Is “Humane Animal Control” an Oxymoron?

April 5th, 2011 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized


Although I have become associated in Pennsylvania with the call for a divestment of animal control services by animal welfare organizations, I got my start in animal sheltering at a place which did animal control and did it well.  Thanks to the right demographics and a thoughtful service and billing model created by a former executive director, animal control services were provided in a way which were, at worst, welfare neutral for the animals and revenue neutral for the organization. 

In the charitable animal welfare world, being able to provide a service for animals that didn’t actually cause them greater harm and didn’t bankrupt your agency was a wild success.  Through some subsequent tweaking of the model, my staff and I were able to improve on the service even more over my time at that organization.

So, when I came to Berks County, I was a firm believer in the role of a strong animal welfare based animal control program and knew that I could bring a model which would drastically improve the quality of service delivery for people and animals here.  And for the time the HSBC still offered these services, we did just that.  Unfortunately, Berks was neither the ideal demographic nor situation for making any long term improvement to animal control services.  In fact, what I found was a circumstance which led animal control to be both vastly worse for animals in our care and vastly worse for our organization’s financial wellbeing.

Berks was among the only Pennsylvania counties which still had an archaic Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement contract for dog catching which provided a pittance in exchange for freeing the State Dog Warden from having to do his job.  This pittance was split between two organizations, as was dog catching responsibilities for municipalities within the county.  These municipalities generally offered a “donation” on top of the State funds, with a few (notably the City of Reading) having a formal contract for service.  Since the State contract mandated dog catching services under its contract with the two organizations, these services needed to be given regardless of whether the municipality provided an additional cent for service.

In some areas of Pennsylvania, this might not be an issue.  If a municipality had a choice between poor service (stray dog pick up during business hours and cats when it was convenient, if at all) and excellent service (24/7/365 on call service for all stray animals and much more) and the added price was only $1,000 to start, the municipal officials would consider it a no-brainer and take the better service for their residents and tax payers.  If you could go further and show them there was a way to create ordinances and programs that would reduce the stray burden- and their associated costs- further, they’d be all over it.

However, if you’ve spent more than an hour in Berks, you now that some of our residents and maybe many more of our elected officials are chea….OK, let’s not say that, let’s say thrifty.  Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?  Heck, for that matter why buy the carton if you can just suck the milk right from the dairy truck sent by the State?  In Berks, a majority of municipalities wanted just as much milk as they could fit in their mouth and was provided for free.  Cats?  If it’s not free, we don’t want to deal with it.  But do us a favor and get those ferals under control.  After hours, qualified staffing, helping injured pets, finding new ways to decrease the number of strays, good reporting so we know how much service is actually being provided?  Unless it’s free and comes with fries, no thanks.

The HSBC came to the difficult realization that we were being taken advantage of by State and municipal governments (not all, but many) and that usury was bankrupting us and leading to a euthanasia rate among strays that was double that of surrendered animals and double what is was in counties where animal control was provided professionally and in partnership with local municipal government.  Crippling for the HSBC and twice as deadly for strays?  It was an unpleasant decision, but a necessary one: we had to get out of the dog catching and euthanasia for hire business in Berks.

We turned our efforts to programs which would diminish the causes of animals entering shelters in Berks as strays or surrenders.  Veterinary services reaching over 10,000 animals outside out shelters each year, strengthened adoption services, Ani-Meals on Wheels, PetNet, Military Mutts foster program, adoption partnerships, cruelty and neglect prevention programs, emergency response services.  We did all this while we waited for what we saw as the inevitable collapse of Pennsylvania’s animal control “system”.  If you’ll permit me a very arcane Isaac Asimov analogy, we have been kind of like Hari Seldon’s Foundation.  We saw the crisis coming, knew we couldn’t stop it alone, but knew we could hasten the recovery by being a stronger organization and being prepared.

For those still struggling under the old system, we have nothing but sympathy.  We know how hard the job is and we respect others’ decision to keep doing it the old way.  We just think that the old way is wrong, bad for animals and our organizations, and the path to a collapse of the system of animal control, such as it is in Pennsylvania, especially in this economy.

While some denied the validity of our prophesies of doom, they are coming true.  In counties where the burden of animal control was being unfairly placed on charitable animal shelters, more and more started to ask themselves, “Why are we going bankrupt offering municipalities animal control services at a loss that require us to kill two out of every three strays we take in?”  And the next thing you knew, that shelter was out of the dog catching and euthanasia for hire business.  Suddenly, everyone thinks there is a crisis.  Now those who had been warned for years of the fall are screaming for the need to find a solution and, ever so charmingly, telling charitable animal shelters that they are obligated to catch and kills strays.  Isn’t that sweet?

Fortunately, there is a way out, even if it takes a crisis to lead us there.  The HSBC has already put out the only radically different proposal for equitably funding animal control services through a public/private service partnership that shares the costs and responsibility and places the work in the hands of those best equipped and experienced to do the job (see “A Modest Proposal”).  The good news is that it is also a model for providing truly humane animal control, not the “sweep the corpses under the rug” model employed in most places.

I only hope that in one, or even all, of the counties facing a crisis due to private shelters pulling out of animal control will seize this opportunity to break the old mold and create a new way forward that is good, fair and humane.  Some seem to be on that path.  If they do, government can get the services they require, people can get the help they need, animals will be rescued instead of rounded up, and we will all work together to find solutions.

 Humane animal control does not need to be an oxymoron.  We just need to stop being morons about how we do animal control.


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