EXIT INTERVIEW: Moore County Friends of Animals reimagines itself as director steps down

Brandi Blankenship will step down as the Moore County Friends of Animal’s Director in early May. LEFT She poses with her first transport. MIDDLE She’s all smiles with her local volunteers. RIGHT She shows off a quad of kittens she successfully weaned. (All Photos Provided)

By Tabitha Denise Moore, EDITOR & PUBLISHER

It’s Tuesday, and Moore County Friends of Animals Director Brandi Blankenship is giving an exit interview of sorts. After nearly five years at the helm of Lynchburg’s non-profit animal rescue and de facto Moore County Animal Shelter, she’s had enough. 

But before she goes, she wants to passionately advocate on behalf of the next MCFoA Director. In front of her sits her current Board of Directors, as well as a group of community shareholders and change agents. I am among them. Together, we’ve gathered to brainstorm a way forward in advance of hiring her replacement. 

It’s a rescue not a funded animal control department.

During the March brainstorming meeting, Board of Director member Robin Taylor read from a prepared statement, “We invited you here because we believe the people in this room care about Moore County and are the ones that can create change.”

Present were current board members as well as local veterinarians, Drs. Wendy and Bryant Morton, Moore County Sheriff Department Captain Shane Taylor, Marsha Manley Hale of Jack’s Daniels, former mayor Bonnie Lewis, and myself. Attending remotely was Leanne Durm, a native and owner of not one but two rescue dogs.

“We invited you here to give you status update of the Moore County Friends of Animals and discuss the changes needed for its survival.  We’ve been in existence for a little over 10 years and become the de facto animal control for Moore County, which is the problem in a nutshell.”

Over the last four plus years, Blankenship’s endured a front row seat to endless animal suffering in our tiny community and tonight she feels compelled to give testimony on behalf of those animals. For over an hour-and-a-half she presents slide-after-slide of animals she’s personally rescued during her time as MCFoA Director.  She remembers each furry face. She can tell you the road name associated with each and every stray or abandoned pet. She also talks about the cats and dogs she couldn’t save. It’s hard to look at, but everyone around the table feels determined not to look away. 

MCFoA board members credits Blankenship with organizing and streamlining the local nonprofit, but despite her exacting leadership, their staff still feels like they are drowning.

“We cannot continue the way we are currently structured,” Taylor told the group. “Brandi has literally taken on the duties of what should be four separate roles during her time as MCFoA Director. Those are four different paid positions at nearby Animal Harbor in Franklin County.”

Seemingly endless need

Friends of Animals began a little over 10 years ago with an all-volunteer staff by Laura Swinford. Her role quickly developed in to a paid position based on the scope and time commitment.

“It became all life-consuming and led to the founder’s burnout,” Taylor informed the group.

As the need grew exponentially, the rescue added a couple of paid parttime positions. They also nearly doubled their list of dedicated volunteers, but even that increase in manpower and hours wasn’t enough to service the seemingly endless problem of neglected, abandoned, and stray animals in Moore County.

Blankenship took over October 2019, and in her first full year as director, the rescue took in 123 animals. By 2021, that number increased to 145. In 2022, they took in 187 animals that resulted in 84 adoptions, and 79 transports. Over 140 animals were spayed and neutered that year. In 2023, the rescue stopped intakes altogether as Blankenship went on maternity leave, however in the five short months from January to May they still took in 35 animals.

“We would have taken in over 200 animals last year. So, it’s kind of dramatic that the number of animals needing help every year just continues to rise,” Blankenship told the group.

In her time as director, Blankenship’s taken extraordinary measures to save the innocent, furry victims that find their way to her. She climbed under a house six months pregnant to rescue a litter of puppies. She’s left holiday dinners to rescue animals and when the rescue became full, even sheltered dogs at her residence.

“At one point, I had 12 dogs at my house and only three of them were mine,” Blankenship explains.

Each suffering animal made an impression on her. One in particular, Maple, sticks out. Someone dumped the pregnant dog in the middle of winter.

“I worked with this dog for 36 hours straight,” Blankenship says. “She started to go into labor, but she wouldn’t let anyone come near her.”

Blankenship says she had to gain the mama dog’s trust to get access to the puppies, and unfortunately not all of them made it.

“Our local vet was out of town and the emergency vet told me I was already doing everything he could do. So, I did CPR on these puppies all night long. Maple finished labor and 4 a.m. in the morning, and I had to tube feed them until they could make it to their foster homes to be bottle fed. After they were situated, I took Maple to the vet to be treated for mastitis. Maple and seven of her puppies are now in a rescue in Pennsylvania and they’re all adopted.”

