An animal control officer’s decision last week to use a catchpole to drag a cowering dog into the room where it was to be euthanized has led to the resignations of several employees – some of whom had cared for the dog – and propelled McKamey Animal Center officials into action aimed at preventing such incidents in the future.
Executive Director Inga Fricke, caught in the center of the turmoil, said she understands why employees who watched as the dog struggled frantically are so upset.
A catchpole is a long rod with a loop attached at the end. When it is used to restrain an animal, the loop is placed around the animal’s head so it cannot get away.
Watching one being used “isn’t pretty,” Ms.
That’s an understatement, according to employees who observed the incident.
“An animal control officer went to grab a dog who was happily playing outside in a yard next to her friends,” Adriane Gutillo reported in a widely circulated email. “He used a catchpole unnecessarily... One caretaker said to him ‘she doesn’t need that. She is sweet and I can just leash her.’ The officer blatantly ignored her and proceeded toward the dog, who was now terrified and cowering in fear. He attempted to slip the loop over her neck and it got caught in her mouth...ripping her mouth open...Dragged her all the way to the euthanasia room like this...It was one of the most traumatic and inhumane things any of us had ever seen."
Further, she said, after the incident “another staff member walked past the euthanasia room while this officer and another were in there killing this sweet dog, and heard nothing but laughter.”
According to Ms. Fricke, the officer’s actions violated no protocols because, on paper, the dog had a history of aggression.
However, she added quickly, other less traumatic methods of restraint obviously could have been used. For example, she said, the officer could have asked an employee the dog knew and trusted to put it on a leash and let it walk.
As soon as she heard about the incident, she said, she met with animal control personnel to review policies and make clear everyone understands how animals are to be handled.
Official, And Nonofficial, Responses
Members of McKamey’s board of directors, who brought Ms. Fricke on board early last fall, believe she has the savvy to deal with such situations.
As a nationally recognized animal shelter specialist with many years of experience in shelter administration and management, they said, she was hired specifically to correct the kind of stubborn problems that traditionally plague facilities such as McKamey.
Longtime Chattanooga resident Sonia Young, for example – noting that she has “sat on that board since before it was a board” – said she believes Ms. Fricke is the “best executive director we’ve ever had.”
Further, she said, she is encouraged by changes that already are being made, such as raising the salaries of McKamey employees. Hopefully, she said, that will help eliminate problems with constant turnover.
Lee Towery – the lifelong animal lover who currently chairs the McKamey board – also has faith in the new executive director and believes she has the experience needed to do a good job.
“We are working diligently each and every day to bring MAC into compliance with national standards of care, and to embody best practices in animal welfare,” Ms. Towery said. “We take any allegations involving the treatment of our animals very seriously . . . We assure the public that their trust in McKamey as a safe and humane place for animals and people is not misplaced.”
Some longtime McKamey supporters, however, were troubled.
For example, former Mayor Ron Littlefield – who led Chattanooga’s effort to build the new state-of-the-art city animal shelter more than a decade ago – said he was “surprised and shocked” when he heard about the alleged incident.
“McKamey was built to address this very kind of problem (which was then occurring at the Humane
Society),” he recalled. “I suspect there’s maybe a little overstatement here, but it needs to be investigated.”
To get more information, he said, he visited McKamey on Wednesday morning.
He saw no obvious problems with the infrastructure, such as broken fences, “that couldn’t be corrected in a couple of weeks,” the former mayor said. He said he also met Ms. Fricke and was impressed, particularly by the fact that she is an attorney with a background in environmental law.
Still, he said, since Chattanooga city government contributes a significant amount of money to help fund McKamey, it would make sense for the city to investigate McKamey “to see if taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely.”
Would-be mayor Tim Kelly – one of two candidates running in next week’s runoff mayoral election – also believes the city should get take a close look at the operation.
“As a family with numerous rescue pets in our household, any instance of animal abuse is abhorrent and demands an investigation,” Mr. Kelly said. “As mayor, I am committed to making sure our city-funded agencies are treating animals humanely. Once in office, our team will review any allegations and act swiftly to correct any issues.”
Disenchantment Among Employees
Among a variety of current and former McKamey employees who have worked hard to bring last week’s botched euthanization to the public’s attention, there is frank skepticism that shelter officials actually will take steps to correct this and a variety of other problems dogging the facility.
Animal caretaker Katie Fetter, for example, said she had worked at McKamey since October. During that time, she said, “(caretakers) kept quitting, and none of them were replaced . . . The fences were broken down . . . We didn’t have the proper equipment, or even proper hoses. I was soaked every day going home from work because all the hoses leaked.”
She witnessed the catchpole incident, she said, and was horrified.
“I’m the one who took that animal outside,” she said. “I worked with her. There were no problems . . . I’m 100 percent sure I could have taken her to the euthanization room with no problem.”
Nevertheless, she said, she came back to work the day after the incident because “the animals still needed to be cared for.”
However, she recalled, the first thing she saw upon her return to McKamey was the animal control officer who had used the catchpole “out in the parking lot, washing his car . . . I knew right then they weren’t going to do anything about it.”
