2014-12-17 / For The Record

FREE NITRO?

Rescue group wants dog owner punished
By Elizabeth Billips

A Burke County judge is under fire for refusing to bring criminal charges against a woman who is keeping her dog on a chain.

Chief Magistrate Judge Sterling Wimberly has received a barrage of calls and emails from animal rights activists from across the nation after he continued the case in question last Wednesday.

The activists, some of whom were in the courtroom, had hoped the chained dog, a pit bull named Nitro, would be taken from its owner and that she would be punished for her treatment of the dog, or lack thereof.

According to Judge Wimberly, the local rescue group, Girard Lifesaver, got involved several months ago after volunteers saw Nitro chained outside a Stripp Lane home.

“Yes, the dog was chained and there were three padlocks on the chain,” Judge Wimberly said, reviewing photos that were taken before the court got involved. “The dog is not vicious but he had been popping the chain and getting into the neighborhood.”

The rescue organization took the proactive approach, purchasing a large pen for the dog and giving the woman money to take him to the veterinarian. According to their letters, there was a written contract with the owner.

When volunteers saw the dog back on the chain in mid- November, Girard Lifesaver leader Samantha Holton applied for a pre-warrant hearing to charge the owner with animal cruelty.

On Dec. 10, the owner was summoned to court. She told the judge that she put Nitro back on the chain because he kept getting out of the pen and roaming the neighborhood. She admitted that she had never taken him to the veterinarian.

Rather than charge the owner, Judge Wimberly decided to continue the case and give her until the next court date in February to have the dog checked. He does not plan to make her un-tether the dog, but will not allow padlocks on the chain.

“I care about animals … but the only thing that was really out of line was the padlocks on the chain,” he said, noting that the case is not over. “If the dog was malnourished or sick or needed medical attention I would feel differently and probably would have charged her … but that was not the case.”

Although Judge Wimberly said the woman did not violated any ordinances, his decision unleashed an instant storm of criticism, ranging from polite scorn to the downright vulgar.

A woman named Penny wrote, “You’re not on a chain... but perhaps a few years on one would help you grow some (expletive).”

Another unpleased activist from Oklahoma wrote, “God bless the poor animals that are unfortunate enough to have to live in your county, including poor Nitro.”

Others pleaded for the sake of the animal.

“It is cruel to subject this poor animal to another month on a chain, outside without proper heating as the temperature continues to drop … It is wrong to give her another month. How does that change anything?”

Several insisted that since the dog owner allegedly violated her private contract with Girard Lifesaver, the licensed animal shelter should be allowed to take Nitro.

But the rescue group may be dealing with problems of its own.

Two days after the hearing, a report was filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for alleged cruelty to animals at their shelter. According to the complaint, a passing motorist from Aiken, S.C. became concerned after seeing four large dogs outside in cages that appeared too small for them. “The caller also stated that she didn’t see any food or water in the cages,” the report said.

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