FOUR PEOPLE ARRESTED FOR ANIMAL ABUSE AFTER PET-SITTING DEATHS INVESTIGATED IN KNOX CO.
Officers said they found numerous dogs, cats and other animals in poor condition or dead inside a home that was littered with trash and reeked of feces.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Four family members are facing animal abuse charges in Knox County following a months-long investigation that began after multiple people who hired them as pet sitters reported that their animals had died in their care or were returned in poor condition.
The Knox County Sheriff’s Office provided detailed officer reports that highlighted a long list of allegations involving severe neglect and abuse of dozens of dogs, cats, guinea pigs, lizards, rabbits and other animals the family kept in the home.
Animal control officers said they arrived to find the home filled with trash and reeking of feces and urine. Four dead animals were recovered before the arrests.
“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),” the KCSO report said. “If there were additional dead/decomposed animals, they were not visible in the clutter and garbage throughout the home.”
Haylee Morris, 22, Michelle Burgess-Morris, 50, Thomas Morris, 51, and Isabella Morris, 19, have each been charged with 2 counts of aggravated cruelty to animals, 2 counts of cruelty to animals and 1 count of violation of anti-rabies laws, according to KCSO.
The Initial Response
On July 16, 2022, a Knox County Animal Control officer responded to a home at 8112 LeClay Drive after receiving a complaint about an animal the family had fostered.
According to the officer, a woman arrived the day before to pick up the foster dog, Colby, and noticed he was in poor condition. She said Colby had suffered rapid weight loss roughly two weeks after being left in their care. After a veterinary check, she said Colby was determined to be emaciated and dehydrated and had likely been left to sit in his own urine and feces based on his fur. He also had fleas despite being given flea medication the day he arrived at the home on June 30.
The officer noticed clutter outside the home and said they noticed a strong smell of urine coming from inside, saying there were flies and gnats buzzing around windows where tufts of pet hair could be seen.
The officer said the home belonged to Haylee Morris. When animal control arrived, they met Morris’ grandmother at the door. She claimed the animals “were well taken care of” and called Morris.
Morris eventually arrived at the home and told the officer there was an aggressive dog inside, denying that Colby had deteriorated in her care. She said the flies were due to an air conditioning outage. Morris said she had fostered animals from various agencies in the past, including Young-Williams Animal Center.
The officer obtained a list of Morris’ animal adoptions from YWAC, which showed she had adopted 8 rabbits, two dogs, a cat, two birds, and two hamsters from them since 2021. In less than a year, all but one of those animals died.
The KCSO report said Morris was also fostering four kittens from YWAC at the time. One of the foster animals was listed as having died in her care on June 3 and another died on June 10.
The animal control officer said it asked YWAC staff if they had visited the home during the foster period. According to the report, a YWAC foster counselor said they don’t conduct home visits on foster cats due to the large number of felines that they have to care for. The counselor said YWAC never conducted a home check on Morris.
Months Later, Officers Enter the Home
After the initial 2022 report, officers returned for a welfare check on March 5, 2023. Knox County Animal Control said it had received a complaint that Morris was possibly abusing or neglecting dogs, saying multiple calls had been issued at the address for the same issue approximately five times.
An officer arrived and heard barking coming from the garage, but said they couldn’t tell how many dogs were inside. They couldn’t make contact with Morris, so they left a warning letter.
An officer returned the next day and made contact with Morris’ father, Thomas Morris. They also were able to speak with his wife, Michelle Burgess-Morris, the night before to set a time to check inside the home.
The father told the officer they needed to reschedule the home inspection, saying Haylee Morris had suffered a stab wound to her leg from a knife placed in the trash by the grandmother, who they said suffered from dementia.
The father said his other daughter needed to be taken to an urgent care center for a shoulder injury she suffered while playing catch. The officer agreed to return the next day.
On March 7, officers were finally able to enter the home. They were greeted by Michelle and Thomas Morris. The two told officers there were nine dogs inside the home.
When they went inside, officers said the home reeked of urine and feces, saying they saw feces dried up on the floor and puddles of urine along the walls and floors.
“The hardwood floors were stained black from urine,” they said.
Officers found garbage lining the walls and flies crawling around the home. They asked to see the animals and found one of the dogs in “poor condition.” The family said the dog was riddled with cancer.
At the time, officers didn’t see any other animals. The family said they also kept a bearded dragon and a parakeet. The officers said they had to conduct the interview outside due to the smell.
When the officers talked with Haylee Morris, she showed them the dogs’ toys and beds. The officers said all the beds were dirty.
The officers advised the family they would have to refer the case to Adult Protective Services and Child Protective Services due to the condition of the home and the presence of an elderly adult and a 13-year-old in the home.
Officers left the animals in the home overnight, saying none of them appeared to be in life-threatening harm at the time.
Dozens of Animals Discovered
On March 8, officers returned to the home again with Adult Protective Services to remove the animals. The Forensic Unit was also called to document the home conditions.
Officers said Isabella Morris, Haylee Morris’ 19-year-old sister, became upset when they told her they were removing the animals. Animal Control began loading some of the dogs into their vehicles when the forensic officer called them to let them know they had found “several more dogs” upstairs.
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. Officers couldn’t see it at first but heard it meowing.
Officers found another German shepherd puppy inside a closet in Haylee’s bedroom.
One bedroom door, called the “Babies Room” in the report, was closed off with the following note: “STOP Babies Present. What good reason do you have to enter?? NONE Leave babies alone and STAY OUT.”
Officers said they found a dead cat decomposing under a bucket inside the “Babies Room,” saying they had trouble breathing due to the strong smell of ammonia.
“The floor was elevated due to the volume of fecal matter mixed with hay/straw,” the report said.
Officers also found a dead guinea pig in a plastic garbage bag, a dead ferret in a closet, and a dead rabbit between some debris.
Officers said they couldn’t tell if there were more animals dead upstairs because of the sheer amount of trash, clutter and feces.
Their findings didn’t end there. Officers inspected a crawl space in the backyard and found animals in cages underneath the home, including several cats, a turtle, the rats, 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 were greeted with waist-high garbage piles. They said there was so much they couldn’t get inside, so one officer waded into the garbage and manually opened the garage door.
Officers said they found a dead rabbit on one of the garbage piles.
In total officers said they removed 12 cats, 17 dogs, three rats, one bird, two lizards, one turtle, and two guinea pigs. The four dead animals they found were recovered.
“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),” the report said. “If there were additional dead/decomposed animals, they were not visible in the clutter and garbage throughout the home.”
When they interviewed the family, officers said the father denied knowing about the other animals. Investigators said they have yet to determine how the four animals died. According to officials, bonds are pending on the charges.