What Happened in Moore County

Moore County, North Carolina, is located about an hour southwest of Raleigh and is known for its golf courses. Two years ago Moore County did a nationwide search for a new shelter director after problems surfaced with the old management. They hired Brenda Sears, who had a good track record as a shelter official in Asheville. (For those of you who are not familiar with the Asheville shelter, it is a tremendous No Kill success story in North Carolina.) In the two years since Sears was hired she has made progress at the Moore County shelter. According to North Carolina state statistics the save rate for cats went from 19% in 2013 to 44% in 2015 and the save rate for dogs went from 44% to 77%. Those save rates are still bad, but if the rapid upward trend continues Moore County will be at or close to No Kill within a couple of years.

At a meeting last Tuesday the chairman of the board of commissioners for Moore County brought up the subject of personal attacks they and Sears have been experiencing from animal advocates who feel that progress is not being made fast enough. A recent news report described an onslaught of insults and even threats that county employees have been receiving from animal advocates. County officials are frustrated that the substantial progress they have made has not made any difference in the criticism, except possibly to make it worse. The county chairman expressed his frustration in very plain language:  “ISIS doesn’t talk about Americans the way some of these people talk about our animal control director,” he said.

This is unfortunately not an unusual situation. A new director comes in and starts making progress, but criticism by advocates continues because they think change is not fast enough. The critics not infrequently wish bodily harm on the shelter director or shelter workers. In general this appears to be social media venting, but it is understandable that officials find it upsetting.

What happened next, though, was unusual. The Moore County chairman asked the county manager to explore getting out of the animal sheltering business entirely. It wasn’t because they were unhappy with Sears’ work – they believe she has been doing a fine job. It was because of the criticism. As the chairman said: “If we can’t solve the problem, let’s give the problem to them. Make sure we find a place for the employees, who do a good job, other employment, and get out of the animal sheltering business and let the private sector handle it.”

The county would save $800,000 per year by doing only the things that are required by state law, which (as described to the council by an expert) are rabies control and management of dangerous dogs. As for everything else, which would presumably include accepting owner surrenders and housing and rehoming unclaimed strays, as well as veterinary care and behavior rehabilitation, the chairman said: “Maybe this is something the private sector needs to do and let them take care of it. Then if they make a mistake, they can talk with themselves.” The commissioners are studying the issue and will decide this fall whether to retrench shelter operations and possibly even shut down the shelter.

Moore County unfortunately appears to have every right to get out of animal sheltering and do only minimal animal control as required by state law. Animal control, defined as protecting people from dangerous or nuisance animals, has been recognized as a core function of state governments since the 1800s. States generally delegate that function to the cities and counties, and that is why communities have animal control officers who have police powers. Once animals are off the street and not threatening or annoying humans, it is not a core function of state or local governments to make sure that those animals find new homes.

Some states have passed laws requiring local governments to maintain some shelter functions. In Virginia, for example, each city or county is required to maintain a shelter for confinement of dogs running at large without tags. States may have other rules, such as requiring humane methods of euthanasia, or requiring veterinary care for sick animals within a certain time frame. State legislatures can strengthen or weaken such requirements as they choose, but there is no state in the country where the law provides that animals have an inherent right to life. Every state has provisions making animal cruelty a crime, and enforcement of animal cruelty laws is often delegated to animal control officers, but anti-cruelty laws do not provide animals with a right to life.

Animals are property under the law. The duties of government run to persons, not property. This is why anti-cruelty laws have often been justified not on the ground of averting harm to animals, but on the ground that people harm themselves when they engage in animal cruelty. It’s easy for a state to justify laws about traffic safety, restaurant sanitation, licensing of doctors, etc., because those laws are all designed to benefit people. It’s difficult for legislators to justify laws requiring preservation of the lives of homeless, unclaimed shelter animals, because there is no obvious benefit to the public in spending tax dollars to maintain the existence of property owned by the state that has negligible monetary value.

Some No Kill proponents compare advocacy for shelter reform to social justice movements such as the historic fights for racial and gender equality. However, such comparisons are false in the eyes of the law. Social justice movements are about achieving equal treatment of various categories of human beings, who are universally recognized in our legal system as having fundamental rights of personhood. Animals, since they are not “persons,” have no fundamental rights. In order to make the analogy to civil rights movements meaningful, we would first have to change our law to recognize a legal personhood for animals.

