The Ugly Truth about Grand Traverse County Animal Control

Imagine if you will, a Grand Traverse County Animal Control Officer who has 601 square miles to cover in 25 hours a week. That area has about 90,000 people which equates to 35,000 families and about 13,000 dogs. Dogs like the one in the photo above depend on part-time Grand Traverse County Animal Control Officer, Deb Zerafa. The taxpayers also depend on her to keep them safe. However, these dogs and the taxpayers have only been able to depend on her help on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The cries of the dogs in the county and calls from concerned citizens have not been heard four days out of seven or when Zerafa is sick or on vacation because she is the only Grand Traverse County Animal Control Officer.

Seventeen months after Grand Traverse County eliminated their Animal Control Division and their two full-time officers, they are no closer to finding a permanent solution to providing adequate Animal Control services in the county. The county continues to marginalize the Animal Control Division and the services that the county residents depend on. They are not providing the hours, funding, staff or respect the division needs. The county’s stop-gap measure of hiring Zerafa part-time in October of 2016 seems to be a decision made to quell the discontent of the public instead of a decision to provide a fully-functional Animal Control Division. Hiring one part-time Animal Control Officer is not a serious solution to Animal Control issues in Grand Traverse County. Hiring a second and only seasonal Animal Control Specialist is also not a serious solution. How will this help the high volume of calls that they receive in the winter months – or in the spring or fall?

Other less populated counties in Michigan have more Animal Control staff and more funding than Grand Traverse County. 2016 revenue shows that only about $80,000 came into the Animal Control Division through their fees, with almost $30,000 of that going to Cherryland Humane Society through the boarding contract with them. Grand Traverse County has the only self-funded Animal Control Division in Michigan. The Animal Control Division is completely self-funded by fees through licensing, kennel inspections and reclaim fees.

A recent letter to the editor in the Record-Eagle from David Agee told about meeting with Zerafa. He said, “I found her (Zerafa) to be pleasant, intelligent, competent and professional. She also seemed discouraged on her way to disillusioned. She is the only officer, works part-time and handles, serious, even dangerous situations. When I met her, she was investigating a puppy mill. Her department is underfunded, poorly equipped and she is poorly paid. She wears hand-me-down uniforms and a protective vest. She is unable to access LEIN (Law Enforcement Information Network) or do background checks before going into potentially dangerous situations alone to see who may have prior felonies, firearms or histories of violence.”

Agee continues, “Meanwhile, our County Commissioners play kick-the-can with the Sheriff’s Department over the Animal Control Division. While it is not a mandated service, communities have always recognized Animal Control as a need and basic service. If we can find the money for endless studies on bridges, dams, traffic circles and Eighth Street, we should be able to find money for Animal Control. We are talking about living, sentient beings here. Most of us love animals. We should care about the safety of our public servants. The situation is appalling.”

A hungry stray is captured and has a good meal and warm bed at the Cherryland Humane Society.

Grand Traverse County resident, Sandy Miller, contacted Pet Friends Magazine about her interaction with Zerafa. Miller said, “I cannot say enough about how wonderful she (Zerafa) is. I called her shortly after she had started her position concerning two dogs that I felt were being neglected. She responded within a few hours. She checked on the situation shortly there after and addressed the owners of the dogs and there was a good outcome. I am an animal lover and she obviously is one also. She goes above and beyond and follows up quickly. I have had other family members have issues with dogs being consistently loose in their neighborhood which has very busy roads. Zerafa also addressed the situation very quickly and I believe saved a dog from eventually being hit by a car. We are so lucky to have her!”

Welfare checks on animals is one of the most important duties of an Animal Control Officer.

Zerafa, an animal lover, also has a Pre Law Degree and is ABA certified as a Legal Assistant, not something Animal Control Officers usually have in their back pocket to help them navigate animal laws. Unfortunately, what she doesn’t have are the hours and enough additional help to give proper attention to the animal control needs of our county. Pet Friends Magazine reached out to past county employees who also agree that a 25-hour a week part-time Animal Control Officer cannot adequately serve the needs of the county. The history of the Animal Control Division shows that most of the time, the Division had three full-time staff members, even four at one point. Later on, before the Division was eliminated, they were down to two full-time positions. 25 hours is not enough time to listen to phone messages, return phone calls, log in calls, drive all over the county, respond to calls, do welfare checks, issue citations, transport strays to Cherryland Humane Society, follow-up on calls, track situations, fill out daily time sheets, log into the computer in order to maintain adequate records and do the other tasks that the job requires. Zerafa doesn’t take a lunch and has had to do important work on her own time because of her concern for the needs of the animals and citizens of the county.

From October of 2016 to March of 2017, according to county records, there were 2805 calls made to the Animal Control Division. Incoming calls lasted 81.2 hours and outgoing calls lasted 98.8 hours. In February 2017 alone, 615 calls were made to Animal Control. In seven months of service, Zerafa has worked approximately 750 hours and 25% of that time was devoted just to listening and returning phone calls. Realistically, it is safe to assume that many of those calls are being listened to and made while Zerafa is on the road, doing other tasks or on her own time. The amount of miles driven by Zerafa in the seven months she’s been on the job is 3552. During that time, she has taken 56 dogs into the shelter (out of 126 received by Cherryland Humane Society).

Furthermore, without being deputized by the Sheriff’s Office, Zerafa is unable to do important aspects of her job including enforcing ordinances. In Zerafa’s current situation, the Health Department cannot guarantee the health and safety of its own Animal Control Officer. Imagine what would have happened if Zerafa was the one who had went to the recent dog fighting incident in Grand Traverse County without being armed to protect herself like the police officer was.

