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Getting response to animal control issues is frustrating residents

July 30, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com
  • Humane Society of Washington County field service supervisor Evelyn Garrett removes a kitten from a downtown apartment Thursday. Garrett's job includes picking up stray animals and responding to complaints about animal welfare.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

One day last winter, Deb Eckel was taking a walk around her Keedysville neighborhood when a neighbor's Doberman-mix dog broke through its electric fence and bit her on the leg.

Concerned the dog might harm others, Eckel said, she called the health department and was referred to the Humane Society of Washington County, but was disappointed with the response.

"I didn't feel like there was any satisfying conclusion," she said. "They (said they) would send someone out to see the owner. I was sort of out of the loop."

Eckel is one of many area residents who have said efforts to seek help with animal issues have left them confused, frustrated or feeling left on their own.

Michelle Carbaugh, who lives east of Hagerstown, said she recently spotted a large snapping turtle crawling toward the road on Jefferson Boulevard near Antietam Creek on her way to work.

Carbaugh was concerned the turtle would be hit or could cause a crash, but didn't have the strength or the protection needed to move it. Calls to the Humane Society and the Washington County Sheriff's Office yielded no rescue for the animal, which she discovered dead on the road on her way home.

Another Hagerstown woman said when her neighbor's dog burrowed under her fence and threatened her elderly dog, the Humane Society told her they couldn't help unless she caught the dog.

Some residents say situations like these are evidence that the Humane Society isn't responsive to the community. Some even say that the agency's response, or lack of it, puts people at risk.

Paul Miller, the agency's executive director, said the Humane Society of Washington County's vision is to be the area's leading resource for animal-related issues, but that doesn't mean it will be able to send someone out to help with every call.

 Sometimes, that's because of limited resources; sometimes it's due to restrictions in the organization's contract with the county or the animal control ordinance; and sometimes the matter is the jurisdiction of another agency, such as police or the Department of Natural Resources, he said.

"What we're trying to do is be the resource," Miller said. "If we can't help you, we can direct you to someone who can or should be able to."

The Humane Society is a private nonprofit organization contracted by Washington County to serve as the county's official animal control agency and enforce the county's animal control ordinance. As an organization, its mission is "to improve the quality of life for all animals," Miller said. Beyond that, its contracted responsibilities come from the ordinance and relate to issues such as licensing, kennel inspections, animals "at large," public nuisance animals, vicious and dangerous dogs, and control of rabies.

One of the limiting factors in responding to calls is manpower, Miller said.

"We get calls, 'We found stray dogs,' 'I saw a dog run down the street,' you name it — it goes on and on," Miller said. "It's not that I don't want to go on them ... but I don't have enough officers."

When fully-staffed, the Humane Society has three animal-control officers to cover six days' worth of shifts and after-hours on-call duties for emergencies, Miller said. In a typical year, they collectively respond to between 1,000 and 1,100 calls, he said.

Right now, with one position vacant and one officer injured and on light duty, the agency has only one animal-control officer on the road, Miller said.

"So, you know, we just try to do the best we can," he said.

That means being choosy about calls such as the turtle in the road, which he said the agency will help with if it can on a case-by-case basis.

Sometimes, Miller said the Humane Society is limited by complainants' unwillingness to sign an affidavit about an attack or other violation of the ordinance. Officers will talk to the pet owner and give advice, but unless officers witness a violation or get a signed statement, they are powerless to issue a citation, he said.

That might have been the case in the situations Eckel and the elderly dog owner described, he said.

Other situations are outside the scope of the agency's contract, Miller said. The county's contract with the Humane Society specifically states that the agency "is not responsible to respond to or handle issues related to wild animals unless a person is bitten by a wild animal as defined in the Ordinance."

 Wild animal issues are the domain of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Miller said.

Pat Travis, rabies program coordinator at the Washington County Health Department, said getting help with a suspected rabid animal can be difficult, particularly if the animal has not bitten or gotten its saliva on anyone.