Perhaps some day in the future our legal system may make a seismic shift and confer fundamental rights on animals equivalent to the legal status of personhood. But don’t hold your breath. If fundamental rights were conferred on animals there would be no more bacon and eggs, no leather shoes, no horseback riding, no zoos, and no more testing of medical therapies on animals. Many No Kill advocates (myself included) are animal-rights supporters and vegans, and we would like nothing better than to see an amendment to the federal constitution conferring the fundamental rights of personhood on animals. But if we took a vote on it right now in the United States probably 99% of people would vote against extending fundamental rights to animals.

The lesson from what has happened in Moore County is that advocacy efforts that focus solely on forcing local governments to change the way they operate public shelters can backfire. And that is because the primary duty of local governments is to protect people from animals, not to find live outcomes for unclaimed shelter animals.

The fact that government’s core duty is animal control and not animal sheltering is the reason why public-private partnerships are so common in animal shelter operations. There is great synergy in having private shelters work with government animal-control operations. In those partnerships the local government operates (or funds) at least the core functions of animal control and return-to-owner. The private organizations do all the lifesaving functions that local government does not do. The very first animal shelter in the United States was founded by a women’s SPCA in Philadelphia in 1870 for the purpose of replacing a cruel city animal control system. The women took over both animal control and sheltering and were reimbursed by the city for the animal control costs. One of their first tasks was to fight and defeat the medical establishment of the city, which wanted the right to take unclaimed dogs for medical experiments.

Today we see variations on the Philadelphia model (minus the fight with vivisectionists) in many of the large cities that have achieved and sustained No Kill. A private organization may contract with a county to do animal sheltering while the county does animal control, as in DeKalb County, Georgia. Or a private organization may do both animal control and sheltering and be reimbursed by the local government for part of the costs, as in Fulton County, Georgia. Another very successful public-private model is for a city-run shelter to do both animal control and sheltering, but to arrange with a large non-profit rescue partner to pull at-risk animals. This is possibly the most common model we see today in large cities that are sustaining very high rates of shelter lifesaving, such as Austin and Jacksonville. It is also the model used in the first major No Kill community, San Francisco. In this model the city agrees to go beyond its core functions and fund part of the lifesaving operation by having its own adoption facility and doing at least some veterinary care and rehabilitation. Public-private partnerships exist in small towns and rural counties as well as big cities, but the partnership is usually more informal and consists of rescues pulling at-risk animals.

Quite often we see people complaining that their local public shelter is increasing its live release rate by increasing the number of animals it transfers to rescues rather than increasing its adoptions. This complaint has been made about New York City, San Antonio, and many other city shelters. The critics argue that the shelter should be doing its own adoptions rather than “dumping” animals on rescues, and that government shelters that rely on rescues for lifesaving are not doing their job. These critics fail to realize the limited scope of a local government’s duties to homeless animals. They also fail to understand that if the private sector assumes some or all of the responsibility of rehoming, that can free the local government to do a better job on its core functions of animal control and return-to-owner.

There are cases where a public shelter is treating the animals in its care with negligence or cruelty. And sometimes local governments arbitrarily refuse offers of help from volunteers and rescues. Those situations usually seem to occur in rural, less progressive, low-income areas where the local government is not functioning very well at anything. Such situations do not appear to be common, but there are thousands of public shelters in the United States. If even one out of fifty of those shelters is abusive or refuses outside help, that adds up to a lot of shelters. A fast way to improve such shelters would be for the private sector to step in and take animals as soon as the hold period is up, and offer veterinary help for animals who need it during the hold period. The problem is that in resource-poor communities the private sector is typically just as impoverished and lacking in skills as the local government. Often what we see in such cases is a few volunteers who have tried to help the shelter but who do not have the resources to offer a true partnership.

