NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — It was a frigid day in early February when local resident and long-time animal rescuer Chris Nicholais first came across a 1-year-old Great Pyrenees named Everest.
From the moment he saw the dog, a breed typically known for its white, flowy fur and energetic attitude, Nicholais said he knew something was wrong. His hair was a dull, matted gray, he seemed lethargic, and his body appeared to have “sunken in” from starvation.
“When I first saw him and we walked up to him, he just laid there, but he was not facing us. He was kind of howling,” Nicholais said. “I don’t want to say he was howling in pain, because I can’t be for sure, but from what I felt he was barking for help.”
From behind a chain-link fence, Nicholais could see that Everest didn’t have adequate shelter; no food and his only source of water was from a bowl that had frozen over. Nicholais and a few workers from a nearby construction crew who had found another dog in need called Metro Animal Care and Control (MACC) to report the situation, which to them, clearly looked like animal cruelty.
But when they got to the Hermitage home, Nicholais said animal control officers spent maybe “three or four minutes” looking at Everest before leaving without saying a word to him or the concerned construction workers. Less than 24 hours later, Everest passed away on the front porch.
“They knew that Everest was dying, and they did nothing,” said Christianna Willis, a local resident who has been rescuing animals in Davidson County for 10 years. “If they would have waited to pick him up, he would’ve been gone because the trash would’ve come to pick [him] up, and he wouldn’t be there.”
‘When I got there, they had put half of him in the bag’
Willis became invested in the case after seeing a post Nicholais made in a local neighborhood group on Facebook. The morning after reporting the situation to animal control, Nicholais went to McDonald’s to get Everest some chicken nuggets to eat, but while he was in the drive-thru, Nicholais said he had a sinking feeling in his stomach.
When he returned to the home where he first saw the young dog, Nicholais found three people standing around Everest’s body. One of the people was reportedly stuffing Everest into a set of garbage bags and taping them together.
“When I got there, they had put half of him in the bag,” Nicholais said. “It takes a lot for me to show emotion and I was holding back tears at that point, but I was also very angry. It was all I could do to not throw them under the bus. I just wanted to be like, ‘This was your fault’.”
After the owners took the bag to the curb, Nicholais asked them if he could give Everest a “proper burial” and put the dog in his car. He then drove to a veterinary clinic, where Nicholais said a veterinarian determined Everest had died from bloat due to “serious neglect.”
“He wasn’t getting food. Who knows if he had been to the vet ever, and bloat is not something that just kills dogs in a day or two,” Nicholais said. “It usually takes some time. It’s a painful way for them to go.”
Nicholais said he later received a call from animal control officers, who asked him to bring Everest to MACC, and assured him they were going to perform a necropsy, or an autopsy for animals, “and if needed, press charges.”
Local residents still looking for answers
Months reportedly went by with Nicholais, Willis, and other local residents continuously calling MACC for more information, only to be told it was an ongoing investigation. Now, more than six months later, Nicholais and Willis said they still have not gotten any clear answers.
“Two or three of us have been checking in on it, but we still haven’t heard anything as to what happened, why he died, or why they thought he died,” Nicholais said. “Although, I think they did say they weren’t looking to press any charges against those people.”
When asked for details about the case, the Metro Public Health Department said the evidence has been turned over to the District Attorney’s Office but did not provide any further information. In response to questions about normal procedures, the health department said animal control officers “respond to reports every day” through phone messages and an online complaint system.
“When a call is dispatched, our team works to make contact with any potential resident and address any reported issues,” the health department stated in an email. “If there is no answer at the home, our team will leave some information for the resident and return at a later time to try to make contact. Our team can only address and respond to what they see at their visit(s), unless evidence like a video recording is available.”
The situation has also led many people to email their local council members. While Metro Councilmember Russ Bradford, who represents District 13 where MACC is located, deferred comment on the specific case to Metro Health, he said he was aware of one case where the agency said it could not press charges because of a good Samaritan moving the animal’s body and “tampering of the scene.”
Bradford did not specify whether that was the same case. Nicholais and Willis, whose own dog was rescued by animal control in 2016 alongside nearly 10 other dogs living in poor conditions, said they both believe something should have been done before Nicholais intervened in the February incident.
“Anyone with just a little bit of knowledge when they saw this dog with no shelter, frozen water, and the fact of how skinny and filthy he was, they should have pulled him,” Nicholais said. “They could have easily found a rescue. There’s Great Pyrenees rescues in the area.”
