BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) – After two Sullivan County women were arrested for their alleged role in the disappearance of a dog during severe cold, Tennessee State Senator Jon Lundberg said he thinks a change in the law is in order.
“It seems logical that we should be able to save that dog,” Lundberg told News Channel 11 in an exclusive interview. “Now, upon that crisis ending, should they return that dog? Yeah. They might not want to, but it is the legal thing to do, and the right thing to do.”
Harley the German Shepherd disappeared from her Eula Private Drive location on the evening of Dec. 23, 2022 after animal control personnel, county deputies and local animal activists found her in an open-faced shelter while an arctic blast hit the region and pulled temperatures into the single-digits before wind chill.
Police reports state Harley’s water bowl had frozen over throughout the day, though animal control noted straw was provided as bedding by the owners in addition to their own.
According to documentation provided to News Channel 11 by animal control, one of Harley’s owners told animal control officers that she didn’t like the indoors during a visit around noon on Dec. 23. He reportedly told officers that he would try to bring her inside that night.
At several points throughout Dec. 23, social media posts revealed Harley’s location to the public. After the deputy left the property, surveillance cameras filmed a vehicle arriving at Harley’s home. A woman reportedly exited the vehicle and walked out of view, and Harley was then seen running through the yard before being spotted in the back seat of the vehicle as it drove away. Harley’s owners reported her missing around 8 p.m. that same day, and they told the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) they learned of her disappearance when they went to let her inside.
Two weeks later, Sullivan County deputies arrested a mother and daughter in connection to the disappearance, charging them with theft up to $1,000. Virginia Shackelford, one of the women charged, told News Channel 11 that the disappearance should be described as a rescue attempt.
“I think you had a valid argument that the dog’s life was in danger,” Lundberg said, referring to animal control reports that found no cause to remove Harley from the home. “When it’s 18, 20 degrees below zero, the water is frozen, when it’s observed over a number of hours, there’s obviously a danger to the animal to survive.”
SCSO investigator Captain Richard Frazier said in a previous interview that deputies had tried to return Harley to her owners, but the Shackelfords allegedly refused to say where she was. Lundberg said he supported the dog’s removal but condemned the ongoing situation.
“I really appreciate what they did, the rescuers, to save that dog. I think that was great,” Lundberg said. “A great idea, great motivation, but again you get to a point where after that threat is over or the reality of the cold weather is over, you just can’t keep that dog and say ‘Well I’m raising the dog better.’
“That’s not how this works. You’ve got to give that dog back.”
Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus told News Channel 11 that an investigation is ongoing into Harley’s owners, as well as into the reported theft. No charges have been filed in connection with the DA’s efforts. Lundberg said he’s interested to see what comes to light, if anything.
“There could be an explanation, so it’s tough for me to say let’s make judgment without all the facts,” Lundberg said. “I think that’s inappropriate.”
Lundberg said social media clearly played a role in Harley’s disappearance, but he was glad the community can speak freely about the issue.
“That’s not a bad thing, frankly that discussion is a good discussion to have to raise awareness,” Lundberg said. “This is not about cows, chickens and horses, this is about domesticated animals. Dogs that have been bred for hundreds of years to be inside. And to have that discussion openly, that’s a good thing.”
Lundberg, a dog owner himself, has supported multiple bills that he believes would fit Harley’s situation perfectly.
Senate Bill 2243, which was filed in 2022 and died in the state house, outlined a Class C Misdemeanor offense if an animal owner restrains a dog while a disaster is “imminent or occurring.”
Lundberg, the sponsor of that bill, said it didn’t go far enough in the first place.
“To put it in perspective, that sounds bad, a Class C Misdemeanor is a traffic ticket. You run a stop sign, you’re guilty of a Class C Misdemeanor. It’s a $50 ticket. It’s not huge.”
To even be convicted under that law, a suspect needed to have been charged with the same offense before.
“It fell, I believe, six votes short of passage,” Lundberg said. “Which is disappointing because frankly, it wasn’t a really tough law.”
Another filed by Lundberg this session is Senate Bill 1095, which lays out the exact requirements for domestic animal shelters in Tennessee. If passed, it would amend the state’s cruelty to animal law, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-14-202, and significantly expand guidelines for animal control personnel.
“I think there are, unfortunately, basic common sense things most people can agree on,” Lundberg said. “It becomes very difficult when you say ‘Let’s create laws based on this.’ It’s not quite as cut and dry.”
Lundberg also cited state code that absolves citizens from civil liability when they break into a vehicle to save a minor or animal from extreme temperatures, explaining that he wished the law extended to cases like Harley’s and that he plans to look into expanding it.
“Hopefully this is an anomaly, I haven’t heard of this across the state thankfully,” Lundberg said. “Hopefully, I won’t hear about it again. Maybe we need to clarify because again we have a law that says if you see a parked car, it’s 90 degrees outside, the windows are up and it’s 110 degrees in there and the dog is panting, and you fear for its life, you can take action.
“I interpret that as the same way as hey, it’s 20 degrees below zero, the dog’s been out there for hours, it’s chained up, the shelter’s not adequate, the water bowl is frozen, and I’m concerned about its survival. I think you can take action.”
Regardless of his intent in the next session, Lundberg said he expects Sullivan County authorities to enforce the law as it stands.
“I have the utmost confidence in the sheriff and his deputies, I have the utmost confidence in our DA, and they will do their due diligence, and do what’s appropriate,” Lundberg said. “I have absolutely no doubt.”