No Kill advocates tend to see shelter reform as a difficult struggle, and it is. But No Kill is in a much better position to make progress than other animal-rights endeavors such as the effort to improve conditions for farm animals. We are not in the position of factory-farm opponents who have to fight the power of a gigantic, wealthy, politically connected industry. There is no industry that has a financial stake in shelter animals dying rather than going to good homes. All we have to do to achieve No Kill is to reform shelters, and offers from the private sector to pay for and carry out shelter lifesaving are generally met with little resistance. We are very fortunate that the power to help shelter animals is in our own hands. We may not have the power to force local governments to do the work of shelter lifesaving, but we can do it ourselves and very often local governments will help us.

18 thoughts on “What Happened in Moore County

  1. Kim K

    There was lots left out of this article such as kicking volunteers out when they reported an animal getting hosed, all volunteers were restricted from shelters. Yes those that had been walking dogs and helping socialize cats for years. The new director was very excitedly anticipated until she put the shelter on lock down. Most shelters allow you to view animals and have animal housing in view as you walk in. Any shelter that duct tapes windows so the view to what is going on behind closed doors leaves one with the impression there is something to be hidden. When only a handful of volunteers are allowed to return, but must sign a waiver not to discuss anything they saw in the shelter that’s also concerning.
    To shut down volunteeers to photograph animals but have to be approved of what is in the background, keep a networking page open, all very concerning. We know the backbone of progressive sheltering is confident leadership with a large volume of volunteers. Those models have proven true across NC, Wake, Nash County, Durham, Orange County. There’s no them and us in those models. There is volunteer training and an open door policy to discuss concerns without retribution. Shame on Moore County to have such a budget spent on salary and a year later can’t sit down with a shelter and volunteer task force to not create the wheel but welcome a unified approach to sheltering rather than chastise the invested community and ban volunteers. There’s two sides to every story, and the middle ground hasn’t been revealed. As for those numbers, one would hope they would improve after going from no leadership to a director that came from a very positive role model that does not operate by the means this shelter is now operating. A County in NC that actually has financial means and public interest in supporting progressive sheltering is broken down to a rabies control unit? In my opinion, the volunteers are bullied and not welcomed, those being rescued are from the same volunteers banned from volunteering in the volunteer shut down. Perhaps the commissioners should ask what is going on behind those locked down doors rather than closing those doors to create contention that has never been so strained, because the public has been bullied against the wall, now the animals of Moore County are being punished.

  2. Susan Houser Post author

    There are always two sides to a story, and I believe the volunteers are sincere in their feelings. That does not excuse making threats against the shelter director and trashing everyone on social media. Not saying you are one of the ones doing that, but when that kind of thing happens it really destroys the credibility of the whole group. What you don’t mention in your comment is that since Sears started the cat save rate has gone from 19% to 44% and the dog save rate has gone from 44% to 77%. Whatever she’s doing, it seems to be working. Don’t you think you guys should give her some time and see if the improvement continues? I do not think volunteers should have to sign a vow of silence, but if the volunteers are threatening people, then how can you expect her to welcome you with open arms? Relationships are a two-way street. What I’m seeing, as a person who is not involved with either side of this debate, is a director who is making a lot of progress under difficult circumstances, opposed by volunteers who think she should be doing what they want, not what she thinks is best. She is the one in charge, and as long as what she’s doing is improving things (% of animals getting out alive), shouldn’t you guys welcome the success and get on board to make it even better?

