Helena-West Helena is an east Arkansas Delta community going through hard times. The seat of Phillips County, one of the state's poorest counties, it got its hyphenated name two years ago after two cash-strapped towns merged in hopes of improving the local economy, which has struggled since the closing of the Mohawk Rubber Co. back in the 1970s.
But the city of 15,000 people still faces financial serious problems. Now they've landed it in a less-than-flattering spotlight following a controversy that erupted earlier this month over how its mayor has chosen to handle homeless dogs.
A lack of funds forced Helena-West Helena to close its animal shelter in January. Since then, stray dogs were being housed in a lot for the city's garbage trucks. But Mayor James Valley decided that wasn't an appropriate place to keep animals.
So earlier this month, he had three dogs euthanized and set another 10 loose in the nearby St. Francis National Forest -- a forest named, ironically enough, for the patron saint of animals. As Valley told WREG TV news of Memphis:
"God created the heavens and the earth, and in that these animals will be able to fend for themselves. And of course it's going to be the survival of the fittest."
The public has reacted to the decision with outrage. Forest visitors are upset over the sight of skittish dogs suffering from mange and covered with flies, while nearby residents complain that the stray animals are running wild on their property and threatening their pets.
The Humane Society of Southeastern Arkansas has sworn out a complaint against the mayor with the Phillips County sheriff's office, seeking his arrest on misdemeanor animal mistreatment charges. Meanwhile, the city has accepted an offer from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the National Animal Control Association and the Humane Society of the United States to pay to send two of the city's animal-control officers to a basic training seminar in Little Rock.
The city estimates that it would cost upwards of $50,000 to open a new animal shelter. No word yet on where the money might come from.
In other dog-related news, today is Take Your Dog to Work Day. The holiday began in 1999 to celebrate the great companions dogs make, and to encourage their adoption from humane societies, animal shelters and breed rescues.
In honor of the day, here's a snapshot of my three dogs at my workplace, which also happens to be our home. From left to right, they are Keli, an Australian cattle dog adopted from our local SPCA; Zoe, an Australian shepherd who came from a cattle farm in eastern North Carolina; and Chance, who's an American bulldog -- a breed also known as the Old Southern bulldog because of its deep roots in the region.
I adopted Chance from my local county animal shelter last fall, just days before he was scheduled to be euthanized. He's turned out to be a perfect companion. It breaks my heart to think of all the wonderful animals like him whose shelter stories don't have such happy endings.
So if you're thinking about adopting a pet, please remember those in need at your local shelter.