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Communities, groups struggle with how to deal humanely with animals

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Catherine W. Idzerda
January 14, 2013

In the town of Turtle, stray animals end up in the public works garage.

In the town of Milton, the policy for strays is finders keepers, more or less.

In Janesville and Beloit, a new plan calls for owned animals that are collected by police to be sent to the Dane County Humane Society.

Confused?

It's not surprising.

A change in the way the Rock County Humane Society does business has caused local governments to rethink how they handle unwanted, stray and seized animals. The process involved a messy tangle of emotions, values, tax dollars and conflicting interpretations of state statutes.

Contracts have been signed and settled, but plenty of questions remain about the obligations that municipalities bear in animal control and care and about the role of the Rock County Humane Society.

Interpreting the law

State statutes do not require counties or municipalities to contract for or run their own humane societies or pounds. The statutes also say that municipalities may—but are not required to—hire or provide licensed animal control officers.

Instead, state statute 174.042 states, "An officer shall attempt to capture and restrain any dog running at large and any untagged dog."

Interpretations of 174.042 vary:

-- Police and some town officials point out that "shall attempt to capture" is different from "must take custody of." The statute does not define what constitutes an "attempt to capture."

-- Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said, "I have never stumbled on any requirements that cities are responsible for animal control and care."

Thompson acknowledged that officers must deal with dogs that are threats to public safety, and they are required to enforce statutes that cover cruelty to animals.

-- Richard J. Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, said his organization "recommends that its members have a minimum kind of process" for handling strays.

Along with statute 174.042, Stadelman cites statute 60.24, which indicates the town board chair is responsible to "see that peace and order are maintained in the town."

Humane society's role

Until 2009, most local residents and officials didn't give much thought to stray animal control and care. They knew it was expensive, and most assumed it was the province of the Rock County Humane Society.

That's not the case.

Animal welfare and rescue groups such as Touched by a Paw in Whitewater and Friends of Noah in Edgerton are not legally obligated to care for every stray that comes their way. They do the best they can with the resources they have.

Because the Rock County Humane Society has traditionally contracted with local governments to provide holding facilities for stray and seized animals, residents and officials came to see it as the humane society's job.

"We're not the Rock County Humane Society," said Angela Rhodes, humane society executive director, emphasizing the word "the."

"We're a private animal shelter located in Rock County."

Likewise, the Dane County Humane Society and the Green County Humane Society are private groups.

The society's role has changed through the years.

In 1976, the Rock County Humane Society opened as a private, nonprofit shelter.

"Somewhere in the '80s, we started providing stray services for the city of Janesville," Rhodes said. "Beloit used to run their own facility; they found out we could do it so cheaply, they got on board."

Other municipalities began to come to the shelter asking for services.

"Over the decades, that just kind of morphed into—understandably—people just then assuming that we are a government animal control facility," Rhodes said.

By 2009, when Rhodes arrived, the agency was doing seven-day animal holds and killing significant numbers of animals.

After seeing the numbers, Rhodes encouraged the humane society's board of directors and staff to hold a planning session to decide what kind of organization they wanted to be.

"I asked, 'Do we want to be just a pound for the municipalities? Do we want to take people's donations to cover an animal sitting in a kennel that's going to be euthanized?'" Rhodes said. "I believed, I still believe, that's not why people donate to us."

Rhodes and her board looked at the organization's struggling finances—and its mission— and decided the humane society needed to change course.

"It was clear that we couldn't ever help more animals, save more animals, fulfill our mission of being a private shelter to help more animals without getting our contractual obligations in line," Rhodes said.

Changing what had become the status quo wasn't easy.

Different strokes

Every county in Wisconsin has a different way of handling animal control and the care of strays.

Dane County and Madison have an animal services department that's part of their joint department of public health.

Animal services responds to calls about aggressive animals, stray animals, animal bites, animal cruelty and animal neglect.

The Dane County Humane Society, which is not a government organization, has contracts with Madison and Dane County to be the holding center. It has veterinarians on staff who can monitor animals quarantined for rabies.

People can surrender animals at the Dane County Humane Society. However, if people who surrender animals live in municipalities that don't have contracts with the humane society, they pay $30.

The Green County Humane Society, which is not a government organization, has contracts with Green and Lafayette counties and with Monroe. Those contracts vary significantly in scope.

-- Lafayette County: Only dogs are included in the contract. Only police officers or municipal office holders are allowed to take animals to the shelter.

For that service, the county pays the shelter $125 per dog.

-- Green County: The humane society picks up restrained cats and dogs within the unincorporated areas of the county and in incorporated areas with no law enforcement. The society assists with pickups in incorporated areas to the "extent that it is possible."