  3. Kim K

    I’ve absolutely not threatened anyone, nor affiliated with anyone who would threaten a shelter director, I have a great deal of respect for their work, it’s not an easy job by any means. We still dodge why in a year and half the shelter remains on volunteer lock down because valid concerns were raised.
    As for the stats, they were mentioned, improvement with comparison to prior lacking leadership, is comparing apples to oranges, not to mention leaving out returns and ferals. The truth lies in the middle and it’s glaringly obvious mandates denying shelter access and threats to close the Shelter isn’t beneficial to the animals. We are talking about what is best for the animals, not the egos. No I’m not one of those people, my County Shelters have very open lines of communication. So much so we were able to benefit them with over $167,000 in much needed supplies for the Shelter because we support the shelter and staff and want them to have the supplies and volunteers to make their jobs easier.
    Again, as in other shelters that welcome and encourage volunteers and fostering, what’s behind those doors that isn’t welcoming? Moore County residents vocalized relief to hear this position was to be filled by someone coming from progressive sheltering as in Asheville. But the red flags popped up when animals would no longer be socialized or get weekend out of kennel time that volunteers were asking for as they’d done it for years? The divide when volunteers are banned out for reporting seeing staff hosing kennels with dogs in them. A confident director wouldn’t remove volunteers for these reports, they’d say thank you, I’m getting familiar with the staff and we need to address what you saw and review protocols. No one is asking for heads on a platter. No one would personally blame her, it’s not her job to be on the kennels her entire day, and she inherited the good with the bad in employees. This is the launching pad to distrust by responding to concerns by slamming the door.
    Both would be beneficial to each other with an open trusting relationship. Surely you don’t believe progressive sheltering doesn’t include volunteers and networking?
    Those actions of vocalizing concern on social media and in County Commissioners meetings are first Ammendment rights, not rules to volunteer or get the ax. When volunteers arent given a forum to discuss concerns with the director, its obvious social media is where they will turn. Is that not what this blog is in itself? Negative social media comments is a self created monster by refusing to allow any other avenue of communication. I’d be interested in seeing public records of threats of bodily harm. If there are threats made they should be dealt with on an individual basis. A nurse who gets fired for giving the wrong medication or insubordination doesn’t get the entire hospital of nurses fired with her.
    The only threats I hear are by the County Board of Commissioners who for some reason themselves can’t ask for a task force to unite the Shelter Staff and volunteers, bottom line punishing the animals. That’s why the entity exists, to mediate between County and it’s branches that interact with the public, not to destroy the system with one punitive bomb. These are adults, most over fifty years old, I’d expect respectful dialogue could well represent the animals better than building more walls.

  4. Susan Houser Post author

    You say you are not asking for Sears’ head on a platter, but it’s sure looking like that will be the effect of your actions. Once the county shelter is shut down you and the other volunteers can start your own shelter and find out first hand how well your ideas work in practice. You’ve had an opportunity to express yourself at length on my blog, and you are saying a lot of stuff that I have no way of fact-checking, so fair warning that I’m not going to continue to post your accusations on this article.

  5. Jennifer Chopping

    The first day on the job Brenda killed a dog tagged with my rescue’s name on it. No phone call or email just decided to kill it
    Brenda isn’t lowering rates. She is hiding her numbers. Animals that don’t enter the system never existed and therefore the numbers are better
    Euthanasia is reality. I don’t think that’s what advocates are against. It’s the treatment of the animals. Animals needing medical attention and Brenda doesn’t get them to the vet. It’s her putting Heartworm positive dogs to sleep bc she says they are unadoptable.
    On another note she came in and duct taped the windows so people could not see what was happening in the back. Before she arrived certain people were allowed in holding so we could see all the animals and pull what we could save rather than just the animals in viewing. She dismantled the volunteer program. She told the few that came in to take professional pictures of the shelter animals that they were not needed anymore.
    Brenda’s hasn’t helped the numbers. Rescues have helped the numbers. They adopt animals to whoever walks through the door. No questions asked. How about the house with 4 shelter dogs tied up to trees with no housing in sight. Did Brenda care? Nope just wanted to make her numbers look good.

  6. JRussell

    Perhaps, Ms. Houser, you could collect the data necessary from the Shelter which would bring into focus how their ‘save rates’ have increased so dramatically over the past two years. I think it would be rather interesting to know that the save rates are coming from rescue organizations pulling animals almost daily to prevent them from being killed (yes, it is a High Kill Shelter) – especially those animals who may be challenged by any disease that the shelter determines is ‘untreatable’ (*cough* heartworm positive, etc.).

    I challenge you to request a breakdown of their ‘save rate’ data, and then try to defend Mrs. Spears’ record of improvement at the shelter. If it was not for the rescue organizations in our region, those rates would not look the same that you are sharing with the public here.

  7. Vicki Perry

    Ms. Houser, you apparently are terribly misinformed. I have no idea who Kim K. is as I am in the very early stages of becoming involved with the animals so I’m by no means showing favoritism. I will say, from all information I’ve been able to grasp over a fairly lengthy period of time, everything about the Moore County Shelter is wrong. By burying their heads in the sand, the county powers that be are only pouting like children. They apparently would rather sweep the entire mess under the rug rather than deal with it. What is the problem with people working together? You say there is no state in the country that says animals have an inherent right to life? I guess we all should be saying our goodbyes. Last time I checked, we too are animals.

