The recent unanimous approval of the 2016 budget for Grand Traverse County resulted in an across the board cut of approximately 4.25% to most departments, however the Health Department’s Animal Control Department was completely eliminated. The 2016 Grand Traverse Adopted Budget Expenditure sheet for the next three years shows no funding for an Animal Control Department. The 2015 Budget for Animal Control was $210,649.00.
Grand Traverse County Administrator Tom Menzel explained on WTCM’s radio show “The Afternoon Drive” that he was the one responsible for cutting the Animal Control Department and it was done because it was a “non-mandated” service, which means it’s not a service determined by state statute.
He went on to say that the Sheriff’s Department would take care of the “serious” animal issues, however, when Pet Friends Magazine contacted Sheriff Tom Bensley, he said that he was not consulted on the animal control department moving to his department – he knew nothing about it until it was discussed at the County Commissioner’s meeting by Menzel on December 16th. The Animal Control Department appears to have been eliminated with no input from the public, no questions from the County Commissioners at the meeting, and no meetings or discussions with the Sheriff’s Department. Currently, the Sheriff’s Department only responds to animal neglect, animal abuse and barking dog complaints. This was spelled out in a memo from Environmental Health/Animal Control Director Tom Buss to Sheriff Bensley in 2009 regarding the duties of Animal Control and the Sheriff’s Department pertaining to animal issues.
Many animals will likely die as a result of the decision to eliminate Animal Control Department and the two Animal Control Officers. Starting January 1st, 2016, roaming strays will be more likely to be hit by cars and at risk of being killed by people who want to get them off their property. With the impending winter season, many pets will suffer and die without an Animal Control to come to their aid. Dogs could also be killed by the Sheriff’s Department if an untrained officer deems a dog to be sick or injured. What will happen to the scared dogs who the officers think are dangerous? Will they be euthanized? And by whom? The current Animal Control Officers are trained in how to handle animals and know what the local and state animal laws are – something that most police officers probably do not know. Our Animal Control Officers are also trained in chemical immobilization (dart guns), something the Sheriff’s Department is not. County officials say that this is just a departmental move but there are huge gaps in services. The Sheriff’s Department hasn’t put out any statements that they are able or willing to do more than they already do – and it doesn’t appear that 100% of the current services will survive the move (see press release below)…
Animal Control Officers Ed Hickey and Cindy Burkhardt attend animal welfare conferences where they get training, learn new laws, obtain euthanasia certification and brush up on their skills, as well as network with others in animal welfare. They cover a county that is 601 square miles and is home to approximately 20,238 dogs, estimated from the 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demogrphics Sourcebook and census records. They also respond to horse issues in the county.
Hickey and Burkhardt are professionals who, over the years, have transformed the Animal Control Department into a well-respected department with very few complaints from the public. They’ve also forged great relationships with local animal rescue organizations. With untrained police officers in charge of animal issues, will we start seeing officers shooting dogs like in other cities where they don’t know the proper way to handle them as in this story out of Florida?
Former County Administrator Ross Childs said this about the situation, “I firmly believe that Animal Control should be staffed independently form the Deputies, with different job requirements. The operation has always been run in an efficient and caring manner by Ed and Cindy.”
There has been no “plan” given for the future and if and how the huge gaps in service will be addressed. There has been no collaboration with the Sheriff’s Dept. on how the county will serve the future needs of the area’s animal issues. Pet Friends Magazine contacted Animal Control Director Tom Buss, Grand Traverse County Administrator Tom Menzel and Health Department Director Wendy Trute to ask them who was responsible for the elimination of the Animal Control Department and what future plans were discussed. Menzel and Buss did not respond after many attempts to get answers. Trute referred me to the Public Information Officer but did give a statement that conflicted with Menzel’s WTCM comment about whose decision it was to eliminate Animal Control. Trute said, “it was a team decision, driven by the Commissioners strategic planning and County Administration budgeting process.” Even though she is the head of the Health Department and knows what was discussed and by whom, she commented, “as this is an overall county budget matter, I cannot personally respond or speak on behalf of the county.”
