Cheaha Rescue is in the process of finishing a contract to take over Calhoun County Animal Control. The Calhoun County Commission last month approved signing the contract when in final form.
Jane Cunningham, Cheaha’s founder, said the move is overdue after a series of conflicts between the previous Animal Control Advisory Board and different animal rescue groups led many residents to question what’s going on at the county’s animal shelter.
“I just think we weren’t getting the answers we wanted,” Cunningham said about growing frustration with the county’s Animal Control Advisory Board.
Cunningham founded Cheaha Rescue after several meetings earlier this year with the Calhoun County Commission about problems with the previous board, which the commission established in 2012. Cunningham said that during those meetings, the commission decided giving control of the shelter to a nonprofit group was the best way to save the county money.
“We’re able to go and get donations and grants, and things the commission can’t do,” Cunningham said. “It’s a model that other cities have adopted, and it’s been beneficial for everyone.”
Cunningham said the biggest change she wants to bring to County Animal Control is a better relationship with the public. Good or bad, she said, she’d like for residents to know how many animals are euthanized, and for residents to know exactly what animals are being rescued, and which aren’t.
“If people see how many animals are being euthanized and can see their faces that can make a big difference,” Cunningham said. “We just want to be open.”
Attorney Tom Wright, another member of the board, said it’s the goal for the facility to get enough rescuers to essentially become a no-kill shelter.
“I kept hearing from the previous board that it’s impossible to be a no-kill shelter,” Wright said. “That’s not right to me, because that should be your goal. That’s what we want to work towards.”
Cunningham said the group also wants to establish an adoption facility in Oxford that is more inviting and friendly for residents, as well as establish educational programs about the importance of spaying and neutering pets to keep stray populations down.
Cheaha Rescue’s board includes Cunningham, Wright, Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh, Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson, Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge, Oxford dermatologist Shelly Ray, veterinarians Tom Beam and Bill Berry, and Calhoun County District Judge Laura Phillips, and Jefferson County judges Scott Vowell and Niki Still.
“I think it adds legitimacy to this board to see law enforcement officials on it,” Partridge said. “After the problems the shelter had with animal abuse allegations, I think our presence is very important.”
Animal Control and the county’s animal shelter have been a source of controversy for the last two years for the County Commission. In 2012, the Sheriff’s Office investigated the animal shelter on accusations of animal abuse. The investigation led to the formation of the Animal Control Advisory Board in late 2012.
In turn, the county’s recent move to let the nonprofit take over Animal Control has been criticized by most of the previous Animal Control Advisory Board, who resigned in protest. Former chairwoman Janet Odom accused the commission of dirty politics, and former member John Wippler and his wife, Lisa Wippler, said they hope to present their case to the state Attorney General’s Office.
“We just feel like there’s a lot of backroom meetings and deals going on,” Lisa Wippler said. “That’s not what we pay our commission to do.”
Wippler said she was especially frustrated with answers she received from commission Chairman Rudy Abbott, who told her the commission did not need to bid out the contract for Animal Control because it fell under the category of professional services.
“He told us if we were upset we should have bid, and then he said he didn’t need to advertise for bids,” Wippler said. “He kept going back and forth.”
Wippler also questioned Cheaha Rescue’s legitimacy in being able to provide professional services. The group has only recently applied for nonprofit status with the Secretary of State’s office.
Abbott said the commission had done nothing wrong, and county attorney Tom Sowa said Animal Control falls under professional services, and the Attorney General’s Office has ruled that cases such Calhoun County’s are lawful.
“Tom and Ken Joiner don’t let us do anything illegal,” Abbott said, about the county’s attorney and administrator. “We’ve done everything the way we’re supposed to.”
Cunningham said while she had disagreements with the previous board on how services were being handled, ultimately, the two groups want the same thing; to save animals’ lives.
“There were a lot of good people on that board,” Cunningham said. “We just feel like we can do a better job improving conditions.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.