On an overcast afternoon, Danielle Reno steered her Toyota 4Runner through the streets and alleys of Kansas City, Kan., searching for packs of stray dogs.
Like a well-versed beat cop, Reno, founder of the Mission-based Unleashed Pet Rescue and Adoption group, knows which city corners boast the most troubling activity.
Near North 26th Street and Parallel Avenue, a pack of eight or more dogs hangs out around the abandoned houses and garages. Not far away, in an area behind a school, a group of six or seven dogs has been known to wander. And then there’s the pack that roams not far from the animal control building on Park Drive, a group Reno jokingly refers to as the “union workers.”
“Every day, they walk by at 7 in the morning and then again at 4 p.m.,” she says.
While Reno, a friendly and lighthearted 30-year-old, is able to chuckle, the idea of roaming dog packs in the city hasn’t inspired much good humor of late.
Animal-related issues are nothing new, of course — various communities have dealt with overpopulation, feral animals or strays — but the stray dog issue in Kansas City, Kan., has grown out of control, say residents, city workers and nonprofit groups.
Ask those familiar for examples and you’ll hear a barrage of anecdotes: dogs wandering the streets, dogs venturing into yards, dogs blocking interstate entrance ramps.
In a recent survey of residents, 39 percent said they were dissatisfied by the quality of the city’s animal control, the highest dissatisfaction percentage among the eight public safety services listed.
And earlier this year, in a presentation for the city’s standing committee on public works and safety, the city’s animal control director, Michelle Angell, acknowledged the dog-packs problem as “huge.”
“We’ve got people that can’t even jog downtown because of the dogs,” she said during her presentation.
Packs of loose and often feral dogs intimidate children on their walk to school or at the bus stop. They can impregnate the many dogs in the city that are tied up outdoors, thus contributing to the stray problem. Not long ago, civic leaders complained, not unreasonably, that strays were limiting revitalization efforts.
“We’ve encountered folks who have not wanted to visit particular areas of that community or move to certain areas of that community because of the fear of this known issue,” says Courtney Thomas, CEO of Great Plains SPCA, an animal welfare group that aids more than 35,000 pets annually.
But it’s more than just a civic annoyance; it’s become a bona fide safety concern.
In April, just a month after Angell’s presentation to city commissioners, a man stepped outside his house on North 14th Street to investigate a strange noise and was mauled by two stray boxers.
The attack left the man with severe wounds on his arms and leg, missing part of his nose and requiring multiple surgeries, according to media reports.
Those dogs also were responsible for two other attacks around the same time, police said.
By just about any measure, the city’s animal control unit is unequipped to deal with the problem.
The National Animal Control Association says that a city the size of Kansas City, Kan., should be operating with 20 officers — nine working from the shelter and 11 in the field, said Katie Barnett, an attorney for Professionals for a Humane and Safe Kansas City.
The city’s animal control unit has six officers and a supervisor, Angell said.
There is also the space consideration. In July, August and September, animal control picked up 271 dogs, according to statistics provided by the Kansas City, Kan., police department, although the animal control division can house only 39 dogs at any given time.
The lack of resources has limited animal control’s ability to effectively respond.
“We receive more calls in a day than we can go on, and then we have to start prioritizing: ‘OK, that was a dog they saw running the area, that (call) was four hours old, that’s probably gone,’” Angell said during her March presentation to city commissioners.
In an interview, Angell spoke optimistically of the improvements that had been made in recent years.
Among other things, she has been encouraged by outreach and education efforts, she said, but the onus remains on residents to take responsibility for their pets.
“Until we change the behavior of the pet owners,” she said, “it’s going to continually be a problem.”
Those interviewed spoke highly of Angell, who inherited the pack and stray problem when she joined the animal control division.
“She’s just bombarded,” said Andrea Knobbe, CEO of The Rescue Project, which helps animals in the area.
But there is also persistent frustration at the current situation.
“You can literally drive down the street and see a stray dog on every corner or empty lot,” says Kansas City, Kan., resident Marie Hernandez, who in an email described her displeasure with the resources available to animal control.
It’s the nonprofit groups, then, that have had to pick up the slack.
Reno patrols the city’s neighborhoods multiple times a week as a partner of the city’s animal control.
Among the services she and her 15 to 20 volunteers provide: going door to door to sign up residents for free spay and neutering services; setting traps to corral loose dogs; and taking in the inevitable overflow from local animal control. On average, Unleashed takes in about 10 to 20 dogs a week, Reno said, keeping them at its facility in Mission or with foster families until they can be adopted out.
And although it can be a rather thankless job — despite the many hours it contributes each month, Reno’s Unleashed receives no money from the city — the effort has undoubtedly helped.
In 2004, at least 77 percent of the 4,443 pets housed at the city’s animal control division were put to death. In six months this year, from April to September, only 41 dogs were euthanized.
Angell’s unit also received a boost last week when the Unified Government Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance upping the number of dogs residents in the city can own from two to three — a change proponents believe will cut down on the number of strays wandering the streets.
“It was a great team effort to bring together stakeholders in the community to move our animal ordinances forward,” said Mayor Mark Holland. “We will continue to address our stray animal problem, utilizing partnerships to assure the safety and welfare of both our residents and the animals in our city.”
In the meantime, volunteers continue to take to the streets.
Last Thursday afternoon, Reno eased her straw-strewn SUV down an alleyway until she reached her destination, a brush-filled space behind a backyard fence.
On this day, Reno’s focus was on “Mama Poof,” a stray Rottweiler mix who in recent years had birthed at least four litters and had become, in Reno’s words, “a big problem in this neighborhood.”
Earlier that afternoon, Reno and Rebekah Scott, an Unleashed volunteer, had set a trap in a lot where Mama was known to wander, baiting it with cat food and chunks of McDonald’s cheeseburger.
Upon their return, however, they found only an empty trap.
Still, Reno remained confident of Mama’s eventual capture — and the impact it would have on the area’s stray population.
“That’ll be a triumph for that block,” she mused, “that’s for sure.”