(Latest) Hundreds of animals die in fire near West Point

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The remains of a chicken house that was filled with hundreds of animals smolder along Country Road 1223 Tuesday morning. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

WEST POINT, Ala. – “It’s devastated us all,” the owner of a chicken house near West Point said as she watched what was left of the structure smolder Tuesday. Inside the structure are the remains of hundreds of animals including dogs, chickens, doves, rabbits and more. An exact number of animals is unknown.

“The fire is still under investigation. The fire marshal as of what I know has not made it out there yet. We are unsure of the total number of lost animals. I believe it will be in the few hundreds of animals,” said a source at Cullman County Animal Control. “When we hear from the fire marshal, we can say a little more. I do know they are going to try and remove and bury as many as possible.”

The property along County Road 1223 in Cullman County is listed as being owned by Sheila Johnson according to public records. She described the dogs as “rescue dogs.” Seven of the dogs were transported to Lee’s Veterinary Hospital for treatment after being injured in the fire. The fire, which began around 7:30 a.m., swept through the chicken house quickly, and although a few dozen animals were able to get out, the majority were not able to escape or be saved.

Johnson said, “When we got the phone call, we went outside and it was already totally engulfed.”

Dwain Floyd, assistant director of Cullman County Animal Control, told The Tribune’s media partner, WVTM 13, that the owner of the dogs and other animals is known to them and referred to the property as a “breeding operation.” He said the owner was “devastated and loved her animals.”

West Point, Vinemont/Providence, Battleground and Falkville Fire Departments battled the blaze. The cause of the fire is unknown at this time. The state fire marshal will be investigating. Johnson speculated that the source was possibly electrical.

“We had a lot of rabbits, lots of baby rabbits. We had doves and pigeons and they were doing so good this year. We had show chickens and stuff,” said Johnson.

When asked about dogs in the chicken house, Johnson replied, “A few. We just got a farm, that’s what we’ve got. I had a lot of geese in the barn sitting. I’m sure if they didn’t get up and move, I‘m sure they…they could have because both ends of the barn was open.”

Johnson added, “The building is not the point, it’s all the animals, the loss, all the suffering. It’s a tragedy.”

Johnson described her property as a “typical farm” with four full-time helpers, saying, “We spent a lot of time with these animals. Taking care of them, feeding them, doctoring on them, giving them shelter and shade. You are going to have a lot of negative people, though.”

Cullman County Animal Control was tasked with handling the scene of the devastating fire.

Floyd explained, “Of all the puppies, which were several different breeds, 50-100 were saved with seven taken to a veterinarian. I know she had English bulldogs, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, Pomeranians and all kinds.”

Two of the dogs taken to the veterinarian had to be humanely euthanized because their burns were too severe, according to the vet’s office.

The Johnson property is well-known to the officers and staff of Cullman County Animal Control.

Floyd said, “We went out there many times, but she was always in compliance with Alabama law. If she isn’t breaking any laws, we are limited in what we can do.”

Animal advocates have been actively pushing for stronger animal welfare laws including oversight and regulations on breeding operations. They have been unsuccessful in doing so.

Allison Black Cornelius, CEO of the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, posted on her Facebook page, “This is an alleged puppy mill breeder that we’d gotten calls about in the past. We had tried to figure out a way to determine the conditions of these dogs and couldn’t get on the property or get anyone to sign a warrant. I’m heartbroken and so is our entire staff. When will pass regulations and prevent this? When?”

Johnson’s neighbor, Stan Barbee, said he hopes something can be done to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again, sharing, “It was a fire nest, I knew that, but man, after the second boom, it didn’t take long to burn down. I heard a peacock over there, but I haven’t heard him today. I’m afraid he might be a casualty.”

Barbee said he hasn’t been to the Johnson property for some time but has lived across the street for almost 30 years. He described a large explosion followed by several smaller explosions.

Obviously shaken by watching the events unfold, Barbee said, “Ain’t no telling what perished in there.”

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Christy Perry

christy@cullmantribune.com

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Wendy Sack

wendy@cullmantribune.com