LUMBERTON - A Robeson County District Court judge on Monday dismissed parts of a lawsuit alleging cruelty at the county animal shelter.
The crux of the lawsuit, though - a series of charges accusing shelter staff of abusing and unnecessarily euthanizing animals - will be heard, Judge Stanley Carmical ruled.
County Attorney Hal Kinlaw had asked to have the entire case thrown out. He argued that the charges against the animal shelter would be better handled through administrative review than through court action.
The judge disagreed.
"If (the allegations) are true ... then they would appear to be unlawful," Carmical said.
The Gerber Animal Law Center of Raleigh filed the lawsuit last month on behalf of Winston-Salem animal rights activist Susan Barrett. Among other accusations of abuse, the lawsuit alleges shelter staff regularly euthanize animals even after rescue groups call to adopt them.
Carmical dismissed two claims in the lawsuit which challenged matters of protocol at the animal shelter. The shelter's policy to keep at least half of its kennels empty for cleaning and the county's decision not to utilize a voluntary fostering program allowed by the state are not illegal, the judge ruled.
"The only thing I need to be concerned about is whether these practices deviate from state law," Carmical said. "It seems the proper mechanism to address those issues would be with the legislature."
Also during the hearing, Carmical issued an injunction preventing the shelter from euthanizing an animal for at least 24 hours after a rescue group sends a fax expressing plans to adopt the animal. The order will remain in place throughout the course of the litigation, Carmical said.
The defendants listed in the lawsuit - Health Director Bill Smith, shelter manager Jeff Bass and Environmental Health Director Albert Locklear - did not attend the hearing.
Barrett said afterward she was pleased the lawsuit was moving forward.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," Barrett said. "I know this needs to go to court, because people need to have this exposed."
The lawsuit cites a handful of alleged instances in which shelter staff were said to have abused sick or injured animals, ignored requests to adopt animals and euthanized animals within the state mandated 72-hour hold period.
The lawsuit names a handful of witnesses, and Barrett said she has stacks of documents to back her claims.
Calley Gerber, the Raleigh-based animal rights lawyer representing Barrett, said the lawsuit deals more with how individual employees treat animals than with the shelter's written procedures.
"The policy isn't necessarily the problem; it's the people," Gerber said. "The policy could be improved, though, don't get me wrong."
As enforced, the animal shelter's policy doesn't require a time window for pet adoptions. After giving owners 10 days to claim a lost pet, the animals can be put down without ever being put up for adoption.
The health board will consider changing the hold policy at its meeting Thursday, county officials said.
"That would be a welcomed start," Gerber said.
The Robeson County shelter has become a popular target of animal rights groups and rescue organizations from across the country as repeated reports of abuse have surfaced on Internet message boards.
The lawsuit was filed days after county officials agreed to end a controversial euthanasia practice at the facility. Before the policy change, the shelter was the only one in the state still euthanizing animals on a regular basis by injecting lethal drugs directly into their hearts - intracardiac injections known as "heart sticking."
In 2001, the shelter was embroiled in controversy when animal activists posted a video online showing shelter workers euthanizing dogs and cats without first sedating the animals. The video has attracted thousands of views worldwide.
Staff writer Mike Hixenbaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (910) 486-3511.
By Mike Hixenbaugh
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