"Restrained" means on a leash or confined in a carrier or other enclosure. Restrained does not mean confined to a garage.

Green County pays the humane society $47,485 annually to cover the costs of all seven-day stray holds.

In addition, the humane society is paid $10 a day for each animal held at the county's request beyond those seven days. The county might ask that animals be held for more than seven days in cases of animal abuse or neglect.

The humane society also assists the county with cases of animal abuse or neglect.

-- Monroe: The humane society picks up restrained cats or dogs between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. The society provides an area for quarantined animals, and the city has "priority relative to the use of the shelter."

However, the society is not required to take in more than three dogs and three cats from one household at any time.

Under previous contracts, the city paid the humane society $22,500 a year, plowed the parking lot and performed a variety of repairs on the city-owned building.

This week, the organization is moving into its own newly constructed building.

The city will pay $35,000 for services in 2013.

The society will continue to help the city with enforcement of animal ordinances by furnishing records and other information for prosecution.

Lakeland Animal Shelter in Walworth County is one of the few shelters in the state that does it all:

-- It cares for stray, abandoned and unwanted animals and tries to find new homes for them.

-- It employs a certified animal control officer who does animal cruelty and neglect investigations.

-- It helps law enforcement with animal rescue.

For that, Walworth County pays Lakeland about $150,000 a year.

The cost of running the shelter for a year is about $750,000, said Lakeland Animal Shelter Executive Director Kristen Perry.

Where does the additional $600,000 come from?

Fundraising, fundraising and more fundraising.

"We are constantly looking for ways to fundraise," Perry said. "If we can't fund it, we can't do it."

She believes Lakeland provides a unique service in Wisconsin.

"To my knowledge, we're the only county in the state that has a countywide contract," Perry said. "It works for us; it's our commitment to the animals in this area."

But no matter how you look at it, it is a money-losing venture, she said.

The economic downturn hasn't helped. Animals are arriving with more severe medical problems, and it takes longer to get them into "adoption ready" condition.

About 85 percent of donations go to animal care, and that's evident at the shelter. Broom-closet-sized offices contain two desks. What was once a staff break room has evolved into storage space for donations, equipment and supplies.

A room that served as a kitchen is now used for ill cats.

The shelter is in the middle of a capital campaign for a new building.

"We're committed to the fact, but we also want people to know that we're not going to go into debt to built a building we can't afford," Perry said.

It might be another five—or 10—years before the new shelter is built.

Despite the financial challenges and the increasing medical needs of animals, Perry thinks the system works for Walworth County.

"It really says a lot of pet owners, for the people in Walworth County, that they think it's enough of a priority to keep us here," Perry said.

'Adoption guarantee'

The Rock County Humane Society now is an "adoption guarantee" shelter for dogs. The organization is working toward a similar guarantee for cats.

Adoption guarantee shelters are sometimes referred to as "no kill" shelters, but that's not entirely accurate, Rhodes said.

Rescue organizations that guarantee adoption place animals into four categories:

-- Healthy. The animal is fine and ready to be adopted.

-- Treatable/rehabilitatable: Something's physically or mentally wrong with the animal, but it can be fixed.

-- Treatable/manageable: Something is wrong, but there might be an owner who could deal with a special behavioral or physical need.

-- Unhealthy and untreatable: The animal is unsafe to place into a home or so medically compromised that euthanasia is the most merciful option.

Rhodes acknowledged that it is more expensive to run an adoption guarantee shelter.

Financial statements show that while the number of animals at the Rock County Humane Society has dropped significantly, expenses have leveled off.

That's because the number of animals killed also has decreased significantly. There are fewer animals, but they stay longer.

How much does it cost to keep an animal?

"A million things go into that cost," Rhodes said. "It includes our having the building here for seven days, having the lights on, having the heating—or cooling—on for seven days, staff time and vaccinations."

To house an animal for seven days, it costs $160, Rhodes said.

The new contracts with Janesville pay the society $140 per dog.

"It's still subsidized by donations, but to a much smaller degree than it used to be," Rhodes said. "And on day No. 8, that animal is our property, and the money clock is all on us."

The cost charged per stray animal is the same for all contracts, Rhodes wrote in an email: $140 per dog, $70 per cat and half that for other small animals.

The humane society also has contracts to care for stray animals from Beloit, Milton, Evansville, Clinton, Orfordville and the towns of Beloit, Harmony, Fulton and Union.

