Pittsboro animal refuge launches petition against nearby gun range

Jun. 18, 2014 @ 04:59 AM

Workers at the Goathouse Refuge in Pittsboro, a no-kill animal shelter, used to be worried when it thundered outside and some of the dogs and cats cowered in fear.

Now thunderstorms are almost forgotten, as a gun range has moved in next door — offering a wide range of classes and shooting bays open daily to people with pistols, rifles or shotguns. Some are beginners, but the range has conducted at least one high-intensity military training class.

“We already are seeing many animals that are over-grooming and pulling their fur,” said Siglinda Scarpa, owner of the animal refuge, who blamed the cats’ strange behavior on the new noises next door. “Many are also not eating, and we will have to force feed.”

Besides loss of hair and appetite, she said, some animals also reportedly have exhibited symptoms like fever and diarrhea — and there has been no explanation other than the sound of powder igniting and bullets slamming into steel targets. Scarpa said the noises have physically and mentally stressed out the more than 250 animals on her property.

“Animals really get sick with stress,” said Scarpa, who is not a veterinarian but rather an artist who has been around cats and other animals her whole life, and has run her shelter in the woods northwest of Pittsboro for years.

Added her office manager, Laura Gaffney: “We can’t say for sure yet, but (the cats) do have some health conditions that might be linked to this. ... In any case, they are stressed out and suffering.”

But Range2A owner Mark Atkeson disagrees about his gun range’s potential to harm the animals — in fact, he said, he plans to use the course to help train local K9 officers and their dogs.

“I have a veterinarian who’s a member, and she said, ‘No, that’s not a problem, the cats aren’t scared,’” Atkeson said. “... When I told her about the complaints, she rolled her eyes.”

Scarpa, though, said she’s serious. Anyone at the Goathouse is forced to shout to be heard whenever there’s firing at the range, she said, and “everybody is very tense because they are shooting some big heavy weapons. ... It’s some very repetitive stuff. It makes my skin crawl. It’s horrible.”

Atkeson, however, said most of the guns people shoot at the range are pistols and smaller rifles — and no automatic weapons are allowed. But whether people are shooting fast or slow, he said, he can’t imagine that the animals are being harmed.

Atkeson said he has been deluged with hate mail recently, mainly from people using ostensibly fake social media profiles. So to prove his point about noise, Atkeson posted a short video to his Facebook this weekend of his dog at a firing range, with about two dozen shots ringing out quickly. The dog perks her ears up and looks around but otherwise remains sitting calmly. At the Goathouse, 600 feet away through thick woods he said, noise shouldn’t be an issue whatsoever.

The animosity between Atkeson and Scarpa goes back to before Atkeson opened his range this spring. Scarpa said she and Gaffney went over when they noticed trees being cut down, met with Atkeson and voiced their concerns — but Atkeson blew them off.

Atkeson, however, recalls it differently. He said Scarpa cussed at him and ignored ‘no trespassing signs, and that the vast majority of the criticism he has received has been from people who don’t live in North Carolina or even the U.S.

“Almost no one locally has spoken out except for her,” Atkeson said. “... And not one person has ever offered me a solution as to how to fix it other than ‘You need to shut down.’ I don’t even know what would make them happy other than the obliteration of my existence.”

Atkeson said he won’t shut down, but he is willing to compromise. However, he said, the volume of hate mail he has received so far tells him finding a compromise is unlikely.

Scarpa said she won’t be happy until the range is shut down. She grew up in Italy during World War II and said she no longer feels comfortable bringing school groups to her shelter, since she can still remember how scary gunshots were to her as a child.

The Goathouse does have a large soapbox, with nearly 9,500 fans on Facebook and an owner who has been profiled by everyone from The Indy in Raleigh, which cast a skeptical eye on Scarpa’s operation, to the New York Times, which wrote an effusive feature on her.

Scarpa has used that soapbox to plug her petition against the shooting range, and by Tuesday afternoon, it had nearly reached the 5,000 signature goal. It is addressed to the Chatham County Commissioners and demands an inquiry into the range and its permitting.

Scarpa wants a response from them, she said, “Or we are going to kick their (butts) out. I am so furious.”

Supporters of the group spoke at a meeting of the commissioners Monday night, and their complaints will be addressed further at a July 1 planning board meeting, according to the clerk to the commissioners.