“They keep saying that no matter what, since dogs are viewed as property, they’re not allowed to step in automatically, which I understand that for some cases,” Willis added. “They’re supposed to give the owners some time; but when a dog is clearly on its last leg, I know they can step in and do something about that, and they can get the animal out of the situation because that happened to my dog in 2016.”
‘It seems to be an alarming number of complaints’
It’s not just the incident in February that has people like Nicholais and Willis concerned. They have both been helping rescue lost and wounded animals off the streets of Davidson County for several years, and often foster them in their own homes. According to them, it’s been within the last two or three years that MACC’s response seems to have become “less urgent for these animals.”
“I noticed more in the last few years, especially since COVID, that it seems to be an alarming number of complaints where people call animal control on certain things, like animals in very, very bad shape; needing food; water; shelter; outside all the time in all the elements; and they’re not doing anything,” Willis said.
Some believe a recent rule change may be responsible in some cases. The Metro Council approved a bill amending the city’s animal ordinance in May in order to tighten leash laws and update some of the provisions on licenses for cats and dogs and animals running at large.
However, those changes also included the removal of a section that Bradford previously said appeared like it was “allowing MACC to have unfettered access to people’s homes.” Part of the section stricken out reads, “Animal care and control may inspect the premises where animals are kept to ensure that owners or keepers are providing minimum care and facilities.”
In another case, Nicholais said he reported a pair of dogs that appeared to be in bad shape near Gallatin Pike. However, one of the dogs reportedly passed away by the time animal control officers went out to the location nearly two or three days later, and the other dog was nowhere to be found.
“There was one where somebody left their dog locked up in a shed,” Willis said, referring to complaints she’s heard from other residents. “The animal control officer arrived on the scene and didn’t even get the dog any water. Just left a note on the front door.”
Problems may stem from lack of funding, resources
Despite their objections to how the agency is allegedly handling cases, Willis said it’s important for the public and local leaders to recognize “MACC definitely needs some help” and support. While there are likely several moving parts, she and Nicholais believe the problem mainly comes down to funding and a lack of resources for Davidson County’s animal control officers.
“They need to be able to pay people well enough to do these jobs because they are hard; they are mentally, physically exhausting, I’m sure,” Willis said. “They probably have a decent turnover rate because it’s not a great job. If they had the resources and the funding and the laws to back them up — better laws to back them up — they could do a lot more because there’s a problem.”
In an April interview, Bradford said the Metro area has about half the animal control officers that most cities have based on size and population. The agency has been “chronically understaffed,” with only one officer for the entire county on weekends in the past.
More recently, Bradford said funding “has slowly been improving,” with funding approved for nine to 10 staff members, including an animal behaviorist, in the current budget. However, he acknowledged there “is still a long way to go” to get MACC into a position to help more animals. There have also been concerns with how long it takes to onboard staff once they’re hired.
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“Most MACC employees must complete physicals prior to starting and the lack of personnel in Metro Health to conduct those has created a bottleneck that at times has led to new employees taking another job,” Bradford said.
Despite some movement on funding, Willis still questions the city’s priorities, with council members recently approving a $1.2 billion deal to build another stadium for the Tennessee Titans. “How can a city be able to spend $1.26 billion in taxpayer’s money to build another football stadium, but not find enough money in the budget to properly fund their animal control?” she said.
Bradford, who has called for more funding for MACC in the past, urged the public to continue putting pressure on city leadership in order to increase funding and support, and added that “the characterization by the public that MACC doesn’t care” bothers him.
“Anyone, myself included, that has spent any amount of time at MACC and interacting with staff quickly understands their compassion and their frustration with the current situation,” he said. “MACC does amazing work and partners with many of our city’s animal organizations to improve the lives of our unhoused pets.”
Nicholais and others agree that staff at MACC have good intentions, but he said he has been frustrated by a lack of communication and feels that the agency should be more transparent in cases like Everest’s. Willis hopes his death can put a “spotlight” on the issues in Davidson County and other animal abuse cases that are falling through the cracks.
“I think this is an instance where they have an opportunity, they have a spotlight on them right now,” Willis said. “They could choose to say that I’m wrong; they could make every excuse; or they could choose to say, ‘You know what we messed up, we’re sorry and we need these things to change in order for us to do better in the future. This is what could make things easier.’”