Family of four charged with animal cruelty - Nearly forty animals removed from a pet sitter’s home
- Tennessee, USA -
Following a months-long investigation into animals who died or were found in poor condition while in the care of a pet sitter, four family members are now facing animal cruelty charges.
The Knox County Sheriff's Office said that 51-years-old THOMAS JASON MORRIS, 50-years-old MICHELLE LEE BURGESS-MORRIS (pictured), 22-years-old HAYLEE E. MORRIS, and 19-years-old ISABELLA M. MORRIS have each been charged with two counts of aggravated cruelty to animals, two counts of cruelty to animals, and one count of violation of anti-rabies laws.
Online records show that only BURGESS-MORRIS is in custody.
According to the multiple Knox County Sheriff's Office reports obtained by Voice For Us, in July 2022, a Knox County Animal Control officer received a complaint from a woman whose dog had been fostered by the MORRIS family. The complainant explained that on July 15, 2022, she had gone to a home on 8112 LeClay Drive to pick up her dog named Colby, and noticed he was in poor condition. The woman said that Colby had suffered rapid weight loss two weeks after being left with the MORRISES. A vet examined Colby and found him to be emaciated and dehydrated. Additionally, based on his fur, the vet determined that Colby had likely been left to sit in his own urine and feces. Colby also had fleas despite being given flea medication.
Following this complaint, a Knox County Animal Control officer responded to the LeClay Drive home on July 16, 2022. Outside the residence the officer saw clutter and reported a strong smell of urine coming from inside the property. According to the ACO, there were flies and gnats buzzing around windows where tufts of pet hair could be seen. The officer said the home belonged to HAYLEE E. MORRIS. Upon arrival, the officer was met by MORRIS’ grandmother who said the animals “were well taken care of” and called her granddaughter.
When HAYLEE E. MORRIS arrived at the home, she explained to the ACO that the flies were due to an air conditioning outage, and inside the home was an aggressive dog. She denied that Colby’s condition had worsen in her care, and stated that she had fostered animals from various organizations in the past, including Young-Williams Animal Center (YWAC).
The ACO then obtained a list of the animals adopted by HAYLEE E. MORRIS from YWAC. The list showed that since 2021, MORRIS had adopted eight rabbits, two birds, two dogs, two hamsters, and a cat. In less than a year, all but one of those voiceless victims died.
According to the Knox County Sheriff's Office, at the time, HAYLEE E. MORRIS was also fostering four kittens from YWAC and two of them died while in her care.
After the report about Colby in 2022, Knox County Animal Control received a complaint that MORRIS was possibly abusing or neglecting dogs. The agency received multiple calls reporting animal abuse at the LeClay Drive home, so on March 5, 2023, Knox County Animal Control returned to the property for a welfare check.
An officer reported hearing barking coming from the garage, but the number of dogs could not be determined. Since attempts to contact MORRIS were unsuccessful, the officer left a warning letter.
The following day, Knox County Animal Control returned to the home and made contact with HAYLEE E. MORRIS’ father, THOMAS JASON MORRIS. The father, however, told the officer they needed to reschedule the home inspection, because his daughter wasn’t there as she had suffered a stab wound to her leg from a knife placed in the trash by the grandmother.
On March 7, 2023, Knox County Animal Control officers were finally able to enter the home and HAYLEE E. MORRIS and her father told them there were nine dogs inside the property.
Officers reported the home reeked of urine and feces and said they saw feces dried up on the floor and puddles of urine along the walls and floors.
Officers asked father and daughter to see the dogs and found one of them in poor condition. The MORRISES said the dog was riddled with cancer.
On that occasion, officers didn’t see any other animals, but the family said they had a bearded dragon and a parakeet.
Due to the condition of the home and the presence of a juvenile and an elderly adult, officers advised the family they would have to refer the case to Adult Protective Services and Child Protective Services. The animals were left inside the home overnight as officers said none of them appeared to be in life-threatening harm.
On March 8, 2023, officials returned to the home and found HAYLEE E. MORRIS’ sister, ISABELLA M. MORRIS, who became upset when they told her they were there to remove the animals.
As Animal Control began loading some of the dogs into their vehicles, a forensic officer advised them that there were several more dogs upstairs. Not only that, but at some point, random dogs began running from the home, and officers found several other animals hiding in different closets and rooms behind walls of trash and clutter.
One cat was found inside a pet carrier underneath trash in a bathroom after officers heard the furbaby meowing.
In HAYLEE E. MORRIS’ bedroom, officers found a 12-month-old German shepherd puppy inside a closet.
Within another bedroom officers found a dead cat decomposing under a bucket.
A deceased guinea pig was found in a plastic garbage bag, a dead ferret was discovered in a closet, and a dead rabbit was located between some debris.
In the backyard of the home, upon inspection of a crawl space, officers found animals in cages, including many cats, rats, a turtle, and a dead bird. Four adult cats were found inside a small pet carrier meant for one small animal. Two other thin cats were found in another carrier, and others were in dog crates without food or water.
Inside the garage, officers reported the presence of waist-high garbage piles and on one of the garbage piles they found a dead rabbit.
According to Knox County Animal Control, officers removed seventeen dogs, twelve cats, three rats, three rats, two guinea pigs, two lizards, one bird, and one turtle. The four deceased animals were also removed.
The sheriff’s office reported: “The findings were so extensive, veterinary cruelty checks needed to be conducted on each animal and the deceased animals were sent to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine for necropsy testing (to attempt to determine the cause of death). If there were additional dead/decomposed animals, they were not visible in the clutter and garbage throughout the home.”
10 News spoke with some of the people who lost their dogs while in the care of HAYLEE MORRIS.
Ms. Lisa Lunch shared with the news agency pictures of her late female French Bulldog named Maybelle.
While Ms. Natalie Hartman shared pictured of her late service dog named Koda. An extremely emotional Ms. Hartman said about Koda: “She was my everything.”
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MICHELLE LEE BURGESS-MORRIS provided to Voice For Us by the Knox County Sheriff's Office.
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