She quit that day, she said.
Ms. Fetter is not the only employee who believes McKamey officials prefer to conceal unpleasant truths and ignore employee suggestions for needed improvements.
Not only are the people who actually care for the animals not brought into the process when decisions are made regarding which dogs should be euthanized, workers said, often they aren’t even told about such decisions until the animals are already dead.
One worker, for example, recalled coming to work soon after she was hired and discovering that one dog was missing.
“I asked what had happened to him,” she said, “and they told me, ‘Oh, he went 4-0-7.’ ”
Room 407 is the place where animals are taken to be euthanized, she explained.
Ms. Gutillo, who distributed the email describing last week’s botched euthanization, said the incident was the “last straw” for her. She quit on the spot.
“I could not be an accomplice to that anymore,” she said.
When she began work at McKamey in August, she recalled, it seemed like a dream come true.
But the dream didn’t last very long.
“People kept quitting,” she said. “Thirteen caretakers in the canine department have quit since November, and none of them were replaced . . . In medical and triage, who administer meds, they’re down to one employee.”
Even more upsetting, she said, there were incidents of animal neglect.
For example, she said, the head animal services officer recently brought in six dogs all together – but only five dogs were taken off the truck and brought into the shelter. The forgotten one spent an entire night in a cramped cage on the truck with no food, water or place to relieve itself.”
Another time, she said, heartworm-positive dogs were placed in small, outdoor, fenced-in areas and left without supervision. “But the fences are broken down, and the dogs can put their heads through the holes and get to the dog next to them (and fight),” she said. “Heartworm-positive dogs are supposed to be kept quiet.”
One dog died in that incident, she recalled.
Despite such problems, she stuck it out, she said. Then came last week’s botched euthanization involving the officer with the catchpole.
“This is the exact opposite of what McKamey is supposed to be,” she said flatly.
Changes, Improvements Planned
Ms. Fricke, the executive director, said it’s not hard to understand why employees such as Ms. Gutillo are so upset.
Watching animals being restrained by catchpoles, she said, “is not pretty . . . (The officer) could have made other less traumatic choices, but he erred on the side of human safety . . . We always want to use the least restrictive possible form of restraint.”
It also doesn’t surprise her, she said, to hear that employees were reportedly laughing while they performed last week’s euthanization.
That fact does not mean they were enjoying what they were doing, she said.
“Euthanizations are the worst part of the job for everybody at McKamey,” according to Ms. Fricke. “It’s incredibly stressful for the euthanization staff . . . (and) one method of coping, to try to relieve the stress, is dark humor . . . Laughing does not mean the employees are cold hearted. It’s a coping mechanism.”
She said she is also familiar with some of the other incidents of alleged neglect that were cited by employees.
For example, she said, in the case of the dog that was left overnight on a truck, the employee responsible began checking the next morning on the animals that had been brought in and soon realized that there was one less dog inside the shelter than there should have been.
The truck was checked and the missing dog was discovered, she said. It was immediately brought into the shelter and checked by the veterinary team, she said. “It was fine.”
The incident “should never have happened,” she said but, to that employee’s credit, the woman immediately came to her and reported what had happened.
“A number of errors happened, but appropriate action was taken the following morning. Human error is going to happen,” Ms. Fricke said.
The incident involving the heartworm-positive dogs evidently happened before she came to McKamey, she said, so she doesn’t know how or why it occurred.
However, she said, both she and members of the McKamey board are fully aware that many repairs and improvements need to be made to the shelter’s fences and other parts of the infrastructure.
“McKamey is over 12 years old,” she noted. “There’s been a lot of wear and tear.”
Recently, to raise the money needed for repairs, she said the board refinanced its mortgage and plans to use the money saved to pay for needed repairs, upgrades and improvements.
Nobody would like to see those kinds of change actually occur more than former and current McKamey workers.
Former canine caretaker Andy Kinter, who quit late last year because he was moving back to North Carolina, said he hopes Ms. Fricke and board members succeed in their battle to improve conditions at McKamey.
“I worked from December 2019 to December 2020, so about a year,” he said. “I enjoyed my job; it was not a bad experience.”
But there were problems, Mr. Kinter noted.
For one thing, he said, “there was lots of turnover . . . There were 10 to 11 caretakers when I started, and by the time I left they were down to five or six.
“Almost every month I would be working with a brand new set of people . . . and there were a few times when people just didn’t show up for work,” he said. “There were four dorms (holding a total of about 150 dogs) and sometimes I would have to take care of all four.”
The fences outside are in poor condition, he said. There were times when maintenance tried to repair them, he noted, but the work that got done was makeshift.
Further, he continued, the water hoses used to help clean at the facility leaked badly.
“They were punctured,” he said, “but they didn’t get replaced. Instead of buying new ones, they would try to fix them with tape.”
However, there were also some improvements over the span of the year he was there, he noted.
For example, he said, when he started the job the areas where animals were kept “weren’t clean . . . Before I left, that turned around.”
He’s hoping current efforts to upgrade and improve McKamey are successful, Mr. Kinter emphasized.
“That facility is needed,” he said. “I don’t want to see it shut down.”