  8. Caitlin R

    With all due respect, Susan, the county manager compared volunteers to ISIS. Terrorists. He compared us to those who have declared war on the US, our way of life, our citizens. I would say that is quite an insult and a threat if know how most Amercians feel those terrorists should be treated. He clearly has declared war on us.

    I’m not sure how that is not doing the same of what he has accused others of doing. Perhaps he feels threatened by the reception he has received after voicing similar threats before any of this backlash took place. He wants out of the shelter business, because it is just that to him. A business. I was told way before the hostility ensued that it was luxury for those who feel neglected animals should have a chance of life, not a part of the duties he is obligated to fulfill by the county.

    The animals are not being saved due to the county’s progress or that of any one person such as Brenda, or Wayne, or any singular volunteer for that matter. Despite their attempts to hide what they can from the public and to silence any and all opposition as they view it, it is the refusal of the volunteers to allow animals they love to be sacrificed. It is partnering with rescues across the county and beyond to ensure their safety. It is the time, money, and attitude to stay the course by those dedicated volunteers that makes a difference. I know that is why the numbers have improved. We band together, put aside our differences (believe me, we all have our own ideas of how things should be handled), and work to save as many as we can. We are educated. We have good ideas. And we have experience in fields that are of use if they weren’t so afraid of losing control and the credit for the saves.

    To save Moore County animals, we need leadership, not a regime which rules by fear. Dare I compare that type of rule to ISIS? No. Because I believe those fighting that level of extremists deserve much more respect than to be compared to simple minded, small town politics.

  9. Tammy

    Interesting article, lots to think about as those of us interested in the No Kill movement forge ahead.

    I would like to go a step further on Kim K’s argument about not comparing apples to apples. I think before our commissioners and shelter director pat themselves on the back for declining numbers, one has to be given access to the real numbers. The term “adoptable” has never been defined publically nor does it have a formal process by which to determine animals that are and aren’t suitable for adoptions. HW+ dogs are not considered adoptable and are no longer available to the general public. Unless a rescue commits to them, they are euthanized. Likewise cats with URIs. Moore County is no longer trapping cats, local rescues are tasked to that. That change alone is substantial when discussing intake numbers. Calls to help dogs and cats in the field are not answered by ACOs as quickly as in previous years leaving concerned citizens to broker the surrender of abused and neglected animals. The numbers of animals aided by local rescues and well intending taxpayers is staggering and lowers the numbers of animals ending up in the shelter tremendously.

    So while I think some good is happening in Moore County I also know that the reduction in intake and euthanasia numbers is very misleading (intentionally, I’m sure?) and should not be taken at face value.

  10. Vee Sutherland

    You can easily fact check by talking to several of the advocates. As I said in my email to you, I will be happy to give you a list.

    Are you interested in learning more about the situation?

  11. Reverend Cynthia Freeman

    I am a Presbyterian minister who USED to volunteer at Moore County Animal Center. I quit after one week of Brenda Sears being hired into position of director. We, (the volunteers) were all so hopeful about her being hired and excited to work with her. The first decision she made after being hired was for the dogs to no longer be walked and allowed outside to go to the restroom on weekends and holidays. First decision made in less than the first week, with numerous volunteers willing to give up their weekends and holidays to make sure the animals were taken care of. I realize there are many levels and shades of animal neglect but personally, I find this one to be a very gray area since many of the dogs coming in are owner surrender and are house trained. Therefore, they wait until taken outside to do their ‘business.’ Nothing like waiting 2-3 days. If that was her best decision for her first week, I did not want to be a part of it. I had already witnessed enough abuse from the last regime.

    I have worked in rescues for over 16 years in 4 different counties and 3 different states and not once have I been in a shelter that does not allow the public and/or volunteers access to holding. Not only does the public and/or volunteers not have access to the holding area, the windows both inside and outside have been boarded up with cardboard so no one is allowed to look in the room. Makes me kind of wonder what’s so important to hide. If fear of a dog (possibly with rabies) is such a concern for the safety of volunteers and the public, I have to wonder how a dog can possibly bite through a thick wooden door with a window on the top half.