While previous Animal Control Officers have been allowed to investigate neglect and abuse claims and then turn the information over the Sheriff’s Office, information Pet Friends obtained from the county about a recent complaint concerning an emaciated cow show that there was no official involvement with Zerafa during the police investigation. A police officer, untrained in animal abuse and neglect, used the internet to look up what a Jersey cow should look like and he wrote in the report that he doesn’t find the cow to “be in danger” or “mistreated” before any photos were even sent out to a veterinarian. Zerafa should have been called in to assist in the investigation as she is a trained Animal Control Officer, knows the animal laws well and what to look for in an abuse or neglect situation. Before the officer went to visit the cow’s owner, Zerafa had pre-arranged a visit with a veterinarian at the residence of the cow’s owner. That visit, after the officer’s investigation, resulted in an assessment by a veterinarian that the cow was 100 lbs. underweight. Zerafa was able to talk with the owners and they ended up voluntarily relocating the cow.

Among the documents obtained from the county over the years, Pet Friends Magazine has never seen any official procedure listed of how the Sheriff’s Office and Animal Control Division work together on cases involving animal neglect or abuse. In the past, a previous Animal Control Officer told Pet Friends Magazine that the Sheriff’s Office and the Health Department could not agree on a protocol. This is a serious issue that needs to be resolved so that the domestic pets and farm animals in our county are protected. The County’s job description for an Animal Control Officer says the employee is to protect the public’s health and safety by not only apprehending strays but also providing customer service to residents as it relates to animal safety and welfare. This includes responding to complaints and working with law enforcement. Under duties it also has the word “investigates.” Unfortunately, what has been happening in most instances, is that Zerafa has no involvement after reporting the neglect/abuse cases to the Sheriff’s Office. This is a serious matter that must be resolved soon so that the animals and the taxpayers get the justice they deserve by having investigations done by a trained Animal Control Officer with the ASSISTANCE of law enforcement.

A poor Jack Russell picked up as a stray with massive flea bites

The county needs to take animal control issues seriously. A thorough investigation of the situation is needed and the only option Pet Friends can see is for the county to appoint an Animal Control Advisory Committee to assess the current situation and make recommendations on how to move forward. A group of concerned citizens can look at the procedures, staffing and funding options as well as other related concerns. Things like getting grants or collecting fines for dogs at large could make a big difference in the funding of the division but there have been no creative ideas coming out of the Health Department to fix the situation. Additionally, the committee could look into other organizational structures such as the Animal Control Division being ran by the administrator, the commissioners (with committee recommendations) or even the Sheriff’s Office if an adequate agreement could be reached with the proper funding, staffing and respect.

In order for the commissioners to form a committee, there needs to be public support for one. With the new county commissioners on the Board of Directors, it is time to pursue changes to the Animal Control Division again. In a previous article by Pet Friends Magazine, Commissioner Follett indicated a willingness to look at Animal Control issues should she win her election. When asked about the elimination/defunding of the Animal Control Division, Follett responded, “The County Commissioner’s initial response of moving animal control to law enforcement was obviously not well thought out. They reversed the decision several months after implementing it. Law enforcement is too busy protecting life and property to also take on the task of responding to issues involving animals. However, animals, be they pets or animals in nature, need to be protected. A county animal control officer needs to be available 24/7 to respond to safety issues involving animals. As a pet lover I would be devastated if something happened to my dog and there was no one to respond to my concern because it was a Friday night. Finding the right funding model needs to be explored. There may be some natural partnerships within the community that would support this endeavor. I think most citizens would agree that our pets need to be protected.”

NOW IS THE TIME to once again let the commissioners know that even though the county doesn’t seem to think that animal control is a priority, the taxpayers feel differently.

How can you do that??

Email the Commissioners, the Health Officer and the Administrator and let them know that you want a fully-funded, fully-staffed and fully-functional Animal Control Division and that you want an Animal Control Advisory Committee formed immediately.

County Commissioners (all) – commissioners@grandtraverse.org

Health Officer, Wendy Trute – wtrute@gtchd.org

Administrator, Tom Menzel – tmenzel@grandtraverse.org

Deputy Administrator, Jennifer DeHaan – jdehaan@grandtraverse.org

Coming up soon, there will be an animal control update given at the Board of Commissioners meeting. This update should be sometime in June. It would be a good time for animal lovers and supporters of a fully-functional Animal Control Division to show up at the meeting and talk during public comment. Pet Friends Magazine will post the date when it becomes known. Please consider speaking up for the dogs and other animals who can’t speak up for themselves and speak up for yourself as a taxpayer of Grand Traverse County.

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3 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth about Grand Traverse County Animal Control

  1. Juli VanPelt May 29, 2017 at 5:58 pm Reply

    We had an amazing experience with officer Zerafa. We had a pit bull that was roaming in are area. We have an outdoor kennel, but it was getting down to 16 degrees that night. She was off duty and came to take this dog to Cherryland​ Humane society. I had call the police department and they told us to just let the dog go. I have seen so many dogs killed in my area by cars. When I called the offer back to tell her what the police had said, she said, ” I am on my way!” She didn’t put this dog in the bad, he road shot gun with her. She is an angel in my book and deserves this recongnition of her amazing service to animals!

    • Pet Friends Magazine June 2, 2017 at 5:26 pm Reply

      That would be nice, but realistically it isn’t going to happen. And some people have accidents or issues that are not of their own making.

  2. Bernie June 2, 2017 at 12:05 pm Reply

    Instead of always blaiming animal control which is limited. Volunteer and make pet owners responsible fori their pets.

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