secure greater unity and efficiency - but that’s a topic for a later time.

Ron Littlefield

* * *

Dear Formerly Honorable Mayor Littlefield,

Your letter was read with interest at our house. However, I still have some questions.

1. Would you please provide instances of this “aggressive behavior” by the dog? If the dog was indeed aggressive, as you and the director claim, why was she, the dog that is, playing in the play area with other dogs? And is aggressive synonymous with cowering, as the dog was when she was dragged to the room?

2. It has been reported that McKamey Animal Shelter has hired a PR firm to deal with the public concerning this tragedy. Is your letter part of that PR campaign?

3. You also mentioned that HES has more funding than McKamey.  Are you advocating a reward for the reprehensible actions taken at McKamey concerning the dog, whose name was Rain, I believe?

4. You mentioned that the new director came with excellent credentials, such as a law degree. Is there a need to defend McKamey, and to have an attorney on staff at all times? 

5. Sorrow and concern for the dog was never mentioned in your letter. You also omitted where a member of the staff was laughing when the dog was killed. Nowhere in your letter did you show any compassion or care about the dog. That is very sad, telling and completely unacceptable. 

6. Your letter claimed that the facility was in excellent shape. From pictures that I have seen on the internet and in interviews, what is your criterion for excellent?

7. You failed to mention the golden retriever who was left to die in the road after the vehicle in which he was riding was stolen. Three hours for response time from McKamey?

8. If a dog is left in a vehicle for eight hours, that is acceptable, according to you?  What are the temperatures for which that is acceptable? Most states and municipalities have specific laws against leaving an animal in a vehicle. 

9. Perhaps the reason that HES is receiving more funds, is that HES is doing a better job? 

10. There is one education department for the entire county here. There must be other agencies and departments that have only one presence in the entire county, not one for the county and one for the city. I did notice that after many decades, the Hamilton County Education System and Chattanooga Public Schools merged.  In a county of this size, why are there two animal shelters? Would it not be a better use of taxpayer dollars to have one facility? Was your idea of a consolidation for McKamey, the newest animal shelter, to take over HES? 

11. Also not mentioned was the euthanasia rate at McKamey. I have noticed in my reading, that many citizens are under the impression that McKamey is a no kill shelter. Why have the citizens not been made aware of this fact? 

12. You defended the manner in which the dog caught. Have you or the director at McKamey ever had a catch pole demonstrated on you and had it caught in your mouth, and been dragged by one?

13. Your letter stated that you received a tour of the facility with the director. Did you speak with any other workers at the facility? Did you reach out to former workers at the facility to understand better their concerns, and, yes, their heartbreak?

14. You state in your letter that you called McKamey and requested a visit to the facility. You were able to communicate with the director, something that many respondents have not been able to do, or to even visit the facility. It appears that rank was pulled. Many respondents online have noted that the director has not returned their phone calls. 

Ellen Hicks

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