Menzel and other county officials have been saying that Animal Control is moving to the Sheriff’s Department however Sheriff Bensley says, “that’s a surprise to us” and said that more communication is needed. When asked what the new role of the Sheriff’s Dept. will be concerning Animal Control, Sheriff Bensley said “we have no idea.” He wasn’t consulted about it and he wasn’t asked if he would be able to manage the department. With his own department funding being cut, it is unlikely he will have the resources to do more than they already do.
Some question the job that the Sheriff’s Department is already currently doing with animal abuse cases, especially those concerning horses.
In November of 2014, there was a case regarding possible animal abuse and neglect involving horses in Williamsburg that was reported by concerned citizen Deb Zerafa. During the county’s walk-through of the property, after obtaining a warrant, it was reported that two of the horses had no access to water (it was frozen) and that their hay was was moldy and of poor quality. The body conditions of the horses were a 3.5 and a 4 on a Purina body conditioning scale which rates them from very thin to moderately thin. There were also issues with one of the horse’s feet which caused the horse’s legs to bow and turn to the outside. Additionally, a dead goat was found on the property. Animal Control officers had visited the year before and notified the owner to have the goat seen by a vet. There was a bay Horse (a 2 on the body condition score) found on the property on November 12th that Animal Control officers wanted to remove but were prevented from doing so by the Sheriff’s Department. It had no food, water or shelter. It died seven days later. In the end, the owner voluntarily surrendered the two surviving horses to Horse North Rescue but they were never charged with any abuse or neglect by the Sheriff’s Department or Prosecuting Attorney regardless of the evidence compiled by the Animal Control Officers. Zerafa’s letter to the Sheriff about the handling of the case can be viewed here.
Cutting the Animal Control Department with no future plan in place is sure to create chaos in the county. There are many questions that Trute, Menzel and Buss have not answered for the community. Will pet owners call the Sheriff or Cherryland Humane Society when they lose their dogs? What calls will the Sheriff’s Department respond to? How will pet owners ever get their stray dogs back? In 2014, Animal Control took in 261 dogs, 118 of which were returned to their owners. What will happen to people’s dogs now?? There is still a stray hold law in the state. Will people who find lost pets be required to hold them for a certain amount of time?
Where will the dogs be placed when an officer is involved in a bite case and needs to quarantine the dog? If quarantines for bites are not done and overseen, this will result in more citizens having to get rabies shots which are very costly. Who will monitor this? The Communicable Disease nurse? What if that citizen’s insurance won’t pay for shots. They can die. Rabies is incurable and 100% fatal.
Urgent care facilities and emergency rooms report bites to Animal Control immediately so that Animal Control Officers can contact the dog owners, do a follow up and place the animal under quarantine for ten days. Then they follow up and contact the owner to see how the dog is doing. They also coordinate cross county bite issues like a person who has a dog in Kalkaska but the person who was bit lives in Grand Traverse County. The county’s website says that the Animal Control division is an extension of the Health Department’s Communicable Disease Program for the control of rabies and other zoonotic diseases link to website snapshot How will this be handled now and by whom?
Where will the phones for the Animal Control Department be forwarded to? How will a Grand Traverse County resident or a tourist be able to report a lost or found dog? Who will collect that information?
Who will enforce the licensing and rabies vaccinations? Menzel has said that the Sheriff’s Department can get the revenue from the licenses, but with no one to enforce it, I doubt dog owners will pay for licensing in the future.
It appears that these questions have not been addressed by anyone involved in the elimination of the Animal Control Department and no plans have been made to answer them or deal with future consequences. The residents and taxpayers of Grand Traverse County deserve better. They deserve answers to all of these questions from Menzel, Trute, Buss and also the County Commissioners who allowed the department to be eliminated so quickly without any discussions.
The future for animal rescue groups is also uncertain as they cannot take in dogs that haven’t been held for the legal amount of days the state requires for owners to find them. How will rescue groups know if they are actually taking in someone’s dog if there is no governmental agency to guarantee the dog had a chance for it’s owner to find it? What kind of liability will the rescue groups incur if they let a person adopt a pet who someone else has been looking for? What happens if they spend a lot of money on the dog to get it vetted and then an owner steps forward?
