Cabarrus County is responding to growing concern about the county's animal shelter and mounting pressure to address high euthanasia rates.
At the center of the debate is Jeff Daniels, the Concord owner of Bella, a pit bull shot by an animal control officer in April, and supporters of Justice for Bella, the group of animal advocates spurred to action by the incident.
Six Justice for Bella supporters spoke at the Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners July 19 meeting, advocating for total reform of the county's animal control department.
They spoke about high euthanasia rates, their hope to replace gas-chamber euthanasia with lethal injection and some animal control officers' lack of training.
Between July 2009 and June 2010, Cabarrus County Animal Control euthanized about 79 percent of the animals that came into its shelter. That's 2,962 cats and dogs.
But animal control officials and local animal rescue leaders say the root of the problem is animal overpopulation and irresponsible pet owners who do not spay and neuter their animals. Daniels has called these explanations "myths."
"The residents, taxpayers and voters of this county want change," said Daniels. "They want change that should have been sought without having to resort to public outcry."
On April 29, a woman in the Ridge Crossing subdivision off Pitt School Road called her neighbor, who is a sheriff's deputy, for help after she said two dogs were loose and behaving aggressively toward her and her son. The deputy called 911, prompting sheriff's Deputy Sean Austin, who works with the animal control department, to respond.
One dog was easily picked up, but after several attempts to catch 4-year-old Bella, Austin shot and killed the dog.
Austin shot the dog after other law enforcement officers told him it had acted aggressively toward them, Animal Control Sgt. Bryan Archer told The Charlotte Observer the day after the incident.
But Daniels, who explained that his two pit bulls had slipped through an opening in his fence, said Bella was never aggressive. He said the officer told him he shot Bella because he chased her for 20 minutes and didn't want to pursue her anymore.
Responding to public outcry, commissioners asked county attorney Rich Koch to make an independent investigation . His report, released during a May 27 news conference, said Austin did not violate the state's animal cruelty statute nor the county's animal control ordinance.
Since then, Daniels and his fiancee, Jessica Juba, have expanded their fight, shifting from denouncing animal control for what happened to Bella to calling for reform of the department. They launched a website, www.justiceforbella.org.
Speaking to commissioners last week, Daniels said the news conference only left more questions.
"To this day, rather than provide those answers or follow through with promises that were made, we have all heard excuses," said Daniels. Commissioners declined to comment on the Bella incident at their June meeting after several Justice for Bella supporters spoke during the public comment period. Chairman Jay White said they were acting on advice from their attorney not to speak because of the possibility of a lawsuit.
At the May 27 news conference, Daniels said his family was consulting lawyers. But Daniels said last week that he had no plans to file a lawsuit.
Daniels and his supporters have shifted their attention to changing the department's policies on everything from adoption procedures to euthanasia techniques.
"I don't think there's anybody up here that disagrees that 80 percent is too much," said Commissioner Bob Carruth, motioning to fellow commissioners. "It's not acceptable."
Wearing a bracelet that read "RIP Bella," Daniels advocated for the no-kill equation, a framework supported by the No Kill Advocacy Center that he claims has worked in about 50 communities across the nation.
"We're not going to stop," said Daniels. "We're going to continue this fight because it is right."
Speaking to commissioners, some of the Justice for Bella supporters compared the Cabarrus shelter's euthanasia rate to that of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control shelter.
Nearly 65 percent of animals that came into the Charlotte shelter between July 2009 and June 2010 were euthanized, compared to about 79 percent at the Cabarrus shelter during the same time period.
But Lt. David Taylor, administrator of animal control for the Cabarrus County's Sheriff's Office, said the counties' rates should not be compared. Mecklenburg County has more funding and more staff, as well as a much higher volume of animals to handle, he said.
Although the Charlotte shelter's euthanasia rate is lower, that shelter put down 12,823 animals from July 2009 to June 2010, whereas Cabarrus County euthanized 2,962 animals.
Cabarrus County's euthanasia rate is high, admitted Taylor, but he attributed the numbers to people who do not spay and neuter their pets and people who simply give up their animals, which has become more common since the economy declined.
"I would love to be able to have the room, space and resources to save more animals," said Taylor. "I don't know where those resources are, and these people that say they will take them. I wish they'd step up."
None of the Justice for Bella supporters attended the meeting of the Cabarrus County Animal Protection and Preservation Advisory Committee, which also met last week.
The committee, made up of animal advocates and officials, was assembled in the mid-2000s to address animal overpopulation in the county.
Carruth, a member of the committee, said that since the group began its work, the number of animals coming into Cabarrus County Animal Control has decreased significantly, but the department is still euthanizing a high number of animals.
At the committee meeting, Carruth presented the idea of a no-kill shelter program, which calls for a network of rescue groups and people willing to provide foster care.
But no-kill doesn't mean no euthanasia, he said. The goal would be to categorize animals as adoptable or unadoptable and then adopt 100 percent of the adoptable animals.
He said many elements are in place in Cabarrus County, including a trap, neuter and release program for feral cats.
He said the county should consider initiating a "proactive redemption" policy, which is a focused effort to reunite stray animals with owners, and hire an adoption director.
The adoption director would be a paid position to assess animals and work with rescue groups to increase adoption rates.
Taylor, also a member of the committee, said he's concerned that the number of unwanted animals might inhibit a no-kill shelter program. The state regulates the number of animals a shelter can hold based on space, he said.
Some committee members said they suspected that more space at the county shelter would be necessary for the program to work.
The committee also discussed the possibility of pet licensing, a license and fee required of pet owners that would help defray the cost of the shelter and the adoption director.
Carruth said he expects commissioners to discuss the issue at their Aug. 2 work session.