 Wildlife issues are the jurisdiction of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which has limited manpower, and the Humane Society has no authority to step in unless there has been an exposure, Travis said.

"So what happens is, especially with wildlife on your property, you're responsible for it yourself," she said. "You either have to shoot it yourself or pay to have it taken off your property."

Katrina Stonesifer, associate director of DNR's Wildlife Heritage Service, said the service has only one wildlife officer to cover Washington and Frederick counties.

"Realistically, with just one person, we have to triage to some extent what we're able to go out on," she said.

DNR works with a network of nuisance wildlife cooperators and can refer callers to someone who can remove the animal, she said.

Even for complaints such as dog attacks, excessive barking or dogs at large, for which the Humane Society does have authority under the ordinance, the Humane Society often is limited by complainants' unwillingness to sign an affidavit about the violation. Officers will talk to the owner of a pet that has been the subject of a complaint and give advice, but unless officers witness a violation or get a signed statement, they are powerless to issue a citation, Miller said.

Miller said many animal problems come down to a need for owners to be more responsible.

"I could have 100 officers and I still couldn't prevent a lot of these things," he said.

Miller said he has been researching other jurisdictions' animal control programs and plans to suggest some changes to the Washington County Commissioners.

One animal-control program in Calgary, Alberta, that has been held up as a model approach uses a combination of hefty fines, public education and a rigorous dog-licensing program, he said.

Miller reiterated his support for a leash law, which would replace the current ordinance's subjective prohibition on "at large" animals with a specific requirement for leashes.

The ordinance defines "at large" as "off the premises of its owner, and not under the immediate control, charge or possession of the owner or other responsible person capable of physically restraining the animal."

This leaves much to the animal control officer's judgement, Miller said.

"Can it be 50 feet from the owner?" he asked. "Can it be 500 feet from the owner? Does it mean it comes back the first time the owner calls it or the 40th time the owner calls it?"

Miller's suggestion to introduce a leash requirement failed to gain support from the previous board of commissioners during an overhaul of the ordinance approved in October.

Miller stressed the need for the county commissioners to take responsibility for any further improvements needed to the animal control ordinance.

For example, the ordinance's definition of "domesticated animal" lists cows, fowl and horses as included examples, but excludes "farm animals," meaning those maintained for food or fiber. This left Animal Control Board members scratching their heads as to whether a recent dog attack on show sheep qualified as an attack on a domesticated animal, Miller said.

"This is their ordinance, it's not mine," Miller said of the county commissioners. "All I'm trying to do is enforce what they think is good for the people. They're going to have to be the ones to stand up and say we're not going to accept this anymore; it's not acceptable for dogs to be doing this."

Asked about potential improvements to animal control, many of the current commissioners said they were open to discussing changes to the ordinance.

Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said in particular the recent incident in which two dogs killed several of a farmer's sheep suggested a need to revisit the ordinance.

"Any time we don't have an ordinance strong enough to protect people's property, then we've got some work to do, and I look forward to that," she said.

Commissioner Jeff Cline said he thought perhaps the ordinance placed too much trust on animals' owners.

"You can't always depend on the responsibility of the pet owner, so I possibly would want to review that," he said.

Commissioner William B. McKinley said he thought the county should focus on making sure the existing regulations are being properly enforced.

"What we need to be sure happens, and I'm sure it is, is that we are upholding the laws and ordinances that we have," he said.

The commissioners said they would have to see hard data before approving funding for additional animal-control officers.

The county contributed about $1.135 million to the Humane Society last fiscal year and increased that figure to $1.153 million in this fiscal year's budget.

"Before we would take a look at helping (with more officers), we would have to make sure there is a need for more help," Commissioner William B. McKinley said. "I haven't seen any data or statistics showing that calls go untended or whatever."

Commissioners President Terry Baker said he would encourage the Humane Society to look for money for more personnel from within its existing budget.

Callaham said her support for additional officers would depend on whether public-safety issues were going unaddressed.

"We will always find money for public-safety issues, but in this time of recession, where every government is just struggling, it's tough to find new money for nuisance issues," she said.

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