It was a full room at the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, December 22nd and many of the people were there because they had concerns about the recent elimination of the Health Department’s Animal Control Department and two Animal Control Officers.
Chairperson Christine Maxbauer started off the meeting with a few statements. She said there was misinformation about the situation in the public and also commented that the Commissioners intended to renew their contract with Cherryland Humane Society (CHS) to house their stray dogs. She said that CHS offers a valuable service to the community and that they are looking at how to strengthen their relationship including increased licensing fees. She continued to say that having an Animal Control Department in a Health Department is abnormal – that it’s usually ran through a Sheriff’s Department. She said that Sheriff Bensley is an animal lover and she was sure that he would be following “best practices” when he takes over the Animal Control Department.
Although Animal Control issues were not on the agenda, the next part of the meeting was opened up for public comment and many in the crowd spoke up and made their views and suggestions known to the Commissioners.
Several community members suggested that the Commissioners create an animal advisory committee of concerned citizens to help guide them through the transition and help offer solutions to the future needs of animal issues in the county. This has been done at many other animal shelters in Michigan and around the country – and some of these committees actually “run” the shelter/animal control by making policy decisions, having fundraisers and doing many other things. The speakers expressed their understanding of the financial restraints that the county was facing but Linda Price commented that the decision was done in haste (to meet a year-end budget deadline) and said that the Commissioners had a lack of knowledge about what happens next.
Concerns were raised about how the Sheriff’s Department would prioritize calls and their obligation to protect citizens while dealing with animal issues at the same time. Although many Sheriff’s Departments run Animal Control Departments, a majority of them have at least one dedicated Animal Control Officer who is trained to do their job and knows animal behavior. To become a qualified Animal Control Officer in Michigan, a person must complete a required 100 hours of training. This training has been completed by our current Grand Traverse Animal Control Officers and the training includes such things as studying state laws and local ordinances dealing with animal control; a half day spent with a local authority such as a County Commissioner discussing local policies and procedures; a day spent with the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture’s Field Inspector discussing state laws; two days spent with a neighboring county’s animal control program and a ride with an Animal Control Officer inspecting kennels and surveying operations and record keeping; a day spent in a large city’s Humane Society learning shelter operations; a day spent with the Sheriff or Police Chief discussing laws and enforcement; a day spent with the prosecuting attorney discussing preparing and writing complains, giving testimony and court protocol; a day spent with a licensed veterinarian learning methods of animal restraint and euthanasia; a day of emergency responder training and two days spent with a licensed veterinarian learning methods of tranquilizing animals.
That being said, police officers do not have to go through any of that training. If the Grand Travese Sheriff’s Dept. doesn’t have a dedicated Animal Control Officer to handle calls, they will instead have 48 different police officers responding to calls – officers who haven’t gone through any of the training above – and with no way to track repeat offenders like current Animal Control Officers do. What will be the protocol if a police officer has a stray dog in the back of their vehicle and they get called to a crime scene or accident? These officers will be in their own cars, on duty, hired to protect the citizens of our county – not hired to do animal control duties. Will they drive back to the precinct and jump into an Animal Control truck and thus become unable to respond to any other calls during that time? It was also learned that the county Sheriff’s Department doesn’t cover any animal issues in the City of Traverse City limits.
A citizen who spoke at the meeting was concerned about the ability of the police officers to be able to differentiate between a scared and a vicious dog. Another asked if police officers would shoot a dog who they deemed dangerous. Police officers aren’t trained to read the body language of a dog and this speaker was worried about how they would properly handle a stressful situation regarding a dog without putting themselves or the dog in danger.
Many in the crowd have dealt with current Animal Control Officers Ed Hickey and Cindy Burkhardt and complimented their professionalism and years of expertise that have made the Grand Traverse County Animal Control Department so successful. Others asked why these officers couldn’t be moved into the Sheriff’s Department since they are already trained and it would take time and money to get other police officers up to their same level of expertise. They questioned why the county would let go of trained officers when they would have to spend much time and money to train new officers. Amber Elliot commented that the current officers are trained in how to read and manage animals and that it’s not just about the ability to answer a phone (receive complaints).
AC PAW founder June McGrath and a volunteer with Horse North Rescue asked the commissioners what they are supposed to tell people when they call their rescue organizations with animal issues after January 1st. Rescue groups can’t take in stray animals unless they know they have been held for the legal amount of time according to State law, allowing pet owners to reclaim them. This is what animal control agencies do.
Currently, the duties of animal control falls under the Grand Traverse County animal ordinance that says the Health Department is responsible – but they will have no Animal Control Officers starting January 1st. No one with the County has answered the question about what will happen to stray dogs after January 1st. There is no one to pick them up and no place to report them. In a discussion with Sheriff Bensley on December 22nd, he said he will not be picking up stray dogs starting January 1st.
Local veterinarians have also expressed concerns over the issue of not having a county response to stray dogs. Veterinarians are often on the front lines and people bring in strays who are injured. What is to be done with these dogs?
There were many comments at the meeting about how the elimination of the Health Department’s Animal Control Department will affect other counties such as Leelanau. Will people start dropping off strays in other counties, making it even harder for a pet owner to find their dog and putting a financial burden on neighboring counties.
January 1st is nine days away and the future of animal control in Grand Traverse County is up in the air, both on a short term and long term basis. According to County Commissioner Alisa Kroupa, she doesn’t believe the Commissioners will vote to change the animal ordinance until after they learn more. She said “the ordinance won’t be on the agenda until next year. We need to hear a plan. That is addressed in the press release about the plan for the meeting.” According to Sheriff Bensley, that meeting won’t take place until Tom Menzel is back from his vacation so direct communications can be made. In my discussions with Sheriff Bensley, he reiterated that Menzel never came to him and discussed transferring Animal Control to his department. Sheriff Bensley said, “in no way was there any discussion.”
Looking at the financial numbers, Sheriff Bensley questioned why the county didn’t decide to just keep one Animal Control Officer instead of shutting down the whole department. He said there was no planning and no transition with the county – and that it would make sense to keep one or two people doing the job of Animal Control who are already very good at it. He asked why we need to be like everyone else (putting the responsibility with the Sheriff’s Department) if we already have a successful Animal Control Department.
Sheriff Bensley commented that the future of animal control doesn’t seem to be a priority to the county yet they expect it to be one for him and his department.