Calls for animal cruelty, shelter overcrowding trouble Tupelo officials

Mar. 18—TUPELO — Walking through the Tupelo-Lee Humane Society, Tupelo Police Department Animal Control Officer Myles Gazaway passes a sea of pop-up kennels filled with dogs.

He stops to pet a handful that he befriended through work. Each dog has a story, and he knows most of them personally, from the young pit bull he rescued that had a bad case of mange to the pair of boxers he put on a 30-day hold for biting a neighbor's dog.

Gazaway has been in law enforcement for four years and has been an animal control officer for about a year. He said before he became one of two animal control officers in the city, he volunteered at the shelter.

"I have a passion for animals and taking them from a bad situation into a good one," he said.

But removing animals from harmful situations has become an increasingly complicated endeavor for Gazaway and other city officials. Overcrowding at the humane society means they can take in fewer dogs and cats, while the number of calls for animal control has been rising.

Uptick in calls of animal cruelty

In the last 14 months, the city received 1,713 calls for animal control. That's an average of about 122 a month, peaking last month with 177 calls. That's up more than 25% from February 2022's 131 calls, and a nearly 37% jump from this January's 112.

Despite the increase in calls, data provided by the city also shows the number of apprehensions has stayed fairly consistent. The average number of monthly apprehensions over the past 14 months was 37; February saw 41 animals seized.

According to Police Chief John Quaka, the issue isn't a sudden increase in animal cruelty, but a rift between how many people perceive animal cruelty and how the state legally defines it.

"We tend to have a very broad view of animal cruelty while the statute is much more specific," Quaka said.

Animal cruelty, as defined by the code of ordinances, is overcrowding, overworking, willfully or maliciously torturing, tormenting, beating, kicking, mutilating, injuring, disabling or needlessly killing any animal, transporting animals in an inhumane manner and neglecting to provide proper food, drink and protection from the weather.

Tupelo city code also requires leashes on all outside animals, gives police the right to impound animals or kill dangerous animals and gives guidelines on pens or fences that include "the number of dogs kept in all pens and other enclosed areas shall not be large enough to interfere with proper enjoyment of nearby property."

The code also requires rabies vaccination but provides no vehicle for regulation.

The city's animal control frequently receives reports of animal cruelty for dogs being tethered in yards. Quaka said having dogs on leashes or tethers outside does not constitute animal cruelty as long as there is proper food, water and shelter.

For the police chief, the bigger issue facing the city regarding its animal population isn't an increase in cruelty, it's a decrease in space.

"We have an animal control problem in the city of Tupelo," the police chief said. "It is multi-faceted, (but) the main issue is the shelter is overcrowded."

Shelter overcrowding a continuing issue

Paul Shane took the job as Tupelo-Lee County Humane Society director about three months ago. In that time, he's become increasingly stressed by the shelter's ever-growing population.

"We only exist to shovel sand against the tide, and it never stops," Shane said.

As of Monday, the shelter was more than 200% overcapacity. Ideally, the shelter can house a maximum of 116 animals. They're currently caring for over 300.

According to Shane, the overcrowding has resulted in a parvo outbreak among the shelter's puppy population.

The problem seems to be getting worse. In the first week of March alone, the shelter accepted 27 dogs and 87 puppies.

"There is literally a dog in every office," Shane said. "You can't get them out of the door if 10 come in and one comes out."

Because of overcrowding, Shane said, the humane society can't accept surrenders unless tied to a case of either animal neglect or the animal is vicious. There's simply no room for strays.

Those overseeing the shelter are doing what they can to decrease the population. Over the next 30 days, the shelter will focus on lowering the number of animals through adoption, fostering and transportation.

But for Shane, shelter employees will continue to "shovel against the tide" until the city adopts more rigid animal ownership laws, including requiring animal owners to register their dogs and cats so that the city has an official record, and mandating chips and vaccinations for pets.

"There is nothing that can be done until (the city) can do some policy work," he said.

City considering stricter pet laws

Tupelo Mayor Todd Jordan said the city's legal team will look into stricter policy, noting that the city is likely to strengthen ordinances beyond state statute at some point in the future.

He did not, however, commit to adopting any form of legally required registration.

Required registration isn't an idea without precedence in Northeast Mississippi. Just over a year ago, the city of Plantersville began requiring its residents to register their dogs. This includes a $2 fee to offset the cost of tags the city provides as proof of registration.

The registration also requires proof of rabies inoculation.

Shane said the program has gone well for the small town, and he'd like to see other cities — including Tupelo — adopt similar policies.

Despite Plantersville's success, Jordan said he was unsure if the city will follow its lead.

"I don't know right now what the answer is," Jordan said, adding that the city would continue working with the local humane society to determine how best to keep area animals safe and their populations under control.

"It is going to be a process," the mayor said. "It is going to take time."

For Gazaway, the primary concern is the health and safety of local animals. He asked residents to have their pets chipped and spayed or neutered, and if they can't afford a fence or proper pen, to ensure their leased or tethered dogs have plenty to eat and drink and enough room to move around.

"I try to give the benefit of the doubt," Gazaway said when working with pet owners. "I've seen people that can barely take care of themselves, but their dog is taken care of and well fed. That's what matters."