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Pet problems 

Poor communication leaves one dog dead and raises questions about DeKalb Animal Control

On the morning of Nov. 12, Jeanne Zender let Beamer out into the yard, as usual, before leaving to run errands. The Zenders' home, which sits next to the Emory University campus, was under renovation, and the hammering and drilling must have flustered the 15-year-old black lab, Zender says. Because when Zender returned home, Beamer, who always stayed close to the house, was nowhere to be found.

Zender immediately made flyers and visited both DeKalb Animal Control and PAWS of Atlanta, the county's humane society. She was worried; Beamer had just undergone surgery to remove a cancerous part of a tumor on her neck, and as a result, the dog couldn't wear its collar. It wouldn't fit without irritating the wound.

Neither Animal Control nor PAWS had picked up the dog, Zender found, and she says an Animal Control employee told her to call every day to see if any black dogs had been brought in. She also says PAWS took down her information and told her they'd call if an animal showed up fitting Beamer's description.

For the next five days, Zender says, she called Animal Control three times daily to check for Beamer and received a "no black dogs" response. What she didn't know, and would later find out from an employee, was that Beamer had indeed been at Animal Control when she called. And on Beamer's fifth day there, the dog was exterminated.

After Zender learned of Beamer's euthanization, she says she spoke for about an hour with Frank Boldoe, director of DeKalb Animal Control.

"He was patronizing and kept saying this was a sensitivity issue," Zender says. "But it's a policy issue. I don't want this to happen to any other pet owner. That's why I'm making such a big deal out of this."

But Boldoe says he doesn't remember talking to Zender. What's more, he says that if a dog doesn't have tags, it's up to the owner to come down to Animal Control to look at the animals brought in each day. Zender says she was never told of this policy.

Zender's experience illustrates the two faces of DeKalb Animal Control. While its policies state that a person looking for an animal must visit the center each day, its practices suggest that employees are telling citizens merely to call to see if a lost animal has been brought to the kennel. A similar dispute occurred in Fulton County two years ago, when a woman's purebred hunting dogs got loose, were picked up by Fulton Animal Control and were euthanized -- despite the woman's efforts to contact the kennel.

DeKalb Animal Control claims the agency is making improvements; on Dec. 14, the county revised its animal control ordinance for the first time in more than 20 years.

But advocates claim they've hit a brick wall with the county. They say the county commission ignored their requests for specific changes in the ordinance, passing the new law without adopting any of the advocates' suggestions.

The strained relationship between DeKalb County and animal advocates bodes poorly for any changes that would help reunite lost pets with their owners. In Beamer's case, it wasn't just Zender who was trying to do the reuniting. Animal Control allegedly ignored the efforts of the woman who found Beamer, too.

On Nov. 16, Emory graduate student Karolyn Benger was walking to class when she saw an old dog that was confused and "clearly not well," she says. She went over to the animal and stayed with her while a professor went to call the Emory police, who in turn contacted Animal Control. The professor left her name and number with Benger, telling the student that "if the dog didn't have a home, she would take her," Benger says.

Benger says the Animal Control officer took the piece of paper with the professor's information and loaded the dog onto a stretcher. Since Beamer didn't have tags, Animal Control's policy -- as laid out in the county's ordinance -- mandates the dog be kept for five business days before being put to sleep.

The next day, Benger was walking around campus when she spotted one of Zender's flyers. She immediately called Zender and told her Animal Control picked up her dog. And so Zender started calling, repeatedly.

"I was shocked when I found out what had happened," Zender says. "Beamer should be here with me, but because of [Animal Control's] lack of accountability, she's not."

What's more, the county appears to be accepting information -- such as the professor's number -- and discarding it.

"It boggles my mind that Animal Control didn't make use of the number that potentially could've given the dog a home," Benger says. "Why wouldn't they help an animal? Isn't that what they're supposed to do?"

Stacy McDermott, a DeKalb resident who works with the rescue group Dogs Deserve Better, says part of the problem lies in the county's brick-wall stance on the ordinance. DeKalb commissioners hailed the revisions released last week as a sweeping improvement, but McDermott says none of the advocates' pleas, like abolishing chaining and giving animals a minimum square footage to live, were adopted -- despite a public hearing that was arranged for DeKalb citizens to voice their opinion about the eight revisions brought forth by McDermott's group.

"The problem with Animal Control is that they can only enforce what the ordinance says," McDermott says. "Without better rules, we can't expect better work."

McDermott and Zender contend stronger policies could help create a more humane environment for animals in DeKalb County -- and could even work to prevent mishaps like Beamer's death. But they're discouraged and feel that because the county paid so little attention to the community during the revisions, pushing for the type of reforms that could have saved Beamer would be futile.

Instead, Zender has hired an attorney, Craig Henderson. Henderson says he would like to reach a settlement with Animal Control. If that fails, he says, he might file suit against Animal Control and the county.

In Zender's last conversation with Animal Control, she called to ask for Beamer's ashes. She was told she couldn't get them. Beamer had been gassed and frozen, then burned with other animals in a large pile behind the facility.

"Without a better policy, many pet owners might find their animals dead," Zender says. "I don't expect Animal Control to love my dog, but I do expect them to do their job."

alyssa.abkowitz@creativeloafing.com

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