One need only look at this before and after picture of Maple to realize the difference Blankenship and her staff makes in Moore County. Blankenship says that success stories like this motivated her during her tenure as director. (Photo Provided)

A no win situation

Housed in the former home of Earl and Virginia Amacher, the Friend of Animals exists in a 2500 square foot home located just outside the gate of The Jack Daniel Distillery Bottling Plant. The distillery owns and maintain the property.

There are around 30 spaces for cats and kittens. There’s a nursery for new and expecting moms as well an infirmary for sick cats. Any animal old enough to be spayed or neuter must be before they’re released to be adopted. Finding room is often a delicate balance.

“It’s kind of math, and it’s always changing based on personalities, health, surgery dates, and other factors,” Blankenship explains.

There are also five kennels for adult dogs outside as well as two kennels for puppies. But according to Blankenship, there could be twice as many spaces and still not be enough to help every animal in Moore County that needs it.

A horrific underbelly of willful abuse

Over 350,000 visitors come to Lynchburg each year to experience the juxtaposition of a global brand thriving inside an idyllic small town but few can image the horrific underbelly of willful animal abuse happening here every day including animal dumping and abandonment, dog fighting, hoarding situations, and neglect by breeders.

Last year, Blankenship rescued a puppy near the Moore County Convenience Center she highly suspects came from a dog-fighting situation.

“It had bite wounds from its nose to his back toe tail. I’m not convinced it wasn’t be used as a bait dog,” Blankenship explained.

Without hard proof, Blankenship says there’s little local law enforcement can do about it.

Another problem is active animal hoarding situations. One homeowner located inside the Lynchburg city limits collects feral cats and refuses to allow rescue officials to spay and neuter all of them to prevent a population explosion, according to Blankenship.

“The Lynchburg Square Cats organization raised money to help get those animals fixed, but afterwards they just went and got more. They also refused to accept help for some of their sick animals. Those animals died.”

Not only are suspected dog fighting operations and known animal hoarding situations inside Lynchburg, but area breeders also use rural Moore County as a dumping ground for undesirable or older animals they no longer find useful.

Blankenship says she suspects an area Shih Tzu breeder continually dumps dogs in both Moore and Bedford counties. One photo she shows the group is of an elderly dog with completely matted hair and visible tumor. She ended up passing away from a uterus infection, and she smelled like kidney failure. She was also blind.

“That did not settle well with me that you know, that was her life. She was stuck in somebody’s cage just being bred until she couldn’t be bred anymore. When they were done with her, when they’d used her up, they dumped her”

Situations that quickly get out of control

One situation that creates endless suffering is the dumping of pregnant animals in rural Moore County. Well-meaning citizens often take in the animal, but once they have their litter, unless they are immediately spayed or neutered, the situation can quickly get out of hand.

During her presentation, Blankenship tells the story of one residence with 10 dogs chained in their back yard. The owner had taken in an abandoned mama he discovered near a local bridge. Once her puppies got old enough to breed, they kept escaping off the chains and producing endless litters. When Friends of Animals arrived, they discovered a situation that had quickly gotten out of control.

“They had 10 dogs on the property and the females just kept cranking out babies. They didn’t know what to do. There were three litters all together when we arrived. They were infested with fleas. One litter of those puppies also had Parvo and it cost $1500 each to treat them,” Blankenship explained.

Luckily this situation enjoyed a happy ending. Thanks to the Friend of Animals and local rescue RUFF, all the dogs were fixed and the puppies went to Canada for adoption after they got healthy.

But not all animal dumping ends so well.

Blankenship also told the group about a horrific situation near the Fire Tower off Highway 55 – a common dumping spot – where someone left two adult dogs and three puppies inside a garbage bag to die.

“There were no gunshot wounds, and we didn’t see any foam around their mouths, so we assume they just suffocated. The only reason we found them was because a local deputy noticed a lot of vultures gathering there and feared there was a dead body.”

During her time as director, Blankenship says she’s found animals shot and left to die. She’s gotten reports of people tossing animals out of a moving vehicle. Owners also bring animals to the shelter threatening to shoot them if volunteers don’t take possession. People move and leave their pets behind tied to a tree with no water, no food, and no shelter. Animals are left to suffer with fleas, broken bones, tumors, open wounds, huge abscesses, and medical conditions with no regard. People often dump animals on isolated roads with a bag of open food or worse, animals find their way to MCFoA emaciated and starved.

Staff also gets made aware of locals keeping their animals in deplorable conditions. They receive reports of animals kept in confined spaces and living in their own feces. Locals chain animals to trees in their front yards. Even when rescue officials offer to have animals fixed at no cost to their owners, their help gets refused.

The Moore County Friends of Animals often find themselves in a no-win situation. With limited space and resources, it’s simply not possible to rescue every animal inside our tiny county. Blankenship says that there are numerous large-scale situations that could probably result in arrests but then the question becomes what to do with those animals.