A few places that used to have contracts with the humane society found their own solutions. In the town of Turtle, stray dogs end up in kennels in the department of public works garage. Last year, the towns of Milton and La Prairie were handling things on a case-by-case basis.

According to tax returns, the humane society had $1.78 million in assets in 2011.

Rhodes said many of those assets are tied up in the building and grounds on South Arch Street in Janesville. Because the society is in an aging building, money must be set aside for repairs. In particular, the heating, air conditioning and ventilation system is aging. It's expected to cost close to $500,000 to replace.

The society is not saving for a new building, Rhodes said.

A capital campaign would be a "decades-long project and would be impacted by whether we would be providing animal control or just private sheltering," she wrote in an email.

New contracts

The costs of animal care have frustrated municipalities in Rock County and sent them searching for other options.

In the past, many towns contracted with the humane society to pick up dogs but not cats or other animals.

Rhodes said valuing one animal over another would be contrary to the humane society's mission, and that's not what donors expect.

Town officials, however, worry about unexpected expenses. A litter of kittens could cost $1,200, for example. It's hard for a town to budget when it doesn't what its costs will be.

Rhodes said cats and kittens from towns rarely come into the shelter. Most people simply won't make the effort to trap and bring in the animals.

That doesn't mean it can't happen.

Two years ago, Janesville officials became frustrated when the society doubled its charge to the city from about $114,000 to $206,000 annually. That was later reduced.

Society officials said then that the additional charges still did not cover the costs of animal care.

More recently, Janesville officials said they were informed that $27,000 of the $72,000 the city paid for animal pickup was a "flat fee" and couldn't be eliminated—even if the city hired someone else to pick up the animals.

Rhodes said the flat fee "provides for a part-time staff person and overhead for intake that we must additionally employ just to address the large intake numbers from the cities. The other contracted municipalities don't pay a monthly fee—and never have—because their numbers are so low that we don't have to hire additional staff to cover them."

Police expressed frustration with the humane society's decision to stop taking "owned animals."

An "owned" animal usually is seized by the police after an arrest. For example, during a drug raid, officers might discover three dogs in a house. The animals have to go somewhere while the arrested person goes to jail.

Those animals are particularly challenging. After getting out of jail, the owner could go to the humane society and demand his property back. In other cases, owned animals languish in the kennels, and their owners don't retrieve them.

Rhodes said she is frustrated by media stories that made it seem the humane society was turning away dozens of abused animals. Almost all animal seizures result from the arrests of animal owners—not abuse and neglect of the animals.

"The fact that we haven't been able to accept owned animals for over two years now isn't a matter of just 'policy' or the fact that we don't want to," Rhodes wrote in an email. "We would love to be able to help and provide comprehensive services, but we are not able to."

The organization has no quarantine areas, nor does it have a veterinarian to do bite observations.

The city was told that the policy was changing and that it would have to make other arrangements, she said.

Janesville Police Chief David Moore wouldn't comment on his relationship with Rhodes, but he would say he's frustrated because the policy "puts officers in the field in a difficult position."

Officers have had to adjust as best they can. In one case, an officer went to a home to feed an animal. In another case, an officer kept a dog in the back seat of his squad car for an entire shift while trying to determine what to do with the animal.

Under new contracts, Janesville and Beloit will take owned animals that have been seized and strays with serious medical issues to the Dane County Humane Society.

That organization has a veterinarian on staff and has facilities for animals that are sick or need to be quarantined.

Stray animals will continue to go to the Rock County Humane Society.

Janesville Deputy Police Chief Dan Davis said he hopes the new contract with Dane County will help alleviate tensions between the society and the city and, more importantly, give officers a place to take animals.

The Rock County Humane Society cannot be "the end all and be all" of all the animal control challenges in the county, he said.

Countywide solution

Although contracts have been settled, the issue won't go away soon.

Rhodes believes a countywide solution might be the best answer.

So do many local officials. About a year ago, local veterinarian Dean Peterson and Davis organized meetings with town board members and city officials in an effort to find a countywide solution.

"I think that idea lived its life expectancy and died," Davis said. "If there's going to be a countywide approach, barring some unforeseen circumstance, it's going to involve some involvement from the county board."

Davis recognizes that such a solution isn't realistic in this economy.

Rock County Administrator Craig Knutson said a countywide contract would be a "more consistent approach," but there's no way the county could take it on because of a state cap on its revenues.

"With zero percent levy increases, we wouldn't have the capacity to take it over," Knutson said.

In other words, even if the county wanted to raise taxes, it couldn't.

The county clerk receives a small amount of money from dog licensing fees, but that would barely begin to cover services.


 
 
 
 

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