Heartsong Animal Rescue and CSRA Happy Tails Rescue Inc. claim that the county-run animal shelter does not provide proper medical care to dogs and cats, mistreats some of them and fails to do enough to save them from euthanization.
County officials, however, dispute those claims. They say county taxpayers already spend about $26,000 a year to accommodate rescue groups by holding animals an extra five days before they are collected and put in foster care. The expense the county would incur by holding animals indefinitely would be too large a financial burden, Columbia County Commissioner Tommy Mercer said.
Barbara Gleitsmann, a co-founder and president of CSRA Happy Tails Rescue Inc., said she once rescued from Animal Control a husky that lost an eye because of a lack of medical treatment. She also said she once saved a pointer mix so malnourished she could see its ribs and spine through its coat.
"If I had done that as a private citizen I would have been cited for animal cruelty," Ms. Gleitsmann said.
Erik Emmons, of Heartsong Animal Rescue, said he once saved a dog with a broken leg that had received no treatment from animal control.
County officials said sick animals are euthanized to prevent the spread of disease, but that workers make every effort to treat animals for injuries.
Mr. Mercer says the heart of the matter is that the rescue groups want the county to operate a no-kill shelter.
Euthanization is a last resort, but sometimes necessary, Mr. Mercer said.
"The stress of doing that on the staff is phenomenal and for them (rescue groups) to come up and get on them for euthanizing animals adds to the stress," he said. "These people are unbearable."
Animal Care and Control Manager Linda Fulmer agrees with Mr. Mercer's assessment that sometimes euthanization is unavoidable.
Officers must respond to all calls and often have to pick up sick, injured, aggressive, feral or otherwise unadoptable animals, Ms. Fulmer said.
"Rescue groups get to pick and choose what they get," she said. "It would be a lot easier on me, my staff, if we didn't have to euthanize. Unfortunately, the numbers that we pick up are much higher than even what these rescue groups can do because there is only so many kennels in which to put these animals."
Donna Evans, the president of Columbia County Humane Society, said a no-kill shelter would be wonderful, but she understands why it is not a reality.
"They have a different mission than we do (as a rescue group)," Ms. Evans said. "Our big thing is, like all rescue groups, you wish they could keep them indefinitely. Guess what? They can't. They have to take everything that comes through the door. And when you have to do that, you don't have the room."
Ms. Gleitsmann said she has volunteered to find other shelters for animals, including numerous breed-specific shelters, but was turned away. She said animal control personnel often turn to euthanization without adequately seeking alternatives.
"There are people willing to assist, but the door is closed," she said.
Ms. Fulmer said that isn't true.
When an animal is brought into the shelter, it is held for five days to give its owner an opportunity to reclaim it. It is then put up for adoption. Information on adoptable and healthy animals the public has not shown interest in are e-mailed to area rescue groups and any local and out-of-the-area breed-specific groups, Ms. Fulmer said.
"We actually call or e-mail other breed-specific rescues for them to come get (the animal)," she said. "So we do that also to try to get them out of here. We'd much rather them go out the front door, adopted to a good home."
Both Mr. Emmons and Ms. Gleitsmann said they've complained about the conditions at the county shelter to the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees government-run shelter operations.
However, according to recent reports, the Department of Agriculture gave Animal Care and Control a passing grade, as did a Columbia County grand jury. Though Mr. Mercer had considered getting an independent group to conduct an inspection of animal control facilities, he has since backed off, saying the state and county reports are enough.
"We don't get any ... calls about animal control," he said. "Nobody complains about them but these rescue groups."
Mr. Emmons said he doubts those complaints will cease until county officials replace Ms. Fulmer, which Mr. Mercer said won't happen. However, if the groups can engage in "honest discussion" and "trust-building measures," Ms. Gleitsmann said she believes common ground can be found.
"It's game playing, and animals are lost because of it," she said. "We can do better."
Reach Donnie Fetter or Valerie Rowell at (706) 868-1222, or firstname.lastname@example.org.