KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Four people face aggravated animal cruelty charges after five animals were found dead and nearly 40 were removed from a pet sitter’s Knoxville home.
Michelle Burgess-Morris, 50, Thomas Morris, 51, Haylee Morris, 22, and Isabella Morris, 19, were charged with two counts of felony aggravated cruelty to animals, two counts of misdemeanor cruelty to animals and one count of a misdemeanor violation of rabies laws, Knox County Sheriff’s Office released.
KCSO said that bonds on the charges are to be set. According to the deputies, only Burgess-Morris is in custody.
Knoxville Animal Control officers removed 17 dogs, 12 cats, two guinea pigs, three rats, one bearded dragon, one gecko, one turtle and one parakeet from a Leclay Drive home on March 8. At least five animals were found dead in the home.
WATE spoke with pet owners that noticed their pets were sick or injured after they were returned to them. One said her dog suffered a seizure and died in their care while she was on vacation.
Young-Williams Animal Center told WATE on Wednesday that they received another cat and three hedgehogs that were in the care of the Morris family. Young-Williams added they will continue to care for the animals throughout the ongoing process.
According to incident reports from KCSO, six animals were found dead in and around the home, and another eight were reported as dying while in the care of Haylee Morris or shortly after being returned.
Documents released from the sheriff’s office list extensive allegations against those charged beginning in July 2022. According to the initial incident report, officers were dispatched for an animal welfare visit at Leclay Drive because a complaint said Haylee Morris was fostering a dog who weighed 16.6 pounds, but by the time it was picked up from her on July 15, the dog had lost over four pounds. A veterinarian told police that the dog had rapid weight loss, and was extremely dehydrated and lethargic.
When officers spoke with Haylee Morris, she said the complaint against her was made because the owners of a dog, that had been adopted from her, filed the complaint as retaliation after she said she could not house and animal sit. The initial police report also notes that Haylee Morris had adopted 15 animals from Young-Williams Animal Center, but only one survived.
On March 5, officers were dispatched to the home on Leclay Drive for a welfare check on multiple animals at the residence after they were told Haylee Morris had a pet-sitting there and that there was possible abuse and neglect of the dogs happening. The narrative states that Animal Control had been called about the same issue at the address approximately five times.
On March 6, officers said in an incident report that they were contacted by Haylee Morris’s Father, Thomas Morris, for officers to come to the residence for a welfare check on the animals.
The next day, an officer met with met Thomas Morris and his wife, Michelle Burgess-Morris, at the home. The report states that the officer said before they entered the home, they could smell the inside of the residence, and the odor was not there during their July 2022 visit.
Once the officer entered the home, they said in the report there was dried feces on the floor and it appears to have settled into the edges of the walls, puddles of urine along the walls and on the floor, and the hardwood floors were stained with urine.
The officer said they were shown the dogs at the residence, including a black German Shepherd from the stair landing and an adult boxer mix who was in poor condition, was said to be riddled with cancer and under Veterinarian care in Maryland. According to the report, the officer tried to verify what vet the boxer was seeing, but Michelle Burgess-Morris told them that the vet’s name was “Dr. Lisa,” but she had the name of her clinic or the name of her mobile clinic.
A second officer arrived at the home and spoke with Thomas Morris and Michelle Burgess-Morris. The first officer talked to Haylee Morris, who showed them toys and beds for the dogs, all of which were dirty. The incident report said they filed referrals for an Adult Protective Services and a Department of Children’s Services visit to be conducted.
The report states that in a discussion with the family, the officer told them that the home must be cleaned and that they would visit on March 9 to see the progress. The officer said in the incident report that since none of the nine dogs, the bearded dragon or the parakeet appeared to be in life-threatening harm, they left the scene.
On March 8, the officer returned to the home, with Adult Protective Services and Family Crimes, and removed nine dogs, beaded dragon and parakeet. The officer said they called for a forensic officer, who took photos of the conditions of the home. When the forensic officer went upstairs, the officer said the forensic officer came out of the home and said there were several more dogs on the second floor. The officer said that they noticed random dogs running from the home and that officers began looking in rooms.
To remove all the animals, the report states that animal control officers were called in on their days off and additional trucks were brought for patrol officers to assist with a large amount of dogs. In the home, officers said they found two cats, a 12-week-old German shepherd puppy, a leopard Print Gecko and two guinea pigs alive.
The officer said in the report that there was urine and feces mixed with hay and straw and that while there were various animal cages throughout the room, no living animals were visible in the cages. In the room, officers found a cat, guinea pig, ferret, and rabbit all dead and decomposing. According to the report, only the cat and guinea pig were removed from this room.
Officers searched the backyard and opened a crawl space door. The report says that when the door was opened, several cats, three rats, a turtle and a dead bird were found. According to the narrative, none of the cats had food or water and several were very thin. Inside the garage, an official said a rabbit was found dead on a pile of garbage.
Another incident report states that while officers were on the scene on March 8, 12 cats, 17 dogs, three rats, a bird, a gecko, a bearded dragon, a turtle and two guinea pigs were removed and taken to Young-Williams Animal Center to be evaluated and housed. One dog was released to its owner.
The incident report states that four dead animals were removed: A rabbit, a cat, a bird, and a guinea pig. The report adds that there were two more dead animals were left at the scene because they were decomposed to an extent that they were not able to be removed for necropsy.
According to the report, multiple people told police that Haylee Morris and Isabella Morris were hired to pet sit for them, with one person saying that they had hired the two to pet sit their cat and two dogs, but when they returned, their cat had lost a significant amount of weight and the dogs crates had been zip-tied closed.
The animals were transported to Young-Williams Animal Center for evaluation and treatment. The shelter is also looking for people who can act as fosters for the animals, click here to find out more.