SULLIVAN GARDENS - The predator that could soon be in John Kelley's crosshairs might be someone's family pet. Ten of Kelley's sheep are dead, and while killing the dog or dogs responsible for their deaths might be an extreme measure, it's within his legal rights.
The Sullivan Gardens sheep farmer has been having to stand guard over his flock into the wee hours of the morning, trying to stop the dogs that have cost him nearly $3,000 in livestock losses.
"I've been able to get glimpses of them, and they look to be pretty big dogs. I will tell you that if they come onto the property again, I don't care whose dogs they are, I will destroy them, and we'll let the judge decide who's right and wrong," Kelley said Tuesday following another long night guarding his sheep.
Sullivan County animal control personnel have set traps in an effort to capture what they think are either wild roaming dogs or pets let out by their owners at certain times of the night.
However, after Kelley asked about what limits he has under Tennessee law to possibly solve the problem on his own terms, animal officer Phil Lane informed him that a code section gives Kelley the right to combat the problem with a gun.
"We have had situations where people have exterminated animals - I guess that is a harsh term - in protection of their own animals," Lane said after reciting paragraphs in Tennessee Code 39-14-205.
That section, with the heading "Intentional Killing of Animal," says in paragraph B that "a person is justified in killing the animal of another if the person acted under a reasonable belief that the animal was creating an imminent danger of death ... to an animal owned by that person."
The attacks on Kelley's sheep began more than a year ago when a large dog, believed to be a rottweiler mix, was shot and wounded after a sheep attack. Prior to that shooting, the dog was suspected of killing three of his animals.
"County animal control officers came out and took the wounded dog, and we hoped that someone would claim the dog. No one ever did," said Kelley.
Then on April 19, he awoke at 2 a.m. to the sound of sheep wailing. By the time he was able to reach the pasture, five of his sheep were dead, and there was no sign of the attackers.
The following Thursday, another attack occurred and another five sheep were killed.
"It is very peculiar that the attacks have occurred on consecutive Thursdays," said Kelley.
"I was able to get up there to the sheep during the second attack, and I was able to get my light on something that looked like a large dog, but nothing that I could make out right away, and I didn't have a chance to draw my gun.
"Someone is protecting these dogs, and the only way to catch them is to catch them in the act. You would think the dog owner would see their dog come home and be covered in blood and know that their dog was up to no good, or maybe they're not that smart."
Liability issues come into play if a dog is captured and the owner is identified, according to Lane.
If a person's dog causes damage or kills another dog, livestock or other animal, the dog owner can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor of "dog running at large," which is punishable with a $50 fine plus court costs or 30 days in jail.
"In some of those cases, if the dog does not have a rabies tag, then that falls under another code section, which is also a Class C misdemeanor. Failure to get a $10 to $12 shot could end up costing the dog owner up to $200," Lane said.
Kelley is a self-professed animal lover since he has various types of livestock on his farm ranging from turkeys to horses. But when it comes to protecting his animals, he said he's willing to take extreme measures.
"It won't be long before they move on to someone else's property because these dogs are killing for sport," Kelley said.
"Although the monetary side of this is important, I am old school, and when you spend the kind of money I have spent on this farm and this hobby, I am not going to let some irresponsible people and their pets destroy what I have."