    The last issue I would address is the asinine remark made by Nick Picerno, Moore County Commissioner Chairman. In a community of soldiers and their families, including Rangers, Delta Force, etc., I find it disrespectful and denigrating to compare the voice of ISIS to the voice of animal advocates in Moore County, NC. In a county where our soldiers are ACTUALLY threatened, killed, maimed and more (not to mention what is said and done in areas such as Turkey, Syria, etc.), how insulting for Commissioner Picerno to even make the comparison. Instead of using his quote for a paper of this type, I would think embarrassment and humiliation would make one want to hide and bury that remark!

  12. Susan Houser Post author

    See my response below, but my blog post was not about the volunteers’ complaints – it was about the extent of a local government’s duty to run an animal shelter.

  13. Susan Houser Post author

    I’ve allowed all the volunteers who have written in to have their say, so here is my 2 cents. After this no further comments will be posted unless they say something new that adds to the discussion. Here are my thoughts:

    1. My blog post was not about the specific complaints that volunteers have with the Moore County shelter. It was about the powers and duties that local governments have as to homeless animals. So, for those of you saying I need to talk to more people or do more research or find out if they are faking their stats, no, I don’t.

    2. That said, it appears to me, based on all the volunteer comments, that what happened in Moore County was that volunteers were basically operating without rules before Sears arrived, and the resentment is stemming from them having rules imposed on what was previously left to their own discretion. In my experience of volunteering at several municipal shelters, it is far from unusual for volunteers to have assigned hours, assigned duties, and restrictions as to what part of the shelter they have access to.

    3. In looking at the volunteer’s specific complaints, I can think of valid reasons why shelter management would do what Moore County officials are alleged to have done. As to covering windows, that could have been done for safety (was it breakable glass, or an easy entry point for a burglar?), security (to keep people from looking in and identifying the location of a confiscated dog, or dogs that could be stolen and used in dogfighting), or simply to keep the sun off the animals (NC afternoon sun on a bank of cat cages – ouch). As to not having volunteers at the shelter in off hours, there are safety and liability reasons that such a policy might make sense. As for animals not being exercised, that is a he-said, she-said.

    4. As for the more general complaints, it sounds to me like Sears may simply be trying to institute best practices. Such as the new community cat paradigms, and relying more heavily on rescues (if you read the blog post I explain why I think reliance on rescues in a good thing). Again, it is not my place to make value judgments about this particular situation, because I used Moore County to illustrate the limits of government duties in sheltering, not as a commentary on the wisdom or lack of same on county shelter policies.

    5. It’s interesting that the commenters here are not taking any responsibility for what county officials describe as a barrage of insults and threats.

    6. It’s also interesting that very little acknowledgement has been made of the improved live release rate. The volunteers seem very focused on their grievances rather than on the big picture.

  14. Jennifer Chopping

    You should get your facts straight before you print an article. Your delusional view is irritating to me, someone who devotes their life to saving lives.
    Is it breakable glass??? Seriously??? Access for a burglar??? Really???

  15. Susan Houser Post author

    I wonder if this comment is more typical of what county officials have been receiving than the more restrained comments I’ve been receiving previously.

  16. Josiah Humphrys

    A public health emergency in Moore County would require the help of many people. Large-scale incidents like hurricanes or a pandemic might overwhelm the Health Department staff quickly.

  17. Colleen

    I tend to agree with you Susan. The bottom line in ALL animal shelters is getting the animals out alive!! Every single one! Isn’t that the whole point?

  18. Colleen

    Most interesting Vicky, as which my sentiments exactly. The world consists of 3 things…animal, plant and mineral. Last time I checked humans were animals. Why is there so much confliction going on when we all have the same goal to accomplish? Saving animals from harm? (Harm; which is indicated such as pain and death from humans and/or diseases etc). I have yet to hear of any animal abusive rights advocates! What is really going on? Could all of this conflict just come down to the typical problem too many people have with other people? Money, possibly? Why do humans turn everything into complicated messes?

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