AC PAW Founder, June McGrath was surprised to find out about the elimination of the Animal Control Department. McGrath says, “I am saddened to hear a county the size of Grand Traverse has voted to eliminate its Animal Control Department. I don’t think I know of a more animal loving community than Grand Traverse County. Compared to some of the counties that are much more financially disadvantaged and doing a great job, this decision by the powers that be should be quite unacceptable by our community. I’m sure there are many facts that I’m not aware of that has prompted this decision. The facts that I do know after working with a number of animal control agencies over the past 20 years of rescue is that Grand Traverse has a well trained compassionate team in their Animal Control Officers!! Many people don’t realize that Grand Traverse Animal Control does not deal with cat issues at all, so it seems they are dealing with half of what most Animal Control agencies are doing as it is. The Animal Control Department is working out of the Cherryland Humane Society so housing costs should be more reasonable than when they had their own building. I hope the Board will think hard before they truly remove the already seasoned and well trained Animal Control Officers from their jobs and transfer their duties to those police officers who are already dealing with people issues, and rightfully may resent more work being added to an already filled day.”
While it’s apparent that Menzel might think that the Sheriff’s Department will be the ones to deal with the County’s animal issues, the Grand Traverse County ordinance says otherwise which you can read here. The ordinance defines an Animal Control Officer as an agent of the Health Department, who is designated to enforce the County ordinance as well as the state’s 1919 Dog Law. It also defines the Director of Animal Control as the Director of the Grand Traverse Health Department and states that the Health Department is assigned as the County’s Animal Control Agency; with it’s Director being responsible to enforce the county ordinance and state law. The ordinance states that the agency shall capture, accept and confine unlicensed dogs, stray dogs, unwanted, abandoned and abused dogs.
That being said, the elected County Commissioners would most likely have to amend the ordinance to actually stop the Health Department from not being responsible for Animal Control services and change the ordinance to be enforced by the Sheriff’s Department instead. That would put the County Commissioners on the hook in the upcoming weeks to finalize the elimination of the Animal Control Department from the county as a whole or to move it to the Sheriff’s Department.
Another important consideration in the elimination of the Animal Control Department is how it will affect Cherryland Humane Society (CHS). They have a contract with the county to house the stray dogs, income which they will be losing soon. With a 60-day notice in their contract, CHS should still be housing stray dogs for the county through the middle of February, even though the two Animal Control Officers’ duties will end on December 31st. CHS has to be concerned that people will drop off stray dogs at their facility next year when they have no other options.
The elimination of the Animal Control Department and the Animal Control Officers is a huge step backwards in our county after coming so far. We were able to move the Cherryland Humane Society dogs from the small old building on La Franier Rd. that most deemed a “death camp” and are now housing them at the CHS. We were able to move the animal control dogs from the inadequate old county building into the Cherryland Humane Society building. We were able to give the euthanized dogs some dignity by having them cremated and not taken to the local dump. We now have a hands-on progressive and dedicated Director at the CHS, as well as a new Board who has improved the shelter tremendously. We have great Animal Control Officers who have a wonderful relationship with CHS and local animal rescue organizations. However, according to many county workers, we also have a local Health Department who has wanted to get rid of Animal Control from their department for years, and has now jumped on the opportunity that has come to them. It’s totally irresponsible to not have a plan in place for a department that impacts such a big community.
If you have an Animal Control issue, including a lost or found dog after December 31st of this year, and you don’t know what to do, the only options that seem to be available at this time are to call the current Animal Control Director Tom Buss at 231-995-6020 or Wenty Trute’s office at 231-995-6100 until the staff and the elected county officials formulate some kind of plan for the community’s animal issues.
What can YOU do, as a pet owner and taxpayer to voice your opinion?
1. Email your County Commissioners at firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Email Health Director, Wendy Trute at email@example.com
3. Email Tom Menzel at firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Go to the County Commissioner’s meeting on Tuesday, December 22nd at 6:00 p.m. and speak during the public comment section. There is one at the beginning and one at the end of the meeting. You will have five minutes to speak so prepare your words ahead of time and get to the point. The meeting is at 400 Boardman Avenue in Traverse City on the 2nd floor. Click here for the FB event page.