There are leash and animal cruelty laws in the State of Tennessee, but again, if enforced, what do local rescue volunteers do with those animals?

Additionally, Blankenship admits that much of what the rescue currently does to help animals in our community could be technically illegal.

“I’ve been told that if you want to go strictly by the letter of Tennessee state law, we’re not even supposed to take in strays,” Blankenship tells the group. “We’re not a municipal shelter, and we’re not a government-funded shelter. State law says you have to be one or the other to take in strays. We’re not technically supposed to do it, but we do.”

Blankenship says the need in Moore County is so vast that she and her staff are constantly having to turn away animals in need – a fact that creates an untold emotional cost to their mental health.

“What would our numbers look like if we didn’t turn animals away,” Blankenship asks the group. “That’s kind of scary to think about.

At the end of Blankenship presentation, most in the room sit in stunned silence. It’s a big problem with no easy answers.

“We have a lot of good-hearted people in this community trying to do the right thing, but we also have a lot of folks taking advantage of the system, and that’s got to stop,” one board member says.

A new director and the path forward

The first change the Moore County Friend of Animals must implement is that of operating as a rescue and not a shelter. Without the adequate funding supplied to most government shelters, the Friends of Animals will likely need to say no when there’s no available spot at the shelter and set boundaries with the community to create a healthy work/life balance for the new director.

Over the next year, the new MCFoA Director will work with board members to increase awareness of both animal cruelty laws in the State of Tennessee as well as the local free spay and neuter program. They also plan to work new board member Maygan Silavong, a deputy with the Moore County Sheriff’s Department, on increased enforcement of animal cruelty laws inside the county.

“Yeah, enforcement has got to be part of the change,” MCSD Captain Shane Taylor stated during the meeting. “It’s just like with speeding. If we don’t enforce, it’s not gonna change. When we write tickets, folks tend to slow down.”

The Board also asked the MCSD increase patrols around popular animal dumping locations like the Lost Creek Boat Dock, the Fire Tower, as well as numerous rural Moore County roads.

Ideally, the group would like to see local elected officials find the political will to fund a legitimate animal shelter and animal control officers inside Moore County to work with rescue officials, but they realize that finding the funding for that without placing additional stress on local property taxpayers is a tough ask.

They also plan to launch an annual fundraising campaign and increase the number of grants they apply for each year to try and increase funding.

Three longtime board members, Robin Taylor, Sharon Russell, and Nell May, stepped down from the Board in April and were replaced by current board president Leanne Durm, Marsha Hale, Tabitha Moore, Maygan Silavong, Haley Roberts, and Marcy Smith. They will be joined by incumbent members Jane Neal, Melissa Miller, and Barbara Patten. Local vet Wendy Morton will serve as an advisor to the board and Robin Taylor will remain as a non-voting member at large.

Adjusting expectations moving forward

As her time dwindles as the shelter director Blankenship says she’s filled with mixed emotions.

“My decision to step down has been one of the hardest to make. I still get emotional about it and have a hard time talking about it. But I have a little one at home that needs her mom with her physically and mentally,” Blankenship says.

Blankenship says it’s not just the physical hours to do the job but also the emotion toll.

“Even if I’m not physically at the shelter, my mind is always there. I’m always thinking of the animals at the shelter. Are they happy? Are they comfortable enough? Are they warm in the winter? Are they cool enough in the summer? Are they feeling okay? How is that animal that I had to turn away because I didn’t have space? Are they alive? Are they in a comfy home? How can I do more? What can I do better? Maybe I should’ve done this instead of that.”

She also feels like the expectations of our community need to be adjusted as a new director comes on board.

“There were a lot of times people were not pleased with me and a lot of times I felt low on those days. I guess I just want everyone to remember that rescuers are human too.”

She says her board, volunteers, concerned citizens, fosters, the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, and other donors have all been the support system she needed.

“We truly wouldn’t make it without any of them and honestly all of those wonderful people keep me grounded.”

One of Blankenship’s greatest wishes is that together the Moore County community and shelter officials can stop animal cruelty before it starts.

“I hope Moore County can come together as a community and face this animal problem together and I hope people can let go of the fear of judgement and ask MCFOA for help with their animal situations before they get worse. I promise, we share empathy. We want to help. We love people just as much as we love animals,” she says.

“The changes can be made, we just need people to fight for those changes. Spay/neuter and microchipping can solve so much. On average 1.5 million animals are euthanized in shelters every year in the United States. I hope to see the day that that will not be the case.”

If you would like to get involved, you can reach out to any board member or email them at the following address. They’ve also launched a new newsletter to better communicate with the general public. You can signup up at this link: https://www.friendsofanimalslynchburgtn.org/about-us. •

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