Animal control enforcement abuse costs lives

A recent CNN Money article titled “Dogs killed over unpaid fines” is a scary commentary on how some local animal control agencies hold pets for what amounts to a ransom over leash law violations and other minor offenses, with the animals often ending up dead. In some cases, the animals are left alone but the owners are put in jail, such as the case of an 82-year-old Maryland widow who spent two days in jail because a neighbor complained to animal control that her Chihuahuas had gotten loose three times.

Activists and attorneys claim that local enforcement agencies target low-income pet owners, just as the recent exposés of police tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, pointed to practices that trap poor people in cascading traffic ticket fines that wind up costing thousands of dollars and often result in jail time.

Regardless of intent, it is a certainty that low-income families can’t afford to pay stiff fines, and can wind up with themselves and their pets entangled in a series of time- and money-consuming Catch-22s. Such individuals are usually without the resources to hire an attorney and their financial and legal vulnerability is usually easy to deduce from the neighborhood in which they live.

The incidents portrayed in this and in a follow-up article serve well as exhibits A to Z in the case against enforcement-based animal control, which tends to be driven more by revenue generation goals than by humane or genuine public safety concerns. By contrast, no-kill sheltering policies prioritize shelter staff positions that focus on saving lives (via improved animal care, good customer service, free spay/neuter services, innovative adoption promotions, etc.) over beefed-up enforcement.

The narrative of these articles also serves as a cautionary tale for those who advocate for mandatory spay/neuter laws despite opposition from every national animal welfare organization, including Best Friends. Mandatory spay/neuter laws and ordinances are usually enacted with the good intention of reducing the aggregate population of pets in a community, but they have historically failed at that goal for a variety of reasons, including the numerous exemptions allowed for pure-breed dogs in such laws, the difficulty of enforcement and the lack of universally accessible low-cost or free spay/neuter services.

More to the point of this blog, enacting mandatory spay/neuter laws without providing easy access to low-cost or free services puts low-income pet owners in the enforcement crosshairs. Those who can’t afford the going rate for sterilization at a vet office (if there even is one anywhere near their home) certainly can’t afford the fines that mandatory spay/neuter laws impose. Their options are to either lay low or surrender their pet to a local shelter.

In communities that have such ordinances, it is not uncommon for those who operate shelter surrender intervention programs to encounter poor folks turning in their pets — not because they don’t want them, but because they have no access to spay/neuter services, affordable or not, in their communities and can’t afford to pay the associated fines.

Animal control enforcement efforts are popular with local city and county councils, because they are revenue generators. In municipalities that contract their animal control duties out to a private agency, those contracts are often numbers-based, with the contracting agency being paid according to the number of animals entering the shelter, giving them an even greater incentive to levy enforcement fines that lead to owner surrenders. Because success is measured by profitability rather than by lives saved, such an approach to animal control does not prioritize lifesaving. Quite the contrary, in fact. It prioritizes high intake numbers and the minimal required shelter stay, with fatal consequences.

If the agencies cited in the CNN Money articles put as much energy and resources into shelter adoptions as they do into enforcement protocols that include unnecessarily impounding pets into already crowded shelters and dragging ill-prepared people into court, they could be well on their way to no-kill.

Lifesaving can and should be the first priority of every animal sheltering operation. The power to ensure that saving lives is the top priority lies with the voting public. Let your city council know that progressive, lifesaving shelter policies are important to you, and that it’s one of the boxes you check when deciding whom to vote for.

Together, we can Save Them All.

Francis Battista