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Humane Society focusing on animal cruelty cases

Due to budget constraints, the Kitsap County Humane Society will be concentrating all of its energies on animal abuse cases and will no longer respond to barking dog complaints. - Courtesy photo
Due to budget constraints, the Kitsap County Humane Society will be concentrating all of its energies on animal abuse cases and will no longer respond to barking dog complaints.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

The Kitsap Humane Society announced last month it would change direction in 2011 and dedicate 100 percent of its enforcement resources to animal cruelty cases rather than nuisance or noise complaints. The announcement marked a major policy shift for the agency, prompted by the prospect of an 11 percent cut in the money it receives from the county, the society’s biggest client.

But as the Humane Society prepares to make its annual pitch for animal enforcement contract money, local officials say they had not heard of the Humane Society’s decision and expect the money they spend will pay for the same level of service.

Humane Society administrators said that with continuing cuts to the budget, maintaining the same animal enforcement services is impossible. Three years ago, the society had seven animal control officers — currently, it has three.

“We’ve been limping along this whole time and been lucky to have nuisance (enforcement),” said Executive Director Sean Compton, who took over the agency in May 2009. “We no longer have the tools to be able to respond to these.”

Instead of sending enforcement officers to respond to nuisance reports, Humane Society officials said they will instead use “dispute resolution” methods to address complaints about nuisance pets, contacting the owner of a barking dog, for example, to suggest a barking control collar. They also hope to use volunteers for dead animal pick-ups and low-level code enforcement, they said.

Humane Society officials said the agency is not abandoning its traditional enforcement duties, but changing its emphasis to more urgent concerns.

“The idea is we’re trying to move animal control to more of an animal rescue focus,” Director of Operations Jake Shapley said. “We want to make sure that a barking dog complaint doesn’t take precedent over a reported animal cruelty.”

One reason for that is because tickets are not a big revenue generator and, given the resources allotted to minor nuisance complaints, could result in a net loss for the society, Shapley said.

Penalties have proven to be ineffective means of enforcement, Compton said. According to the society’s 2009 annual report, the society issued 30 citations, 35 civil infractions and four criminal cases were forwarded to prosecution.

Instead of chasing after nuisance complaints, pursuing animal cruelty offenders, animal welfare checks and caring for sick and injured animals would be more in line with the society’s mission of ensuring the well-being of animals, Compton said. Though the number of cruelty reports are not as numerous as the number of nuisance cases – last year the society responded to more than 200 animal noise calls versus about 25 cruelty calls – cruelty incidents require much more time and resources, and with more attention given to these cases, officers could uncover more offenders.

“We have evidence of dog fighting, cock fighting, horse abuse,” Compton said. “Usually by the time we find these cases, it’s too late. We want to be able to get in front of a cruelty investigation.”

Regardless of the recent cuts in animal enforcement officers, the society hopes to raise enough money from donors to hire a cruelty investigator who would pursue these cases exclusively.

Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent and City Councilman Roy Runyon said Monday they had not heard about the Humane Society’s decision to change its enforcement focus.

Runyon, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety and Planning Committee and the champion of efforts to legalize urban hens in Bremerton, said he is not too worried about potential changes in the society’s philosophy. Council members have cited concerns about animal enforcement in their opposition to allowing residents to keep chickens, but Compton said the Humane Society is neutral on the issue. A former society official told the Council allowing chickens would require the society to hire an additional officer at $47,000 a year, but Compton said he doesn’t stand by that figure.

Runyon said that any potential chicken codes could be enforced by both the Kitsap Public Health District and the Humane Society.

Lent hopes the society’s policy change won’t affect its service to the city. Bremerton pays the most for animal enforcement of all cities in Kitsap County with its $204,558 contribution for 2010. The next highest-paying city is Bainbridge Island, which pays $49,500.

Lent said her concern was that Bremerton residents would receive the same level of service, considering the amount of money they pay. “We seem to be carrying the brunt of the Humane Society’s budget.”

Central Kitsap Commissioner Josh Brown said the county is asking all departments and agencies in the county to make 7 to 9 percent cuts. It follows that the county will look at reducing its payment to the society in its next yearly animal enforcement service contract, he said.

“We’re cutting everything,” Brown said. “That’s the sign of the times.”

Kitsap County is contracted to pay the society $481,891 in 2010 for its animal control services, that’s down from $535,434 in 2009 and $551,873 in 2008, according to contract information supplied by Compton.

The county pays 58 percent of the share of the contract compared to what the cities pay. In 2009, 66 percent of animal-related calls were in unincorporated neighborhoods, according to the society’s 2009 annual report. Bremerton pays $204,558, or about 24 percent of the contract and in 2009 was responsible for 15 percent of enforcement calls. Animal control contracts with the county and cities made up 44 percent of the society’s total income in 2009. The rest comes from donations and adoption fees.

Messages left with four members of the society’s board Wednesday seeking comment on the agency’s shift in focus were not immediately returned.

Given the amount of money the county pays for the enforcement contract, if the Humane Society can’t maintain a comparable level of service, Brown said the county doesn’t have to keep its contract with the Humane Society at all.

“Half a million dollars is a lot of money,” Brown said. “If you look at it from the perspective of the sheriff’s office, we might be able to fund half a dozen deputies for that amount.”

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